My Problem with the Female Thor

Last week Marvel announced a new Thor comic unlike any other Thor comic. Thor would be a woman.

First, Let’s Talk about What’s Not a Problem

female thorThere was the typical rallying cry from sexist males (you know, the ones who preface everything with “I’m not a sexist but…”) raging that this genderswap was the greatest sin of all sins.

A female Thor isn’t the greatest of sins. It’s not even a tiny sin. It fits seamlessly into Thor comic canon.  In the Marvel universe, whoever wields Mjolnir holds the power of Thor. This makes Thor a title, rather than a name.

Some members of the sexist crowd can accept that – but on one condition. You can’t call her Thor because Thor is a man’s name.

Oh the horror!

While it’s true that many languages differentiate titles by the gender of the person who holds it, English is not one of those languages. We don’t say “doctor” and “doctora.” Once upon a time we did have “stewards” and “stewardesses,” but those terms are now so antiquated half of you probably don’t even know what a “steward” is.

If Thor is a title then the holder of that position does not need to become Thora. She’s simply Thor. Unless you want to suggest to Hillary Clinton that she run for presidentrix instead of president.

So now that’s settled…..

Here’s My Problem

Many people cheered at the news. Finally, a female superhero is getting the same marketing push as a male character. It’s a sign of the changing times and the comics industry finally accepting that women are people and that they read comics.

The thing is, I don’t quite believe the comics industry is accepting that – at least not fully.

First of all, this woman is wielding Thor’s power. It’s still his hammer. It’s still his power. She doesn’t have her own agency. Her power is predicated on male power. (We’ll explore this in depth in a little bit.)

Because her power is not her own, I think Marvel is playing it safe. They don’t want to commit fully to a female superhero. They want to test the waters.

To an extent, we’re dealing with a different version of the male gaze. Women can hold positions of power, but only if they are tethered to male power (we’ll get to why the hammer = male power in the next section).

This iteration of Thor is one that is “safe” for male readers to digest. (Of course, not all male readers. Some don’t care if a hero is male or female and some will rage all day about how women don’t really read comics.)

Then there’s how Marvel handled the announcement. Marvel did not announce the comic through traditional channels and to their fanbase.

They announced it on the View.

While the View and Marvel are both owned by Disney, it would be an oversight to ignore that the View is structured to appeal to the traditional and safe female. She may discuss politics and current events – but she’s still home in the middle of the day. She’s still on the couch. She’s safe.

I’m not saying this is reality (it’s not) but it circles back to the male gaze theory. Regardless of whether or not the women who watch the View are passive women (most of them aren’t), it’s the stereotype associated with the show’s audience, like it or not. We have to put the venue for this announcement in the context of our cultural lexicon.

thor quote 1Women make up the majority of the View’s audience. It is a show for women. Though the landscape of comic reader demographics is changing, men make up the majority of the comic book audience.

But comics, unlike the View, aren’t written for any specific gender – at least they shouldn’t be. However, there is a prevailing belief that women don’t read comics and that women cannot relate to comics; therefore, in order to appeal to women, Marvel felt it had to debut the new Thor on a show for women.

The venue for the announcement draws a distinct line between this Thor and all other comics. This comic is for women. It feeds into the idea that women only have a passing and trendy interest in comics. Men are the serious readers.

But as Alexandra Petri says in her piece for the Washington Post:

Stories about girls are not automatically stories for girls.

Clearly, Marvel does not agree. If they did, then why not announce this the same way they announce all other comics?

The Symbolism of Thor’s Hammer

I don’t think I need to explain this, but just for kicks let’s explore its meaning.

On the surface, Mjolnir creates the sound of thunder. But, we can’t take mythological items at face value. Everything has a deeper meaning. Even a rudimentary look into mythology will reveal that, regardless of the culture, it is full of phallic symbols. Thor’s hammer is no different.

This reading of Mjolnir isn’t an academic interpretation. The Norse people viewed it as such and as Otto Wall notes in his book A Scientific Treatise on Sex, Its Nature and Function, and Its Influence on Art, Science, Architecture, and ReligionThor’s hammer consecrated newlyweds on their wedding night.

The phallus is the universal symbol of male power and dominance over culture. You will find its depictions in artifacts from every culture are more prevalent than any other symbol. Modern times are no exception – take the Washington Monument for example.

When a female takes up Mjolnir, she is wielding male power. Therefore, everything she does and the power that she has isn’t because of who she is as a woman. It’s a man’s power. It does not belong to her. She’s not empowered, she’s subjugated.

The hammer doesn’t stop being the ultimate example of a penis simply because a woman is holding it. She doesn’t control Mjolnir, it controls her.

Let Women Have Power

As an anthropologist, I understand that we live in a world of gendered symbols. Throughout time artists of all types have used symbols to represent power as either male or female.

Artists of today have the power to change that. I’m not positing that Thor drop his hammer for the sake of gender politics. There is importance in finding new ways to tell old stories.

What I am suggesting is that we create new heroes whose power is not predicated on a gender. I’ve written before about the comic industry’s need to emphasize masculine and feminine physical appearances.

Wouldn’t it be great if we stopped doing that?

Wouldn’t it be great if we let a woman have power for the sake of power, rather than for the sake of her sexuality or power that is predicated on “male” power?

Writers don’t even need to deviate from Norse mythology to do this. Norse myth is full of women who simply had power. Not power contained within the context of maleness or power limited to their gender.

The best example of this is Freya. Freya’s story is arguably more interesting than Thor’s. As with most mythologies, stories about Freya vary. The general gist of her story is that she was a Vanir goddess kidnapped by the Aesir. She doesn’t stay a prisoner. She becomes their queen (based on the widely held belief that Freya = Frigga and Odr = Odin).

She doesn’t become queen by sleeping her way to the top. She uses her mind. She teaches the Aesir magic.

She is a complex character, being both a goddess of love and war, a symbol of the layered nature of the human experience. Along with her army, the Valkyries (who are not without their own representation in comics), she claims half of the souls of dead soldiers. The other half goes to Odin. Even the All Father must bow to her, as she choses which soldiers she keeps and which soldiers go to Odin.

Surely, Marvel writers are aware of her. I’m sure she came up in their research for Thor. So why tell the story of a woman whose power is predicated on a man?

Freya’s power is her own. Why not tell her story? Why not tell a story of a complex character who is not defined by her gender, but rather by her accomplishments?

All Things Considered

All of my reservations and problems with this new iteration of Thor doesn’t mean that I hate the concept of the comic itself. As many have already pointed out, this is a win for comic readers of both genders. It is a story that likely would not have been told in previous decades.

It’s a story that I will read. It’s a story that I hope everyone reads. But I don’t think it’s a story within the comic universe that puts female heros on par with male heroes in terms of marketing and publisher backing.  Hopefully, that story, whatever it is, will be told very soon.

 

 

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Comments

  1. Apologies for the ramble below, and any loose ends, but I’m typing through one teary, stabbed-by-needle eye.
    It’s an interesting subject, and (knowing my pagan classics) I fully agree with all you bring to the table. However, the ultimate conclusions may be a matter of opinion – a female Thor wielding a hammer – tethered by that phallic object, or is she seizing control by (literally?) grabbing the shaft? I guess it’s how you look at it.
    It would have been interesting to see a comic about Frigg, but would it sell? Is the market strong enough to support a start-up book? I can see how Marvel is playing it safe by drawing on Thor’s brand recognition and built-in readership, but again I don’t think that’s a bad thing per se. The media exposure too won’t have hurt it.
    Eventually, I think that what it comes down to is how it’s done: will Thor be the butt of her friends’ jokes? Will the artist depict her broke-back and in cleavage vision? I don’t know! Perhaps change has to happen gradually.
    Apparently, an upcoming Fantastic Four movie will have Johnny Storm played by a black guy. There has been a similar outcry between the “Johnny can’t be black because that’s not how God made him!” and “Making Johnny black amounts to putting a white dude in shoe polish – why can’t we have originally black super heroes to represent us?” The first argument comes close to racism, while the second – I can understand that. But black superheroes are very thin on the ground, and often second banana at that. There’s no way that any of them would be in the core cast of an (as they call it) tentpole movie, and if you design new black superheroes (and by all means, do!) they won’t have the baggage and ‘weight’ that the Fantastic Four have.
    Lastly, I am not at all sure about female superheroes, identity and whatnot. Take Red Sonja. Designed as female equivalent of Conan the Barbarian, soon (1970s) seen as “Sexy, but kick ass!” (she was an early favourite for cosplay, when the word cosplay didn’t exist yet – http://www.fanboy.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/1302138341066.jpg ). Then about 10 years ago Red Sonja was relaunched by Dynamite comics and it was pure cheesecake. Now it appears that Gail Simone is writing her (and apparently, the ‘original’ Sonja has died and a distant cousin, looking exactly alike taking over) and it’s supposed to have ‘reclaimed’ Sonja for women-folk. Then I see this http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=54197 and think: “And yet, apparently you still want your cheesecake and eat it!”. I can’t quite see Gail Simone as the Emeline Pankhurst of the funny books.

    • As I said, I don’t have a problem with Thor being female, so the comparison to the outcry over altering the race of other superheroes is a bit confusing to me.

      If a new female hero were given the same marketing push as her male counterparts, I think she would be equally successful. This is where my issue lies – publishers are afraid to let a woman stand on her own. Publishers are afraid to give a female hero, who holds her own power, the same marketing they give men.

      And yes, there is value in her taking up male power, but the power is still predicated on a man. It’s still male power. Why is that necessary?

      On my FB, someone brought up BSG & Starbuck, which has me wondering if I would mind a female Thor if it was a new universe where Thor had always been female. It would remove the issue of her power being predicated on male power.

      However, I would still think Marvel was playing it safe & announcing it on the View would still be an issue.

      Also, I love Gail’s Sonja.

      • I’m undecided how I feel (i.e. I see pitfalls, and I’m uneasy about Marvel trumpeting diversity on one hand while reacting poorly to criticism over, for instance, the Remender thing) except that I’m curious to read the comic. But the BSG thing is an interesting analogy – I think that there it definitely worked because, to both the other characters and the viewers, Starbuck was just Starbuck. Of course there must have been fans of the original series who complained, but there were so many other changes happening simultaneously that I suspect no one character’s reboot could become too divisive…

  2. I really love your explanation of this aspect of a female Thor and I completely agree. I don’t remember ever being taught any history about WOMEN when I was in school. And because of that, I had no idea women were, well, anything other than what men said we were. Which I think was the plan all along. In my own exploration of what women is (largely launched when I decided I wanted to become a dominatrix) I discovered so much rich history of women I was blown away and grew in leaps and bounds as an individual.

    Being a dominatrix also brought to light the differences between male and female power and how we use it. Men dominate by force and intimidation, women by cunning and seduction. You don’t have to beat someone to bring them to their knees.

    I wholeheartedly agree with the fact that we need women’s stories to be told and BY women so that we have a clear understanding of what women really are, which IS fierce and powerful but in our way.

    Female Thor is a beginning step, it’s a buffer along the road to equality in society and the nice thing about buffers is that they bounce us left and right until our path becomes straight.

    • Yes, we really are not taught about women when we’re children. What we learn about their contribution to our culture is merely anecdotal.

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