People’s History of the Marvel Universe Holiday Special: The Education of Emma Frost


“Top-Class Breeding” in “Bahstin”

As we might expect from a character in a serial medium, Emma Frost’s backstory has changed somewhat over time, although there’s a core that has been fairly consistent across a number of different creators. All writers agree, for example, that Emma comes from not just a generic wealthy family, but specifically an old-money WASP family, which makes her a true Boston Brahmin.

This background helps to explain a lot about Emma, from her ideas about class and status – I love she comes from an elite family but from an area that’s no longer the real center of economic power, creating that mix of superiority complex and insecurity that is specific to New England elites as opposed to, say, New York elites; it’s an especially perfect detail that her father is the *second* richest man in Massachusetts – to her “fake British accent,” which is itself a very specifically artificial construct designed to signify upper-class status and emulate authentic British class markers.

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(if you want to know what Emma Frost actually sounds like, watch a Katharine Hepburn movie.)

Moving from the specific to the general, all versions of Emma Frost’s backstory agree that her home line was dominated by her father Winston, a nightmare patriarch in the vein of Logan Roy. An emotionally abusive, manipulative to well beyond the point of gaslighting, and monstrous hypocrite (when he wasn’t being homophobic, sexist, classist, and a bit racist), Winston treated his children like assets which either performed or didn’t, demanding the right to control every aspect of their lives from their careers to their social and sexual lives.

In this environment, Emma Frost’s chrysalis state as a mousy, brown-haired, idealistic wallflower art nerd who dreamed of becoming a teacher, was guaranteed to come into constant conflict with her father over every single aspiration or ambition in her life, placing questions of self-determination and independence at the core of her character. It didn’t help that, outside of her home environment, Emma Frost was constantly bullied at school by a peer group of conventionally attractive blond Mean Girls:

It’s all a bit tropey – adult Emma transforms herself into the image of her childhood tormentors to usurp their power – but once again it does a better job than one might think to explain her views on sex, sexuality, and objectification, identity and the reinvention of same, as well as her constant obsession with social status, wealth, and power.

That this transformation took place at college – when so many young people transplanted into a new environment with brand-new peer groups reinvent themselves – was almost over-determined, but by the end of her tenure at “Empire State University” (which, c’mon, we know it’s Columbia) we can see most of the elements of a character coming together: a strong interest in business[1], a parallel education in telepathy and manipulation, and a ruthless willingness to use those gifts without ethical constraint.

This is where things get weird.

She Works Hard for the Money

It is at this point in her life story where the previous consensus breaks down: because the 2003-4 ongoing ended with Emma “graduating” from college, for the next phase in her life, we only have the 1997 and 2010 one-shots, which present very different stories about how Emma Frost joined the Hellfire Club. In the more recent version, Emma Frost starts as a stripper and works her way up:

What’s weird about this isn’t that Emma Frost is working as an exotic dancer – after all, one of the consistent themes in her 2003 ongoing was an interest in “forbidden” sexuality, most notably in her ongoing interest in a relationship with her once-and-future teacher Ian Kendell – it’s that she’d be so insecure and bad at it. By this point in her life, Emma has robbed casinos, outfought mobsters, and stolen the secrets of telepathy from under the noses of sociopathic killers – she could easily acquire the necessary physical and acting skills from the minds of other dancers, or confidently project the worlds best performance into the minds of her patrons. (And while X-Men: Origins Emma Frost isn’t written by the same team as the ongoing, so much of the earlier material is an explicit condensation and adaption of that series that it’s not that they weren’t aware of it.) To use a Hustlers analogy, Emma Frost isn’t Destiny, she’s Ramona.

The other odd thing is that, even though the central aspects of her personal iconography and rhetoric going back to 1980 is rooted in BDSM, Emma Frost is working as an exotic dancer rather than as a dominatrix. Perhaps this is because the kind of personality and stage presence required wouldn’t math well the story of an overwhelmed ingenue rescued by Sebastian Shaw (another storytelling decision I’m not thrilled about), but it’s a strange creative choice because it seems less of a natural progression from an adolescence where power, sex, and independence were inextricably linked and her adult career as the White Queen of the Hellfire Club.

Of course, it doesn’t help that there isn’t any clarity about the work side of the equation either: was this Emma’s full-time job? A side gig to help pay for grad school? Or was this something Emma did to work off the stress of a burgeoning business career, her own version of the “work hard, play hard” mentality of 1980s Wall Street?

Money, Money, Money, It’s A Rich Man’s World

In the other version of Emma Frost’s career, after graduating from college, Emma Frost launches her career by trading on her family connections to get into elite parties, where she uses her telepathy to garner a vast trove of insider trading information, allowing her to make a killing on the stock market:

Although written several years before the ongoing, Gen X-1’s narrative remains quite consistent with the version of Emma Frost who’d psychically counted cards at casinos and financed her college education with money she stole from her father via a loan shark/kidnapper. As we see from the Emma Frost ongoing and her later career, she clearly has the skills to succeed on Wall Street – so why not augment those skills with a healthy degree of cheating to give herself the inside track?

What makes this narrative incompatible with X-Men Origins: Emma Frost is that, in this version of events, Emma Frost is introduced to the Hellfire Club through Harry Leland, who represents a much less abusive (although no less dangerous) face of the establishment:

Emma Frost introduction

There’s a similar ambiguity as to how her business career proceeds from this point. Several sources indicate that Emma Frost parlayed her public and clandestine skills to rapidly ascend the corporate ladder both as an executive and owner:

 “…Emma became a majority stockholder of a multibillion-dollar electronics and transportation conglomerate. Despite her young age, her myriad personal charms, innate intellectualism, and the secret use of her psionic powers led to her early rise to power, and she was swiftly named chairwoman of the board and CEO of Frost International.”

The Emma Frost ongoing muddies these waters by establishing Frost Technologies as the Fortune 500 company founded by her father (whereas these earlier sources are quite emphatic that Frost International was not the family firm), although the ongoing further complicates matters by having Emma turn down her father’s offer to take over the family business.

Emma Frost

It remains somewhat unclear what the relationship between the two companies are.[2] My own personal guess is that once Emma Frost took over (and presumably renamed) Frost International, she later acquired Frost Technologies in a hostile takeover – in an act of deeply personal revenge against both her father and her older sister Adrienne.

As I’ve stated before, Emma Frost occupies an interesting position among the Hellfire Club, simultaneously old and new money, a paragon of inherited wealth and a self-made woman, and all of it drenched in byzantine and quasi-legal power plays.

Conclusion

So why does any of this matter; why care about Emma Frost’s backstory? Well, I would argue we should care because, as Voltaire said of Ignatius Loyola, “Give me the child for the first seven years and I will give you the man.” A lot of aspects to Emma’s character, both the positive and the problematic, go back to her formative experience.

First, at heart, Emma Frost is an elitist. Indeed, I would argue that Emma Frost’s (relatively) recent attachment to the cause of mutantdom is based on a perception of the mutant species as being part of a global elite vis-à-vis humanity as opposed to seeing them as a resource for elites like her to exploit. Similarly, while she doesn’t share her father’s sexism or homophobia, Emma’s social progressivism has always been more of a GirlBoss/Lean In variety as opposed to a broader analysis of structural inequalities and discrimination.[3]

Image result for emma frost + top class breeding"

Second, Emma Frost has never really believed in consent and self-determination as universal rights, because her entire life she’s been in environments where only the powerful were able to have either (and usually had to assert them by force against figures like Winston Frost or Sebastian Shaw). Hence whether we’re dealing with her past actions or more recent ones…

Emma Frost using her powers
(technically a psychic roofie?)

…it’s not really surprising to see her acting in ways that go beyond the already fairly shaky ethical boundaries of telepathy.

At the same time, when you’re dealing with a character for whom reinvention is absolutely central to their identity, you can never be certain that the past will always dictate the present. As Dawn of X gets going, it’ll be worth keeping track of whether Emma takes the fresh start that is Krakoa as an opportunity to change: we’ve already seen in Marauders that she intends for the Hellfire Trading Company (as Krakoa’s national champion and public face) to be a less exploitative and ultimately liberatory force in the world. Of course, as so many Silicon Valley firms have found out, it’s a lot easier to write idealistic mission statements and a lot harder to keep to them when doing so means losing money. Similarly, it remains to be seen how Emma Frost is going to react to the Summers polycule, and whether she’ll navigate those waters in an ethical fashion.


[1] Given that her undergraduate degree was a B.S in Business Administration and that Emma has referred to herself as both a “qualified sex therapist” and works for several years as a teacher and educational administrator, at some point she must have gone to graduate school, but it’s unclear when – and how she managed to combine that with her second life at the Hellfire Club.  (Incidentally, I would read the hell out of a miniseries about her time in grad school.)

[2] It doesn’t help that the X-Office has variously referred to different companies as Frost Technologies, International, Enterprises, etc. without being very clear as to who owns what and what each one does.

[3] There’s a reason why Emma Frost would be a major Cersei stan, and it’s not just because she’s probably cosplayed as Cersei on at least one Halloween. (I also love the idea of her bullying Cyclops into bleaching his hair so they can do a couple’s costume as Cersei and Jaime, because she’d absolutely do that.)

One comment

  • I liked Emma Frost based on Morrison’s New X-Men run only. To me the character and the issues with her flouting ethics and norms makes more sense at the time in the sense of Morrison’s French-inspired epater le bourgeosie approach to the X-Men’s stuffy nature (at the time) then it does to look at it normatively in overall serial continuity terms. So I’d say sanding off her rough edges would be needed.

    I think the main appeal and charm that Emma has is that she’s a rare Marvel female character who gets to be a Wolverine style bad boy and has yet to get comeuppance or a dressing down for it. And I think the nature of the character is that she shouldn’t get a comeuppance. I mean female characters who do bad stuff are so rarely allowed to go unpunished, so that makes Emma Frost the equivalent of Becky Sharp.