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!
When 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.