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Mutant Rights: That Time the (Real) Federal Government Ruled On Whether The X-Men Were Human

Mutatis Mutandis

In Marvel comics, members of world governments argue forcefully that the X-Men and mutantkind are far from human: so far that their civil liberties can and should be taken from them. But in the real world, at the beginning of this century, it was private lawyers that sought to classify the X-Men and a number of other Marvel characters as non-human, and the government who had assumed they were just normal people like everybody else. Why?

Those things your high school history teacher tried so desperately to stress the importance of: tariffs.

Sherry Singer and Indie Sing were the two international trade lawyers working for Marvel Comics in the ’90s (and they were ladies, we feel obligated to mention by the mandate of the site), who took a look at the Harmonized Tariff Schedule, a book full of customs regulations, and realized that “dolls” were taxed 12% on import, while “toys” were taxed only 6.8%. The difference between the two was that a doll “represented only a human being,” while “toys” were “monsters, robots, angels, basically anything that isn’t “only representing a human.” Probably, at some point in the past, some American doll manufacturer had felt threatened by overseas competition, and had lobbied the government to put a tax on imported dolls.

Naturally, all of the toys of their superheroic characters that Marvel imported from overseas manufacturing companies were considered to be representations of human beings, and therefore “dolls.” Singer and Sing saw a golden opportunity to save Marvel millions of dollars… if they could simply convince the US Court of International Trade that the X-Men weren’t human… and were therefore “toys.”

The court cases went on for a decade, eventually ending in 2003. We won’t give away the ending, so you’ll just have to listen to the place this story was recently retold: the latest twenty-minute Podcast short from RadioLab, embedded below. Law and the Multiverse would also like to add that the Harmonized Tariff Schedule has since consolidated the definitions of “toy” and “doll” into one, eliminating the tax difference between them.

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