The Mind of a Metahuman
Psychological and Social Pressures on Mutants
In our last installment of this series, we looked at how mutant or “metahuman” traits are passed along generations, and how they evolve in populations over time. But how do these traits affect the psyche of the affected individual, and how might those mental changes lead to broader sociocultural change? We will divide our investigation into two types of metahuman traits: first, those that are unique to individuals, and second, those that are widespread in society.
Fictional work like X-Men and Heroes postulate that each individual metahuman has a unique power or ability, some of which are associated with physical changes. The variability in individual abilities, and the obviousness of those changes, could have significant implications. In the first X-Men film, when Rogue’s powers are first revealed, it is strongly implied that she is not aware that other people have mutant abilities; part of her fascination with Wolverine is his healing ability [ 1 ]. Likewise, in the first episode of Heroes, several the main characters are portrayed as feeling isolated by their gifts, not knowing that others also have abilities. Perhaps significantly, the only characters initially aware of the large numbers of individuals with abilities are portrayed either as villains (Sylar) or as having ambiguous motives (the man with horn-rimmed glasses, who is revealed to be cheerleader Claire’s adoptive father) [ 2 ].
Although I previously argued that evolutionary processes are unlikely to give rise to a Heroes or X-Men type of situation, in which each affected individual has a different power or ability, let us put aside that argument for now and speculate. Instead, let us explore what would be the psychological and sociocultural consequences of the emergence—by natural, unnatural, or supernatural causes—of a population of metahumans with a large and perhaps even infinite variety of traits.
The Isolation of the Individual
As referenced above, in both X-Men and Heroes, most individuals discovering their special talents are portrayed as feeling isolated psychologically, and perhaps are physically outcast from society. Wolverine is a drifter with a mysterious past; Rogue is a runaway; Iceman is hiding his powers from his family.
One of the cornerstones of X-Men is the existence of Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, which functions as a refuge or safe haven for mutant children, at least some of whom have run away or been kicked out by their families, and others identified by Xavier and brought to the school with their families remaining unaware of their talents.
While Xavier’s establishment indeed functions as a place of learning, its “cover” as a school for gifted human children (as opposed to children whose “gifts” are their mutations) is meant to ensure the safety and protection of the next generation of mutants. In the adult sphere, we see the questions of mutant civil rights: registration with the government, whether the Mutant X gene should be suppressed through genetic manipulation, etc. While learned mutant Hank McCoy has been elected as the first openly mutant legislator, it is clear that the mutant and human populations are broadly frightened of each other [ 3 ] [ 4 ].
Events in X-Men have been paralleled to both the African-American civil rights movement and, more recently, to the gay rights movement and the impetus to broader acceptance of LGBTQIA+ individuals. It is also explicitly compared (by Magneto) to the events in Europe around the Holocaust, with prejudice and state-sanctioned violence eventually leading to genocide. In the film series at least, Magneto’s experience during the 20th century’s Holocaust by the Nazis is what drives him toward open confrontation with humans, and his fear of history repeating itself is shown to be justified in the beginning of X-Men: Days of Future Past [ 5 ].
On an individual level, therefore, we observe isolation and fear among those who have mutant abilities, countered by fear and a mob mentality among those who do not. However, on a more detailed level, we see very little difference between human and mutant psychology. Mutant children cheat at sports (albeit by using their powers), have romances, follow religions, etc. Some practice using their powers to take on the role of super-heroes. This type of heroism (and its counterpart, the goal of being a supervillain) we may observe in several metahumans throughout fiction (Superman, The Incredibles, etc.).
However, while metahuman abilities are often considered to obligate the possessor to super-hero dom (i.e, Stan Lee’s famous quote, “With great power comes great responsibility”), the same drive can be observed among those who do not have metahuman traits. The most famous case is Batman (who substitutes technology and training for powers), but this is also the premise of Kick-Ass, Super, and the occasional real-world individual who decides to fight crime in costume [ 6 ].
Mutants, Metahumans, and the Masses
Apart from the problem of what a metahuman (or, for that matter, a human) decides to do with their talents and abilities, we have the problem posed by a world in which we can no longer predict the range of abilities those around us possess. I know that I cannot fly or breathe underwater, and I know that without specialized equipment, the people around me cannot do these things, either.
If the world changed in such a way as to permit metahuman abilities to exist, that certainty disappears, and the world does become a much scarier place. We certainly see this acknowledged in X-Men. But the societal fear portrayed in the films is not the only type of fear humans would experience.
Most of my female-presenting readers, and no few of the males, will have experienced some degree of street harassment and unwanted sexual attention. Many will be familiar with the surge of anxiety that arises when one is forced to wonder whether a harasser is harmless or whether taunts and catcalls will suddenly turn to violence—in particular, a small woman may fear for her safety from a large man, or an individual from a group. The threat of violence is combined with the knowledge of one’s inability to successfully defend oneself from a stronger attacker.
In a world populated by metahumans, an individual may fear new and unpredictable kinds of force or coercive power. This world is instantiated in Brandon Sanderson’s novel Steelheart, in which powerful metahumans become de facto warlords and humans are largely powerless to resist them [ 7 ].
Even in our contemporary world, devoid (as far as we know) of metahumans, people of color are sometimes unreasonably feared as having both superhuman physical abilities and subhuman morals and intelligence. As such, it is not very difficult to predict that a society in which some possess a unique metahuman ability and some do not would quickly deteriorate into lawlessness and fear, in which the strong would prey unchecked upon the weak.
Even in the Xanth series of fantasy novels, in which every human inhabitant has a magic talent (and most talents are relatively useless in practical terms) political power is concentrated among Magicians, who have the most powerful and effective talents [ 8 ].
On the other hand, some fictions present the possibility of a single metahuman ability, or a small range of abilities, being present in a population. Avatar: The Last Airbender and its sequel series, Legend of Korra, provide the example of bending, control over an element, which appears to be present in a large minority of the population [ 9 ].
Four cultural/ethnic groups, each corresponding to a different element, have their own social/political structure.
- The airbenders are nomadic.
- The earthbenders have a caste system overseen by monarchs.
- The waterbenders have a heavily gendered tribal system.
- The firebenders have a warlike, almost feudal, system.
Each of these societies use bending in a different way. Among the nomads, airbenders become religious monks. In the earth kingdoms, earthbenders may have any type of societal role, with bending abilities not corresponding to any particular occupation or status. In the water tribes, males become warriors and females become healers. Finally, in the fire nation, firebenders are part of the military.
The nations coexist peacefully until the fire nation launches a war with the intent of eliminating the ability to bend the other elements and subjugating the peoples that harbor those abilities. At the start of the Avatar series, genocide has been committed against the airbenders (from whose lineage the next Avatar, who can bend all the elements, will spring), and nearly all of the Southern Tribe’s waterbenders have been captured or killed [ 10 ].
In the subsequent generation, the Southern water benders have been repopulated by immigrants from the sister tribe in the North, and Aang (the titular last air bender) has fathered an airbending son who in turn has fathered four airbending children. A change in the world’s spiritual balance, however, results in the sudden expression of airbending abilities among non-benders of all the nations, and this upsets the balance that has been regained.
In both generations portrayed in these series, it is the predictability of the bending talents that lead to stability in society. Unpredictable events, like the launch of the fire nation’s war or the reunification of the physical and the spirit realms, lead to disruption and unrest [ 11 ]. This suggests that it is not the existence of metahuman traits themselves, but the inability to predict who will have an ability, and what ability they will have, that leads to destructive consequences in society.
Whether the traits are unique to individuals or widespread in society, one can see the commonality of the unknown or random occurrence of metahuman abilities as causing rifts in individual psyche as well as on a broader societal level. In the real world, even though we do not possess any of these fictional abilities, one can see from our own history that change of any kind is feared and to be different is to stand out, not always with the best results.
In fiction, however, we can see apprehension and fear turn more easily to acceptance; individuals who possess metahuman abilities will find others and form their own groups and a sense of belonging.
- “These Portuguese Murals showcase entire superhuman communities.” Elena Casagrande. Flickr.
- “Rogue’s complications with her powers often interest her in a ‘cure’ or repression of them.”https://free-images.com/display/portugues_sexo_alemao_sex_29.html
- “The social structures of supernatural societies like the ‘Bending nations creates a number of hierarchical structures.” Jose Gil. Shutterstock. LOS ANGELES – JULY 5: Anime fans portray characters from the series ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ at the Anime Expo 2008. https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/los-angeles-july-5-anime-fans-15682141
Dr. Robare has served as a panelist and sometime track head for PhilCon, the United States’ oldest continuously running science-fiction conference. She’s raising a new generation of nerds with her family outside of Philadelphia. Becky received a PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience in 2010 and now works as a research analyst and medical writer for a medical research non-profit. We’re ecstatic to unveil her series, “It’s Not Brain Surgery,” and her participation on several of our roundtables!
- Johnson, Greg. X-Men: Evolution, created by Marty Isenberg, et al., Kids’ WB, 4 Nov. 2000. Production Company Marvel Studios.
- Heroes. Created by Tim Kring, NBC , 25 Sept. 2006.
- “The Mutant Cure.” X-Men Movies Wiki, FANDOM, xmenmovies.wikia.com/wiki/Mutant_Cure. Accessed 2 Oct. 2022.
- “Beast (Hank McCoy).” Comic Vine, Whiskey Media, comicvine.gamespot.com/beast/4005-1462/. Accessed 2 Oct. 2022.
- Acuna, Kirsten. “5 Things You Should Know Before Seeing ‘X-Men: Days Of Future Past.’” Business Insider, Axel Springer SE, 23 May 2014, businessinsider.com/x-men-days-of-future-past-2014-5. Accessed 2 Oct. 2022.
- Harleyquinnhawkgirl. “Top 22 superheroes with no super powers!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” Comic Vine, Whiskey Media, comicvine.gamespot.com/profile/harleyquinnhawkgirl/lists/top-22-superheroes-with-no-super-powers/13888/. Accessed 2 Oct. 2022.
- Sanderson, Brandon. Steelheart: Reckoners Trilogy Bk. 1. Delacorte Press, 2013.
- Heller, Jason. “Revisiting the sad, misogynistic fantasy of Xanth.” The A.V. Club, Univision Communications, 18 Oct. 2013, avclub.com/revisiting-the-sad-misogynistic-fantasy-of-xanth-1798241312. Accessed 2 Oct. 2022.
- “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” Avatar Wiki, FANDOM, avatar.wikia.com/wiki/Avatar:_The_Last_Airbender. Accessed 2 Oct. 2022.
- “Southern Water Tribe.” Avatar Wiki, FANDOM, avatar.wikia.com/wiki/Southern_Water_Tribe. Accessed 2 Oct. 2022.
- “Fire Nation.” Avatar Wiki, FANDOM, comicvine.gamespot.com/fire-nation/4060-48047/. Accessed 2 Oct. 2022.