Visions of the Past and Corruption in “The Dark Phoenix Saga”

I’ll talk about Jean Grey forever. For comics fans, she’s probably the character that is most cited in discussions about women and cosmic power, and for good reason. Her bond with the Phoenix Force and her iconic storylines (such as The Dark Phoenix Saga) are rich with opportunities for critical inquiry. While scholars such as Lenise Prater have talked about Jean Grey and female power, many of these arguments merely end with a criticism of sexism in comics. In her article about gender and power, Prater specifically takes up the issue of adapting the comics to film, emphasizing how the X-Men films “exhibit an anxiety about women’s capabilities and construct their power as inherently dangerous” (Prater 160). Jean Grey’s turn to evil, notably, is changed from the comic to the film. As Prater observes, ” Jean Grey/The Phoenix is slowly corrupted by power thanks to the machinations of the Hellfire Club… When the women in the films lose control of their powers, it is because of something inherent to their powers rather than because villains exploit their weaknesses. Indeed, whereas Jean Grey cannot retain control over her powerful psychic abilities, the male characters’ loss of control is always due to an attack from an outside force” (Prater 163-164). While useful, I find Prater’s description of “power” to be vague – is Jean corrupted by power itself? I have a hard time believing that, since as the Phoenix (the good version), she seemed to do just fine.

In expanding this analysis and looking more closely at the ways in which the Hellfire Club seeks to corrupt Jean Grey, I want to examine the trajectory of the illusions which Wyngarde uses. Whenever Jean is overcome by the illusion, she is “transported” back to the 18th century. Given that the role of these illusions is to “[give Jean] a taste of some of her innermost – forbidden – needs and desires,” these visions of the past can largely be understood as a point of exposure for the pleasure taken in socially unacceptable emotions. In Jean’s case, I suggest, the forbidden need/desire is the privileging of the individual over the group.

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This blog post will examine Jean Grey’s “visions” of the 18th century in The Dark Phoenix Saga by Chris Claremont. By analyzing the way in which her individuality corrupts her, we can read The Dark Phoenix Saga as not only a story about the dangers of female pleasure and power, but also as a criticism of the individual, lonesome hero. Granted, the characteristics associated with the Dark Phoenix can be read as “unfeminine desires,” such as sexuality and superiority over men. Feminist criticism would read this comic, then, as a metaphor for patriarchal control of the feminine and the fallout that results from it. However, Jean’s power is not only femininity gone awry: by reveling in the pleasure of being not only a slave owner, but a monarchist in her 18th century vision, Jean’s “dark desires” are less female agency and more inappropriate models of individual power.

Jean Grey and Romanticizing the Past

When I first read this comic, I found it odd that Wyngarde would choose to corrupt Jean through visions of the past. Why not show her the present? Why not try to seduce her with modern-day pleasures that her human self is too ashamed to enjoy? But the more I thought about it, the more the use of the past seemed to make sense, and the more it paved the way for Jean’s ultimate turn away from her team. The visions of the past, I suggest, not only couple romantic love with the aristocracy, but they also use white supremacy and monarchy as ego-boosters for Jean’s Phoenix power.

The first issue of The Dark Phoenix Saga shows Wyngarde creating an illusion to free Jean’s dark desires. Jean’s desire is largely to be loved, as  evidenced by the first two visions in which Jean’s experiences largely revolve around her romantic attachment to Wyngarde. They’re somewhat tame, as no physical intimacy is portrayed, only the implication that the two are romantically involved. They also don’t do much by way of corruption on their own – romantic love is not figured as dangerous. In fact, Jean and Scott enjoy several romantic moments that are construed as positive.

However, Jean’s visions combine romantic love with a setting which is, I’d argue, the corrupting force. In issue #130, 18th century Jean marries Wyngarde’s 18th century counterpart. At the end of the vision, there is a panel that foreshadows Jean’s transformation into the Black Queen, corset and underwear and all. The jump is somewhat striking: 18th century Jean is performing stereotypically wholesome female sexuality and love via her marriage (an institution, mind you, that is meant to control sexuality), yet as the Black Queen, she is dressed provocatively, which suggests out-of-control sexuality. Jean also “awakens” from the vision to find herself kissing present-day Wyngarde, much to Scott Summers’ bewilderment. Thus, her faithfulness within the vision is contrasted with unfaithfulness outside the vision. I would be hesitant to say that the “dark desire” Wyngarde is tapping into is promiscuity – Jean doesn’t seem the type to me, and when she comes back to reality, she is horrified by her actions (and also, the wedding is held in a “desecrated” church yard – as if the desecration of the locale also desecrates the wedding).

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However, this vision isn’t completely untethered from anxieties about sexuality and corruption. Through the illusions, Wyngarde manages to romanticize a problematic past, one that is characterized by the superiority of an aristocratic ruling class and parallels arguments made against female reading habits from the 17th and 18th centuries. First, the problematic past: Jean’s 18th century wedding takes place within a church that is clearly crumbling. Romantic setting aside, the crumbling church is in many ways reflective of the declining society that gathers inside. Jean is called “Lady Jean” and Wyngarde “Sir Jason,” evoking titles and a chivalrous past while also implying a place in a rigid social hierarchy. Combined with the romantic plot, this wedding illusion digs at Jean’s need for love and embeds it within exclusivity. Furthermore, the wedding itself is a ceremony which binds the couple to one another exclusively, and elevates the bride to the sole love and partner of the groom. Jean’s emotions at this point are enthusiastic: she is excited to be Wyngarde’s wife and his only love.

This illusion is not unlike criticisms of the historical romance novel. In Clara Reeve’s 1785 book The Progress of Romance, novels are characterized by their realistic depiction of everyday life while romances are characterized by “high emotion, aristocratic life, and the past.” Certainly, Jean’s illusions conform to these criteria: her high emotion (love) is combined with her vision of herself as an aristocratic, upper-class woman from the 18th century. Moreover, romances were (and still are) often attacked for their idealizations, with fiction-reading in general enduring a history of anxiety concerning the corruption of female virtue. When novels started to emerge in the 17th century, arguments were made against women reading or writing them due to the belief that they could influence a woman to behave inappropriately. Similar arguments are made about the modern historical romance novel: not only do they often romanticize the past by portraying a desirable aristocratic hero, but, critics will say, they are merely “silly fantasies” that corrupt women by giving them “unrealistic expectations” about relationships.

Of course, Jean’s visions are hardly novels, but they are fictional fantasies that do, in fact, corrupt her. She accepts her “specialness” and by adopting the dress of the Black Queen, her sexuality is released in a way that parallels the anxieties surrounding (romance) novel-reading (though Jean’s sexualization is specifically for a male audience in the comic). Jean’s visions are everything that men fear about female literary tastes – to a point. She enjoys her fantasies, and her fantasies free her feminine sexuality which would be threatening if men didn’t control her. I would not argue that Jean’s visions are in any way meant to criticize romance novels or stories – I would say, however, that Jean’s visions are a dangerous romanticization of inappropriate power: aristocratic and (as we will later see) slave-owning power elevates the individual over the team, one person over many. It is this feeling of personal superiority that Wyngarde taps into when he seeks to release Jean’s “dark desires,” not necessarily her need for love.

Storm and Cyclops in Jean’s Vision

Once the X-Men (except Wolverine) have been captured, Wyngarde traps Jean in another vision which causes her to see her teammates as enemies of her 18th century social position. Most of her attention is focused on Storm, whose 18th century counterpart is a slave who has betrayed her owner. In this vision, Jean’s emotional reaction is not on love, but on the anger she feels as a result of her perceived betrayal. Betrayal, notably, is a very personal feeling, and throughout the vision, Jean acts on her sense of individuality and superiority. First, Jean refuses to call Storm by her African name – she translates “Ororo” into the English counterpart, “Beauty.” In doing so, Jean underscores white superiority by refusing to use any word in a language not her own. Second, Jean physically strikes Storm and calls her “slave,” later shouting “I own you!” By emphasizing social roles, Jean’s 18th century persona enhances the superiority that is inherent from their social statuses. Storm is reduced to a sub-human object without power. Last, Jean exclaims that it is her “right” to decide Storm’s fate as she pleases. Not only does this insistence reflect laws surrounding slavery, but it also mirrors the powers of the Phoenix. The Phoenix, as an all-powerful entity, can decide the fate of nearly everyone in the galaxy. Thus, the reveling in superiority on a social level is deeply connected with reveling in cosmic power. The entitlement evoked by “right” also portrays this power as corrupt, however legal it may be.

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Furthermore, in the psychic battle between Cyclops and Wyngarde to reestablish Scott and Jean’s psychic link, Jean perceives Scott’s colonial dress and concludes that he is “an American Rebel, King George’s enemy – and mine.” The vision thus establishes Jean as a monarchist and one that wishes to uphold traditional models of legal power. The belief in a sole ruler parallels the individualism that rises from her Phoenix persona – just as King George is the sole wielder of ultimate political power, so is the Phoenix the most powerful entity in the universe. Such distribution of power, Black Queen/Jean believes, is right, as evidenced by Jean’s derisive use of the words “rebel” and “enemy.” She also calls him “sirrah,” a historical term used to address a person of low social status. Jean’s monarchist belief also parallels Jean’s title as “Queen” in the Hellfire Club – she is portrayed as a monarch, and thus one with a certain sense of personal power (despite being manipulated).

Although the shift from romantic visions to one where she exerts control over Storm and Cyclops may seem like a dramatic shift, I would argue that the shift is only possible due to the previous illusions. If Jean had been immediately figured as a slave owner, I do not think she would have been affected in the way Wyngarde had hoped: since Jean’s main desire is love, Wyngarde’s desired outcome had to be embedded in that. Jean’s acceptance of her role as a slave owner is made possible through her acceptance of a problematic past through its romanticization. We see similar techniques being used all over pop culture: through desirable features, the more problematic aspects of a work are usually ignored or excused. Hamilton, for example, legitimizes a colonial past by featuring people of color as slave owners. Some fans will additionally excuse violent and fascist-like behavior if the person committing it is sexually desirable (I’m thinking of characters like Loki and Grant Ward). To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we can’t like problematic media – I’m merely suggesting that Wyngarde’s visions make use of similar techniques in order to render Jean’s sense of superiority acceptable.

We know Jean’s “dark desire” is superiority and not love because it is in the moments when she exerts superior power that she is at her most frightening. In her battle with Emma Frost, she notably frames the conflict as a challenge to monarchical power. She also rejects Cyclops’ command to leave their enemies alive and takes pleasure in physically destroying a car full of bad guys – after insisting that she alone could perceive Kitty Pryde’s terror (and thus, is was her right to decide the bad guys’ fate – much like a monarch or sole judge).

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Furthermore, Jean’s emerging individualism is set against a backdrop in which control of the X-Men team is up for debate. Throughout The Dark Phoenix Saga, Scott and Xavier continually butt heads over the leadership of the X-Men. In the midst of the debate rises Dark Phoenix, who needs no team and whose sole power must be destroyed in order for the X-Men to continue – the Phoenix’s power renders all the other X-Men irrelevant. What use is Wolverine when Jean can take out a sun and 5 billion people on her own?

The illusions only help underscore that sense of singular power: through a narrative of exclusive love, the position of an aristocratic class, slave-ownership, and monarchy, the entire sense of corruption lies in the rejection of a team and sharing power. Not to mention that all illusions are personal fantasies, just as novel-reading is an individual activity. The entire focus of these visions is on the self, and it is eventually the self that must be destroyed.

Conclusions

Of course, The Dark Phoenix Saga can still be read as a feminist conundrum: by demonizing a woman with individual power and privileging the group (which is, importantly, led by men), we’ve returned to the same problem of sexism that is apparent when reading the comic as anxious about female agency and emotion. I don’t want to suggest that my reading is the only (or best) one. However, I also don’t want to limit a discussion of Jean Grey to just one of critiquing sexism. X-Men asks us to do more than that, especially since it is a team book comprised of characters with unique powers and abilities. By using visions of the past as the main corrupting force, the comic not only exposes the patriarchal aspects of The Dark Phoenix Saga, but also shows how the past can be used as a tool to excuse problematic ideas or behaviors, even to today. As a result, readers need to be more vigilant about the ways in which the past shapes our beliefs about what is and is not okay.

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