Facing the Shadow: Joss Whedon’s Kitty Pryde versus Emma Frost
Character Arcs of the Comics
From 2004-2008 Joss Whedon wrote for Astonishing X-Men, changing from a world of Buffy, the girl-power superhero modeled on Kitty Pryde, to exploring Kitty Pryde herself. Illustrated by John Cassaday, the comics are collected in four volumes: X-Men: Gifted, Dangerous, Torn, and Unstoppable. It has many Whedon touches, including Kitty’s tangling with her equal and opposite – the dark shadow figure seen so often in Buffy.
Immediately upon arrival at the school, Kitty tangles with sexy, once-evil Emma Frost, her shadow. Kitty shows up late, and Emma remarks, “This, children, is Kitty Pryde, who apparently feels the need to make a grand entrance.”
Kitty retorts, “I’m sorry. I was busy remembering to put all my clothes on” (Gifted). The two women are shown in contrast: Emma Frost, a former villain, is tall and blonde with enormous cleavage as well as, as she puts it, “Superpowers, a scintillating wit and the best body money can buy” (Gifted). With command of the podium, she’s in charge of the assembly. In his essay, “Sexuality, and Toughness: The Bad Girls of Action Film and Comic Books,” Jeffery A. Brown argues of the bad girl in film and comic books, “One the one hand, she represents a potentially transgressive figure capable of expanding the popular perception of women’s roles and abilities; on the other, she runs the risk of reinscribing strict gender binaries and of being nothing more than sexist window-dressing for the predominantly male audience” (47). In many ways Emma Frost, sleeping with the X-Men’s leader and dressed like male eye-candy, is the polarized opposite of what she wishes to be – a parody of a strong woman.
Smaller, darker, Kitty, in concealing street clothes, feels out of place, but still gets in some powerful zingers. As she warns Emma later, “Wriggle like that next time and I’ll lose my grip in the middle of a wall. You’ll fuse molecules. As deaths go, it’s not the funnest.”
In fairytales, the stepmother and wicked witch “symbolize predatory female sexuality and the adolescent’s negative feeling toward the mother.” In other words, the enemy is the part of ourselves we most dislike. We see the negative aspects of our mothers in ourselves and reject them, saying, “That’s as different from me as possible; that quality belongs to the enemy.” (Frankel, From Girl to Goddess, 131)
Emma Frost, who stresses “control” of student powers over Kitty’s empathy and stirring speeches, is the ice queen of the story. In her welcome speech, she warns that normal humans “will always hate us” and they must never be trusted. She is friendless – As she remarks later, “I am a diamond, Ms. Pryde. I am, by definition, my own best friend” (Unstoppable). Her powers are showy, as she reads minds, controls bodies, and transforms into flashy, impenetrable diamond.
Kitty’s power is literally vanishing. While seeking a more likeable spokesfigure for public relations, Scott tells her, “You’re not a fighter. Your power isn’t aggressive, it’s protective. That’s good to show. And people like you.” Though she has a quiet, defensive power, it enables her to survive terrible situations. “Pryde, in her first appearances before she even joins the team and has any formal training, ably evades capture, infiltrates enemy headquarters, and alters Nightcrawler that other X-Men have been detained” in The Uncanny X-Men 129-130 (Galvan 47). Even in Days of Future Past, she’s one of the few mutants to make it through war and genocide.
However, Emma, the figure of womanly maturity and voice of Kitty’s insecurities, condescendingly calls her “sweet” and their “own poster child.” Emma labels Kitty “the nonthreatening Shadowcat or Sprite or Ariel, or whatever incredibly unimpressive name you’re using nowadays” in contrast to the empowering comic in which Shadowcat named herself. Already the two women are at odds.
As the story progresses, Kitty fears Emma’s influence over their leader, since Emma and Scott are lovers. Emma tells her that she was the one who sent for Kitty: Kitty is meant to be her conscience. Kitty responds that to her, Emma is the face of immorality: “Whenever I think about evil, whenever I think about the concept of evil, yours is the face that I see.” As she adds, “I don’t have to ‘watch you,’ Miss Frost. I can smell you.”
The shadow archetype, described by Jung’s philosophy, is the characteristics of ourself we most detest, projected onto another person of the same gender, as “the shadow cast by the conscious mind of the individual contains the hidden, repressed, and unfavorable (or nefarious) aspects of the personality” (Henderson 118). There is in fact a great deal for Kitty to learn. “In her journey through the Astonishing X Men narrative, Emma proves that her femininity does not hinder her ability to be a hero, and it is only by being feminine that she is able to perform heroics at her best,” with powerful psychic superpowers and a mothering camaraderie (Sharp 41).
By facing this shadow, Kitty comes to understand these traits she’s never tapped: sensuality, isolation, pride and power, all of which she must harness to succeed in saving everyone in her charge. “The shadow usually contains values that are needed by consciousness, but that exist in a form that makes it difficult to integrate them into one’s life” (Von Franz, “The Process of Individuation” 170-171). While repelled by Emma Frost, Kitty finds herself seeking the other woman’s strength.
In the third volume, Peter Rasputin (Colossus) and Kitty consummate their relationship. Just after, Kitty lives a three-year delusion in which she and Peter have a child, and he betrays her. After, she can’t bear to be close to him, though she knows it was all in her mind. She points out to Peter that it was her fantasy – her mind trying to defend her. She adds, “First time we were close, you met someone else, better. And you killed yourself one time!...How do I know you’re not gonna…I’m just gonna need some time” (Unstoppable). In fact, her mind was warning her of the dangers of letting herself fall in love completely and giving all her will over to a predator. Only in the final book does she commit to him completely, weighing the dangers but choosing love over fear.
After Kitty falls for Peter, her worst fear comes true and the Hellfire Club attacks telepathically. They make her believe she has no control and will drift away into the center of the earth, literally disappearing. This can be seen as a relationship metaphor, as she may become invisible beside the stronger Colossus. In the darkest place of all, Kitty faces her deep fear – never mattering, vanishing completely. Below the earth, Kitty forces herself to beat the delusion through sheer willpower and go after the villainess behind it – Emma.
This underworld quest seasons Kitty, toughening her for the tasks ahead. Many modern therapists respond with a “controlled regression.” This takes the conscious self “into the borderland-underworld levels of the dark goddess—back to ourselves before we had the form we know, back to the magic and archaic levels of consciousness and to the transpersonal passions and rages which both blast and nurture us there” (Perera 56-57). In the daylight world, our conscious self is trapped in old routines—the more mature consciousness needs deeper wisdom, better relationships, more vital tasks. Thus an underworld descent and return is a small heroine’s journey in itself, a quest for unconscious understanding.
Working for the Hellfire Club, Emma infiltrates and betrays the X-Men. She messes with Scott Summers, putting on an illusion of his dead love, Jean Grey, and takes him into his “own private hell,” forcing him to face the frightened child inside himself. Doing so steals his powers and traps him in a coma. The Hellfire Club invades the school and brainwashes everyone into releasing their suppressed shadow sides – Wolverine becomes a fop, Beast becomes a monster, and so on. Everyone is transformed into their most feared selves as in the Buffy episode “Nightmares” (1.10). “[Scott] Summers is a zombie, Pryde is a ghost, Rasputin, a victim of his own rage,” the club’s leader Sebastian Shaw says.
Up above, Emma gazes at herself in the mirror. “You. Did you really think you could hide in there?” she asks. Kitty yanks her through and pummels her. Having Kitty take Emma’s place as her mirror image emphasizes their link as good girl/bad girl – shadows of each other. Though Kitty crouches in the darkness and a white-dressed Emma parades in the light, Emma is the enemy of all X-Men, the traitor and tyrant in one. Kitty has been brought to the school to be her conscience. While Kitty wins the fight and phases Emma into a rock, telling her “You are pathetic.” Emma represents the dark side inside her that longs to dominate and control, and Kitty thus slaps down the power-seeking side within herself.
When someone is hurt or damaged, “such people usually have a very vulgar hidden power complex which comes out in the shadow—an infantile attitude toward life through which those around are tyrannized” (Von Franz, The Feminine in Fairy Tales 54). Kitty is struggling with Peter’s resurrection, so her shadow self as Emma strikes out, eager to control the men before Kitty can be hurt again: In the same collection in which Kitty has begun a mutual, adoring relationship, Emma has seduced, betrayed, and incapacitated her own lover, Scott, deprived Wolverine of his masculinity, and Beast of his rationality. On some level, Kitty fears committing to such a strong, physical lover as Peter, and Emma acts on that fear by emasculating and conquering the X-Men one by one. She celebrates the dark power that comes with tyrannizing others.
“It’s fun having the upper hand, isn’t it,” Emma taunts Kitty. The Shadow “shears us of our defenses and entails a sacrifice of easy collective understandings and of the hopes and expectations of looking good and safely belonging. It is crude, chaotic, surprising” (Perera 33). It’s the power of shaking off politeness and becoming a force of unapologetic strength and rage.
Kitty responds by telling her, “I’m gonna let you stay down here and think about what you’ve done.” Like Faith in “Graduation Day” (B3.22), the villainess is “nailed down,” unable to run. This withdrawal in order to reintegrate “looks like complete stagnation, but in reality it is a time of initiation and incubation when a deep inner split is cured and inner problems solved,” Von Franz explains (The Feminine in Fairy Tales 106). “Her endless struggles and rages as she searches for an outlet are now focused inward, offering her the chance to reassess, find her grounding” (Frankel, Buffy 87).
While Kitty’s locked her enemy away, a new one emerges: Looking just like Emma, a delusion taken form appears in the hall, saying, “You may have dealt with Emma Frost, but she is no match for... the White Queen.”
Kitty can only mumble “Yeahbuhwhat?” In fact, in an attempt to free herself from imprisonment, Xavier’s evil twin Cassandra Nova has placed a portion of her mind in Emma Frost’s. “Cassandra Nova has a reputation as one of the most treacherous villains the X-Men have ever faced” (Sharp 65). As a disembodied parasitic lifeform and causer of genocide in Genosha, the mutant homeland, she is another slayer of the innocent.
As it is suddenly revealed, the Hellfire Club are only Emma Frost’s psionic projections ... now joined by Perfection, a manifestation of Emma’s younger, evil self. While Emma is forcing everyone to face their shadows, the Hellfire Club is hers – her repressed survivor guilt after her allies and students have perished. Cassandra Nova is her nemesis, as she’s also Kitty’s.
Under attack a second time, Kitty has a delusion that she and Peter have a baby together, and then the X-Men joined by Peter take her child and lock him away. Kitty breaks into a hyperdense container, using all her powers to, as she thinks, rescue her son in a moment of triumphant motherhood. In fact it’s the slug holding Cassandra Nova’s personality. The illusion of her child crumbles away, and Kitty is left with nothing. Once again, the strong feminine powers have forced Kitty to accept her lover’s monstrous side – evil Cassandra Nova and Emma Frost are endorsing Kitty’s fears and making her see her new relationship as a threat to the self, one she must guard against. Traumatized, Kitty rejects Peter.
Scott convinces Kitty to rescue the real Emma, and Kitty reunites with the X- Men’s bad girl. She forgives Emma and the two are somewhat reconciled, symbolizing a new teamwork within Kitty’s uncertain mind. Scott, acting as the voice of masculine rationality and action, counsels Emma to banish Cassandra from her mind, and Emma does so. Emma and Kitty, along with the other X-Men, have conquered their demons.
On an alien planet, in danger of death, Kitty finally manages to risk her heart and reach out to Peter. As she puts it, “Everything is so fragile. There’s so much conflict, so much pain...you keep waiting for the dust to settle and then you realize this is it; the dust is your life going on. If happy comes along – that weird, unbearable delight that’s actual happy – I think you have to grab it while you can. You take what you can get, ‘cause it’s here, and then...gone” (Unstoppable). This respite before the great battle is seen in most stories, as in Buffy all the couples find a moment of closeness, while Giles and Andrew play D&D before the end.
Kitty finds that the only way to save earth from the missile pointed at it is to fuse herself with the missile, using her disappearing powers (apparently the weakest of all) to save everyone. This also gives her a moment to reconcile with her shadow self as Emma Frost reaches out:
Emma Frost: Kitty...I...I can put you somewhere else. I can make you less afraid.
Shadowcat: Nah. Nah, I’m gonna see this through. Peter should know...well, he should already know, so don’t worry about it.
Emma Frost: This was never meant to...not you.
Shadowcat: Yeah, I was supposed to take you out, as I recall. Disappointed Ms. Frost?
Emma Frost: Astonished, Ms. Pryde.
Thus strengthened, with lover, shadow, and disparate parts united within her, Kitty turns the missile insubstantial and save the entire planet, though vanishing in the process, only to resurrect much later. The heroine’s journey is complete, with another strong Whedon heroine.
The Comics of Joss Whedon: Critical Essays, an anthology edited by Valerie Estelle Frankel, is new on Amazon with essays on Whedon’s X-Men as well as Buffy, Firefly and Angel continuation comics, Marvel and the MCU, and all of Whedon’s smaller projects. Valerie is also the author of Everything I Need to Know in Life I Learned from Joss Whedon, out this year from Thought Catalog.
Brown, Jeffrey A. “Sexuality, and Toughness: The Bad Girls of Action Film and Comic Books.” Action Chicks: New Images of Tough Women in Popular Culture. Ed. Sherrie A. Inness. USA: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
Frankel, Valerie Estelle. Buffy and the Heroine’s Journey. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co., 2012.
–. From Girl to Goddess. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co., 2010.
Galvan, Margaret. “From Kitty to Cat: Kitty Pryde and the Phases of Feminism.” The Ages of the X-Men: Essays on the Children of the Atom in Changing Times. Ed. Joseph J. Darowski. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co., 2014. 46-59.
Henderson, Joseph L. “Ancient Myths and Modern Man” Man and his Symbols. Ed. Carl G. Jung. New York: Doubleday and Co., 1964. 104-157.
Perera, Silvia Brinton. Descent to the Goddess. Canada: Inner City Books, 1981.
Sharp, Molly Louise. Gender, Feminism, and Heroism in Joss Whedon and John Cassaday’s Astonishing X-Men Comics. Masters thesis, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX, 2011. http://repositories.lib.utexas.edu/bitstream/handle/2152/11903/SHARP-THESIS.pdf
Von Franz, Marie Louise. The Feminine in Fairy Tales. Boston, Shambhala, 2001.
–. “The Process of Individuation” Man and his Symbols. Ed. Carl G. Jung. New York: Doubleday and Co., 1964. 158-229.
Whedon, Joss and John Cassaday. Astonishing X-Men Vol. 1: Gifted. USA: Marvel, 2006.
–. Astonishing X-Men Vol. 2: Dangerous. USA: Marvel, 2007.
–. Astonishing X-Men Vol. 3: Torn. USA: Marvel, 2007.
–. Astonishing X-Men Vol. 4: Unstoppable. USA: Marvel, 2008.