Okay, it’s time for another installment of “why Chris Claremont’s run on X-Men was so groundbreaking.” Today we look at Wolverine: Feminist Icon For Boys!
One thing that I’ve been thinking about, as I’ve tried to explore my own prejudices and the messages I’ve received, in relation to the way I view and treat women, is that there are not very many great models for what it is to be a man who is feminist. That is to say, a dude who embodies inspiring traits that appeal to your average boy or young man who also offers a model to follow for treating women equally. There are lots of men who talk a good game and who are nice to the women they help (say, Superman or Captain America), and there are even some dorky men who look to a woman in charge (like Xander on Buffy), but there aren’t a lot of male characters in media who are both cool and who act in a way that’s truly equal. Nobody who watches Buffy wants to be Xander (maybe Spike or Angel, but that’s way different), and while there are plenty of things to admire about the characters of Superman and Captain America, they don’t really act in a way that makes them role models for feminism. And it is important that these characters exist, because otherwise these boys grow up thinking that concepts like “feminism” include things like Ladies’ Night at bars and that it doesn’t have anything to offer them.
And then there’s Wolverine. Wolverine is obviously the coolest of the X-Men, the one who every boy wanted to be. He takes no shit from anyone, he’s tough, he’s scary unless you’re one of his friends, he never gives up — he’s the coolest superhero there is.
He also never needs to be the boss, or to be right all the time. That page up there is from an issue that involved the team leaders — Storm, Cyclops, and Nightcrawler — all being out of commission. Wolverine is the longest-tenured member, but he defers to Kitty Pryde, who’s a teenage girl. And he makes it look cool. Because he doesn’t do it cuz he’s a wimp or something — he does it because she’s the best prepared for the job.
This comes up more than once. When Professor X starts walking and takes over, Wolverine is the one who champions Storm as the leader. He does the same thing when Cyclops rejoins the team and everyone else treats him like the boss. In short, while Storm provides an excellent model for what a strong woman leader looks like (especially after she goes punk rock), Wolverine provides a model for what a strong man who is able to follow a woman looks like. And that is a big thing for a boy whose ideas about gender and gender roles are being formed. The fact that Wolverine is the coolest, toughest X-Man and can follow a woman as the leader without any problem is huge. Because, obviously, a man isn’t always the most qualified, and things like being tough and not taking shit, while traits that we admire, are not always the things that make a person the best boss.
It’s more than that, too. It’s at the core of the character of Wolverine during Claremont’s run. He befriends young girls, and takes on a sort-of fatherly role with Kitty and, later, Jubilee, but because of the way he’s established throughout the series, that’s never creepy. You can believe that he finds something to value in these girls that doesn’t have any baggage, because he treats every woman he encounters throughout the run of the book in a manner that’s genuinely respectful — not the “respectfulness” of a dude who is nice because he’s trying to score, but that of a man who sees the women he encounters as inherently his equal.
That’s never better illustrated than in his relationship with Mariko. Because it’d be one thing if he were like, “Sure, Storm’s a good leader,” but in his own personal relationships were sketchy. But Mariko — the daughter of a Japanese crime boss, and Wolverine’s fiancee — ends up with a burden to bear and she calls off the wedding because of it. Wolverine shows up, asks that she just let him handle it — he’s the mutant with claws, she’s not — and she refuses. This one, she’s got to do herself. It echoes a point that Wolverine makes in earlier issues about both Cyclops and Colossus (and himself), that there are some battles a person must fight alone, and Wolverine respects Mariko in the exact same way that he respected Cyclops and Colossus — by letting them do it.
Keep in mind, now, that Claremont was writing Wolverine this way at the exact same time that John Byrne felt it necessary to include, in Fantastic Four, that all of the innovative new uses that Sue Richards came up with for her powers were all Reed’s ideas. There are actual thought-bubbles where Sue opines about how smart Reed is because he thought to train her to use her powers in this new way. Meanwhile, Claremont is teaching boys how to respect women as leaders, how to befriend them in ways that doesn’t have anything to do with secretly hoping to fuck them, how to stay out of the way and let a woman do things the way she needs to and not try to fix it all yourself — important things that make life better for both men and women, and he does this with his coolest character.
And that’s what’s so important about Claremont’s take on Wolverine. It doesn’t matter if Xander provides a model for how to respect a woman leader on Buffy, because who the fuck wants Xander to be his role model? You get ridiculed from a young age (and well into your life, ask any feminist dude) if you treat women as equals and with respect. You get called a mangina or a white knight or pussywhipped or whatever. And that shit does sting, sure — especially if you’re trying to figure these things out when you’re in your boyhood. So the fact that it’s Wolverine, and not Nightcrawler or even Colossus who does all of this — it’s a clue, for those boys who are figuring all this stuff out, that being a feminist doesn’t make you any less of a man. And that is a lesson worth internalizing.