It’s a common claim that comics are, shall we say, not particularly wholesome in their treatment of women. On the one hand, comics turn female heroes into sex bombs, dressed in skin tight costumes that leave little to the imagination. On the other hand, they turn women into little more than love interests for the men. But are these criticisms always fair?
Over the next few weeks, I’m going to intermittently look at Cyclops – arguably the X-Men’s greatest leader. I’m going to examine how different things play out in his life, and see how much criticism we can make of comics and their treatment of women. I’m even going to turn his world upside-down, and ask how effective his plots would’ve been had he been a woman…
But first, today I want to examine one thing that’s cropped up in Cyclops’ life time and again: the love triangle.
Scott and Jean
For decades, they were the iconic Marvel couple. Cyclops’ early years as a hero were spent in a frankly wonderfully sweet romance with doe-eyed Jean Grey, the two relentlessly pining after one another until, after over thirty issues, they finally got together. The two nearly married in X-Factor, but eventually married in the ‘90s. Into the 2000’s, their marriage hit a rocky patch, and Cyclops began a psychic affair with Emma Frost. Jean died, and hasn’t yet been resurrected. For a super-hero often code-named Phoenix, it’s pretty inevitable.
Curiously enough, though, there are not one but four love triangles in this relationship…
A good love triangle is about choice, and this particular love triangle is the perfect illustration – at least as regards the stereotypes! Notice the not-so-subtle manner of it; two men fighting it out, with the woman as the prize. In full stereotypical manner, one is a straight-laced do-gooder and the other is the ‘bad guy’. In fact, in Schism it’s the suggestion by Wolverine that there’s been a role-reversal that finally starts the brawl.
The duality of the two men is powerfully symbolic of two different types of masculinity. For lovers of action and adventure, the ‘bad guy’ (Wolverine) is typically the one we wish we were, or at least the one the writers think we wish we were; the ‘good guy’, Cyclops, is usually the one we’re more like. And so, for all the legend says that women prefer bad boys, in comics the ‘good guy’ takes the girl to the altar.
In theory, the woman calls the shots in this scenario. In practice, Jean often teetered dangerously close to just being a possession. That comment in Schism hints at it rather effectively.
With Jean believed dead, Cyclops met the beautiful Madelyne Pryor. The two married, and Cyclops left the X-Men – even siring a child. Chris Claremont’s plan was to have Cyclops retire, moving on and having a family. Unfortunately, when the concept of X-Factor was launched – the original X-Men reuniting, including a resurrected Jean Grey – editorial mandate ran differently. Cyclops left his wife and child, returning to the side of Jean. Madelyne soon went insane, becoming an A-list X-Men villain.
Think about the various negative messages implicit in this. First of all, this suggests – once again – that Jean is defined as a character by her relationship with Cyclops. I mean, why does resurrecting Jean mean she has to get with Cyclops?
And then you’ve got the sickening twist with Madelyne; a fiery and independent woman ultimately revealed nothing more than a clone, her humanity stripped away… All as a consequence of her husband’s leaving her.
Now this one’s more interesting. In the ‘90s X-Men comics, Psylocke fixes her gaze on Cyclops. It all starts with a sexy swimsuit pose, and ends with her stalking through the Mansion dressed to kill and making a full-on play to get Cyclops to sleep with her.
This triangle says more about Cyclops than it does about the women, though. In ‘The Screwtape Letters’, C.S. Lewis suggested that men are attracted to two different kinds of women; the terrestrial venus, the good woman of good character, and the infernal venus, geared more towards lust than towards love. Cyclops has always been fixated upon his terrestrial venus, but now Psylocke tempts him. That he comes within an inch of falling to the temptation is clear from the psychic fantasies Psylocke picks up on.
And this really isn’t a pleasant treatment of women. Psylocke’s sole role here is effectively to cause Cyclops and Jean to overcome another trial and realise they want to marry, as Scott Lobdell has openly discussed. Her humanity is secondary to her sexuality. And frankly, the lengths she goes to are so sexually aggressive that I reckon she could have been arrested for harassment.
But now we have the seriously divisive one. Returning from possession by Apocalypse, Cyclops found that his marriage had gone stale. He wound up taking sexual counselling from Emma Frost, the White Queen, and got into a psychic affair; his wife kind of went ballistic when she found out, as only a Phoenix can.
Again, though, this was about Cyclops’ choice. In this case, writer Grant Morrison saw Jean as representing the past; her relationship to Cyclops was stale, lacking any of the ‘spark’ it used to have. Emma, on the other hand, represented everything Morrison considered attractive and ‘fresh’, right down to the overly-sexualised aspects that he happily honed in on when he rewrote her backstory and had her originate as a stripper in the Hellfire Club.
In Morrison’s final arc, ‘Here Comes Tomorrow’, Jean awakens in a future in which Cyclops left the X-Men after her death; to prevent a dystopia she tells him to ‘live’, and tweaks reality so as to ensure he ends up staying with Emma. At first glance this seems to be a positive; after all, the choice is now the woman’s. Except, it isn’t. The woman must accept that her lover has moved on to lovers anew, indeed to the lover he had a psychic affair with. Somehow, that doesn’t sound like power to me.
. ~ .
At present, Cyclops is single. It’s the longest time he’s ever been single, actually, and I think it’s doing the character good – giving him chance to breathe, so to speak. But when he’s been in a relationship, I’m afraid he’s only providing ample evidence that comics don’t treat women well.
Pleasingly, since bringing the All-New X-Men into the present Brian Bendis has done his best to avoid making the present-day Cyclops and Jean be about nothing more than love triangles, too. He started one between Cyclops, Jean, and Beast, but avoided it with ease.
Incidentally, thanks to Benjy Borndahl for the superb redesign of Cyclops as a woman! I’ll be building on that concept in my next post…