Nudism in Comics 3: Mystique (X-men)

Part 1: Poison Ivy (DC/Batman)

Part 2: Doctor Manhattan (Watchmen)

The character of Mystique from the X-men comics was a popular one even before the X-men films went into production.  In the Marvel X-men universe, mutants are people born with the ability to develop special powers.  Some of these fight to save the world as superheroes, others fight on the side of evil (or at least, to dominate the world or wipe out humans).  Many of these mutants have a physical appearance which marks them out as different in some way – coloured skin or eyes or hair, or other physical features not usual for humans.

Mystique is a female mutant who was born with blue skin, red hair and golden-yellow eyes.  She’s usually a villain, although like a lot of X-men characters, she has changed her allegiances many times and worked on many teams for many causes.  Mystique’s mutant power is the ability to change her shape, so that her physical appearance can shift to that of any other human.  She can change her skin and hair colour, her body shape and physical characteristics, and her gender.  She can also morph her body to display any clothing and accessories she wishes.

In the comics, Mystique is usually dressed in a white dress and gloves, with a belt made of metal skulls.  Her clothes change when she shapeshifts, along with the rest of her.  From the comics I have read, it’s never really clear if this neutral outfit is an extension of her body or if it is actual clothing which she is somehow able to manipulate along with her powers (like Sue Storm’s suit in the Fantastic Four, which turns invisible when she does).  She doesn’t always wear the same outfit, and is sometimes provided with a uniform, suggesting she does wear clothing.  But it is on record that her power includes being able to shape her body into clothing, suggesting that she is in some very loosely-defined sense actually naked a lot of the time, albeit in a way that enables her to be drawn in regular appearances in a comic book without running into censorship problems.

Whatever the correct explanation, the idea of Mystique having or producing shape-shifting clothes is probably one of those things made up by writers who wanted to use a shape-shifter character but didn’t want her lugging around a rucksack full of disguises everywhere she went.  The in-comic explanation is a little silly, but the realistic alternative would put a barrier in the way of the character getting involved in the action of a story quite so easily, so it’s a necessary suspension of disbelief.

In some comics, especially those after the films, Mystique was fully naked, but I haven’t read any of them.

When the X-men comics were adapted into the film X-men, directed by Brian Singer, Mystique was one of the primary antagonists; the trusted right hand of villain Magneto, she was played by model/actress Rebecca Romjin, and appeared in sequels X-2: X-men United and X-III: The Last Stand.  Just like in the comics, she was a blue-skinned, red-haired shapeshifter, who could change herself to mimic the appearance of any other person (including changing her size to mimic a child).  However, unlike in the majority of comics, movie Mystique’s neutral (‘at-rest’) form didn’t sport any white dress or belt of skulls.  Instead she went about completely nude.

Romjin’s Mystique make-up included reptilian skin details as well as blue paint on her skin; patches of this skin on her breasts and crotch hid any detail of nipples or genitals, and careful lighting and photography did the rest.  While Romjin, as an experienced model, apparently had no qualms about playing a nude character, her modesty is actually better-protected in the film than it ever was in any of the Pirelli calendars she posed for.

There are, for the character, practical advantages to remaining without clothing.  It enables her to maximise her ability to use her powers if she doesn’t have to repeatedly dress/undress.  Also, the prequel film X-men: First Class suggests that she needs to concentrate to stay in another person’s shape (she is warned against drinking alcohol as it may affect her ability to stay in one form), so it may be that she is nude when not shifting because it requires effort to appear clothed.

However, Mystique’s decision to go about entirely nude when not in the form of another person has led some (for example, on Wikipedia) to suggest that, in the X-men movie universe, she is an enthusiastic nudist.  After all, her powers clearly allow her to shape any clothing she needs out of her body almost instantaneously.  Yet she only utilises this power when turning into someone else, suggesting her nudity the rest of the time is a lifestyle or comfort choice rather than a necessity she is forced to endure.  This would certainly give her the same habits as many nudists, who may actively dislike clothing and find it far more preferable and comfortable not to wear it, so take every opportunity they can to be nude. 

Mystique’s nudity can also be seen as a statement of her character: like Poison Ivy and Dr Manhattan before her, she is aware she is physically different from ‘normal’ humans and so sees no reason to abide by the same standards of modesty about her body as everyone else.  In Mystique’s case it can be taken further, to be a statement of pride.  At one point the character Nightcrawler (another blue-skinned mutant) asks her why, if she can look like anyone she wants, why she doesn’t hide her true form and “look like everyone else”.  Mystique replies curtly “because we shouldn’t have to.”  Many of the issues the film and comics series explore centre round human prejudice against mutants and the hostility ‘normal people’ display towards anyone different.  Mystique, who aligns herself with Magneto’s crusade to achieve the superiority of mutants over their human oppressors, walks around naked because she is proud to show the world that every inch of her skin is blue and reptilian and not like the skin of a normal human.  She is reacting to the idea that she should be ashamed of her body with defiance, revealing it to all without fear.  That, too, can be seen to ally her with some of the ideas of body-positive thinking which many nudists embrace: disregarding the idea that if you don’t have a body that meets the perfect standard of society, you should keep it hidden and be ashamed of it.

There is another possible explanation for Mystique’s nudity in the X-men films and it arises when Mystique appears in the X-men spin-off film, X-men: First Class.

In this film, which tells the story of the young Professor Xavier and Magneto as they first encounter other mutants and put together a team to save the world, a teenage/20-something Mystique is one of the main characters and is played by Hunger Games star Jennifer Lawrence.

We first encounter Mystique as a little girl when she breaks into the young Charles Xavier’s home to try and steal food.  Although we don’t know much about Mystique at this point, we can assume she is homeless and without family or friends, and has presumably learned to try to keep herself hidden using her powers because her true appearance has made her feel like an outcast.  In these scenes Mystique is naked, just as she was in the previous films – she clearly has no possessions, including clothing, and is only concerned with survival.  Clothes would impede her ability to shift instantaneously, so she has discarded them.  Although, again, when reverting to her mutant form, she doesn’t shape herself a dress but just stands naked and unashamed.

Mystique, then still called Raven, is taken in by Charles Xavier, who recognises her as a mutant like him, and becomes his adopted sister.  When we next encounter Mystique, she has begun using her powers to appear as a ‘normal’ girl – Lawrence without the blue paint.  She is, as Nightcrawler suggested, making herself look like everyone else.  That is necessary in the 1960s (when the film is set) as mutants are still unknown and hide to escape detection.  Mystique simply couldn’t look like her true self.  But as well as making herself look like a young, blonde white woman, Mystique completely adheres to social convention and appears to be wearing real clothing (not just clothing which has been manifested by her body).

In this film, Mystique in behaves in private exactly the same as she does in public.  There is a scene where she and Xavier are alone in the digs they share, and she is dressed in a bathrobe.  She is in blue scaly mutant form, and challenges Xavier to say if he finds her physically attractive.  Without looking, Xavier replies that he does, only to be momentarily shocked when he realises she is in her blue neutral form – clearly he is surprised to see her displaying this, which suggests she chooses to look ‘normal’ even around people who know what she really looks like.  She is conditioned by the society she lives in to believe there is something wrong with the way she looks and Xavier does nothing really to alter that perception (although he tries to let her down as nicely as possible, it is clear he doesn’t think her mutant form is as beautiful as the one she shapes herself into); she hasn’t yet found the confidence to look like herself even with her closest friend.

Later, encouraged by Magneto, Mystique tries to look more like herself around Charles.  There is a scene where she appears in front of him; blue, scaly and fully nude – he is embarrassed by her nakedness and tells her to put some clothes on.  She then tries, clumsily, to seduce Magneto, who has complimented her on her natural mutant appearance.  He rebuffs her because of her young age (later X-men movies hint that the pair do become lovers at some point in the future), but suggests to her that she shouldn’t hide her unique body beneath clothes.  That appears to be the germ of the idea, to Mystique, that she is better off nude; she is no longer going to compromise herself to please the normal world; Mystique’s nakedness in the other, later-set X-men films is then a statement of her strength and individuality.

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