JEAN VALJEAN, WOLVERINE, & WHAT BOYS (ARE) LIKE

Les Miserables Classics Illustrated

Guest Blogger, Christopher Todd Matthews

Just days after the mega-musical’s release, Slate’s David Haglund asked readers to ponder this mystery:  “Why [do] Tween Boys Love Les Miz.”  Haglund then tried to blow our minds with his answer:  Jean Valjean is a superhero.

One can indeed read Valjean as a superhero, and it’s fun to find the pattern:  as Haglund and others note, Valjean saves lives, he has a secret identity and a nemesis who wants to uncover it, and the novel describes him as having the strength of “four men.”  Chris Gavaler tells me Valjean fits the model of other early superhero prototypes, such as the Count of Monte Cristo and the Scarlet Pimpernel (each of whom shares key elements with Valjean, such as an experience with unjust imprisonment and a backdrop of Gallic revolution).  And many critics have noted both the musical’s and the original novel’s sometimes overbearing Christian imagery, so perhaps Valjean is simply Victor Hugo’s echo of what one might call the original superhero, righteous amid injustice:  Jesus.

What fun.  And I mean it.  But there’s a silent premise to all this that, to my mind, tells us something rather more complicated and troubling, about sexual identity and gender expression and their relation to superhero motifs.  And that’s because Haglund’s headline comes with an implied tone of mystification—Why in the world would boys like Les Miz?—which deploys a whole series of old-fashioned assumptions about what boys are and what boys like.  My god, boys like musicals?!

The implication, of course, is that there’s something weird about boys liking musicals.  My guess is I don’t need to pause here to give you a chance to figure out what that “weirdness” is:  a boy liking musicals has meant something rather specific in our cultural consciousness for the last several decades.  From one point of view it has, as a kind of cruel shorthand, signaled deviance and perversion, but from another it has more positively meant that a boy is embracing alternative forms of boyness.  The figure of the musical-loving boy or man, in other words, has long functioned as both an element of gay male identity and as a handy stereotype for mocking “effeminate” men, gay or not.

At the very least, such loving has indicated the willingness of the occasional boy to play along the margins of conventional gendering.  I was such a boy, not necessarily gay, though for a while my parents certainly wondered, and I adored Les Mis when I saw it on stage at the tender age of fourteen.  To this day I’m terribly low on football-related and power-tool-based conversation topics, much preferring to discuss my favorite Gene Kelley films.

So in part Haglund’s article reminds me how the narratives and iconography of superheroes can be used to normalize boys and gender identity.  Horrified that your son likes a musical?  It’s OK:  it’s probably just a superhero story with songs—and liking superheroes is so natural and normal for a boy.  (Go into any store that sells children’s anything and you’ll see the artifacts of such musty old gender dichotomies:  Hulk lunchboxes over here, Barbie lunchboxes over there; Spiderman underwear to the left, pretty-princess underwear to the right.)  These days superheroes stand for boyness—and boyness means the opposite of girlness, means physical vitality and heroism and violence, means a tidy trajectory toward an uncomplicatedly masculine and heterosexual adult identity.

So liking a musical’s a problem, what with all that prancing and hand-holding, but some good old heroic violence, a few damsels in distress, a dash of vaguely fascistic adoration of musculature and extra-judicial power, and voila, problem solved!  It’s really just a superhero movie, about strong boys saving weak girls in a landscape of deep and abiding violence!  Phew!

Now, if only there were some sort of dashing, lithe song-and-dance man who could wrap this whole thing up, bringing Gene Kelley and superheroes and Jean Valjean all together in a neat package.  Oh wait, there is:  Hugh Jackman.  Those are two words that could also be used to answer the question “Why do tween boys like this musical?”  He’s hot.  And sure he was also Wolverine—violence and superheroes and heterosexuality and all that—but, you know, Wolverine was hot too.

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Which brings me to my final point:  despite our culture’s easy equation of superheroes with conventional boyness, and despite my own earlier dismissal of the normalizing strategies of superhero narratives and merchandise, superhero stories have historically included plenty of room for gay themes and queer readings.  There are the secret identities, the split between the generic upstanding public man and the secret, daring hyper-flâneur he becomes at night.  There are the homosocial intimacies, most famously in Batman and Robin’s domestic partnership.  There is The X-Men’s theme of countercultural struggle.  Chris Gavaler points out that the prototypical and maybe semi-Valjeanean Scarlet Pimpernel himself has effete characteristics—dressing like a Dandy and being named after a flower, for instance—that might put him in a lineage of modern gayness.  And of course there are all those beefy men in tights, so closely matching certain genres of gay male erotica.

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So the fact that Wolverine now sings in a grand costume drama only puts a slightly more legibly queer spin on a set of implications already there, even if invisible to your average mainstream audience.

Perhaps what I most want here is not only to free kids of such assumptions about the nature of gender but also to restore these trickier meanings to superhero stories.  There’s something about the superhero template that gives kids on the margins of normal (perhaps especially boys) a place to go, a way of thinking about who they are, of engaging with emotional intensity, of imagining a dramatic and legitimate role for themselves in a world that sees them as hopelessly weird or nerdy or awkward or effeminate.  I want the mainstream to give superheroes back—to stop using them to patrol and correct the boundaries of boyhood (and girlhood, for that matter).

After all, when I adored Les Mis, I adored Moon Knight and Spider-Man and a bunch of other comics just as much, and there seemed no contradiction in that.  Superheroes were not the guise of normalcy I wore over the shameful secret of loving a musical:  they were yet another way of getting around the pressures to be normal.

[Christopher Todd Matthews is a writer who lives in Ann Arbor.]