FOX’s ‘The Gifted’ has a whiteness problem

When news broke that FOX was going to bring an X-Men based show to our TV screens, I was hyped. Now I’m disappointed to see that The Gifted is actually a bastardized X-Men adaptation that trades on what made the X-Men great: celebrating the gifts of a band of outcasts.

When I was a kid, there wasn’t anything cooler to me than Marvel’s X-Men comics. From the powers to the legendary storylines, the X-Men were special to me, just like they were to so many other comic book readers, because they represented strength in difference. They practiced acceptance of what would commonly be deemed strange. Not only that, their differences were what made them stronger as a team. In many respects, the series adapted the real-life experiences of marginalized people and brought them to life in their pages.

Ororo Munroe aka “Storm” was an orphaned pick-pocketer on the streets of Cairo, Egypt when Professor X found her. James Howlett aka “Wolverine” was a grifter and ex-soldier who became a mercenary before deciding to become one of the “good guys.” Remy LeBeau aka “Gambit” was basically a mafia member before joining up with the X-Men. But, they all ended up fighting sentinels together. Translating those same messages and themes into film hasn’t even come close to being successful.

That’s why Fox’s The Gifted is so disappointing.

This series lives within the cinematic universe of the current X-Men films, but takes place during the present day. The golden years of teams like the X-Men have faded, and mutants live in fear. They are ostracized by society and forced to be registered with the government. Their powers have been legally classified as weapons, bearing harsher punishments for any crimes. While most either hide or try to suppress their powers, those that reside within the Mutant Underground fight to keep other mutants safe, and in some cases, smuggle them out of the United States.

This setup borrows heavily from classic X-Men history, including well-known bits like the Mutant Registration Act and The Morlocks. It even sources popular characters like Blink and Polaris. But that is where the series starts to diverge from the comics.

The Gifted turns its focus to a made for the series family, the Struckers. This painfully stereotypical 4-piece nuclear white family is thrust into danger when the younger sibling’s powers manifest and destroy the local high school gymnasium. Suddenly, this well to do family has to understand “how the other half lives.”

For any of this to work, viewers would have to be able to empathize with all that the family has lost. But if you are anything other than white, it’s near impossible.

This family turned a blind eye to the horrors that were being inflicted on mutants for years. The father, Reed Strucker (played by Stephen Moyer), even worked as a prosecutor, locking mutants away and using their own unborn children as leverage against them. But now that ignorance, bigotry, and hatred are at their front door and threatening their lives, they can see the problem. This is just like how a white family adopts a Black child and suddenly turns nauseous over how terrible racism is. Or when lawmakers suddenly begin advocating for LGBTQIA+ rights when one of their own children comes out. How are we supposed to feel bad for them when their concerns are clearly self-serving?

This is a common device used in entertainment. This tragic voyeurism centers the difficulties a privileged group might face in adapting to the hardships that others have been forced to live with their entire lives. It allows people who live above the fray to imagine what life is like for the “other”, for just a little while. This is also commonly compounded by a white savior complex that sees these same white people be the exact force needed to save everyone else. Suddenly, Reed can use his law enforcement expertise for the mutants’ advantage. His wife Kate (played by Amy Acker) leverages her nursing background to triage those hurt in battle. And the children Lauren and Andy (played by Natalie Alyn Lind and Percy Hynes-White, respectively) possess unique mutations that are always needed to save the day.

But The Gifted goes the extra mile. This show also sets a Black law enforcement agent as the main antagonist. Yes, the main entity criminalizing and working to exert power over the marginalized is a Black man, and his prime targets are white people. This show has effectively flipped the entire script. I might have even celebrated this reversal if it didn’t fly in the face of what the X-Men was originally about.

The reality is that the show would be far more powerful if it followed a non-white family. The story would much more closely represent the issues America continues to struggle with. We could also skip over much of the superficial pretext of outlining what they’ve lost and focus on their fight to live. Instead, framing a white family as the victims, underdogs, and saviors all in one allows white people to wear the mantle of the oppressed, one of the few bases of power that continues to elude them in real life. And this centering of whiteness in a story that is about marginalization only weakens the overall narrative.

The Gifted undermines the very essence of the source material it pulls from. And while some might argue that this original story might make it easier for the public at large to understand what it means to be an outcast, I argue that it only serves to romanticize and commodify the pain. Not to make any real ringing statement about the state of our world. And any X-Men sourced project that isn’t making serious commentary on the world we live in isn’t a faithful adaptation.

Photo credit: FOX

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Daren W. Jackson

Daren is one half of the Water Cooler Convos team. He's a writer, music connoisseur, and comic book geek who spends his free time working on his novel and other short stories.

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