In the midst of thoroughly enjoying X-Men: Days of Future Past this last weekend I had a gleeful moment when I spotted a stunning visual: a portrait in Bolivar Trask’s (Peter Dinklage) office of him bestowing a prosthetic leg on a smiling girl in a wheelchair.
NB: I can’t find a screenshot of the picture in the movie, as it was only briefly visible in 2 shots. If you care to look for it yourself, it’s about a third to half of the way into the film in Trask’s office on the wall above his desk.
The picture (I’m guessing it’s supposed to be a painting, but am not sure) of Trask, representing cutting edge science in this movie world, holds aloft progress/”cure” in the prosthetic. My interest is in the composition and iconography used–one that draws strongly on the Poster Child imagery that proliferated after WWII. Smiling, pleasant looking children in wheelchairs, or stepping out of them, dominated much of the campaign materials for organizations like the March of Dimes, Muscular Dystrophy Association, and Easter Seals. The appeals to scientific research combined with the innocence and possibility of youth were powerful, as all of these organizations saw significant revenue increases especially in terms of public donations. Over the 25 years after WWII, these organizations and campaigns flourished, shaping in large part how the public saw and understood disability.
Back now to the Trask picture. What strikes me so strongly about this is the choice to use this imagery for this world. Set partially in a version of the early 1970s, the film’s “past” uses additions like film grain, wide leg pants, and lava lamps to evoke the period. While I was surprised, Poster Child imagery does fit this era, but in a complicated way. Poster Child imagery was increasingly and publicly challenged by the disability rights movement for its simplification of the disability experience, its infantilization of disabled persons, and exploitation of children for advertising purposes among other reasons. The placement of Trask within this iconography and context is an interesting commentary of sorts on progress narratives and representation that I read to fall in line with the movement’s commentary.
Trask is villainous, not just because he wants to eradicate a large population, but also because he sees othering the mutant population provides an opportunity for peace in the form of “normal” human solidarity. His feverish pursuit of genetic material and research mirrors the excesses and horrors of 20th century science like the Tuskegee experiments and forced sterilizations. As the film’s human villain, the portrait seems perhaps to serve as an indicator of his arrogance and hubris, but I also see it as a subversive and subtle critique that highlights the constellation of issues of identity, science, progress, and ability.
I would love to have a conversation with the set designer and artist responsible for the piece to talk more about how they saw the picture in relation to the character and the world created. But for now, I’ll have to content myself with continuing to work through all the layers and questions raised by the image, and perhaps refine this hasty hash of thoughts. If anyone has any insights, I’d be happy to hear them too!
**This review of X-2: X-Men United from Disability Studies Quarterly is a great read for an extended discussion of disability and the X-Men film world.