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.


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