Did X-Men's Violent Billboard Go Too Far?

The X-Men poster was taken out of context, but not in the way fans think.
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The X-Men poster was taken out of context, but not in the way fans think.

Images of male violence against women are ubiquitous in our culture. From the intentionally titillating rape scenes we've seen too many times on Game of Thrones, to the sexualized gore that is standard in horror films, to Internet pornography, which has normalized things like choking, slapping, and otherwise painful sexual acts, gendered violence has become so common, it's practically mundane.

As such, it's no real surprise that, when actress Rose McGowan spoke out about an X-Men: Apocalypse billboard, which featured a male, Apocalypse, choking a female, Mystique, the response was defensive.

The point was made by defenders that all the characters in the X-Men series are violent so this poster cannot possibly have anything to do with gender. And, according to slews of Twitter users coming to its defense, the franchise is equitable in that X-Men violence doesn't discriminate. Similarly, fans made an argument, familiar to anyone who has been critical of a film, television show, or franchise that is popular among youngish white dudes, along the lines of, "It's just a movie/not real" or "Clearly you haven't seen the movie/read the X-Men comic books, so you don't 'get it.'"

The idea that one must be a fan of something or fully immersed in the culture in order to be critical of the thing is not new. Feminists who criticized the sexualized violence of BDSM when Fifty Shades of Grey came out were told they simply don't understand as they are not a part of the "BDSM scene." 

Women who rejected Game of Thrones for not wanting to watch a show that used breasts as wallpaper and that was rife with sexual assault were told they had to watch the show and read the books in order to even have the right to an opinion. As if "I don't want to spend another second of my life watching a naked woman be brutalized" isn't a good enough reason to change the channel. 

We are expected to watch and examine every possible genre of porn before forming a critique of the medium, as if the rare exception that isn't overtly misogynist cancels out the vast majority of pornography that degrades women and features verbal, physical, and/or sexual abuse. 

In every single case above (and, generally, every instance we point out misogyny in media), women are told, "It's just a fantasy, not real life."

"There is no context in the ad, just a woman getting strangled," McGowan wrote. But fans of the franchise defend the billboard on account of "context," saying McGowan doesn't understand the characters or the plot. It seems the only context needed is the understanding that visually, we're seeing yet another attractive (albeit blue/mutant) woman being overpowered by a large (grey/mutant) male. Matters of "plot" or further details about the characters have nothing to do with the reason why imagery like this is upsetting for women.

The kind of violence featured is one that is all too familiar for many women—one of the most common forms of attacks in cases of domestic abuse, in fact. The experience of being grabbed by the throat, exactly like Apocalypse grabs Mystique in the X-Men promos, is an extremely frightening one—it makes you feel powerless (indeed, that is the point). It functions as yet another reminder that the male perpetrator can kill you if he likes, that you are weaker than him, that, as the billboard reads, "Only the strong will survive." 

In the United States three women are killed every day by a current or ex (male) partner. Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women, and men who choke their partners are ten times more likely to eventually kill them. So no, it is not acceptable to brush this imagery off as "just a movie poster." 

Regardless of what happens during the rest of the film, this particular still used for the billboard is one that turns the experience of domestic abuse into entertainment and a marketing campaign.

Fox apologized for the ad on Friday, saying, "We didn’t immediately recognize the upsetting connotation of this image in print form," and removed the billboards. But the fact that Fox and so many others didn't see the imagery as problematic only goes to show how successfully advertising and media, in general, have normalized violence against women. 

We can minimize the billboard by saying, "sex and violence sell," or that it "meant" something else, or we can own the fact that the marketing of violence against women for the purposes of entertainment perpetuates stereotypical gender roles and results in very real harm to real women.

For women who have been subjected to the very action they saw on these billboards across the United States, presented as "entertainment," context is everything.

Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox