NO SPOILERS HERE!
I had a few (okay, a lot) of thoughts on Thor and her importance to feminism in big superhero comics. What better day to post them than the day of her big reveal?
On July 15th, 2014, comic book powerhouse Marvel Entertainment made an announcement they had teased to be “thunderous”, and they delivered. They announced that effective in October of that year, a woman would take up the mantel of Thor. To show they understood the gravity of the situation, Marvel stated in their official press release: “The new Thor continues Marvel’s proud tradition of strong female characters like Captain Marvel, Storm, Black Widow and more. And this new Thor isn’t a temporary female substitute – she’s now the one and only Thor, and she is worthy!” (Marvel Proudly Presents Thor). Since his creation in the 1960’s, Thor has been a symbol of masculinity and all manly qualities, from his bulging biceps to his (euphemistic?) giant hammer. The hammer’s significance is literally carved in its side- “Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor” (Marvel Proudly Presents Thor). Being worthy of picking up Thor’s hammer is considered the ultimate sign of morality, justness, and righteousness. Very few characters out of the Marvel universe have done it. Now another woman has, and it seems like she will be holding onto it for a while.
For better or worse, everyone seemed excitable over this news of such a “drastic” change in a title as big as Thor. While many cheered at this as a victory for feminism in comics, many feminists and anti-feminists argued that the new Thor could not possibly be as strong a figure as Marvel claimed. One of the main complaints about the announcement from those holding close to canon was that Thor is based off a deity from Norse mythology, and Marvel could not possibly upset such an ancient tradition as his character without upsetting a thousands of years old status quo. What this argument ignores is that Thor himself has changed in the comics, and has more or less handed the hammer over before in all different situations. Thor has been a frog before, and a horse-faced alien named Beta-Ray Bill has picked up the hammer. A few more characters like the Hulk, Captain America, and another female, Black Widow (see: What If: Age of Ultron #3), have picked up the hammer, Mjölnir, in times of need as well. The point is, lots of characters have picked up the hammer without much complaint from the fans. The accompanying uproar is not about the character change itself. The difference now? Series writer Jason Aaron emphasized, “This is not She-Thor. This is not Lady Thor. This is not Thorita. This is THOR. This is the THOR of the Marvel Universe. But it’s unlike any Thor we’ve ever seen before.” (Marvel Proudly Presents Thor) Translation? Frog Thor (or “Throg”) and Beta-Ray Bill were not the only Thors of their time. In comic books, there are the stories that are considered “canon”/“within continuity”, and then there are the stories that exist more or less in their own universe, and don’t affect the main canon. The more diverse Thors of old existed in alternative timelines, and while their stories were going on, good old traditional Thor was still flying around in the main canon. Now this female Thor is appearing in every Avengers comic, has her own title book, etc. She is the canon Thor. The original Thor, (whom I will refer to as “Odinson”, his sort-of last name, for clarity’s sake), is unworthy of the hammer and without the command of thunder.
Like it or not, this announcement seemed like a step along a very long path to feminism in comics men and women alike have been trudging along since the industry kicked off more than 75 years ago. And as Thor is one of Marvel’s “big three” (alongside Iron Man and Captain America) (Marvel Proudly Presents Thor), the supposedly drastic change to big, brutish Thor did not seem to leave a feather unruffled. The masses seemed to split into three major categories that I have named, based on their opinions: the “This is Exceptionally Awful” Alliance, the “How Feminist!” Gang, and the “But Not Completely Feminist” Club. Whosoever should “win” this argument would win much more than a squabble over comics, though. As Matt Binder points out in his article for Salon, comics are as influenced by and influential on politics as any other art medium, and there is much more at stake here than a single character’s right to a hammer:
A common tactic used by right-wingers is the call to ‘stop politicizing everything’ — while at the same time trying to push forth their own political agenda in the culture wars, of course. Keeping politics out of any art form is laughable, but there is a certain extra level of hilarity in attempting to do so with one that already has a long history of social justice. (One of the most successful comic book series is literally called the Justice League, after all.) (Binder)
This is in many ways about a general culmination of feelings that women are given power for the reason that they are women who need charity. Feminism in comics is, arguably, a long time coming. Historically, superheroines in comics were sidekicks to the superior male hero. Women have been girlfriends, designed to be captured so the male hero has someone’s aid to come to. The female readership finds little in the way of heroic role models in the pages of comic books, and have had to overlook the gender gap and look up to male heroes. (Robbins 3) It is common knowledge for anyone with any knowledge of the industry that the key target audience for comics has been young white men for decades. The evidence for this lies in every barely-there costume superheroines wear, in every woman given a title to mirror a man’s (see: Hulk and She-Hulk, Batman and Batwoman, Superman and Supergirl).
In the past, women in comics have either come off as matronly figures or hypersexualized heterosexual male fantasies. In a case study of Sue Storm/Invisible Girl, Laura D’Amore observes that Invisible Girl’s main function in the Fantastic Four in its beginning years was a maternal one. The rest of the group deemed her invaluable for her ability to hold them together despite instances bickering and low morale, but in action the Invisible Girl often played the captive waiting to be saved. Her strength had no place on the battlefield, was “reminiscent of conventional, conservative values in American culture insofar as she takes on the maternal, domestic female role” (D’Amore) and could not match up to the physical strength of male villains. For the longest time, female power in comics has been defined by the nearest man. As for the hypersexualization, you can flip open just about any superhero comic book featuring a woman and find she has a tall, slender figure. She has muscles, but not enough for her to come off as masculine in any way, and she is usually wearing something resembling lingerie or swimwear. That is all well and good, except when it is the only representation females get. Women have waited long enough for more diverse representation in comics, and now all they ask for is the chance to prove they are worthy of taking power.
Some people do not like the change purely because it is a change. Regardless of the nature of the difference in the books now, there are loyal fans all over that simply enjoyed the Thor they knew and loved and were understandably sad to see him go (though Odinson is still in Thor, he certainly is not the main character anymore). However, the main argument for the more drastic “This is Exceptionally Awful!” Alliance, or the TEAA, seems to be against all strong female characters as a whole (as Thor would surely be a strong female character), with extra outrage channeled at the loss of their beloved Norse God of Thunder. In an opinion article, Milo Yiannopoulos (a weekly columnist for Breitbart.com) stated “it’s hard to believe the most macho, overtly masculine character in the comic canon could possibly be reimagined as a broad. But that’s almost certainly precisely the reason Thor was chosen: as a screw-you to so-called nerdbros from the achingly progressive staff of today’s comic book establishment.” (Yiannopoulos) To his credit, there is a dramatic change occurring in comics that really does favor women and caters to their wanting increased representation. This representation now happens to directly infringe upon the boys’ territory. This is more than a roster change that adds a new female Avenger; this is taking away an established male. In his history of female portrayals in comics, The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy, and the History of Comic Book Heroines, Mike Madrid asks “is power pretty? Females in comic books have historically been given weaker powers. This is presumably meant to be a reflection of the status quo between the sexes in the real world, and a hierarchy that male readers will be comfortable with”. (291) By this logic, Thor possessing the power of a man and crossing over into the manly plane as she replaces him could definitely seem threatening. It also reflects a general attitude held by men threatened by the feminist movement at large. If women are gaining power in the world, where does that leave men? This upsets a long tradition of norms, outlined by Michael Goodrum in his analysis of Squirrel Girl:
Through repetition, certain elements of superhero comic books become accepted as the stable ground from which narratives can emerge; that repetition also ultimately comes to police what is acceptable in terms of both continuity and gender. Borders of acceptability are defined and defended through repetition, with breaks in this repetition being seen as undesirable because of their disruptive impact on established norms. (100)
But norms are not organic, and everyone’s idea of normal is different: “The funny thing about norms is that they are subject to change. A norm is a standard, or a pattern, and so naturally as the field of observation changes so too will the resulting norm. Of course, it is also important to realise that norms aren’t “organic”, people make them.” (Langsdale). Comics have historically been enjoyed by those who fit outside social norms (i.e. the “geeks” and “nerds”), so to not embrace any one demographic that seeks refuge in comics like women comes off as unfair. “Changes like the one being made to Thor are not about creating new exclusionary measures that erase older models; rather they are about broadening our field of observation. Geek culture is made up of, and enjoyed by, all kinds of people and our norms should reflect that.” (Kutner) In short, Thor has been represented by all kinds of personalities because Marvel found it important to emphasize that you do not need to emulate any one person to be worthy of the hammer. Geeks come in all shapes and sizes, including women, and to exclude women is not very geeky. That paired with the view that norms are to be challenged (especially in comics), many put forth that this shift towards more female representation in comics/more power for women in general is a good thing, and it is not exactly upsetting an equilibrium, either. But where does that leave Thor, whose name is not changing at all?
All we knew about Thor from her announcement until yesterday was that she is a woman- we did not know her name, where she comes from, anything except her sex. That was her defining characteristic, her sole signifier. Mia Galuppo found a fatal flaw in this, stating “Lady-Thor garnered so much attention was because it was such a severe left turn away from cannon. The headlines, the articles, even Aaron, himself, made being a female, seem like it was her superpower. It was an oddity or a mutation.” But perhaps we should also consider than in her anonymity, she became an every-woman, a stand-in for all worthy women. The lack of knowing her likes and dislikes were a bit jarring, but at the same time it allowed any woman to step into her shoes. Thor should be coming off as a symbol of female righteousness. So it comes as no surprise that some women (the “But Not Completely Feminist” Club) were uneasy being represented by someone who did not make her own power, but is instead using a man’s. Milo Yiannopoulos quoted an upset female reader:
Don’t shoe horn a female character into a male hero’s position as, at the end of the day, she’s still defined by the male character, not her own legacy. I know Marvel are going for the ‘anyone can wield the power of Thor, even women’ approach but this is ultimately detrimental to the female hero. Why? Because making a female version of a male hero demeans the male hero and leaves the superheroine being solely defined as a female replacement of the male hero. (Yiannopoulos)
Surely, Marvel had to put some thought into a decision as big as this one, so why make the move if this is the case? Perhaps there is something we are missing, and we need to expand our view. Captain Marvel, Storm and Black Widow are all female heroes with their own solo books at the moment, and the current “X-Men” title zeroes in on an all-female part of the team. Angela: Asgard’s Assassin, Silk, and Spider-Gwen as examples of new superheroines, and now we have the new Ms. Marvel filling the shoes of the old one, giving us an example of one woman taking the title of another (Casteele). (I feel I should disclose that they are mostly written and drawn by men, but their existence remains noteworthy). So Thor is not alone. Now what makes her a pioneer for the “How Feminist!” Gang, what makes taking the power of a man an attribute rather than a weakness in character? The first thing that comes to mind is the sheer amount of press she received, having taken over for one of the “big three” of one of the “big two” (Marvel and DC, who have historically dominated the industry). So how feminist is Thor’s makeover, really? With the press release, Marvel also released two images of the new Thor:
The Thor we see here is neither a shadow of the hypermasculine Odinson nor is she hyperfeminine/sexualized like many of her fellow superheroines. She has bulging muscles, and an hourglass shape. She has long blond flowing locks of hair and dark lipstick, and a full helmet, the likes of which are usually reserved for men in comics. Add these traits to her already having gender trouble, and we have here a bit of a quandary. This is not to say that Thor is appropriate trans* representation (representation of someone who identifies as a gender other than cisgender), not in the least, but she has seemed to traverse the normal boundaries of gender. In his article, Yiannopoulos quoted a bit of theory from Vox Day, who claims that there is no such thing as feminine strength. Strength is a male quality as men are typically stronger than women, so to take on strength, any “strong female character” must give up some of her femininity (Day).
So what is feminine strength? Day believes “most ‘strong female’ characters observably are not women, they are simply male characters dressed in female suits. They don’t talk like women, they don’t act like women, and when we’re shown their interior monologues, they don’t think like women either.” (Day) This begs the question of what it is exactly to think like a woman. Are women constantly thinking of cooking, cleaning, and their monthly cycles? Yet again, we did not know anything about Thor other than her sex, her title, and her strong-but-undeniably-feminine appearance. In a way, she was a great representative of femininity because she is not the most feminine, and yet she was a stand-in for worthy women everywhere. It hearkens back to words written by renowned biologist and gender theorist Julia Serano:
When gender and sexuality are imagined to arise in a straightforward, overly simplistic manner (i.e. from biology, or from culture), it enables people to falsely conclude that there must be right ways and wrong ways, good ways and bad ways, to be gendered and sexual. Such misconceptions deny gender and sexual diversity, and thus ultimately lead to gender policing and sexism… (146)
This is not to bring Thor’s gender and/or sexuality into question, but rather observe “sexual diversity” (Serano 146) in the sense that each sex is diverse in its own right. There can be strong women as there can be weak men- for a man to be weak; he does not have to take on feminine qualities, as weakness is not intrinsically feminine. Nor is physical strength masculine in this way. Thor’s presence especially calls into question whether we should assign certain attributes to entire genders- what is the point of differentiating between male strength and female strength when power has a holistic attitude to those willing to take it? One could argue that Thor represents a female possessing masculine strength while Invisible Girl represents a female with purely female power, but one could also argue that female strength is simply strength possessed by a female, and there is no right or wrong way to go about it. Julia Serano addresses the fact that gender norms are harmful earlier in her book:
The idea that people are simply programmed to become heterosexual and cisgender implies that those who are typically gendered and sexual are natural and normal, whereas those of us who are exceptional in one way or another… must be viewed as unnatural and abnormal. As a result, exceptional gender and sexual traits are marked- they are seen as questionable, illegitimate, and subjected to undue scrutiny. (Serano 140)
The idea here is that heteronormativity, or assuming that everyone falls into one norm, is alive and well. This can be applied to the case of Thor in that her femininity is viewed as exceptional when we think of masculinity as the norm for strength. In our society, seeing a woman with bulging muscles is considered “unsexy”, and since women have to be as sexy as possible all the time, she is a challenge for masculinormativists to look at. And if we live in a world that is trying to better understand that norms are anthropogenic, then we could always do with figures like Thor smashing through normativity.
Indicative of her raw power, Thor has proven capable of smashing another prejudice with her might: the idea that only male-led titles generate sales. Thor had some big shoes to fill coming in against Odinson’s run as he was, again, one of the Big Three. But the current run, Thor is outselling Odinson’s last run, Thor: God of Thunder, by nearly 20,000 copies per month, (not including digital copies). (Kutner) The consistency in sales after the initial month is indicative of the book’s actual quality, indicating that Thor is more than a gimmick to appeal to female readership. One of Marvel’s top writers, Jason Aaron, is behind the critically acclaimed title, and for Marvel to hand over one of the original Avengers and one of the most powerful beings in the universe shows that they are committed to the growing female demographic.
The fact that the powers of an original Avenger, one of the strongest forces in the universe, can be harnessed and held by a woman is a great message to send to young, female comic book readers, or any comic book reader. (Galuppo)
And as a clear-cut feminist (who punches her foe, Absorbing Man, “for saying ‘Feminist’ like it’s a four-lettered word” (Aaron)) Thor shows that she is supportive of all kinds of “female strength”.
Women are accused of being handed power in the comics industry and around the world- because they are women and there are quotas to be filled for equal opportunity employment, the feminist machine gets whatever it wants, or whichever excuse you choose to use. But the reality is that women have earned the right for an equal chance, they are not asking for handouts. The fact remains that Thor would not have been able to pick up the hammer had she not been worthy. The hammer Mjölnir represents power here, and Thor is women everywhere. This announcement shows that all women need is a hammer that needs wielding to prove they are worthy of picking it up. As a female comic reader with a Mjölnir replica myself, not having to reach quite so far to emulate an idol now means the world to me.
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