Who gets the power when we’re rewriting myths?
Yesterday I posted a news story about the fact that Marvel Comics’ Thor: God of Thunder is now female. When I posted the story, I was elated at the idea that a woman had earned the power of the hammer that controls the very elements. This is a power that is based in both physical and mental strength. It is a power that has rested in a number of different beings over the course of its comic book existence (including a frog). The announcement has received quite a bit of backlash, which is to be expected when a male god is deemed unworthy and replaced by a more worthy female. And even some Romance readers have objected to the change.
After reading through the various objections and concerns, I’m still going to make a case for Thor: Goddess of Thunder, not as a feminist act, but as something we should welcome into the cultural norm as easily as we do the idea of a male Thor. I welcome disagreement and debate; I am simply in the mood to advocate for the widespread acceptance of a woman who holds the power of lightening and thunder in her hands, independent of her male predecessors and symbolic of power that can rest just as easily in the hands of a woman or a man.
Why not a woman?
While many have wondering why Thor should now be a woman, I want to know why Thor shouldn’t and hasn’t (for any significant time) been a woman? When new Thor’s creator, Jason Aaron is asked if he’s a feminist, he says: “I’m not one of those people that think feminist is a bad word. I don’t see why everyone shouldn’t be a feminist.” Which is great, and all, but does Goddess Thor need to be considered a feminist act, and if so, what does that say about the way we conceptualize the kind of power Thor wields? That a frog can be perceived as worthy but a woman somehow ruins the concept? That Thor’s power is now bestowed on a woman has come as such a disruptive shock to so many people is indicative of how comfortable we are with certain conceptions of gender and power. The question has been raised – why not use another goddess in place of a female Thor? But any other goddess is not Thor, does not wield the power of Thor, and does not represent the powerful physicality of Thor.
It’s not enough, aka Marvel is simply exploiting its female fans.
In an article criticizing Marvel’s introduction of a black Captain America and the female Thor, Wired’s Graeme McMillan argues that
Not only are they, by definition, replacements—forced to live up to legacies established by white male characters both in the fictional worlds they inhabit and the minds of the fans reading the comics—but they both got the job because of the failings of their white predecessors rather than on their own merits. . . . From the press release about the new Thor: “No longer is the classic Thunder God able to hold the mighty hammer, Mjölnir, and a brand new female hero will emerge worthy of the name THOR.”
While I, too, am concerned about the longevity issues with these new superheroes, I have to take issue with the idea that one character becoming unworthy means that the character who is deemed worthy is somehow lesser than. Thor is, by definition, a merit-based position, because only someone deemed worthy of the hammer’s power can wield it. And as for the character’s longevity, Aaron, who insists that this turn was his idea and was planned from the beginning of his work on the series, has long-term plans for this Thor, precisely because female have been unfairly excluded from the definition of worthy:
When you look back over the history of Thor comics, a lot of different people have picked up the hammer at one point or another and hardly any of them female. The only women to wield the hammer are in brief moments here and there, or “What If?” stories, or future stories and stuff like that. So we’ve never seen a big story about a woman picking up the hammer and if you look at the inscription on the hammer it even says, “Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor.” I’m going to flip that on its ear and for the first time see what it’s like to have a brand new version of Thor who is female; the Goddess of Thunder.
Would I prefer it if a female author gave that power to Thor: Goddess of Thunder? Hell, yes. Although for me it helps that Aaron also supervises the designation of the male Thor as unworthy of the same power. This isn’t Eve, made from Adam’s Rib, but the empowerment of a woman in defiance of the expectation that the power would transfer to another “he.” Beyond that, I think it’s more about the life Goddess Thor takes on for those who engage with her through her story, and about other stories she will hopefully inspire. Cosplayers are already trying the new Thor on for size.
Marvel is clearly pandering to female readers, hoping to get more of their money.
So. What. How many immensely popular and well-loved books do you think have been written because the author hoped to make some money off of them? Marvel can be pandering; it can be exploiting so-called “political correctness” in order to appear as if it cares about diversity. All of that may be true. But none of it changes the fact that we now have a female Thor, and she has a substantial and lengthy storyline. Must there be an ever-after for her in order for her character to retain legitimacy? How many comic book characters evolve over time? Should women – who are a rapidly growing segment of the comics-buying readership – be inspired to pick up these comics, that’s a perfect convergence of culturally progressive superheroes and commercial profit. If Marvel makes money doing the right thing, then I’m okay with that, especially if it inspires more experimentation:
The importance of female readership — particularly its economic importance — is something Esther has experienced as a store manager. Fantom has a list of weekly subscribers and a quarter of them are women. And it’s the comics with female characters that are making money. According to their most recent data, Fantom’s bestselling superhero comic is Ms. Marvel, starring a teenage Pakistani-American from New Jersey, the first Muslim character to get her own series. The best-selling title overall is Saga, another series in which many of the main characters are female. And both Ms. Marvel and Saga have female creators — G. Willow Wilson writes Kamala Khan’s adventures as Ms. Marvel, and Fiona Stapes is behind Saga’s gorgeous art.
I love this trend, and what I think Thor adds is the idea of a woman who is worthy not because she is a woman, but simply as a woman.
But Thor is still a white woman from Norse (aka Scandinavian) mythology.
Yes, she is. She’s in an elite class. And yes, it would be even cooler if she were a goddess of color. Or if women, in general, were all empowered at the same time, and by the same social forces. Thor: Goddess of Thunder is aspirational in the same way that the growing population of female entrepreneurs is aspirational. She represents a level of power that the majority of women do not have access to, and will not likely have access to in their lifetimes. While it’s true that women are having certain aspects of their personal autonomy curbed (largely by men and by patriarchal thinking), it is also true that women are making progress in other arenas.
It’s no longer true that highly educated women are more likely to divorce, for example. Women with money to invest are doing so differently than their male counterparts, and they’re forcing change on the historically male-dominated investment-banking paradigm. The changes are small, and they’re much closer to the economic ceiling than the floor, but if anything, doesn’t that speak to the idea that we need more female superheroes? That we need to normalize the idea that women can and should be deemed worthy of controlling the elements and wielding the Mjölnir? Not that I’m suggesting for one second that Thor: Goddess of Thunder, will have any effect on the real lives of women. Simply that our ability to conceptualize and accept that such power can and should be in the purview of women — and not even stand out as newsworthy — is an independently worthy idea, and one that stands in opposition to patriarchal logic.
Et tu, Romance readers?
Romance is a genre that is built on other narratives – fairy tales like Beauty and the Beast, mythological characters like Helen of Troy, previous stories like Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, and The Sheikh. How can the readers of a genre that is constantly reimagining and reinterpreting other stories not appreciate the new Thor? Are there hidden rules within the genre around what stories can be reinterpreted and how? Is there something about having a heroine step into a hero’s place that violates a Romance genre code?
Goddess Thor does not eradicate any of the Thor’s who have come before her, because they all live, simultaneously and eternally, in these other texts. Goddess Thor is simply another version of the divine being that holds the same power, and that she is worthy of that power is something I think Romance readers, especially, should celebrate.