Thursday, July 17, 2014

Regarding (Female) Thor

On 16 July 2014, Brett White's "A New God of Thunder Debuts in Thor This October" appeared on In the piece, White notes the announcement that the role of the Nordic thunder-god will be assumed by a female character of unknown identity, following the comic-universe paradigm of Mjolnir being wielded by whoever is worthy. It is an announcement that has attracted much attention; Alex Fitzpatrick's 15 July 2014 piece "Here's Why a Female Thor Makes Total Sense" discusses it, as does David Betancourt's 16 July 2014 Washington Post piece "The New Female Thor: From Asgard to New Guard, Five Things to Know about Marvel's Bolt from the Blue." So, too, do Paris Lees's 16 July 2014 Guardian piece "A Female Thor is Good--A Feminine Male Superhero Would Be Better" and George Gene Gustines's 16 July 2014 New York Times piece "Marvel Will Introduce a Female Thor This Fall." The announcement has also been made a vehicle for satire, as in Rex W. Huppke's 17 July 2014 Chicago Tribune piece "The Female Thor Sits down with Human Resources." The presence of pieces on the subject of the character in many major United States newspapers bespeak the significance of the decision and of the character, generally; the refiguring of Þórr in popular culture is a matter of broad interest. And as comments, particularly on White's piece, note, it is one that prompts some of the...less fortunate tendencies in people to emerge.

That the assumption by a female character of the attributes of the most famous son of Oðinn irks so many betrays sexist leanings amid the comic's readership, which is both deplorable and worth exploring so that the underlying causes can be examined and worked against.* Perhaps more relevant to the specific goals of the Society is that the consternation with the way in which the character is being reshaped ignores the ways in which the character has already been reshaped, not only in multimedia presentation (the need to alter concepts for different presentation venues is a commonplace) but also in its core conception in the dominant Marvel comics continuum. While Marvel keeps Thor the son of Odin (using modern Anglicized versions of the names), the seeming punishment Thor endures of being mindwiped and embodied in a blond-haired, blue-eyed medical student of differing ability is an...interesting appropriation, yet one embodied in the beginning of the character's presence in the continuum. Is not the character "supposed" to be red-haired and bearded? Whence the flying through the power of the hammer (an early instantiation of troll physics, perhaps)? Whither the children the character is supposed to have? Yet such changes from the "source materials" pass without comment from the comics' fanbase (I imagine that medievalists who have turned their attention to the work do complain, as did one folklorist of my acquaintance in regards to the 2011 Branagh film), although they are hardly insignificant.**

Underlying that lack of complaint is likely a lack of awareness of the older materials. How many know Þórr from the Eddas and sagas is unclear to me; how many know him from the older materials not...inflected by Christian recording practices is likewise unclear to me, although I expect the number is far lower. For the great majority of the comic's readers, then, the Marvel version of the character is likely to be the "real" one, much as many children in the United States view the Disney version of Cinderella as the "real" one and react to the much earlier Grimm version as somehow a perversion of the story. It becomes a foundational narrative through which other concepts are filtered, particularly when introduced to people in their youth as comic books tend to be (like what I discuss here). As such, it assumes a privileged place in popular conception and alterations to it are met with resistance, as evidenced by the comments section of the White piece. And I have to wonder how much of a portal to further examination of the medieval by the readership it becomes. There is, after all, significant overlap between comic-book readership and RPG playership, as trips to comics conventions, gaming conventions, comics shops, and RPG sessions will quickly reveal, and the RPG is sometimes such a portal, as I note. There is similarly overlap between comic book readership and fantasy readership, and fantasy readership also serves as such a portal. How comic books serve such a function might be worth investigating, and the results of that investigation used to help determine how much effort needs to be put into "correcting" the presentation of the medieval in the comic, as there have been calls to do.

Whatever the cause, the figuration of Marvel's Thor as a female does much to highlight the fraught nature of appropriation and adaptation. How changes to seemingly "settled" intellectual units function and how audiences react to them surely reveal much of the cultures that enact such changes and the audiences that react. As I write, what seems said of the former is that there is an effort to be more gender-inclusive, which is surely a good thing in principle even if the execution may be somewhat contestable. What seems said of the latter in general is less pleasant. Yet even that unpleasantness suggests that there is something about the way in which the medieval is presented and represented that is of particular importance to popular audiences in the United States; the vehemence of the reaction argues in favor of the centrality of the medievalist to popular culture no less than does the ample mainstream media attention mentioned above. This means, of course, that the medieval itself remains in a position of privilege, which is good news for medieval studies scholars; if it is important, then there will be continued need for the work we do.

*Three things come up here:

  1. Helen Young addresses something along the same lines here;
  2. harryfisher87 leaves a telling comment on the White piece that speaks to the sexist issue; and
  3. I am not sufficiently well equipped in feminist theory to do the necessary explicatory work for such a project, although I would very much enjoy reading the efforts of those who are, perhaps following up on Helen Young's work.
**This issue seems to keep coming up in this blog, as evidenced by the pieces linked above, this piece, and this piece. There is tension between accuracy and story and between accuracy and audience expectation, the negotiation of which is delicate, indeed.

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