Today I was listening to an online-only podcast of Radiolab called Mutant Rights that I’m thinking of incorporating into my Introduction to Anthropology class next year. It caught me attention because the summary said it was all about defining what it means to be human. It turns out it is also all about the X-Men and other Marvel Superheroes.
I think I’m going to have my class listen to this podcast for homework, and do a writing response afterward. I’m looking for ideas though, about how to frame the writing project and when during the semester to hand them the problem.
The podcast is about two women who are customs attorneys. They were working for Marvel and discovered that the United States government has different tariffs for dolls and for toys – the tariff on dolls is, in fact, almost double that of toys. So it is ideal for a company to show that its products are toys and not dolls. So what is the difference, according to Customs? Dolls represent things that are only human beings. Toys are everything else.
ONLY human beings.
This is an interesting conundrum for an anthropology student – what is it that defines a human and distinguishes it from other creatures? And if you are only looking at a MODEL of a human, how do you recognize it as human or non?
Of course, comic book figures like those from the Marvel World are going to be some of the most difficult creatures to distinguish. Are they human? I mean, Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider, but does that mean he would pass his new on to his children? I’ve no idea if his sperm were impacted by that bite – my gut instinct is no. The characteristics that we have selected to distinguish Homo sapiens from other species were useful because they were distinctive enough that we could create boundaries. As our understanding of apes and fossil hominids has expanded, these boundaries have gotten fuzzy. Once we had the human genome we thought that might help, but it has made the boundaries fuzzier. Superheroes are an interesting dataset because they were created in part to challenge our notions of humanity. So they don’t fit well with the standard trait lists we like to fall back on.
And of course Marvel has the ever problematic and ever wonderful. The X-Men.
I enjoyed the X-Men, though I was never an avid fangirl. As an anthropologist, though, I have strong opinions about the X-Men and their place in our world. As the folks on RadioLab point out, the X-Men were created during the civil rights era, and have been used over and over as allegories for various groups of people that are discriminated against and fighting for their right to fit into society and be treated as equals (For a thoughtful look at the pros and cons of this, see here). I have always looked at the X-Men from a biological standpoint. Humans develop mutations all the time, and those that survive are generally neutral or positive mutations. So a mutation during the creation of the zygote does not exclude one from being a human – if you can mate with another human and produce viable offspring, I will consider you ‘one of us’. A mutation due to radiation or some other strange scientific-chemical-astral-etc explanation that occurs as an adult, well that’s a moot point. You’re still a human. How it impacts your eggs or sperm I can’t tell – your kids might not be human, but I don’t think I’d throw you out of the group. Characters in the Marvel world are a mish-mosh of ‘mutants’. I always had a spot in the family tree for the X-Men though. Since most of them manifest their mutations only at puberty, I saw them as members of the family with new, unique traits that may or may not get passed on to future generations. And I hated seeing them discriminated against because the non-mutants had a poor understanding of science and a fear of the unknown. One mutation does not a species-make (at least not very often).
But the attorneys working for Marvel had the goal of showing that the X-Men and all the other Marvel characters were NOT human. They wanted to save Marvel money. Can you imagine – Marvel actually WANTING to show that the X-Men are not humans? If that case gets proven, there is no point to the X-Men storyline anymore. Not human, treat them like dirt. NEXT.
The lawyers took the government to court in a series of cases, and the government tried to argue that these characters were all human beings, which the lawyers argued they were not. According to Radiolab, the characteristics the government used were things such as “It has a head, a mouth, eyes, nose, hair, arms, torso, breasts, muscles…” I assume the actual arguments were a Bit more specific, but they don’t discuss it.
These attorneys brought in all their action figures and showed why every single one of them has traits that make them non-human. Funny eyes. Blue skin. Claws. They don’t discuss HOW these characters developed their mutations. They don’t talk about the characteristics that show their human-ness. They are just trying to prove that the characters are more akin to angels and robots – humanoid perhaps, but not human.
And they do. The courts declare all creatures in the Marvel world to be toys and not dolls. And Marvel saves millions of dollars.
It’s a fun story – I think most of us empathize with the X-Men, and have Marvel Superheros that we love. We see some characters as good and some as evil, but we still see them as somehow related to us. So it is interesting to see the table turned and have people win an argument that they are not human, even if it is just for a corporate money-saving scheme (though lets be honest, it is stupid to have a different tariff for human and non-human toys).
I think this is a great way to start a class discussion about what it means to be human. I’m thinking of having my students listen to this podcast, and then choosing a Marvel Character for themselves and developing a defense of his/her humanity. What DOES it mean to be human? And how can you argue that this character has criteria that fit this description. Could there possibly be a human with blue skin and covered in blue hair? Could a human shoot lasers out of his eyes? How do you justify their humanity?
Alternately, I could have them choose to argue either for OR against the humanity of a character, their choice.
Or I could make them work in groups in class to write up an argument for the prosecution or the defense, and have them debate and let the class vote on a winner.
The other thing I’m wondering about is when in the class to have them do this assignment. It could be a good opening-week assignment to get them thinking about what it means to be human. It could be a good assignment after we discuss how evolution works, so they can show me they understand how mutations impact an individual and a species. Perhaps I could save it until the end of the semester so they could incorporate notions of kinship, social complexity, language abilities and intelligence. By then they could also argue that these creatures are NOT human by showing how other primates and fossil hominids share(d) many traits with us, but we do not call them human.
I’d love to hear your ideas. And be sure to check out the podcast – it is less than 20 minutes long. I still haven’t seen The Avengers (No Spoilers Please!) but if you think there are clips from it that would be relevant for a class discussion on this, let me know and I will get to the theatre post haste.