Ice Princess. Royal Bitch. The White Queen. She’s gone by a lot of names but, after stripping away the aliases, who is Emma Frost? Is she really the cold diamond we like to think of her as or is there a breathing body underneath the hardened exterior? Recent issues of X-MEN BLUE and SECRET EMPIRE show Emma as delusional and emotional, which has some critics questioning her characterization. While a lot of readers might wish for Emma to be portrayed solely as the emotionless White Queen, there’s more to her than an icy demeanor. A traumatic past full of abuse and loss has made a relatable and realistic character who deserves to be understood completely.
Emma Grace Frost was born to a large, but wealthy, New England family. As a child, she wasn’t considered as pretty as her older sister and was physically and emotionally abused by her father. In X-MEN ORIGINS: EMMA FROST, Emma’s mother tells her that her father abuses her because he loves her. That’s the kind of thing that affects you for life.
As a teenager, Emma was a social outcast. Her parents and peers constantly bullied her. The arrival of her telepathic mutation only caused her more suffering after she went off to college in the solo series EMMA FROST. Her friends took advantage of her and the man she fell in love with abandoned her after finding out she was a mutant. Distraught, she decided to shed her old life and become someone new. As seen in NEW X-MEN #139, she dyed her hair, got plastic surgery, and bought a whole new wardrobe. Soon after, she became a dancer for the Hellfire Club where leader Sebastian Shaw took immediate interest in her.
Although he may have liked her, Shaw was still willing to physically abuse Emma to get what he wanted. It was Emma’s time with Shaw that made her so emotionless and sharp-tongued. Before long, Emma had become the vicious White Queen of the Hellfire Club and Shaw’s second in command. She started a small school to train mutants as soldiers for the Hellfire Club. It’s revealed in X-MEN ORIGINS: EMMA FROST that the only thing that’s ever made Emma truly happy is teaching.
A Reformed Emma Frost
But, like everything in Emma’s life, her students, the “Hellions,” wouldn’t last. NEW MUTANTS saw the deaths of many of the Hellions and Emma’s subsequent breakdown. Because teaching was so important to Emma, the loss of her students was beyond crushing. In her mind, she had failed at the one thing she could really be proud of. She blamed herself for what happened and decided she wouldn’t be able to safely train mutants alone. The realization that she needed help led her to Charles Xavier, who offered her new mutants to train and X-Men to keep her students safe. Xavier’s Institute became her new home.
Although things got better for Emma after she left the Hellfire Club, her life still wasn’t easy. Her older sister Adrienne attacked Xavier’s Institute in GENERATION X #70, forcing Emma to kill her. Afterwards, Emma tried to distance herself from violence by becoming a teacher in Genosha. But that, too, ended quickly. In Grant Morrison’s NEW X-MEN #116, Genosha was attacked and presumably, everyone on the island died, except Emma. Her secondary diamond mutation miraculously saved her.
The deaths of Emma’s Hellions was bad enough, but the loss of her Genoshan students tore Emma apart. Later issues of NEW X-MEN would show Emma struggling to get past her guilt. Her inability to move on from Genosha, and from the Hellions, arguably promotes Emma’s eventual breakdown in recent comics.
Through a Rose Tinted Visor
In NEW X-MEN, Emma joined the X-Men as a permanent member. While the other X-Men didn’t always accept her, the married Cyclops took a special liking to her and the two began a psychic affair. While Cyclops’ wife Jean Grey wasn’t too happy about the affair, her death in NEW X-MEN #150 cemented Cyclops’ and Emma’s relationship.
Emma’s relationship with Cyclops developed into a loyal partnership and the two became co-headmasters of Xavier’s. It wasn’t until she and Cyclops became possessed by the Phoenix Force in AVENGERS VS. X-MEN #5 that their relationship came to an end. The Phoenix Force had completely consumed Emma, forcing Cyclops to rip the cosmic being out of her. After the pair had returned to normal, Emma felt betrayed by Cyclops and ended the relationship.
The break up was hard on Emma but she tried to keep her emotions in check. After Cyclops’ Terrigen related death in the miniseries DEATH OF X, Emma used a fake telepathic projection of Cyclops to fool everyone into thinking he was still alive. She then allowed the projection to die a more noble death, at the hands of Black Bolt. It was the death of Cyclops, who had been her best friend and lover for a long time, that finally made the stone cold Emma Frost fall apart.
All Bottled Up
With her past in mind, Emma Frost’s return to the dark side in recent comics makes a lot of sense. In SECRET EMPIRE: UNITED she splits from most of the X-Men and uses the Hydra invasion to create her own country called New Tian. In X-MEN BLUE #7, she captures a time-displaced Cyclops in the delusional hopes of restarting a life with him. Although these things seem out-of-character for the normally emotionally hardened blonde, Emma is just reacting to her past. All of her life, things have been outside of her control, from her father’s abuse to her students dying to her failed relationship with Cyclops. No matter how hard she works at being a good person, things never turn out the way she wants them to.
Creating New Tian (and making herself its power hungry Queen) and capturing young Cyclops were just attempts at gaining control of her life. Without her Cyclops, she went out and found a new Cyclops who she thought could make her happy. She reacted in a realistic way to the trauma she’s been experiencing for years. It’s almost like she’s been bottling up all of her emotions and they’ve finally overflowed.
The Realities of Trauma
It’s instinctual for people to bury trauma. We ignore troubling events in our lives because we don’t want to face the pain that goes along with them. Comic book heroes go through a lot of rough stuff, partly because they’re immortal and have the time to, and partly because they’re modeled after real people. But, like the superpowers suggest, superheroes are extremely different than real people. When real people bury their problems, those problems eventually resurface. Comic book characters rarely get that same treatment. For a lot of them, emotional trauma is temporary. Abuse and loss are shaken off in time for the next issue.
This is why Emma Frost’s current characterization is so important. For Emma, all of the traumatic events from her life couldn’t be shaken off. She buried them, so she could go on with her life as a member of the X-Men, but like a real person, her emotional trauma reemerged. Her past wasn’t erased at the end of the issue. Everything that happened to her is still with her and that shows in her characterization.
By showing how hurtful ignoring trauma can be, X-MEN BLUE writer Cullen Bunn and SECRET EMPIRE: UNITED writer Jim Zub are encouraging readers to address their own problems. Doing what is natural and suppressing trauma like Emma clearly leads to self-destructive behaviors. Still, I think the writers are also trying to show a comic book character that people can relate to. Like I said earlier, normal people frequently bury trauma. Finally, a comic is showing a character who is actively struggling with trauma’s effects.
Picking Up the Pieces
In the future, I hope Emma faces her past instead of burying it. In NEW X-MEN #139, Emma relives a fraction of her life when Jean Grey telepathically takes a trip through her memories and it quickly overwhelms her. It’s clear that she can’t do it on her own, but who can possibly help her? While none of the X-Men have easy lives, Emma’s is one of the worst… except for maybe Jean Grey. Like Emma, Jean has struggled with losing loved ones and handling grief. Maybe the two could sort out their differences and help each other healthily handle their pasts.
In the meantime, Emma Frost’s characterization should express her struggle with the effects of trauma. She might not admit it herself, but even she has to show emotion occasionally. Her current characterization is sad, but that doesn’t make it wrong. Her character needed to go through this. After all, a breakdown is the first step in the healing process.