Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Let Us Talk About Thor for a Moment

Well, I've been slack with blogging lately. Let me get back into the swing of things with a whole lot of talk about how Thor is awesome. 

Of all the superhero films to be released in the last decade, Thor, to me, stands head and shoulders above the others in terms of its feminist interpretation. It might seem strange that I consider a superhero movie about a Norse god to be one of the most feminist films I have ever seen, but I have sound evidence for this claim: namely, every scene in which Thor appears with a woman (and indeed many scenes with women, but no Thor). Thor is a movie that passes the Bechdel Test within the first minute, and then continues to pass on many more occasions. Even without that, what Thor presents is a way in which a man can be a strong feminist, while still remaining Manly enough to be played by shirtless Chris Hemsworth*.

From the beginning, we are shown that Thor is a feminist. In his first real interaction with a woman, we discover that Thor supported the Lady Sif as she fought to become recognised as a warrior equal to any man. At the same time, he is also quick to acknowledge that it was Sif's own skill, rather than his support, that truly proved society wrong. Even at this stage of his life, before he undergoes the humbling experience of his banishment to Midgard, Thor is still the quintessential feminist man - not only willing to make an effort to help women who want to buck their traditional gender-proscribed roles, but also willing to give those women the credit for the role their own skill played in said efforts.

After his banishment, Thor once again shows his feminist credentials. After his initial rudeness, when he is still recovering from the abruptness of his banishment, the relationship between Thor and Jane Foster develops with an incredible level of equality. While Jane is unsure of Thor's sanity, Thor treats her with unwavering respect. Even though he is unaware of the cultural reasons for which she requests that he not smash mugs, he does not question her judgement. Later in the movie, in the lead up to the battle with the Destroyer, he demonstrates this trust in her judgement once more, when he accepts without question her decision to stay as long as he does. There is no doubt that he would prefer that she be safe, but in Thor's world, his preferences are worth less than her decisions. Which is the way it should be.

As a warrior, Thor could also quite easily fall into the trap of believing that those who do not fight are somehow "less worthy" than those who do. Captain America falls into this trap, believing that non-combat work is beneath him. Thor, on the other hand, recognises valour even in non-combat roles. When Jane admits that she has never done anything as risky as sneaking into a SHIELD installation before, Thor does not proclaim himself to be better than her for having engaged in similar acts before, nor does he offer her false platitudes. Instead, he simply says she is brave to do so, and the simple honesty in his voice indicates that he believes that her bravery is not diminished by the fact that she has never had a chance to prove it before. Later, once more in the lead up to the battle with the Destroyer, Thor further demonstrates his character by choosing to take the less glamorous task of leading the retreat upon himself, while leaving the battle in the hands of Sif - a woman. For Thor, arbitrary gender distinctions are much less important than an individual's actual capabilities. While not in and of itself explicitly feminist, in the context of a society in which combat roles are both glorified and predominantly male, Thor's choice to equally value both combat and non-combat roles is indicative of a fundamental belief in the equality of men and women, regardless of their role in society.

Throughout the movie, Thor's affection for Jane is shown to be driven mainly - or even solely - by his regard for her character. Not once in the entire movie does he compliment her on her looks (even though Natalie Portman is clearly very beautiful). He does, however, compliment her on her intelligence, and thank her for helping in his time of need. When Jane asks him to tell her about the Bifrost, there is no condescension in his attitude. While Jane might know less than he does, Thor treats this as being merely because she hasn't been taught yet, rather than because of any mental inferiority on her part. This might seem to be a minor thing to be complimenting Thor on, but given how any woman who chooses to engage in traditionally male-dominated activities (and many who don't) will at some have to deal with That Guy who knows less than you do, but still insists on explaining everything to you as though you were a child, it is well worth pointing out how refreshing Thor's respectful attitude is.

He also proves that he has character enough to think of Jane's desires during his darkest hour. After being unable to retrieve his hammer, being captured by SHIELD and being told that his father had died, Thor still has enough presence of mind to retrieve Jane's notebook as he is leaving the SHIELD installation. By retrieving her research, he is symbolically giving her the greatest gift she could receive - the chance to continue her work, and to receive recognition for what she has done. He initially apologies for not being able to do any more than he did, though upon getting his powers back, his first action after dealing with the immediate threat is to ensure that Jane has all her stolen belongings returned. There is no indication that he is placing Jane's needs above his own - rather, he recognises that his own pain does not absolve him of his responsibility to treat her with respect, and feels an obligation to do what is in his power to make things fair for her.

This is one of the most important scenes in cinema history.
This analysis of Thor would not be complete without looking at the role of women in the story. Unlike Iron Man, in which Pepper Pots is largely defined in terms of her role as Tony Stark's assistant, or The Incredible Hulk, in which Betty drops her entire life (including that nice psychiatrist boyfriend, who actually seemed like a decent sort) immediately upon Bruce Banner's return, Thor depicts four major female characters (which is as many as all of the other Marvel-produced movies combined), most of whom have their own lives that don't revolve entirely around the main character. Sif, while mostly being presented as Thor’s close friend, defines herself as a warrior, and is a capable leader in her own right. Darcy, while admittedly shallow, has a degree in political science, and can be seen as a girl who lives life as it pleases herself – whether that means tasering the God of Thunder, or perving on his hot abs. She also manages to pull of the role of comic sidekick – which is usually reserved for men. As for Jane, her interest in Thor is primarily motivated by her research. Indeed, upon their first meeting, she ignores his potential injuries in favour of taking soil samples. Later on, she seeks him out - not because he is a man, but because he can give her information.  Rather than being Thor’s love interest who happens to be a scientist, she could better be defined as a scientist, who just happened to fall in love with Thor. Frigga, Thor's mother, is the only woman who is defined primarily in terms of her relationship with men - both as the wife of Odin and the mother of Thor and Loki. Still, with three women out of four women being strong, independent characters, the movie is doing an above average job with female representation. 

The end result of these many and varied demonstrations of feminism in the film Thor is that I never tire of rewatching it. Merely watching Thor interact with the women in his life makes me feel good about being a woman, and makes me feel good about men. It seems only logical that I should use Thor as the standard against which I judge men in the future. No, I don’t expect them to be able to control lightning or fly. All I want is for them to treat me the same way that Thor would. Thor, you see, is what every man should be. If only he looked like Tom Hiddleston, I would consider him perfect for me in every way.

Tom Hiddleston has fantastic cheekbones.
Also, blue eyes and black hair makes me swoon.

*Shirtless Chris Hemsworth is at least ten times more manly than regular Chris Hemsworth.


  1. Darcy ... can be seen as a girl who lives life as it pleases herself – whether that means tasering the God of Thunder, or perving on his hot abs.

    Debi Pless has a very nice take on Darcy and the taser incident.

    1. Thanks for the link! It's great to see other people reading similar messages into the film.

  2. Yeah, I was really impressed with this movie, too. I loved Darcy so much; she wasn't in all that many scenes, but she cracked me up every time she appeared.

    I wish I knew more about the Thor from the comics, whether the character is as egalitarian-minded in print as he is on film. (It'd REALLY impress me if that were so, considering the comics started in the early '60s, IIRC!)

    But yes, I also noticed (besides what an unusually memorable supporting character Darcy is) Thor's ... what? Sponsorship? of Sif in her decision to become a warrior, and his respect for Jane, even though she is mortal and a non-combatant. Certainly not what you expect from someone whose main character flaw has been identified as arrogance ...

    (Also agree that there needs to be more Tom Hiddleston, everywhere!)

    1. I have this idea that Thor's arrogance is not of the "everyone else is so useless" variety, but more of the "I'm so awesome, aren't I great; you guys are pretty awesome too, just not as great as me" variety. He's probably quite happy to let other people have their day in the sun, because he doesn't see how it could possibly impact him, since the sun shines out of his abs and all that.

      I actually decided to download some of the Thor comics onto my iPad, because I am clearly weak-minded and am easy prey for Marvel's marketing team. I've been reading the Walter Simonson comics, and there's actually a disappointing lack of women in them. So far (I've only read #337-348) the only women have been Sif, Frigga, and a bunch of women who are either flat out evil or at the very least morally ambiguous. And Thor is under a love spell. So.. yeah. Not so great. Though at least Thor himself didn't seem to have any objection to Sif fighting alongside him and then running off with Beta Ray Bill, so there is that, at least.

      And if you want, I would totally support you in making a law that more people should be Tom Hiddleston, everywhere. I think it would make the world a better place.