Oh, X Men: First Class, for all your flaws, you are just a goldmine for meta! I've been so enjoying a million conversations, and a lot of perspectives have been covered elsewhere, but there's one element I have seen talked about where nobody mentioned the main factor in my own reading, so here it is. This is about the whole Charles/Raven relationship, and what it's about.

For all its flaws, one thing that this movie does really well is take a fantastic situation (people born with superpowers) and try to deal with it in an emotionally honest way. Every mutant we meet has a different pov, a different emotional relationship to their mutation, a different set of needs from society at large. The pov of each character is shaped not just by the fact that they are a mutant but by who they are in their own society (rich white boy, Polish Jew, black American...), where they come from, what people they deal with in early life and their own personality. Even their mutations set them apart, since each one is wildly different from another.

I think sometimes it's tempting to understand Charles only through the experiences he didn't have because he's part of elite in so many ways, but Charles, too, has developed his relationship to the world based on experience. Comics!Charles' abusive childhood is left out of the movie, but the movie doesn’t contradict it, and at least certain moments make even more sense if you assume something like it in movie canon. His personality may seem unacquainted with conflict, but it's actually yet another recognizable human response to child abuse. (And Charles' inner life is most hidden.)

But that's really another post! I put it out there to say that Charles, like the other mutants, shows how people interpret others through their own experiences even when they shouldn't. I've seen a lot of comments about how Charles is insensitive to Raven (which he is) because at base, he really isn't comfortable with her natural form, he really is repulsed by it, he thinks she should cover it up and he's too self-centered to notice that hurts her. That's not quite what I saw going on there. I thought their relationship was more the story of two people who knew each other well in childhood and were unprepared for the changes adulthood would bring.

Why is Charles so dismissive of Raven's concerns about her body? The audience can see her insecurity easily enough, and so can other characters. She's not hiding it, and she even tries to talk to him about it. Can Charles really still miss it? I think yes, he can, for several reasons.

First, Charles' childhood relationship with Raven makes him take his understanding of her for granted. He has promised her early on that he will respect her privacy by not reading her mind, and ironically that respect possibly keeps him from picking up on her feelings. Unfortunately after years of knowing her so well he *thinks* he understands her. This kind of arrogance is a pattern for Charles in all areas.

Second, Raven's desire to be out and proud happens to be the opposite of Charles' own way of getting through life. Raven has emotional needs about her body; Charles is biased towards the mind. (The thesis he finds exciting puts her to sleep.) Physically, Charles is instinctively unobtrusive. Sure he likes to show off his intelligence, but physically he blends in. Look even at his costumes compared to Erik's. This movie takes place in the early 60s, but Erik is already sporting the turtleneck sweaters and short leather jackets. Erik might not be focused on fashion, but he dresses stylishly. Charles' clothes, by contrast, are nearly timeless. The cut marks them as being from the early 60s, but they could fit into many decades.

Charles is also focused on being "good" and being rewarded for it. Raven is given to impulsive gestures that get reactions. Charles' emotional choices always lean towards calm, and he always puts on a show of being in control and not showing anything is wrong. The man even waits for the right moment to inform people that he can't feel his legs and probably would never have told anyone if he could have hidden it. He no doubt thinks of Raven's physical form as a superficial problem they solved long ago. Raven herself may have embraced the solution for a while.

So already Charles is predisposed to not naturally understand Raven's actions the way Raven does. But there's a more important factor, imo, that's the thing I have always seen overlooked. That factor is sex.

Sexual attractiveness for Raven symbolizes the acceptance and respect she craves. It's not all of what she needs, but it's the language she uses to speak about it. This is most obvious in the way she gets into Erik's bed, but it's not the only time it comes up. Both times Raven asks Charles for validation, she puts it in sexual terms. The first time is when she asks if he would date her, the second is when she surprises him naked in the kitchen. To me, this sexuality honestly read as central to both scenes. But not in the way I have seen it interpreted elsewhere, where Charles is described as revealing in these scenes that he is repulsed by Raven’s true physical form. I think it's more complicated than that.

First, when Charles first sees Raven's true form his instinctive reaction is joy. He's not at all put off by her blue form as a child. I might be remembering this wrong, but I think later the two of them share a scene in his room where she's again in her natural form and he's comfortably physically affectionate with her. They share several scenes where Charles interacts with Raven in her blonde disguise, and he is never, that I remember, shown to be attracted to her in that form either.

But Hank is.

XM:FC is not completely without flab, but I don't think it's so flabby that it would spend quite so much time repeating itself on the subject of Raven feeling unattractive. If Charles/Raven is about Charles rejecting Raven's true form as sexually attractive, why do we need Hank? Or more to the point, since Hank/Raven shows Raven being rejected as sexually unattractive in her natural form so clearly, why do we need Charles/Raven, which muddies the point by giving Charles so many reasons to not be attracted to her in either form? (I didn't see Raven as attracted to him either.)

Hank and Raven are linked romantically from the very beginning. They bond over having mutations that appear to others as physical deformities. In one of their first scenes Raven makes reference to being used to guys who are *only* interested in her for sex. But when Hank presents Raven with the serum, she balks at it. To take the serum, for Raven, is to spend the rest of her life in the same conflict she has now, where people lust after her disguised form while she assumes they would be repulsed by her true form. You can see why her sexuality in her natural form would become such a potent symbol to her.

When Raven puts this perspective to Hank, he reacts with more emotion than we usually see from him. He flat out tells her that she is *not* attractive in her natural form, that she is pretty *when she is disguised* and that she will *never* be accepted in her natural form. Hank is projecting all over Raven here. He's throwing his own self-hatred at her. Later, when he appears in his Beast form, Erik says, "Never looked better, man." Again Hank reacts with passionate anger, warning Erik not to mock him. Erik was not mocking him, but from Hank's pov that's the only thing his comment can be.

Where this comes back to Charles is that honestly, when I saw the movie I didn't see Charles completely passing judgment on Raven's looks there. I'm not saying that Charles couldn’t find extreme mutant forms unattractive sexually. He absolutely could. It just didn't seem like those scenes were about that revelation. Because to me it seemed like Charles was far more uncomfortable with Raven's sexuality directed at him than her mutant form.

People are quick to point out just how entrenched in privileged society Charles is, but sometimes they're still surprised when he holds the same values as that society. To put it bluntly: Charles is a prude. He's comfortable with sexuality approved of by his society and class, which does not include talking to your naked sister in the kitchen, even if your sister has no nipples (wtf with that?) When he meets Raven in the kitchen Charles doesn't tell her to change back into a blonde, he tells her to put some clothes on. Raven responds with one of those lines the movie loves that has double meaning depending on who's hearing it. She reminds Charles that he first met her in that very kitchen, and was not bothered by her nakedness then. But then, she supposes, many people find animals (or does she say pets?) cuter when they're babies. (I think this is before she gets into Erik's bed, but either way it echoes Erik's line about putting clothes on a tiger.)

Raven's line calls to mind the "They're cute when they're babies (but repulsive as adults)" form of racism. But the child/adult distinction has a different meaning too, and that's the meaning I think Charles is most aware of: a *naked* child is different than a naked adult. Naked adults are sexual. Charles is made uncomfortable by his sister's sexuality when it gets too close to him.

To me, the choice to put Raven's challenges sexually to Charles was important. Not only did it say something about Raven's character, it added a level of misunderstanding to the whole thing by giving Charles a reason to squirm so badly he needs to shut her down as quickly as possible. It seems to the audience and to Raven that his discomfort is about her natural form, but when I imagine the conversation taking place with a disguised Raven I don't think Charles' reaction would be any different. All these elements, to me, support things the movie is saying about Charles and Raven as characters, and their arcs in the movie, more than an interpretation where the two characters established as brother and sister also honestly look to each other for sexual interest.

This interpretation for Charles possibly has even more meaning if you factor possible Charles/Erik subtext into the story. I don't mean that Charles is unable to reassure Raven because he's gay. He shows sexual interest in women elsewhere. But Charles as a character does say something about being closeted.

Whether or not you read Charles and Erik as actually having a sex, sexual cues surround their relationship. Erik also turns down Raven, albeit without being freaked out by her and not without assuring her that she's attractive. (His reasoning is that she's too young, even though she's actually only a couple of years younger than Charles and it's probably the only time in the movie that Erik appeals to human social norms to justify restraint on his behavior.)

In the scene where Erik and Charles recruit Angel they not only decide to recruit her at her job (a job the producers have created for her in the sex industry), but they do it under the guise of getting a private lap dance, and make their pitch while lounging side by side on the red satin bed and sipping cocktails. They seem to be enjoying the sexual atmosphere without having any sexual interest in Angel.

If you apply that metaphor to Charles here, the problem isn't that Raven is asking Charles to show heterosexual interest. It's that Raven is being sexually inappropriate by asking him. One could make the case that Charles relies on socially accepted rules (of 1962) when it comes to sex--he originally flirts with Moira inappropriately just because she approaches him in a bar even though nothing about her behavior suggests flirting. So showing Charles as flustered and mortified by Raven can imply a bourgeois prudishness that might also interfere with his own inappropriate sexual desires. And thus make him unable to handle Raven's frank request for reassurance any better than Hank can. They both have knee jerk reactions to it. Hank's is "We're ugly!" and Charles' is "Put your clothes on!"

I'm not sure if Charles gets it even at the end of the movie, but he understands enough to know that he has failed Raven in some way that Erik has not. She leaves without knowing that Charles himself has become someone who looks different. But tbh, even the changes in Charles' body might not give him total insight into the way she relates to her own and vice versa. Even when they stand together, the mutant experience is fundamentally a lonely one.
cathexys: dark sphinx (default icon) (Default)

From: [personal profile] cathexys


What a great reading, and it makes perfect sense of the kitchen scene. It's actually interesting and oh so true, how much gets filtered through their own experiences, but then isn't that always the case????
jazzypom: (Default)

From: [personal profile] jazzypom

Charles would call that the "Westermarck effect"


The whole notion of siblings growing up together, seeing each other in shades of intimacy, but when presented with more, going, 'No mas'. When Charles meets Raven, he's so glad that there are others besides himself.

He takes her into his home, tells her that she doesn't have to steal, and the story pretty much sets him up in the role as big brother. Adoring, true (that scene when they are at his mansion, and he kisses her hair, d'aww), but faintly paternal - given the strictures of his class and attitudes at the time.

The seeds were there, and I pretty much found myself slapping at my forehead Homer Simpson stylie at the hints she dropped, "Would you date me if you didn't know me?" and trying that eye trick when he's with the coed in the bar, and orders Raven a cola to the co ed's hard liquor. But Charles is a scientist, he isn't one to unlock the mysteries of the mind, just of the mutant genome.

Besides, I grew up with siblings and trust me, no, when they'd come into the kitchen naked to drink milk from the box, I'd make the gas face and cover my eyes too.

His personality may seem unacquainted with conflict, but it's actually yet another recognizable human response to child abuse. (And Charles' inner life is most hidden.)

In the movie, you got the feeling that his child abuse was really gross neglect (his mum sending a maid to make a cup of hot choccy), and the fact that with Charles, he tends to use his gifts to 'manoeuvre' through his existence. Like, he uses it for picking up attractive coeds, or reading agents. I liked the fact that in the movie he wasn't a saint, just someone privileged and clueless. Which is why at the end, he had to lose his legs - as well as realising that he couldn't just charm or mentally mind push people into anything. Erik knew that on various levels, hence him reaching for the helmet ASAP.

In the scene where Erik and Charles recruit Angel they not only decide to recruit her at her job (a job the producers have created for her in the sex industry), but they do it under the guise of getting a private lap dance, and make their pitch while lounging side by side on the red satin bed and sipping cocktails. They seem to be enjoying the sexual atmosphere without having any sexual interest in Angel.

That might have been my favourite scene in the movie (until another scene comes and steals it along). Like, they really liked each other. Really, really liked each other. So this scene, where Erik is all, "A bit o' tea, vicar?" and Charles is all, "Don't mind if I do, hey." It could be read on all levels, but I digress.

Even when they stand together, the mutant experience is fundamentally a lonely one.

Sort of. I mean, if the writers keep banging on about say, Civil Rights, and the rest of it, the whole notion of mutant hood is finding a community and having the space to argue and determine their relationship with the rest of the homo inferior, the good thing with the Charles/Erik shift is that it shows that mutants aren't a hivemind.

Like, for instance, with you being gay and myself being a poc - we are individual in terms of say, being alone in that moment when there are microaggressions around us. But in the same breath, we do know that there's community, and that allows us to have a space for nuanced thought. In a way, Erik, by drawing his line in the sand re: Charles and himself, gives mutants a chance for thought.

If Erik and Charles had stayed together, they would have had a grand falling out anyway. Raven would have had to make a choice, and credit to the movie for Raven's choice coming from herself. They played it in the way of Erik challenging Raven's viewpoints, and hastening a decision that she was on the verge of making anyway.
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