The Problem with Psylocke: Sparked by X-Men: Apocalypse

This past weekend, I finally got around to seeing X-Men Apocalypse.  Sadly, I walked away relatively unimpressed, to the point where I’m not sure I’ll bother seeing another X-Men film in the theatre.

Understand: I have been a fan of the X-Men since I was fifteen years old, and a friend handed me issue #213 way back in 1986.  It’s near the end of the Mutant Massacre, and is coincidentally the issue in which Psylocke officially becomes one of the team.

That means I have been a fan of the X-Men for thirty years.

Holy shit.

Given that, you’d think I’d love the movies.  And I did, at first.  The first X-Men movie from director Bryan Singer arguably is the first good superhero movie that isn’t about Superman or Batman.  X-Men 2 was… well, it wasn’t as good.  And X-Men 3 had its moments, but ultimately failed.  X-Men: First Class brought back the magic, albeit under a new director, and I loved Singer’s return in Days of Future Past, even though it had some of Singer’s hallmark unnecessary character changes.

And then there was Apocalypse.

Oh, Bryan Singer.  Why?

First, let’s get this out of the way: For a guy who loves the X-Men, Singer sure seems to want to change things for little reason.  It’s like he thinks dumping a minor character into the film, but very different from the way they existed in the comics, will make fans happy.  But all it does for me is make me wonder why he couldn’t make an original mutant to run the German mutant underground.  Why Caliban? And why is Psylocke, the daughter of a British scientist, one-time Captain Britain, former caucasian supermodel and now-Asian telepathic, telekinetic ninja (more on that later), acting as a mostly-silent, thuggish, AMERICAN bodyguard to Caliban?  It just seemed like they couldn’t figure out how to introduce her, so they did it in the laziest way.

I get films can’t include the ENTIRE backstory of the character, but seriously, they couldn’t get Olivia Munn a dialogue coach and make the character British?  That much effort would have been rewarding.  But no, they make her American, then give her very, very little to say.  She’s all glowers and pouting.  And ok, I’ll admit Olivia Munn looked great, but… that’s really all she did.  And, honestly, if we’re going to make changes for the films, did she need to be that incarnation of Psylocke?

You know what? Many people have talked about the film’s failings, so I won’t rehash that here except to say: It was pretty, but lacking in character development.  But I want to talk about Psylocke, one of my favorite characters.

For those unaware, Psylocke is Elizabeth Braddock, originally a British caucasian.  She was telepathic, and wore a suit of purple and pink armor into battle.  It was awesome.  Then, in the 90s, someone decided they needed an asian character in the X-Men again, which was a good thing, but they went about it in the wrong way.  Rather than create a new character, they sent Psylocke through a mystical device, then had her reappear in an Asian body with slightly-altered powers.

The comics have flirted with making Betsy caucasian again, and for some reason they don’t.  Some have claimed it’s because they want the X-Men to be diverse, but that’s not working in this case.  Betsy, though in an Asian body, isn’t Asian.  She’s English, and not just English–she’s aristocracy, born and bred to privilege both in England and Otherworld, the mystic dimension her father came from and which her twin brother rules as King.

She was raised on money, tea, and scones.  She doesn’t have the experience of an Asian woman raised in Japan (where the original inhabitant of her body, Kwannon, lived); she doesn’t even have the experience of an Asian woman raised in Britain.

In short: She’s a rich white woman in yellowface.

To be fair, the writers have, over the years, tried to make it work.  They’ve claimed that Betsy’s mind got “blurred” with the mind of Kwannon when the women were switched (and don’t get me started on that name).  But it never reads as anything other than cultural appropriation.  The white woman has become the ultimate psychic ninja.

This is a Bad Thing.  I mean, okay, on a purely sexual level, yes, Psylocke is HOT.  And that’s exactly the problem. She’s the familiar melded with the “exotic” to create a “perfect” sexual fantasy for men.  That she’s British adds to the weirdness of it all, setting up a metatextual issue with British colonialism and “oriental” mystique.  And this is reflected in the way the character is drawn.  Here’s her original look: Note that while still sexualized, it’s also a bit restrained–not a lot of skin showing, but still sensual; one could even say it’s metacommentary on Psylocke, who was always portrayed as outwardly demurely British, but inwardly a steel warrior.  1351506701591

But once the character becomes Asian, the sex comes to the surface:


Now she’s all skin, going into battle in a swimsuit.  And to add to the ickiness of it all, there was a thankfully soon-abandoned storyline in which, once Psylocke became Asian, she also became the sex fantasy for Cyclops, the leader of the team, who would fantasize about her in his dreams for some time.  Think about that: A comic, written by a white British man (Chris Claremont), about a white British woman who becomes Asian and then is the sexual fantasy of the white man who leads the team. Layers of Ick there, folks.  Layers.

(I gather her costume has changed, but the change isn’t much–it’s a skintight suit, so yeah, no visible skin, but you can see everything anyway.  No less “sexy” than the swimsuit.)

Now, when this first happened, I was young.  I didn’t care so much.  But as I learned more about colonialism, and how race informs art and influences parts of our culture we don’t even think about, and once I realized racism isn’t just about being a dick to people of other races, this really began to bug me.  For years I had an original art piece of the Asian Psylocke hanging in my office.  I still own it, but it’s not hanging anywhere, because now, even though it’s not overly sexual in and of itself, it bothers me.

I know there are comics fans out there moaning about how “every conversation comes down to race.”  But guess what, dudes?  That’s the world we live in.  Like it or not, race influences things, and some of the art we love is problematic.  Tolkien had race issues, Lovecraft was a racist, and guys, Psylocke is problematic.

It doesn’t matter that this happened when an Asian guy (Jim Lee) was drawing the comic; it’s still problematic.  It doesn’t matter that it’s been this way for twenty-seven years (holy shit, really?–inner editor).  It needs to change.

Marvel needs to return Psylocke to her original body (yes, I know, it’s dead and buried, but it can be done any number of ways; her brother is the king of Otherworld, fer crissakes), and then, when that’s done, they need to create a brand-new Asian character who isn’t a walking stereotype, nor a White Man’s Fantasy, nor a Sexbomb-masquerading-as-Women-Power cardboard cutout, to join the X-Men.

Probably never going to happen, but I have hope.  And hey, Marvel–give me a few years to publish my book and get a track record, and I’ll be happy to write it for you.  Or I could recommend a writer who can do it well right now–Marjorie Liu might be free!






Published by Michael R. Johnston

Father of an eighth grader, high school English teacher, writer. Fifty years old and feeling almost every bit of it on some days, and not a bit of it on others. Based in Sacramento, California, USA

4 thoughts on “The Problem with Psylocke: Sparked by X-Men: Apocalypse

  1. You got your wish. Psylocke is now Caucasian again. I wish people would stop being so sensitive and reading between lines that never existed and where never intended and finding problems and offensive material where there really was none. I found psylocke in the 90s, after the body swap, and she quickly became my favorite x man. I loved how she developed as a character becoming darker, using her psionic gifts in ways the other psionics didn’t. She used stealth and finesse when others just used force. Esp the development of her tk which she learned to create all sorts of energy weapons with. Psylocke was never a white woman to me. To me it was as if the character had been ret conned and was now Japanese and an Assassin and a Psi. And now, as we enter the digital age, an age where suddenly everyone is offended by everything, Marvel tried to rectify their little yellow face problem and we now have another boring white affluent telepath in a comic universe overrun by white, affluent telepaths.

  2. It’s interesting that you prioritize your reading of the character as having been retconned as more important than the reality that the character’s race was swapped, but her family remained affluent, upper-class white British people. Also, your assertion that there was no problem is incorrect; many Asian fans were bothered by the change.

    I’m further troubled by your implication that “white” equals “boring.” This is a common assertion that I hear from both sides of the political divide, and it bothers me. Just as there is no unified Asian or African culture, there is no unified “white” culture. There are important cultural divides among white people just as there are between Chinese and Japanese, or Vietnamese and Ugandan, people. If Marvel writes Psylocke as boring, then that’s on the writer getting lazy, not on white people in general.

    For myself, I’m six months behind on the comics, as I read them through Marvel Unlimited these days. I’ll judge the story when I get to it. While I’m sorry it isn’t to your taste, I’m pleased Marvel has rectified something I saw as an error.

  3. Fast forward to 2022, and Betsy Braddock cannot be Psylocke anymore and she cannot use martial arts anymore, because she’s not a lady in an Asian body anymore! Totally not a racist solution, that treats the work that writers have done with the character over the past 35 years or so with respect!

  4. Well, if you want to indulge in nonsense, go right ahead. But that’s all you’re doing here.

    Betsy would probably have continued to use the name Psylocke, except that she was going to become Captain Britain, so the writers had her hand over the name to Kwannon–which could also be seen as acknowledging that the name “Psylocke” was now more associated with the martial-arts-using Asian character who now uses the name. Let’s not pretend that Marvel doesn’t have a long history of characters changing their codenames, and then those names being used by multiple, often barely-related, characters. In fact it’s been done so often that there are naming conventions for these cases among fans and comics writers.

    Betsy losing the martial arts skills makes in-universe sense to me; those were always Kwannon’s skills, and Betsy lost them with the body they came with. It may not make a lot of sense in real-world terms, but then the whole thing makes no sense, anyway. I’m not going to argue that the Psylocke/Kwannon story ever made a lot of sense; it got changed multiple times over the years and was never very sensible to start with. Though I would also point out that according to the official Marvel Handbook online, Betsy still has those Martial Arts abilities.

    As to respecting “the work that writers have done,” are you really here to complain to the professional writer about that? Comic book work is work-for-hire, and every writer for Marvel knows their work may get retconned, added to, or jettisoned at any time. That’s part of the deal of writing comics. I’d love to write a Nova series, but I’m under no illusion that if I was allowed to do so, the things I did would last forever. Times change, audiences change, and that’s how life is.

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