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
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.
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 Religion, Thor’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.