On Cyclops and the male gaze…

05/03/2006

Okay. So here’s a quick theory that cropped up in my head a few years ago and I’ve never really got around to writing it down. It is, frankly, based on some pretty vague memories of some fast-and-loose reading of Laura Mulvey, Jacques Lacan and Sigmund Freud. It is also supposed to not be taken seriously, for those of you with no sense of humour about Psychoanalysis.

Cyclops is a super-hero and a member of the X-Men. His real name is Scott Summers. He’s been in and out of the team since the very beginning, when he was put in charge of the nascent group by the rather intimidating Charles Xavier. His power is to shoot massive red beams of force from his eyes, but this is a power he can’t control – apparently because of a knock to the head he suffered as a child. He wears a visor made of ‘ruby quartz’ that keeps these powers under control. He is obsessed with control, is repressed and constrained and probably has no sense of humour about Psychoanalysis either. Incidentally his father was abducted by aliens and became Corsair of the Starjammers, which is one of those things that could only happen in comics and has absolutely no bearing on the matter of discussion today. Before we get any further – here is a picture of Cyclops:

In the latest issues of one or other of the X-Men comic books there’s this whole bit about Emma Frost (telepath, professional sex-therapist and ex-bad-guy) doing some rather clumsy analysis of Scott and coming to the conclusion that his obsession with control and his problems with his abilities are all functionally built around a sense of inadequacy. The issue is entertaining, but not enormously convincing. I think I’ve got a better dumb theory for what the fictional character is about and why he is the way he is. And I’m going to tell it to you. In a minute.

The Death Star is an orbiting space station the size of a small moon. It has huge beams of light that come out of its front which are capable of destroying worlds. Here is a picture of the Death Star:

Now, what may or may not be obvious to some of you is that the Death Star resembles an enormous eyeball – a huge destructive eyeball in space – an eyeball with power very much like of Cyclops. Cyclops is – if you will – a humanised Death Star. But why do these images of destructive eyes recur? What’s the common foundation between the Death Star and the Super Hero and what can it tell us about teenagers, people and the act of looking?

Later psychoanalysts spends a fair amount of time talking about looking and the power relationships involved in looking. Laura Mulvey is the most obvious exponent of the idea of the Male Gaze in Film Theory, but it’s also more generally associated with Scopophilia and Voyeurism. Basically it comes down to a fairly simple set of concepts – that the act of looking is an act of power, or at least can be conceived of as such – that it objectifies the thing it looks at. And that’s objectification in its most literal sense – Lacanian Psychoanalysis argued that the Mirror stage at which a child could look at itself in a mirror and understand the relationship between the image and reality was in fact the first time it would have a sense of having a self at all – although having recognising it, this self would always be slightly distant and abstracted. The child created itself as an object in the mirror. It’s quite fun stuff.

Anyway, the act of looking can thus be conceived of as an act of imposing power upon someone, and – if you’re in the mood to – can be thought about as a phallic and penetrative act. It’s an act that has an effect on the thing it’s examining, and potentially a violent and invasive one.

So here’s my theory about Cyclops. His power is a metaphor for the kind of looking that appears in adolescence. It’s the kind of looking associated with sexual desire, and in the furrowing and explorative way that the male (and potentially female – I’m not a woman, I couldn’t say this for sure) eye roams and explores the body. It’s a kind of looking that – while perhaps not a form of violence in itself – could certainly be conceived of as a form of violence from the perspective of a teenage boy trying to deal with a whole range of apparently dirty feelings. Ashamed and uncomfortable with the thoughts racing through his head, and with the way his eyes catch and stick to other people’s bodies, Cyclops cannot deal with this newfound power and freaks out. The visor is an attempt to deal with and control the way he looks at people, and is a symbol of the profound and overwhelming repression of the sexual component of his id. His phallic looking has to be contained and restrained at all odds.

From the perspective of the teenage reader, of course, the character is nothing but a vehicle for exploring hero narratives – but the super-power is also surruptitiously providing a nicely mediated way for the reader to explore issues around their anxieties over emerging sexuality and physical power. Which is why it’s interesting to me that over the years, as the demographic for comic books has flattened and readers have become older, that Cyclops is continually a subject for re-examination and re-exploration. The problem is, for Cyclops to loosen up and become a more adult figure he’d have to sacrifice the wonderfully powerful premise of his character and somehow regain control of his abilities – probably in the most banal way possible, by somehow being able to look at the female figure with his visor off, subsequently leaving him ‘fixed’. But without this premise, he’s just one of a million other super-heroes with dumb powers that no one really cares about.

Anwyay, that’s my theory around Cyclops. I’d be fascinated to hear what you guys think. And not only about him, but about other super-heroes too. Clearly there’s an element of simple hero-fantasy wish-fulfilment going on in all of them. But are any of the other ones exploring teenagey issues in an abstracted, metaphorical way? To arms, both of my readers! Share your thoughts…