Outside of my friends and family, there are three things in life that I really love: sleeping in on my days off, the Oxford comma, and Emma Frost of the X-Men. I’m half-joking, of course. I actually love a lot of things—anyone who reads this blog knows, for example, that I also really love Bucky Barnes. But I’m not kidding when I say I love Emma Frost. As a rare example of a powerful female anti-hero, she’s always been something of an inspiration to me—both as a writer and as a woman—and I naturally get more than a little peeved when she inevitably catches shit for things that pretty much no other comic book characters ever catch shit for.
The most recent example of this phenomenon is the latest installment of If I Pass This Way Again, a ongoing column published on Comic Book Resources that focuses on weird storylines that subsequently fail to be mentioned in later issues: “That Time Emma Frost Just Flat Out Murdered People.” The article looks at some particularly damning examples from Emma’s original incarnation as a supervillian: her callous murder of the henchmen who fail her, her torture of Firestar, even the coldblooded revenge killing of her own sister, Adrienne. The argument is that all these things have to be glossed over in order to accept Emma as a hero, and furthermore that in order to make them easy for the reader to gloss over that they are never really referred to afterward in comics canon. Nothing about either of these assertions is true.
Now, this article is basically intended as a lighthearted jaunt down comics memory lane. It’s not deliberately malicious, but it is predicated on ingrained sexism—as are the cavalcade of comments from (mostly male) readers complaining about how awful Emma Frost is and how she just doesn’t work as a hero—and I feel compelled to call it out. The article, and the general response to it, are textbook examples of the higher standard to which women—particularly unconventional women—are held to, both in fiction and in every day life.
Let’s unpack this a bit, shall we?
Emma Frost has done many questionable—and even terrible—things, both before, during, and—presumably—after her time with the X-Men.(1) She kidnapped Kitty Pryde, possessed Storm in order to infiltrate the X-Men, tortured Firestar, cultivated a group of naive young mutants to be her personal supervillian team only to get them all killed, murdered her own sister, struck a dubious deal with Norman Osbourne during the Dark Reign era, abducted, mind-wiped, and deserted Sebastian Shaw, joined Cyclops in rebellion against the Avengers and later the X-Men. She is a woman with an extremely flexible moral fiber, a woman willing to do whatever it takes to achieve her goals. Sometimes those goals have been noble; sometimes they have been diabolical. But the means by which she has achieved them have always skated about the edges of ethicality. It’s a fundamental component of who she is, and it hasn’t ever changed.
Moreover, there’s nothing secret about Emma’s past. Nor is it, as the CBR article argues, ever glossed over. Her role in the death of the Hellions, and her feelings of remorse about it, was first addressed in Uncanny X-Men no. 314. It was a reoccurring theme throughout the Generation X run, as Emma struggled to come to terms with her less-than-savory nature, agonized over the loss of her former students, doubted her ability to be an appropriate mentor to her new students, and overreacted to threats against them. Her survivor’s guilt was an ongoing theme when she reappeared in Morrison and Quitely’s New X-Men and it was a major plot point in Whedon and Cassaday’s Astonishing X-Men. Emma’s checkered past was brought to the fore once more in Matt Fraction’s “Quarantine” story (Uncanny X-Men nos. 529-534), when she confronted her former Hellfire Club master Sebastian Shaw, and it was alluded to again in Brian Michael Bendis’ run on the series (Uncanny X-Men vol. 3, no. 18). The point I’m trying to make, is that—contrary to the article’s chief claim—nothing about Emma Frost’s past has ever been glossed over. It is constantly with her and constantly in the minds of those who know her.
So why do readers treat her past as if it is ignored and vilify her for that reason?
Could it be that Emma Frost, as a true, uncompromising, and unapologetic anti-hero, as a character whose forceful personality defies societal standards for appropriate feminine behavior, is held to a different standard than all the many, many other characters in the Marvel universe who possess dubious pasts? Let’s consider some of those characters.
Rogue began narrative life as a vicious supervillian, who maimed Carol Danvers—stealing both her powers and her memories—and left her for dead. She only joined the X-Men when Carol’s personality threatened to overwhelm her and only over the strenuous objections of the other members of the team. She’s now a member of the Avengers, and a perennial fan favorite. The smooth-talking Gambit was eventually revealed to have had a direct hand in the massacre of the Morlocks by the Marauders and also spent some time, off and on, as the Horsemen of Death, a fate brought about by his own arrogance. Perennial fan favorite. Professor X has forcibly mind-wiped several people, including Magneto—an act that led directly to his becoming Onslaught and destroying the Avengers (for a little while anyway). He also purposely subjugated the Danger Room AI when it became sentient, effectively forcing a living being into slavery, and once changed history in order to ensure that someone he considered a threat was never born. He’s practically treated like a saint. And I could easily go on. Beast, Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver. Wolverine. (And those are just the mutants.)
No one ever complains that it’s difficult to treat said characters as heroes because of their past. No one ever complains that comics canon has to ignore odd plot points about them in order to sell their current incarnations. Treating any of the above-mentioned characters like heroes requires as much “glossing over” of their past sins as is necessary to believe in Emma Frost’s heroism, and yet no one ever complains about them. Because when you do the math, moving on from a character’s past is not that odd at all. “That Time Emma Frost Just Flat Out Murdered People” is not pointing out a weird plot buried in the depths of long-forgotten comics history; it’s pointing out an extremely typical example of the kind of character-building that goes on in superhero stories all the time. They struggle, they stumble, they rise again. Or not. There’s nothing odd about Emma Frost’s dark past; what’s odd is that she gets to own her past and present with as much brazen confidence as Deadpool or Loki. The only reason for her story to be treated as an anomaly is sexism. It’s not that fans can’t see her as a hero, but that they can’t see her as an anti-hero.
Emma Frost doesn’t fit the mold, and the fanboys just can’t let it go.
1) I say presumably because we haven’t seen Emma since Secret Wars, so we don’t really know what’s she’s been up to. The upcoming Death of X crossover should shed some light on that. ⇧