Marvel and Tokenism: a female Thor is not enough

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Earlier this week Marvel made waves when it announced that one of their biggest central characters, Thor of The Avengers, would become a woman in the newest storyline involving the hero.

In the announcement Wil Moss, Marvel editor said that “The new Thor continues Marvel’s proud tradition of strong female characters like Captain Marvel, Storm, Black Widow and more. And this new Thor isn’t a temporary female substitute- she’s not the one and only Thor, and she is worthy!” while Jason Aaron, Marvel series writer commented that “This is not She-Thor. This is not Lady Thor. This is not Thorita. This is THOR. This is the THOR of the Marvel Universe. But it’s unlike any Thor we’ve ever seen before,”.

Thor 3Hooray for female representation, right? It is surely a bold choice to take such a central character and make them female. Immediately people took to Twitter to complain, with responses ranging from pure outrage at the choice, to highly misogynistic and gender stereotyped comments about Thor becoming a female. Some people even claimed that the move was ‘ruining one of the greats’.

If nothing else, these reactions show that Marvel’s choice is a great one in terms of female representation, reflecting the evolving audience of comics in an ever changing world. As a fan of the superhero genre in general I have no problem with changing the gender, or race, or sexuality of a major character – I feel that diversity in our cultural imagination can only be a good thing. However, while this change is a step in the right direction in terms of female representation, I can’t help but feel cautious of this move, and generally think that this doesn’t address the real problem in the comic book industry, or the wider representation of female superheroes.

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Credit: Marvel

The character concept art for this new character is troubling. The character is depicted with long blonde hair, and while she might be wielding Thor’s hammer, and wearing armour, said armour also comes fitted with a breastplate which is moulded to the shape of the character’s bust. This is obviously a choice to make the character overtly, significantly, female, but all it does is sexualise something which should not be sexualised, and is highly impractical. In fact it would likely kill her. You can read more here about the science of why this kind of armour would place the character in danger, rather than protecting her.  This disregard for the practicalities of warfare for the female body suggests a tokenistic approach to this choice.

You only have to look to Marvel’s foray into the cinematic world, and the media’s response to Scarlett Johansen’s Black Widow to see that this sexualisation of the female superhero is rife in the film industry as well. Instead of commending Johansen’s acting, reviews focus on the fact that she is a beautiful woman wearing a skin tight leather suit. Similarly, doing an image search of ‘female comic book characters’ brings a selection of scantily clad female characters thrusting their breasts or rears towards the viewer suggestively. This imagery is consistently associated with female heroes, and suggests to anyone who reads the comic books that women can only be a hero if they are designed for the titilation of a male audience.

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Credit: Marvel Studios/Disney

At the end of the day, while the creators deny that this is a temporary move, Thor will become a man once again, maybe when ‘Thor’ becomes ‘worthy’ once more. Many other characters have taken on the mantles of star superheroes (James Rhodes taking on the mantle of Iron Man is one such example), temporarily, only to be replaced once more with the original. This fact makes this move appear more of a token move, albeit with apparently good intentions.

Yes, Marvel, please give me more female superheroes to admire. But do it without the over sexualisation that plagues the genre in general. I want a female superhero that Marvel puts their significant weight behind making a central character. I want a female superhero who is dressed for functionality, not for titillation. I want a female superhero who is worthy of being admired.

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Studying for my PhD focusing on Eighteenth Century Pirate Literature. Writer 2011-2013, Culture Editor 2013-2014, Editor 2014-2015, Culture Exec 2015-2016, Writer 2016-2017. Longest serving Edgeling ever is a title I intend to hold forever.

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