Aug 19 2013 10:00am

Loki and Gender Ambiguity

Female fans of Thor and The Avengers produce a great deal of creative work centered on Marvel’s movie incarnation of Loki, and it seems to me that something notable lies behind this interest. I dare say it is easier for women to identify with the character of Loki than with the average male action movie character, though “identification” is a difficult word to work with, as a person’s engagement with a character can’t be read reflexively as based in a feeling of affinity—after all, it can be the opposite, in particular where villains are concerned. At least, then, it is easier to empathize.

It’s with some bitterness that I note complex female characters are thin on the ground*, that my readers will not be surprised to hear as much, and that this pushes women towards identification with males. As per the norm, Thor and The Avengers are movies dominated by their male characters (granted that the latter introduces a woman with an emotional arc—more revelation than development, but we take what we can get—in Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow). Whoever can bridge the gap is appreciated, whatever the means needed to shore up their ability to do so.

* Pacific Rim has its Mako Mori, and while self-conscious feminists have received her positively, there isn’t the visceral response as there is to Loki.

Which brings me to the intelligence of fandom and the extent to which we can presume fans are aware of the legend and myth which inspired Marvel’s vaguely Norse characters. A poll would be appreciated. How many know the story of Loki’s mothering the eight-legged horse Sleipnir? How about the caper of Mjolnir’s recovery, in which Loki convinces Thor to cross-dress as Freyja and himself takes on the disguise of a handmaid? More obscure but still available is the accusation leveled at him by Odin in the Lokasenna: that he spent eight years on earth as a woman and mother of children (I say “accusation,” but Loki doesn’t argue). I do not imagine it matters that these details haven’t (alas!) been included explicitly in Marvel’s canon, but what isn’t explicit is the purview of fans. It’s there to use—I’m sure it has been.**

** A side note: when a movie is made wherein Loki searches for meaning as a human woman and mother, I will see it in theaters again and again and buy so many copies. The Avengers could make an appearance as the most disturbed superheroes to ever walk in on a demigod changing a diaper.

As a useful contrast to Loki, consider Thor: Chris Hemsworth’s pelvic cut aside, he is eminently manly with his prodigious appetite, raw power-focused fighting style, and the gentlemanly kisses he bestows on Jane Foster’s hand. It is difficult to imagine those traits translated directly into a woman’s experience, regardless of one’s ideological stance in regards to gender roles and behaviors (that is: speaking from the perspective of cultural norms, there is little space in Thor for female identification). Loki, on the other hand, looks slender next to Thor—despite those shoulder pads—and fights at a distance (until he takes up a position of power, at which juncture his weapon becomes a spear; I’ll reserve further comment on that) and predominantly depends upon magic and manipulation of events for success (replace “magic” with “spy skills” for a parallel with Black Widow). He does not have an explicit female love interest in Thor or The Avengers, which spares him from the stereotypical male role in romance.

I don’t want to overstate the influence of his canonical actions, however. Besides all the ways in which his narrative is shaped by maleness, he has his problematic moments: during a fight scene in Thor he threatens to rape Jane Foster (as a means of provoking his brother), and in The Avengers he levels the insult of “mewling quim” at Black Widow (my thoughts on this are mixed; I will say that I tip my hat to the fact that Hiddleston managed to make it sound like an insult despite its being archaic and ridiculous). This hasn’t gone unnoticed by feminist fans; I have seen at least one complaint (with apologies that I cannot trace this to its source) that this misogyny is peculiar coming from a character whose inspiration is rooted in a gender-ambiguous trickster figure.

There are, of course, other qualities that make this character attractive—who doesn’t love a fall from grace, a (purported) wicked wit, and that swanky helmet? These said, it bears repeating: in a world where women have been trained to approach media with the willingness to identify with and focus on men, a figure with even a smidge of gender ambiguity is an attraction. This is a roundabout feminization constructed on the basis of contrast, lack, dependence on gender tropes, and outside information, but the thought remains: Loki might well have his minimum of off-putting mannishness to credit for his fandom popularity.

S.M. Wheeler lives in California. Her first novel, Sea Change, is available now. You can follow her on Twitter.

jon meltzer
1. jmeltzer
It could just be that Tom Hiddleston is a better actor than Chris Hemsworth. :-)
2. mrippy
Or perhaps, it is just that Loki comes across as more intelligent and witty and thus more appealing...
Paul Weimer
3. PrinceJvstin
Chadwick Ginther's novel THUNDER ROAD has a Loki in it who explicitly changes gender. He often does it just to get a rise out of the main character and get a rise out of him. That Loki is clearly comfortable with being identified with either gender.
4. chaosprime
As far as Marvel and the eight-years-as-a-woman thing goes, Loki actually spent a good chunk of time female in Marvel canon a few years ago. (Apparently it was really Sif's body; w/e.) Check his Wikipedia article.
Andrew Gray
5. madogvelkor
Offensive it might be, but I've heard women call each other worse than “mewling quim” before. I don't think it detracts from the idea that he is rather ambigious in his gender.

And when you think about it, shapeshifters naturally would be. If Loki can turn into a horse, then a little natural curiousity about being a woman is a lot easier to explore...
Bridget Smith
6. BridgetSmith
This is really intriguing commentary! But I think the influence of Tom Hiddleston's charisma cannot be overstated.
Shelly wb
7. shellywb
I think you're over-thinking this. Loki is hot. He's handsome, charismatic, intelligent, sexy, witty and a bad boy with an angsty background. That's prime romance hero material. Couple him with a gorgeous brother who has more chemistry with him than the intended heroine, and you have prime slash material. Those are the primary driving forces of his popularity.
8. Darket
This is interesting... i've never read even a little bit of Marvel's Thor comics, I live in Europe and American comics were nowhere to be found when I was a kid, we had a different taste in hero stereotypes (Donald Duck was and is my hero... Asterix and Tintin come in second and third).

Anyway, I grew up with Norse mythology and Scandinavian history and the ability to 'change' gender is very much part of the 'canon' if I may call it that... However in my interpretation the gods dont 'change' gender since the gods dont 'shapeshift' but put on (literally) the skin of any animal the want to disguise themselves as, and become that animal, regardless of the gender of the previously owner of the skin... Sooo... I think there is a big difference between being gender ambigious and putting on a dress to fool someone into believing you are a woman (while you very much identify yourself as male which both Thor and Loke did while disguised as bride and handmaiden)... And the stories of Loke mothering(/fathering/parenting?) Sleipner and other stories where the gods are 'accused' of having female traits are recognized to be partly due to Christian propaganda around year 1200, in which the main objective was to feminize or make the Norse gods look weak, this is predominant especially in Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus's history books...

Insted Marvel should give some of the kick ass godesses of the Norse mythology some screen time! Let Sif have her own story (before decides to marry Thor) and let Frigg and Freja bash some heads in too...
9. lorq
This article certainly squares with my experience: while we were watching "The Avengers" my girlfriend's interest *immediately* gravitated to Loki, and not in his capacity as a sexy male but rather as an androgynous point of identification. It didn't hurt that he actually resembled her (pale, dark brown hair, slender, though he had an edge in the funky helmet department; I see a Halloween costume in the near future...)

Presumably all of this applies to how I imagine many women responded to Elijah Wood's Frodo, who was nothing if not androgynous. (And as a bonus, Frodo had a stalwart/loving/trusting male partner by his side at all times.)
Matt Stoumbaugh
10. LazerWulf
Sara Crow
11. CrowBride
One other thing to consider: even without being informed by Loki's Norse mythology, he is portrayed in this movie as being innately "the Other." This portrayal is pretty easy for women to identify with, since we get pigeonholed into this role so often as well (especially if we're not conventionally "pretty" or interested in "girl things"). Loki seems to be somewhat justified in his disdain, feeling constantly like he plays second to someone who's destined to fill a role of power that, as an alien and outsider, he feels he'll never be able to achieve. I know so many women who can identify with that issue--being on the outside of the "boys' club" is really difficult, especially professionally--so I think it's pretty natural for us to feel some sympathy for Loki.

I wonder how much of that influence subconsciously molded my own perspective, actually. I can't begin to tell you how many times the "bad guy" used to win in my play as a kid. Some of the first stories I wrote were reversals of the "bad guy" in fairy tales, and I always liked Maleficent way more than stupid, pretty Aurora.

(going to copy this to FB since sometimes discussion moves better there--sorry for the repost for those of you who are on both platforms)
Stuart Forsyth
12. stuartforsyth
Can't we just rename the movies Loki and be done with it. Loki's a far more interesting and entertaining character than a poncy blond He-man dressed in "his mother's drapes". It's like watching Loki and a two-dimensional cardboard cutout on screen.
Ruthanna Emrys
13. R.Emrys
Not a movie (alas), but if you don't mind a little slashy-but-well-written fanfic, I direct your attention to SamStoryteller's "Incredibly Hot and Currently Female," and more relevantly the sequel story ("The Epic of T. Stark Lokison, Adventurer."). Complete with disturbed Avengers and diaper changing.

StuartForsyth: Reviews of the "Loki movies" at the Ex Urbe blog not linked because I suspect that would put me over the link limit, but easy to Google.
14. Lynne Stringer
When it comes to the Thor/Loki debate, I think there's always more room for character development and opportunities to simply have fun with a role when you're playing the villain, as opposed to playing the hero. Tom Hiddleston therefore has more opportunity to show his acting prowess, whereas Chris Hemsworth has a metaphorical straitjacket on in comparison.
As for Loki's feminine qualities, I certainly agree that they're there. He reminds me, in a bizarre way, of Ernst Stavro Blofeld from the Bond movies. You know, quiet type who sits calmly stroking his cat while he lets his minions do his bidding and run all the risks.
Melissa Shumake
15. cherie_2137
i honestly have never really understood the loki hype- until the new trailer for thor 2 came out. when jane slaps him and he gets that grin on his face, my knees get all weak.

also, mewling quim. it shocked me on a couple levels, one, that it got past the censors, two, that essentially no one else in the theater with me seemed remotely fazed by it. three, because it's a really terrible thing to call a lady.
16. Fake Person
17. Dianthus
I can't speak to the character of Loki per se, but I am drawn to male characters (i.e., Fox Mulder, Spike) who are in touch with their Anima. There are other reasons as well, these two characters in particular being non-conformists in many ways, but I think your article has helped me figure out just why I love them so.
It's not that I dislike Scully and Buffy. I like 'em fine, but they tend to display characteristics more typically associated with the masculine. Despite the presence of these strong female characters, I'm still more likely to associate with Mulder and Spike, partly b/c of the gender-role reversal. I hadn't really looked at it that way up 'til now.
18. scyllaya
Saying that "I'm going to pay her a visit myself" in itself it not a rape threat. It's a threat of violence, but not rape. It is not even implied. Just because he threatens to personally search out the woman Thor has spent some days with it doesn't mean he's threatening to rape her.

He implies violence, but it is nowhere implied whether he means anything specific with it. Murder? Torture? He says nothing. He literally just threatens to search her out and do "something".

I think it's a little far-fetched to label it as a "rape threat".
19. Kensai
In the comic, anyone remember the Alex Ross EarthX? Thor is changed into female form and banished to earth by Odin due to trickery by Loki.

Of course the change just seemed to make Thor's behavior even more manly, go figure.
Alan Brown
20. AlanBrown
The problem with a female Loki is that then, instead of simply being the 'trickster,' she becomes the femme fatale, and fits into that whole distasteful image of the female as the root of evil, the one who convinced Adam to take a bite of the apple, etc, etc.Besides Mr. Hiddleston's great acting skills, the appeal of Loki is that he fights with his intellect, where Thor fights with his brawn, and the former approach always makes for a more interesting character.
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
21. Lisamarie
I am at most a casual fan of the Avengers. Captain America is my favorite, and actually the character I would say I 'identify' the most with (if by identifying with we are meaning a character we aspire to be like, admire, view as an ideal version of oneself, etc) despite being female. And I am also a big sucker for his particular 'look'.

But...yes, I definitely have strayed into Loki fangirl moments. But I have to say I partially agree with the others that it's more about the wit, the smarmy charm, the somewhat sympathetic background, especially for anybody that ever felt excluded or like an outcast (which can be pretty commen for women). And a good villain is always intriguing. Now, I do wonder if women are perhaps more inclined to want to sympathize with/understand a villain, and maybe even redeem them? At any rate, I just find him very entertaining, and he actually does happen to be one of the 'types' I find very attractive (slender, clean shaven, etc). The other being the bright eyed blonde haird, blue eyed wholesome farmboy look as mentioned above (Captain America, Luke Skywalker, etc). And I AM aware that my two favorite characters from the movie are somewhat diametrically opposed!

The other character of this type that is kind of coming to mind right now is the movie version of Snape in Harry Potter, although I don't think there is quite as much fan-girling in the romantic sense with that character (although Alan Rickman's portrayal doesn't hurt!), and he isn't a villain despite some of his nastier qualities. But it's similar - snarky, outcast, tragic past, sneaky, uses potions/poisons, mind powers/manipulation, and lots of alternative character interpretation.

That said, I would also totally see a movie about Loki exploring himself as a mother. Ha! And I was not aware of some of the background of the character, which is quite interesting.

I also had no prior idea what a 'quim' was (I had to look it up - I thought it was a made up Asgardian thing), but even so, I don't know if using the term is misogynist or even contradictory even if he did at times identify as a woman. Women call each other nasty things all the times. Also, sometimes people just want to insult people and so they pick a word that attacks something specific and crucial to what they are. While it's very distasteful, I'm not sure it always reflects how they feel about women in general (maybe subconsciuosly in some cases).
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
22. Lisamarie
Also, to the person who mentioned Frodo, haha - oh man, was I in love with him too. I had such a thing for Elijah Wood. Although Faramir is really my FAVORITE character.
Alan Brown
23. AlanBrown
Captain America has always been a favorite of mine, probably because I come from an era when we looked up to the heroes who won WWII. I always imagined Cap fighting alongside my dad on the battlefields of Europe...
Frodo is a character that appeals to a lot of people as a kind of everyman. He certainly doesn't fit the standard macho hero mode, so despite the good versus evil thing, I can see his character having things in common with Loki.
I myself like Faramir as well, but I must clarify by that I mean book Faramir. The guy in the movie, not so much...
Alan Brown
24. AlanBrown
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
25. Lisamarie
Oh yes, I meant book!Faramir, of course! The first conversation my husband and I ever had (we met online) was actually me arguing with him that movie!Faramir was more of a travesty than movie!Aragorn. Good times :)
26. Fruit
I certainly agree with #11 that Loki's narrative (in Thor) is that of an "Other" figure who fails to meet expectations about what is desirable and valuable in his society through no fault of his own and in spite of his best efforts, and that is part of the reason he is so popular with women, but feeling excluded or that your talents aren't valued is a pretty universal thing. Several sites have pointed out that Loki makes a very obvious allegory for internalised racism, as his externalising of his self-hatred and his compensating attempt to be The Most Asgardian Asgardian Ever after he discovers his paternity are what drive his downfall. His desperation to be acknowledged as Thor's equal becomes consuming as he realises he has no birthright or guaranteed place in his family. He attempts to destroy the Frost Giants altogether so that there can be no question of his being one of them.

So, there is a lot for the disenfranchised, rejected, and out of the ordinary to empathise with in his character, certainly.

However, the film character is not the mythic character and there is nothing whatsoever ambiguous or fluid about his gender. He's a man with traditionally masculine issues about his place in the power hierarchy and his father's affections as a second son, rivalry with his brother, and fear of being perceived as weak. There's nothing inherently feminine about manipulation, ranged combat, or being the smartest person in the room. In Hollywood, those are primarily traits of the male villain- which is pretty disturbing, really.

The biggest appeal, I think, is actually that Loki is not a villain in Thor at all. He is a pretty textbook tragic hero. It's like if you took Hamlet and Macbeth and smashed their heads together; high melodrama with superheroes. A tragic hero whose fall is relateable and sympathetic, who is also sly and witty, played with maximum possible emotional expression by a very charismatic, very beautiful actor is an extremely attractive thing. People want him to be redeemed and feel his pain, but they enjoy his outsider snarking on the status quo after he loses it; he's entertaining on multiple levels.
Shiloh West
27. Shiloh
Gender ambiguity? No not at all. I don't see it, he looks like a prince to me. I feel his pain and I understand it, he took the wrong direction as his pain turned to unbearable anger. I can't help but to hope he finds the right path. I love that emotional ride. It doesn't hurt that he is handsom and sexy.

I like
#26. Fruit's answer

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