Where the Wonder Women Are: #17 Emma Frost

I still don’t feel like I entirely have a handle on Emma Frost. She’s certainly a fascinating, complex individual, and I like a great deal of how she has been written over the years – why is it that all the ‘started out as a villain’ heroes are so interesting? Maybe I just answered my own quesion. I think part of the reason that I still feel like she’s a ‘new’ character (to me) is that like Kitty Pryde (another one I’ve really only come to read about and understand in the last year), she didn’t feature in the 90’s animated series of the X-Men which was for a long time my only introduction to Marvel’s comic characters.

She wasn’t in X-Men Evolution, either, though I think the Mystique portrayal in that cartoon (as the headmistress of a rival school) owed a lot to Emma. She wasn’t in the original three X-Men movies which again served as a re-introduction to the characters for me. More recently, she did appear in the cartoon Wolverine and the X-Men in a splendid version where she gets to be aloof, bitchy, posh and mysteriously helpful to a bunch of untrusting X-Men, which sums her character arc up beautifully. Meanwhile in the movie X-Men First Class, she appears played by January Jones in a quite dreadfully written part that goes through the motions of Emma Frost, but never gives her a chance to do much more than model the outfit.

Oh, the outfit. I have a problem with the outfit. There’s a danger in criticising the dress sense of super heroines that you end up blasting or dismissing the characters – and that’s completely out of order because while we as fans have to wrap our heads around why that character would choose that outfit, the fact is that they didn’t.

Even the artists didn’t choose the outfit for the most part, though they have a lot to do with how that outfit is presented and whether they are going to be part of the problem or part of the solution.

No, the costumes are chosen/approved by those in power – the executives at the company. And just like that, the fact that so many women are running around fighting crime in their underwear IN OUTFITS CHOSEN FOR THEM BY THEIR MALE BOSSES (and to appease the male fans who cry murder if a new costume is mooted) becomes distinctly creepy. Context is everything, though, and as a long term comics reader I have (mostly) come to terms with the sexytimes spandex/fishnets/knickers outfits as part of the tradition of the series.

Where I object to it most is where the costume – or the artist’s presentation of the costume – breaks the character. Huntress baring her midriff breaks her character. Black Canary wearing her fishnets and no skirt to answer the door ESPECIALLY breaks her character. Bruce Wayne doesn’t wear the Batsuit to the gym. Clark Kent doesn’t wear his tights when lounging around the house. Captain America does not wear the mask when eating his breakfast cereal. And yet the women of superhero comics so often continue to wear the most sexualised elements of their crime-fighting outfits in casual or even work situations where they are deeply inappropriate.

I can buy Emma’s all white lingerie dominatrix outfit in her role as 1980 villainess, the White Queen of the Hellfire Club. It was actually quite appropriate for both the era and the role she played. But it’s thirty years later, and she’s not an exotic dancing crime lord anymore. I can MAYBE buy her wearing that same outfit as a superhero, to fight crime in (and/or the slightly altered version in which she gets skintight, lowcut white leggings and a bra instead of an actual knickers-stockings-cami set). After all, her open sensuality unsettles people, she is (mostly) invulnerable and as a telepath there is a high chance that she’s always looking at people in their underwear anyway (oh wait, that’s x-ray vision). But when she is also wearing it in business meetings, at the SCHOOL SHE RUNS, and in tactical war rooms, I call foul.

Also it’s a little confusing that Emma Frost continues to wear the same white lingerie uniform in bed, specifically while seducing her boyfriend. Seriously. Isn’t he a little immune to it by now? If she’s going to put the sexy moves on him deliberately, surely a little variety wouldn’t hurt.

Personally I think it would be hilarious if she wore that sexy outfit all day while fighting the mutant war and saving the world, and went to bed in daggy flannel PJs during her ‘time off.’ Doubly awesome if Scott found it hot. Let’s see that, people!

Amanda Conner and John Byrne can’t be the only artists capable of putting a jumper/business suit on their superheroine when appropriate, can they?

But I digress. Clothes are important, but let’s look at the woman behind the white lingerie.

I recently read the Uncanny X-Men story in which she first appeared, back in 1980, already rocking a double life. When we first see Ms Frost, she is a brusque and professional headmistress (IN A BUSINESS SUIT, thank you John Byrne) playing Professor X’s game: locating young mutants and tricking their parents into sending the kids to her school so as to train them to use their abilities (and of course to be loyal minions). This is in no way morally different to what Professor X! Except for the part where she got the information by bugging Cerebro, which I can’t help finding deeply enjoyable.

Ms Frost makes a play for young teen-with-new-powers Kitty Pryde (also appearing for the first time) but Kitty takes an instant dislike to her, obviously sensing that Professor X and his hip friends Storm and Cyclops will be less of a drag about homework and exams.

By night, Emma Frost is the White Queen of the Hellfire Club, partner to evil lord of evilness Sebastian Shaw, and likes to strut around in the aforementioned white dominatrix gear. It’s a nice touch that when she captures a bunch of X-Men, she strips them to their daks before putting them in cages. Why on earth should she be the only semi-naked person in the room?

I was intrigued to discover that yes, the Hellfire Club plot and Emma herself were deeply inspired by an episode of The Avengers (the OTHER Avengers, the Steed and Peel TV show from the 1960’s) called “The Hellfire Club” and that her costume was based on the iconic outfit Mrs Emma Peel wears in that episode. Given the Jason Wyndgarde business this shouldn’t have surprised me in the least, and I feel the need to mention that Emma Peel only dressed like this ONCE, whereas Emma Frost has been kept in the same damned outfit for more than thirty years. But knowing she was based on Emma Peel actually makes her even more awesome, and she certainly manages to pull off the classic Diana Rigg move of looking completely untouched and aloof no matter what indignities the plot is perpetuating upon her.

(Fan artists, I would like to see Frost in some other Emma Peel outfits please, along with Cyclops in a bowler hat. MAKE THIS HAPPEN.)

After her first appearance, Emma Frost apparently dies in a suicide run when she realises all is lost, and her place as top lady at the Hellfire Club is quickly taken by a hypnotised Jean Grey (the Black Queen). But Emma’s adventures did not stop there, and she was obviously too cool a character to ditch. Yep, she has officially joined the secret society of death-fakers, population: Everyone.

Emma Frost was a recurring villain for many years, both as the headmistress of rival school the Massachusetts Academy, and as the leader of her graduate student minion super team, the Hellions, who were regular antagonists for the New Mutants, a younger and trendier version of the X-Men.

See? A business suit!

Emma’s role as a teacher and school administrator is vital to her character, and part of what makes her feel so three dimensional, even before she stopped being a villain. Her loyalties were always to herself and her students first, whomever she was allied with next, and everything after that was negotiable. She came regularly into conflict with Professor X and his various teams, of course, but also occasionally allied with them when it was useful. She also found common ground with Magneto, funnily enough.

After most of her students were wiped out by Sentinels, Emma was devastated. She later teamed up with Banshee and Jubilee among others in the Generation X series, to reopen the Massachusetts Academy and “protect the next generation of mutants”. Things ended up going horribly wrong for Emma and the team when she was driven to kill her crazy plotting murderous sister (as you do) and hide the crime.

A recentish Origins story started out as a fascinating look at Emma’s childhood as a clumsy, geeky child in a rich, privileged household, and built on how her burgeoning telepathy sabotaged her school life… then skipped ahead to her life as a stripper in the Hellfire Club, apparently about to sleep her way to the top. I thought that was disappointing, and surely didn’t get to the heart of whom Emma Frost is (frankly “I used to be a stripper” isn’t a valid explanation for why she walks around in white underwear all the time if that was the plot, I’m pretty sure most strippers and especially ex-strippers spend quite a lot of time wearing actual clothes).

Apparently I was reading the wrong book! If I had followed the early 2000’s Grant Morrison run on X-Men, especially the “Murder in the Mansion” storyline, I would have got far more details about the history of Emma Frost.

In 2001, the X-Men titles were all revamped. Emma was teaching again, this time on Genosha, the magical pixie mutant country founded by Magneto. When this sanctuary was destroyed by Sentinels, Emma was found in the rubble, saved by a new secondary mutation, the ability to harden her skin into diamond. Once again, she had lost a school of students and a home. On the bright side, her new power made her a handy substitute for recently-deceased strongman character Colossus, and she was included in the New X-Men team by writer Grant Morrison.

From her new teaching position at the Xavier Institute, Emma attempted to help Scott “Cyclops” Summers with a spot of telepathic therapy which quickly turned into telepathic saucy times. He was still married to Jean at the time so, oops.

Emma also bonded closely with a group of telepathic quintuplets, the Cuckoos, who became her prize pupils. But when one of them died, the others blamed Emma and took revenge by letting Jean know about Emma and Scott’s affair. It’s all sounding very Days of Our Lives except that Marlena never had the ability to go all PHOENIX on the ass of her latest hubby’s latest lover.
Double oops.

In her fury, Jean mentally assaulted Emma, exposing the humiliations and embarrassments of her past, her relationship with her father, her plainness at school and her stripper years (baaaackstory ahoy!). Later, Emma was found in broken diamond pieces, and Jean was suspected of the murder. The mastermind was later revealed to be Esme Cuckoo. Yes, one of the Cuckoos was evil! But Emma wasn’t dead after all, and the Phoenix restored her.

The best thing I take from this storyline is that in her diamond form, Emma’s weak spot is her nose. Yes, really. Given that the story also reveals she had a nose job in her teens… are these two facts aligned?

Another look at Emma’s background, her wealthy-screwed-up-family and her high school/college years, was told in an ongoing Emma Frost series which ran for 18 issues from 2003. Among other things, it explored the troubled jealousy-blackmail-revenge relationship she had with her sister Adrienne, which later escalated so badly that Emma ended up killing her.

But do you want to hear the really screwed up part? After Jean dies, Scott’s inability to get over his guilt and move on romantically with Emma is shown to be responsible for the creation of a dystopian alternate future. Yep, no more grieving in your own time for YOU, Scotty boy, or the Hunger Games will descend. Most of the X-Men think this is a load of old cobblers and are very judgemental when Scott and Emma start shagging in a real bed, instead of inside each other’s heads.

We’re up to the Joss Whedon bits now, hooray! At the time that Whedon took on the Astonishing X-Men with artist John Cassaday, Professor X had buggered off somewhere and Emma Frost was running the Xavier Institute as headmistress, sharing the duties with Scott. Well, we say sharing, but I bet we all know which of them is actually qualified for the administrative job and which one spends a lot of time teaching ‘danger’ class and fighting with Wolverine, don’t we?

The Whedon/Cassaday run was my actual first introduction to Emma’s character – I don’t count the X-Men First Class movie in which she is insufferably wet – and I fell in love with her. She’s sharp, snarky, bitchy and competent, and yes her outfit is SO stupidly inappropriate, but she always looks so aloof and self-confident that she might as well be wearing a business suit.

You know what? She would rock the business suit. She’ll still be sexy if you let her wear some CLOTHES, Marvel!

I particularly enjoyed Emma’s tense relationship with a resentful Kitty Pryde, and the levels of trust/distrust various characters feel for her, and she feels for them. There is no ignoring of emotional baggage here – Emma is a telepath, and emotional baggage is her comfort zone.

I’m not going to untangle the Whedon plot run because if you haven’t read it, I don’t plan to spoil the twists and turns like I do for everything else. Go read it! Emma’s arc is one involving betrayal, true love, redemption, bitchiness, and a whole bunch of teaching moments. Because she is first and foremost a teacher.

She’s also a mother, thanks to the revelation in the Phoenix-Warsong mini-series (2006) that her ova were used to create all manner of telepathic clones, including the cuckoos. Thousands more of her clone children are killed by the Phoenix entity (not Jean Grey) in this story, leaving Emma angry and swearing revenge.

Trust issues are a continuing theme of Emma Frost’s life with the X-Men, her relationship with Scott, and pretty much every story she appears in. I have missed a whole bunch of storylines, including the destruction of the Xavier Institute and a whole new war on mutants (or three), but only this week read the X-Men Schism mini-series which addresses, basically, the breakup of Cyclops and Wolverine – the point at which their philosophies reach breaking point.

The story forces a separation between those X-Men willing to stay under Cyclops’ leadership in the newly formed country Utopia, and those leaving with Wolverine to restart the Xavier Institute and protect the new generation of mutants instead of encouraging them to become soldiers right this second. Once the story itself is done, there is a final issue, Regenesis, which looks at many of the intimate conversations that occurred while those choices were made.

Emma’s is particularly interesting to me. She calls Scott on his assumption that she was going to choose him, and reminds him that Wolverine’s new brief – to teach and protect the kids – is her own vocation and priority. She also points out that while they will still have young people on Utopia for her to take care of, there is a massive difference between teaching and training, and she knows which she’ll end up doing.

I really like the fact that this aspect of Emma – her career and her loyalty to the education and protection of children – has been preserved for so long. No matter what else goes on, how many love dramas she survives or bitchy comments she makes, how many times she accidentally betrays the team, or wears white underwear in a war zone, Emma Frost is a teacher and a headmistress, and she’s damned good at that job. She hasn’t given up on her commitment to education, even though her students keep getting killed and breaking that diamond heart of hers.

She’s so much more than the blonde who stole Jean Grey’s husband. Though she totally did that. But it should be put on record that a) he wanted to be stolen and b) she is AWESOME at stealing husbands, just as she is awesome at almost everything she turns her hand to.

Emma stayed with Scott after the Schism and Regenesis. She was always going to stay with Scott, and bankroll his stupid mission, and put up with him naming someone else as his second in command. But she really, really didn’t want her dumbass boyfriend to take her for granted.

He needs to understand that she’d rather be somewhere else, teaching school.

In her underwear, apparently.

Where the Wonder Women Are:
0: Introduction
1: Black Canary
2: Rogue
3: Hawkgirl/Hawkwoman
4: Black Widow
5: Wonder Girl
6: Captain Marvel
7: Vixen
8: Abigail Brand.
9. Jubilee
10. Batwoman
11. Catwoman
12. Huntress
13. Robin
14. Batgirl
15. Jean Grey
16. Ice

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5 replies on “Where the Wonder Women Are: #17 Emma Frost”

  1. Grant says:

    To be honest they could immediately fix Emma’s wardrobe by cycling through all of Diana Rigg’s other costumes in the Avengers and just make them white. Solved!

  2. tansyrr says:

    Absolutely – it drives me batty when people rave about The Avengers and Emma Peel and go for that picture first, because it was such an outlier as far as how her character and costume was presented. She is so dignified and fully-dressed the entire rest of the series!

    The fact that the whole X-Men Hellfire Club was based on it though, makes so much sense now. Even the part with Jean Grey being hypnotised – all very Avengers! I’m sure there’s a thesis in this, the influence of The Avengers on 1970’s-80’s superhero comics! (Diana Prince, please step up).

  3. I like Emma Frost as a character, and if she had some better clothes, more readers might take her more seriously *as* a character rather than a object d’lust.

  4. […] Tansy Rayner Roberts added a seventeenth entry to her series Where the Wonder Women Are: Emma Frost. I’m glad Roberts addressed Emma Frost, whom I’ve always liked as a character (largely […]

  5. Kevin says:

    Ah Emma Frost, one of my favourite X-Men, mostly because she’s snarky and complicated. It was really in the Morrison New X-Men run where the modern Emma Frost was born, she gets all the best lines and gets to be the most vulnerable of the X-Men. And I just found out that it was actually a fan’s suggestion which led to Emma being in the book. http://goodcomics.comicbookresources.com/2008/01/31/comic-book-urban-legends-revealed-140/

    Kieron Gillen’s comments on writing Emma Frost makes some good points http://goo.gl/GZJvz The retro sex-party costume works for Emma Frost’s character, but it only works when she’s the exception not the rule.

    You didn’t get to the part where she flirts like mad with Namor, the only Marvel character who generally wears less than her.

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