The Dark Phoenix Saga and Powerful Women in Comics

To distract myself from criticism of modern comics and the recent debacle with Steve Rogers, I’m going to go back to criticism of older comics! Namely the Dark Phoenix Saga and the question of what to do with Jean Grey.

I picked up the Dark Phoenix Saga mostly because of the X-Plain the X-Men podcast, as well as my continual quest to read as many comics as I can shove into my brain. At the end of the final episode about the arc, the question of whether it is an example of a woman being punished for sexuality/power, and the answer I think the podcast came down on was “no.”

For the most part, I tend to agree with the analysis in X-Plain the X-Men. And I I can see that point, within the context of this individual comic. Jean Grey’s choice to die was hers alone, and made in full consciousness of what she was doing. Her power isn’t taken away by force (by someone else), and she’s not insane when she decides to sacrifice herself.

However, the problem is that this isn’t the kind of story that can be looked at in isolation.

The amped up language of sensuality and sexuality when Jean becomes the Dark Phoenix clearly connects “powerful woman” and “out of control sexuality” in a trope as old as time. The art reinforces this, both in the way Jean’s expression is drawn and the style of her clothing. The Black Queen persona is flirtatious and aggressive, wearing fetish clothing. When she decides to sacrifice herself, Jean changes back into her Marvel Girl costume, signifying a return to youth, innocence, and commensurate sexual purity.

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Jean Grey as the Black Queen vs. Jean Grey as Marvel Girl. (Panels from X-Men #130 & #137)

When it comes to power, there are frequent references to “lust” in ways that emphasize both potential meanings of the word. There are also many declarations that Jean cannot handle the power she’s taken into herself – that it is driving her mad, or she can’t control it. This is a trope that has cropped up in multiple superheroines (Scarlet Witch comes immediately to mind); I can only think of one male superhero who has the same experience (Sentry). There is also the fact that for very little of the Dark Phoenix Saga is Jean actually under her own control – she spends a large portion of it being manipulated by Mastermind.

So we have a woman with power she can’t control, and an aggressive sexuality linked to that power. Dressed as her girl self, Jean is returned to innocence through her demise. If this were just about Jean, it might not be a problem. But it isn’t just about Jean.

It fits a narrative that doesn’t just belong to comics and superheroes: one that requires that women who grow too powerful have to be punished, and one that links power to sexuality. The powerful woman is the sexually predatory woman, and both have to be punished.

The Scarlet Witch has only just begun to crawl out of the same trap, kicked off in Avengers Disassembled in 2004, which saw her lose her mind and control of her powers, leading to the deaths of multiple Avengers and the dissolution of the group. Furthermore, Wanda is a woman of Romani descent, a group commonly stereotyped as having loose sexual morals, whether that characterization is positive or negative. For many, Wanda Maximoff is still an icon of the insane, out of control woman. Similarly, the Jean Grey most remember isn’t the heroic martyr who chose humanity over godhood, but the out of control Dark Phoenix.

Telling a story almost never happens in isolation. Frustrating it may be, but even with the best of intentions, your story may end up playing into and reinforcing a narrative that goes back to Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy and that is still with us today.

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