Sexualized Saturdays: Worthy of the Name—Thor and Representation

It’s rare that I admit this, but I was way wrong about Thor.

When it was first announced that the new Thor was to be a lady, my initial reaction was “of all the heroes to genderbend, why pick one that is ‘supposed to be’ a guy?” I worried that it was a publicity stunt and would be set up for failure, setting back future efforts. Then I noticed all the comments about it and how they were almost uniformly of the rabid anti-feminist troll variety. Any time I find myself expressing an opinion shared by the “red pill” types, I immediately reexamine that viewpoint, and I’m so glad I did!

thor portrait 2When I started reading The Mighty Thor, I realized not only was I mistaken in my assumption that Thor was a poor choice for a high profile genderbend, but that Thor was in fact the perfect choice. I am glad I was so incredibly wrong because I am excited about the Thor quadrant of the Marvel universe for the first time since I was a kid. Judging by the fact that this run of Mighty Thor has been selling consistently well since its release, I am not alone in that opinion.

Very quickly, about two issues into the first arc, it became clear that not only was the choice to have Thor portrayed by a woman very deliberate, but it was a way to jump right into the midst of the pushback to inclusiveness and hit it squarely in the face with an all-powerful magic hammer. Not only does this series perfectly nail (see what I did there) the fallacy of these arguments against a more diverse base of main characters, it exposes their root: fear at the loss of “straight white male as default”.

Spoilers after the jump.

In her essay “Tea, Bodies, and Business: Remaking the Hero Archetype1,” Hugo winner Kameron Hurley begins with a thought experiment: she asks you to close your eyes and picture the first thing that comes to mind when you read the word “HERO”. For a great many people across race, class, and gender lines, the image is a ripped white dude, an Arnold Schwarzenegger action hero type, someone who looks… exactly like Thor. When asked to think of a real life hero, many of us would think of someone else, but in the abstract that image is still prevalent in the zeitgeist.

By changing the gender of a high profile hero who is so visually and thematically bound up with the idea that worthiness is connected to to maleness, Mighty Thor directly challenges that notion itself. Right from the beginning this storyline made it clear that it was not going to dance around feminism, nor was it going to ignore good storytelling to focus on it. The first time we see the original Thor (who remains a truly solid main character in this series) he is on his knees despondent due to becoming unworthy of wielding Mjolnir. The cause of this was a single (as yet unknown) whisper from Nick Fury. Essentially, Thor (now just called Odinson) is introduced as a metaphor for fragile masculinity. He is unable to wield his hammer and his entire identity is tied to that worthiness. But as the story progresses he goes from rage at the woman who “stole” his hammer, to realizing that she is worthy to wield it, to eventually fighting alongside her.

she is Thor now

A true hero knows worthiness when he sees it. Just don’t call him a sidekick.

While Odinson comes to respect her and accepts her as Thor, he also swears to find out her true identity. This process involves him making a list of all the women he knows who he believes might be worthy of wielding Mjolnir. It is a long list. As Thor fights frost giants and generally gets on with the business of being Thor, Odinson begins checking out each person on his list and crossing off names. Aside from reintroducing some female characters with solid potential for the series, it makes explicit the fact that there are a great many women in the Thor continuity that are worthy of being Thor. And that’s just people the old Thor knows personally! As Odinson comes to realize that anger at the worthiness of another is beneath him and begins to focus on becoming worthy himself, we the readers are shown that there are plenty of women who are more than worthy of filling his shoes. Freya the All-Mother, for one.

Very early on we are informed that Odin is returning to Asgardia from a self-imposed exile after a long period of rule by Freya. Her rule has been wise and generally considered fantastic. But, uninterested in maintaining the stability and prosperity his wife has built, Odin is mainly just pissed off about the lady Thor (not “Lady Thor”, she hates that, it’s just Thor) situation. Really pissed off. Like “angry god on a rampage” level pissed off. Odin is in a blind rage that his son is seemingly unworthy and that a woman has “stolen” the all-powerful Mjolnir. The hammer has declared her worthy to pick it up when it would not budge an inch for Odinson or even Odin himself. The combination of a general vibe that he’s a less worthy ruler than his wife and having both himself and his son publicly shown to be less worthy than an unknown woman causes Odin to essentially snap. He allows his rage to lead him into one immensely dangerous and unpopular decision after another (executing wizards who can’t find her identity, dissolving the senate, putting a traitorous madman in charge of security, etc…) with the sole focus of recovering Mjolnir by force. He is in many ways a personification of toxic masculinity. When faced with the reality that he may not be as inherently superior as he believes, he lashes out violently and recklessly at the first powerful woman to cross his path, endangering countless others due to misplaced pride and anger.

The All-Mother, however, is not about to let the All-Father screw everything up because he’s mad at his son and feeling emasculated. Before the titular character is even introduced, we are treated to a powerful female role model fighting an unreasonable man who is letting his anger and prejudice get the best of him to everyone’s detriment.

When Thor is having a moment of uncertainty, Freya visits with a warning of what is to come and an affirmation of her worthiness, but also with a reminder that the name of Thor is her real burden. We are shown that a character wielding Mjolnir has less of a challenge in proving her worthiness to the gods than a female character being called Thor does proving it to some readers.

Freyya and Thor

Sometimes, even a goddess has a glass ceiling to smash.

As she fights, we are increasingly shown that the new Thor is, in every way, worthy of both the name and the hammer. She constantly evinces the essence of the Thor character perfectly and one villain or ally after another says something to the effect of “yup, she’s Thor all right”.

Eventually Odinson’s journey to discover the identity of Thor leads him to truly embrace his own. He has accepted that he is unworthy and is dedicated to becoming worthy again, with Thor as an example. The All-Father, however, is still not convinced. Odinson comes to his mother to aid her in standing with Thor against Odin, using “Odinson’s handy list of women worthy of being Thor” as a recruitment roster for their army. Only by joining with the woman who has assumed his identity, his mother, and a literal army of the most inspiring and powerful women he knows, is Odinson able to defeat an immensely powerful foe, the Destroyer.

Not only are they able to hold their own against a supposedly unbeatable enemy, they show Odin the wrongness of his position, shaming him into standing down. Even the All-Father must admit that he is wrong when faced with such overwhelming proof of worthiness; not only Thor’s, but Freya’s and to an extent all women’s as well.

“Let it go. Your All-Father has spoken. Damn you woman. Damn you for making me the villain.”

—Odin at being confronted and defeated by Freya.

As the series progresses, we eventually learn the identity of the new Thor: Jane Foster. This is a woman who has been part of the Thor universe since the literal beginning (there’s even an issue of this series done as a retro “what if” where she was the original Thor, but I digress). When she first gains the power to wield Mjolnir, she is with the Asgardians being treated for advanced breast cancer. Even as she lays, potentially dying, in an alien hospital bed, all she cares about is protecting others from harm. This need is so powerful that she is able to wield Mjolnir (apparently better than Odinson) and become the goddess of thunder. If this woman in this situation is not worthy of being called Thor, nobody ever will be.

Thor's Identity

“We need a god who understands what it means to be humble. To be mortal…. Who suffers so that no one else will have to. A god who loves Earth enough to die for it. I am Dr. Jane Foster, and I will not stop being the mighty Thor. Even though it is killing me.”—Thor

The series quickly succeeds in showing us, many times over, that a woman can be Thor. Her worthiness is thoroughly proven to other characters and readers alike. That alone, however, is not enough. Not only must the audience believe that she’s worthy, they need to care. For this to work as a superhero comic beyond its feminism, it needs to draw the reader in and make them invest in the character.

This is accomplished mostly through internal monologue. In this fashion, the reader is directly connected to the character. Her thoughts resemble those of a regular human suddenly thrust into the role of an A-List superhero, she’s the kid reading their first comic and the version of that kid that exists in us all. When she speaks, she’s Thor, when she thinks, she’s us. No matter if she’s spouting banter, scrambling to think of good banter to spout, freaking out about how cool her powers are, or reacting with geeky joy to hearing herself speak as Thor, she serves as a very solid proxy for the reader; all types of readers. That first kid picking up an issue of The Mighty Thor and being inspired and the jaded thirty something reliving that moment can both connect to the character equally, even as the narrative shows us why we should want to.

say something badass

Coming up with good banter, hardest part of starting on the job.

And that’s the thing, no matter if that kid is a boy or a girl or any other gender, they still get that connection. When our heroes look like we do (or want to) it may provide extra reinforcement, but when they don’t… they’re still our heroes. Girls are often told that they shouldn’t have a problem being inspired by boy heroes. They shouldn’t. They don’t. But when a hero that’s always been explicitly a boy is suddenly a girl, readers of all genders are invited to ask why it matters. And the thing is… it doesn’t matter. Superheroes, be they Thor or anyone else, are ideas. There is no who, simply a what. All that matters is that we like, even need, what they represent.

This series does a brilliant job of being a metaphor for the fallacy of the paranoia about inclusiveness even as it serves as a fantastic example of why those fears are groundless. It says what I would now say to the people making those hateful, ignorant comments that caused me to take a look at new Thor in the first place:

“Thor’s a woman, get over it and enjoy the ride!”

The first two arcs of The Mighty Thor are now collected in TPB form and are definitely worth picking up, even if only to get a chance to see Thor beat the living daylights out of a stand in for internet trolls.

1 Available as part of the collection “The Geek Feminist Revolution

Some scans in this article were taken from a solid review on The Swarthmore College Daily Gazette.

Our own Lady Saika’s original review of The Mighty Thor.

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5 thoughts on “Sexualized Saturdays: Worthy of the Name—Thor and Representation

  1. Sort of fascinating… one of my biggest problems with this story is actually what you like it for.

    I mean when the story is much more interested in other characters’ (mostly, but not exclusively, men) relationship with what the new Thor represents (a mystery to solve, an obstacle to remove, a symbol to protect etc.), than in her as a character, her struggle, her achievements and losses*, or occasionally even the big overarching narrative**.

    * I feel the comic regularly cheats (by dressing up opponents forfeiting fights as wins for example) and opts for telling not showing to get away with as little as possible in this department which disappoints me a great deal.
    ** This comes back with a vengeance after the relaunch, but you just wrote a summary about the first 8 issue run without mentioning it once.

    • Solid points! When it comes to the retention of Odinson as a secondary main character I think it’s mostly due to the fact that longtime regular readers of Thor comics (disclosure, I only recently started reading it regularly again) have become invested in that character. Even though she is Thor, he’s still someone they want to read about, at least as a major side plot. Plus, the way they use Odinson’s fragile masculinity and eventual rapprochement show that he is ultimately capable of being a positive male role model which I think was viewed by the creators as a key part of their feminist arguments. He ultimately recognizes that her ability does not diminish his and accepts the supporting role when it’s the right decision. I also loved that Freya is an incredibly good role model and strong female character (in every sense of the term). Their relationship is arguably the most important one in the series so far, potentially more so than Jane’s prior relationship with Odinson.

      As far as her standing on her own merits, I didn’t want to do too much summation (this wasn’t meant to be a standard review). Her battle with the frost giants establishes that she is capable of fighting like Thor and her second fight in Roxion’s HQ establishes that even without Mjolinr she can fight like a superhero. To me the goal was to show that she is Thor; not Lady Thor or Thordis* but Thor. The fight scenes also establish that she can make Mjolinr do things Odinson never could, they establish that even without Asgardian DNA Dr. Foster can fight at a level more than worthy of the name.

      P.S. I actually loved the “one time girl power pass” scene! They go from a female villain acknowledging that seeing a woman succeed as Thor is more important to her than winning a specific fight, they have a moment of solidarity, and Thor then beats the crap out of her because that’s what Thor does to baddies 🙂

      Thank you again for that comment, makes me want to re read it all again 🙂

      * I Could do an entire article on that What If issue! So much feminist theory and potential story foreshadowing hidden in parody!

      • I don’t just talk about the Odinson, there is also Odin (for him she is an intruder to destroy), Freyja (for her she is a symbol to protect) and so forth. there are several subplots/discussions in this comic in which Jane isn’t the subject, but the object. Where it doesn’t really matter who she is, just what she is.

        That first arc also diminishes her achievement with a last twist (a twist needed for the big plot* apparently) “Congratulations! You’ve won the fight that was supposed to be won!”. Then Titania refusing to fight, then fight with the Destoyer Armor she gets a lot of help with (which she doesn’t seem to appreciate; also a fight that stops her from actually engaging the villains) etc. … yeah, there is more but that would go deep into spoilers territory on recent comics. ^^;

        The narrative, while letting characters talk about how good she is at being Thor at length, for some reason doesn’t seem to allow her clear wins.

        2 years… Two years worth of comics and I literally can’t recall anything she truly won (maybe in the current arc she will? Maybe?). The worst thing is, I want to, they managed to make me care.

        * And I mean big (even if probably not as interesting to analyse), it’s building since at least 2013, “the Accursed” arc of Thor God of Thunder.

  2. Interestingly, in the original medieval Norse source materials, Thor is one of several “manly” figures who ends up doing “un-manly” things in order to succeed at various points, including going in drag, essentially…Which, while not directly relevant to your overall points here, or to the Mighty Thor comic series, nonetheless problematizes the assumptions that some of those who might react against this development might try and argue.

    • Hate to admit… that was part of my initial hesitation as well. The Norse god on which Thor is based was a dude, therefore Thor is “supposed to be” a dude.

      Aside from the obvious “we’re talking about alien superheroes based on mythological gods and a magic hammer that can convey superpowers to the wielder, ‘historical accuracy’ isn’t really an issue” thing, I think that’s a huge part of the subtext to the Freya/Odin stuff.

      Freya (the god not just the Thor character) is awesome and we now know that there were tons of female warriors in the cultures that inspired those myths. I think a large part of the Freya story, aside from providing another solid female lead, is to point out that a lot of the women in those old stories are equally capable of being warrior archetypes.

      Thanks for bringing that up! I was going to touch on the Norse mythology aspects but they didn’t seem to fit anywhere.

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