Representation and Health 101: ICEMAN

The weather outside may be frightful, but this Representation and Health 101 has something for you that’s delightful.

That hackneyed phrase aside, today’s topic actually is perfect for this time of year. When many of us are braving the snow and ice, or wishing for it, there’s someone who is master over these forces. He’s been around for over fifty-three years and has been a staple among Marvel’s mutants, especially as one of its first. He’s gone through a lot of changes and there’s a lot to be said about him.

So, let’s talk about the man of ice that came before Frosty the Snowman: Bobby Drake, aka Iceman!

Bobby’s first appearance was with Marvel’s first (print) mutants in X-Men #1 in 1963. Through the years, Bobby would find himself in a number of precarious situations, from being swallowed by the living island Krakoa to the difficulty of managing his family’s issues with mutants (and people of other races, apparently). From the First Class and the Champions, then X-Factor and back to his roots, Bobby has been one of the most significant X-Men.

For someone with such an extensive history, it’s hard to boil down his importance to one issue. However, there’s a major development that happened relatively recently which has remained at the forefront of my mind when Bobby comes up.

In All-New X-Men #40, it was revealed that the time displaced Bobby is gay. He later addresses his future self and finds that they both share this secret, which the older Bobby tried his best to keep hidden. The narrative involved in this change is important, but it is also a double-edged sword.

Coming out is complicated. There’s a lot of overlap when it comes to gender and sexual orientation with regards to this experience, and much of it boils down to the fact that sometimes we don’t truly know. Sometimes there’s pain, sometimes we feel weird, and sometimes we have an acute awareness that we aren’t experiencing the world around us like many of our peers are. I used to be a strong advocate of the Born This Way ideology, that our genes dictate who we are, but I’d be a bad psychologist if I clung to this belief despite evidence to the contrary.

Based on current research, sexual orientation and gender are a complex mix of genes and environment. A large part of what constitutes environment is what forms our schemas: language, models, concepts, etc. When we don’t have the framework? We typically don’t have the understanding. When it comes to being anything beyond cisgender and heterosexual, many of us simply do not have the tools to uncover anything but what is given to us.

Beyond frameworks, sometimes our environment does not lend to safely exploring who we are. If you grew up in conservative shades of church or in places that strongly adhered to gendered essentialism, coming out as queer may not have been a secure endeavor. In fact, these very same conditions inhibit people’s exploration.

As we see with Bobby, he was born in a world where mutants were hated, where his parents were racist, so it makes sense that he hid a part of himself from the world for most of his life. His experience as the playboy is also not uncommon in queer men. In my own life, I’ve come across plenty of men who were married to women or who had children with women but were gay. These men, who tend to be older, lived in a time where being anything other than heterosexual was dangerous.

Bobby’s late bloom when it comes to being gay makes a lot of sense in the context of a society that will beat you and tie you to a fence to die, or shoot up your safe haven, for even the slightest hint of flirtation or perceived aberration.

There’s no clear-cut path to being queer, and Bobby’s story captures that. Sometimes the conditions aren’t right, whether based on words, understanding, or safety, to fully uncover who we are. Such a narrative is important for dashing notions that we always ‘know’ who we are and are ready to come out at a moment’s notice. The narrative surrounding Bobby is one that addresses identity and the fact that it can manifest in ways we don’t expect or predict. Yet, despite the value of this narrative, there are some glaring things missing.

In All-New X-Men #40, Brian Michael Bendis has Jean ‘reveal’ to Bobby that he’s gay. Of course, Bobby knew this, but the entire scene is framed as Jean having the agency with Bobby’s coming out. This is problematic for many reasons. Forcing someone out of the closet, whether it’s in private quarters or in front of an audience, is definitely not okay and risks significant damage for the person coming out.

This scene is painful to read and re-read because it is basically a slap in the face to anyone in the closet, people who were forcibly outed, or anyone who’s on the other side of that door and understands the pain that can come with it. Not only was this moment  completely out of nowhere for its context, it also disrespected the autonomy necessary in people deciding how they come out.

Besides the issues regarding Bobby’s agency in coming out, it was also a perfect moment to increase bisexual representation that was needlessly dropped on the floor. I’m still not sure many heterosexual people understand this, but bi people are real, they exist, they have feelings, and it’s rare that anyone falls squarely on a polar metric of sexuality.

Again, sexual orientation is complex, and that means that we have varied and diverse attractions to people of all genders. Bobby could have easily been bi yet been afraid to embrace the part of himself that loves men, just as many bi men experience now. It sucks that Bobby’s introduction to the world as a gay man hinges on this moment and plays to heterosexual ideals of sexual orientation.

When it comes to representation, Bobby embodies the experiences of many queer men in that they may be afraid to address their feelings, let alone airing them to the entire world. He also gives us a glimpse into the reality of sexual orientation being something that many people uncover later in life rather than earlier. Even though queer youth are coming out earlier and earlier, I bet many of them still feel afraid, unsure, or even unaware as to who they are and what constitutes that.

These stories are important because they allow people the freedom to discover themselves later, hopefully assuaging any guilt about ‘knowing’ beforehand. There are just too many factors to say that all of us under the queer umbrella know exactly who we are by xyz point in our lives.

Yet, we must also discuss how Bobby’s narrative isn’t helpful. No one should be forced out the closet or to claim an identity, yet that’s exactly what happened. Coming out can be a threat to someone’s health, especially when it comes to trans people. Gauging your environment is always a great choice, especially if there is a significant risk to yourself by being open about your identity. The fact that Bobby’s agency was reduced to psychic meddling is incredibly wrong and his coming out story should have been vastly different.

Bobby shows us that sometimes the story we tell isn’t what always fits, but also that we should be the master of that story, not just another character at the whim of another.

How do you feel about Bobby Drake? What would you like to see in his stories in the future? Let me know on Twitter at @80Grey!


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