The X-Men and mutants in general have always represented the oppressed, the persecuted minorities. The movies address the big picture of what that means and sweep over the details. But what The Gifted does, and with startling competence, is address how bigotry and anti-mutant sentiment would affect the life of an average mutant that doesn’t necessarily have a powerful mutation and that doesn’t have the resources of someone affiliated with the X-Men. That is to say, it takes the perspective of a minority without fame, money, or powerful friends. Health care. Criminal justice. Civil rights. All of these are issues that marginalized communities face every day, and The Gifted has been addressing all of them.
The second episode pointed out that mutants don’t have access to good health care. Some healthcare providers don’t even know how to treat them. The first is applicable to many minority groups, while the second is somewhat more specific to the disabled. It’s been more than a throwaway line, as well – even outside of the episode where Clarice got sick, which focused quite a bit on mutant health care, the show hinted at the issue of health care in prisons through Lorna. She was assaulted, then thrown into a cell without medical treatment, despite being pregnant.
Prison System and Mass Incarceration
In both Marvel and DC, inhibitor collars cut off any powers the wearer might have. The prison Lorna is in in The Gifted uses a different type of collar to stop mutants from using their abilities. Unlike the traditional inhibitor collars, they don’t prevent the wearers from accessing their powers – instead they just discourage the usage of them by electrocuting the wearer. That’s torture. That’s inflicting unnecessary and intentional pain. Legally, that’s cruel and unusual punishment. And they didn’t even tell Lorna what it did before putting her in a cell.
Lorna is an adult with full control over her powers. She can stop using them. She shouldn’t have to, but she can. But what happens to other people? Take, for example, children in juvie that don’t have full control of their powers yet. The show established that any damage caused by mutant powers, whether to a person or physical property, accident or not, is a major crime. These mutant children would be electrocuted, not because they did anything, but because of what they are. And they’ll continue to be hurt, because they’re locked in a prison being punished for something they can’t help, not in the outside world where they should be growing up and learning how to use those powers.
In the fourth episode, Reed explicitly brought up mandatory minimums. This demonstrates how mutants in universe are treated very differently when it comes to the judicial system. If a white baseline human committed an act of intentional vandalism, they would be treated more leniently than a mutant destroying something unintentionally, especially if said baseline human had the money for a good lawyer. This is full on institutionalized racism, and is clearly inspired by the causes of criminal recidivism, especially in the US.
When people are afraid of the other, they stop seeing civil rights as being of paramount importance. In our world, we see that in the aftermath of terrorist attacks. The fear after 9/11 resulted in Congress pushing through the Patriot Act. All Muslims became viewed as potential terrorists, and the fear of the unknown and of what might happen resulted in people voluntarily giving up their rights and freedoms for more perceived safety. The Patriot Act was directly mentioned in the first episode, and a huge part of the show revolves around how non mutants don’t care what civil rights violations are happening, just so long as they’re happening to mutants.
In the universe of The Gifted, mutant children are separated from their parents and tried as adults in a biased court system. Mutants are taken to secret locations and not allowed contact with their families or lawyers. They’re called terrorists regardless of what their crimes are. The parallels to the so-called war on terror, to Guantanamo Bay, to the reporting of crimes in the media, are clear.
The X-Men comics and movies are often criticized for being allegories for racism, but not featuring many people of colour, much less in prominent roles. The Gifted isn’t like that. Outside of the Struckers, the four main characters are Marcos Diaz, John Proudstar, Clarice Fong, and Lorna Dane. Out of those four, three are people of colour. It adds a level of realism to the metaphor in addition to providing valuable representation. Nearly as importantly is how the characters of different backgrounds are used.
Out of the four adult mutants, the one that faced violence in prison was the only white one. Lorna was the one that got punched and kicked on top of the electrocution from the collar. People of colour face enough violence in reality – there’s no need to add fictional violence to that. In the context of the show, Lorna is an oppressed minority, while outside of it, she’s not. Using her to illustrate inmate abuse and injustice in the legal system while including mutants of colour in other roles was the most sensitive way to get the point across.
What makes mutants as presented in The Gifted a good metaphor for marginalized groups is that they have aspects of many different marginalized groups. They manifest at different points in life, and oftentimes are ostracized after that, which is reminiscent of LGBT people coming out. They’re seen as criminals to be suspicious of even when they haven’t done anything, like people of colour everywhere. And they don’t have access to the type of decent healthcare they need, like many disabled people. They’re an imperfect metaphor – unlike mutants, who can be unintentionally dangerous, there’s absolutely no reason to fear people of colour, immigrants, the disabled, LGBT individuals – but they’re our power fantasy.
I don’t love all of The Gifted. I don’t think it looks aesthetically great, and some of the effects are pretty cheesy. Some of the performances aren’t very compelling. Caitlin and Reed have somewhat more nuanced characters, but Lauren and Andy seem flat, especially when compared to the adult mutants. I’m willing to give them a chance to develop over the next few episodes, especially as they’re original characters that have potential in principle, but I’d be more lenient if the writers hadn’t already demonstrated through Marcos that they’re capable writing a compelling new character from the beginning. Despite these issues, I think the show itself is valuable. Out of all X-Men related media, it is the most well thought out and intelligently crafted. It combines excellent world building with compassion for individuals, especially the marginalized, and I’m excited to see where it goes from here.