Man, Woman, or Frost Giant? Gender and Hyper-Masculinity in Marvel's Thor
Marvel’s 2011 film Thor, while well received, is often considered a stepping stone to The Avengers: only really useful in that it sets up the villain, Loki, and introduces Thor as a member of the team. The film’s relative low profile does not mean that it should escape critical analysis, as it is often the most mundane, the most universally accepted aspects of culture that reveal problematic aspects of society. The main focus of this essay is on the representation of masculinity in the Thor film. I ask what the movie reveals about the form of masculinity we find desirable. What do the casting and design choices say about modern masculinity and femininity, and why does this matter? Furthermore, how do Asgardian concerns about masculinity translate to American concerns? Finally, how does the Thor film handle racism towards the Jotuns, the Frost Giants, a race that, according to mythology, is ungendered? Overall, Marvel’s Thor presents a problematic from of masculinity, one which pushes ‘traditional’ gender norms and which movie-makers seemed rather eager to change in the sequels, in turn transforming Thor from a bloodthirsty brat to a lovable idiot.
Marvel’s 2011 film Thor is often seen as a stepping stone to their later film, The Avengers, which came out a year later. It is necessary in that it sets up Loki as the villain for the next film, and introduces Thor as a member of the team, but it is not often considered beyond these functions. Yet, as a film that mostly flew under the radar, Thor is able to reveal much about North American gender norms and our vision of masculinity. By setting up the hyper-masculine Thor as the heroic lead and his more feminine brother Loki as the villain, the film does show our willingness to accept such stereotypes. Thor is the consummate warrior, who is able to redeem himself of his past crimes, while the more cunning Loki is not given the same chance. The film also reveals North American problem of race through the Jotnar, or Frost Giants, who are dehumanized by the Asgardians as a way of justifying their various attempts at genocide. The film is not often discussed, which means that we, as an audience, accepted the gender and race politics it presented, but it is important to look closer at these aspects to recognize how truly problematic they are.
Thor, the Norse God of Thunder, is meant to be the epitome of masculinity, a warrior through and through. He is the ideal man according to the Norse tradition and for many nowadays who subscribe to a more ‘traditional’ view of masculinity. He is physically imposing, towering over most of the people he meets. He is also very proficient with his weapon of choice. In most of his battles, Thor clearly has the advantage. Even when he is turned into a human, none of the men he fights stand much of a chance against him. When he fights the Jotnar, none present a challenge to him. He plows through the Jotun warriors with little regard for life. Thor is also extremely charismatic. He seems to have the whole Asgardian population on his side, and easily finds allies once he’s banished to Earth. Being such a bastion of perfect masculinity, Thor is able to completely redeem himself for his arrogance and for all the murders he has committed over the course of one long weekend, a fact which will be discussed later.
The hypermasculine Thor is placed in stark contrast to his far more feminized younger brother Loki, the God of Mischief. In the first scene of the film that takes place on Asgard, Odin AllFather, the king of the realm is recounting to his two young sons the story of the war against the Frost Giants, or the Jotnar. He pits his sons against one another by telling them that “only one … can ascend to the throne, but both [of them] were born to be kings”[i]. In the following scene, it is immediately obvious that Thor is the one that will be ascending to the throne, as he is walks through his father’s throne room to cheers from a huge crowd. Odin announces Thor as his heir as Loki stands in the sidelines, next to his mother and Sif, who seems to be the only female warrior in the realm[ii]. Loki is immediately associated with the women, while across from them, stand Thor’s male companions. He is placed apart from the male warriors, and this trend persists throughout the film. Even Thor’s companions feel free to mock him. Loki is a prince, and yet, due to his association with the women, and his preference for diplomacy over brute force, he is seen as lesser.
Within his own family, Loki’s closest relationship is with his mother, Frigga. The momma’s boy trope is often used “as a way to humanize male villains”[iii], and Loki is no different. His relationship with his mother is far more developed in the second instalment of the franchise, Thor: The Dark World, but it is still present in the first film. They share a talent for magic that Thor either does not possess or never bothered to hone. There is no indication that any of the other warriors on Asgard use magic or have a talent for it. Frigga and Loki stand apart in that regard, and yet, while Frigga is accepted, Loki is not. Perhaps this is because Frigga is a woman and Loki is a man. It is acceptable for a woman to be performing magic, because she is not expected to go into battle, unlike Loki, who is supposed to be the ultimate warrior. It is what is expected of a son of Odin after all. Loki instead takes on the role of advisor and confessor to his elder brother, but he is not often heeded. When Thor brings Loki and his friends to Jotunheim to demand answer of the Jotun King for an interruption of his coronation ceremony, Loki attempts to get him to leave, but Thor reminds him to “know [his] place”[iv]. Loki is the rational one and accepts the offer to leave the planet of the Jotun King Laufey, but one of the Jotun soldiers insults Thor’s masculinity, calling him a princess, and so Thor feels entirely justified in killing the soldier and attacking the rest of the assembled Jotnar. It is perfectly acceptable for Thor to end a centuries long peace between his planet and Jotunheim because someone insulted his manhood, and yet, Loki’s is constantly insulted by Thor and his friends.
Loki is further set apart from his whole family by his physical appearance and costume design. His family are all light haired, and both his father and brother are physically imposing, while Loki sports black hair and is far leaner built than they. He is physically different, a dark child in a golden family. The casting of the two men, Chris Hemsworth as Thor and Tom Hiddleston as Loki, work perfectly to show the differences between the two princes. There are absolutely no physical similarities between the men, nothing that says these are brothers. His manner of dress sets him even further apart. Odin is dressed in warm colours, golden armour and yellow and gold robes. His mother Frigga is dressed in similar colours, golds and shinning jewels. Thor wears darker colours, blues, greys, and silver, but he still fits with the colour scheme of the royal family, as his cape is the same red as Odin’s. Loki on the other hand, wears blacks and greens, colours not worn by any other members of his family. The ceremonial armour he wears during Thor’s botched coronation is golden like many in his family, but his clothing for much of the rest of the film bears but a few hints of gold. Unlike Thor, he does not wear a cape outside of ceremonial occasions, he instead wears a longer coat, far more reminiscent of a dress than anything another than Odin’s robe, which he hardly wears, but at least his fits with the colour scheme of his family.
The problem of Loki and Asgard is exacerbated by the fact that Loki is not really his brother. During the battle on Jotunheim between Thor and friends and the Jotnar, one of his companions, Volstagg, is grabbed by a Jotun warrior. When the Giant touches the man’s bare skin, Volstagg’s skin in burned by the cold. The Asgardian quickly warns his companions, but shortly thereafter, Loki is similarly grabbed, his armor shattering from the cold of the Giant’s skin, but instead of burning his arm, Loki’s skin turns the same shade of blue as the Jotun[v]. This completely turns Loki’s world upside down, as he understands in this moment that he is not of Asgard as Odin had believed, but rather, he is a Frost Giant. He confronts Odin and discovers that he is really the son of Laufey, the Jotun King. Odin took him to unite the kingdoms, to bring peace between Asgard and Jotunheim, but this is suspect. Odin never discourages the racism towards Jotunheim that his people demonstrate. He never corrects Thor when he calls them monsters and threatens to kill them all. He claims he is protecting Loki from the truth, and yet he never took steps to get his people to see the Giants as equals. They are less than human to the Asgardians, “the [monsters] that parents tell their children about at night”[vi]. Loki also discovers that his heritage is why Thor was preferred by their father over him. He knows he could never be king of Asgard because he is not of Asgard.
Asgard is a warrior culture, they seemingly encourage bloodthirstiness in their men, up to a point. Thor crosses the line, but not because he killed a bunch of Jotnar, but because he disobeyed Odin and went to a world that was off-limits to him. Odin only cares about his own people, which makes sense seeing as he is their king, but he is meant to be the AllFather, not the Father-of-All-except-the-Jotnar. He is meant to be the protector of all nine realms, yet he could not care less about the deaths of a few Jotnar, because they are not like the Asgardians. They are hyper-masculine to the point of ridiculousness. Sif is the only female warrior and has clearly been faced with discrimination and scorn for her choice of occupation[vii]. Asgardian women are meant to be like the Queen, barely seen and taking a back seat to their men. Figga is the dutiful wife to allows her son to temporarily take the throne while she tends to Odin, refusing to leave his bedside. She also tries to justify Odin’s decision to keep the truth about his heritage from Loki. She days it is because she did not want to make Loki feel different from the Asgardians. She keeps up the Asgardian racism towards the Frost Giants, not allowing Loki to know his native culture. She is helping to deny his heritage and potentially endangering her second son.
The Asgardian attitude towards the Jotnar is especially problematic when considering the mythology upon which this story was based. Anyone with even a little knowledge of Norse mythology knows that Marvel certainly took liberties with the source material, but it is still important to consider. After all, according to myth, Odin AllFather is the son of the previous Asgardian king, Borr, and his wife Bestla, who was a Jotun[viii]. This means that Odin, in myth, is part Jotun himself, and since familial relationships in Marvel’s Thor are very similar to those in mythology, one has to wonder if Marvel’s Odin is part Jotun as well. The relationship between Asgard and Jotunheim is also complicated in their gender politics. Ymir, the creator of the Jotun race, is very reminiscent of gods like Tuisto, in their hermaphroditism. Meaning that Ymir would have been both male and female, and neither at the same time. Ymir does not create children through procreation, rather, they spring up as the giant sleeps[ix]. On the other hand, Borr’s father Buri, the “progenitor of the gods”[x], is very clearly masculine. Gender in the Jotnar is not very clearly defined. In much of the Eddic poetry surrounding Norse mythology, Loki is referred to as Loki Laufeyjarson, not the expected Laufeyson[xi]. Laufeyjarson is a matronymic, meaning a “name derived from that of a mother or maternal ancestor”[xii]. In myth, Laufey is Loki’s mother, while Laufey’s spouse, Farbauti, is his father[xiii]. Yet Marvel makes Laufey into a male character, a king.
Furthermore, in myth, Loki mother’s at least one of his children. Sleipnir, Odin’s eight-legged horse is actually one of Loki’s many children. He was charged with distracting the horse Svadilfari from his work, so Loki transforms himself into a mare, and shortly thereafter, he gives birth to Sleipnir[xiv]. While most of Loki’s children are not mentioned in Marvel’s Thor, Sleipnir does make an appearance. When Odin travels to Jotunheim to retrieve his murderous son and his companions, Odin appears on the back of an eight-legged horse[xv]. You have to assume then, that this is Loki’s son, because how else could you explain Sleipnir’s existence. By the character’s own admission, Loki is a “master of magic”[xvi], and it is quite clear that Loki kept his shapeshifting abilities in the move from myth to Marvel. When Odin finds him as a baby, he is as blue as any Jotun, but when Odin takes him into his arms, Loki shifts to look like an Asgardian infant. Sleipnir’s presence could also explain some of Loki’s animosity towards his adoptive family. Sleipnir is Odin’s grandson, and yet he uses him as his warhorse, taking Loki’s son into dangerous situations which could result in injury or death for the horse. That’s not even mentioning what he does to the rest of Loki’s children in myth, but they are not mentioned, so it is less relevant to Marvel’s portrayal of the trickster god.
Loki, after learning of his heritage, becomes desperate to prove his worth to his father. As soon as Odin tells him how he found him abandoned in a temple, Odin falls into the Odin-Sleep. It is a coma like sleep that Odin must endure very so often to ensure his continued health. Since Thor is still banished, and Frigga does not wish to take the throne, Loki is made king of Asgard. He is clearly in a downward spiral when he is made king, starting to lose him mind. He decides that the way to make his father proud is to destroy Jotunheim and all its inhabitants. He hatches a plan with Laufey, to sneak him into Asgard and have him kill Odin while he sleeps, but before Laufey can finish Odin off, Loki betrays the Jotun and kills him instead. This is when Thor makes his return to Asgard, having proved himself worthy of his power and having his godhood restored to him. Loki then turns his attention to Jotunheim. As king, he is able to keep the Bifrost, their method of travelling between the various world in the nine realms, open on Jotunheim, thereby ripping a hole through the planet. Thor manages to stop him before he completely destroys the planet by destroying the Bifrost, but the Jotnar are never mentioned again. We don’t know how many, if any, were killed by Loki’s stunt, nor does the film give any information as to how this may have affected the planet itself. The Jotnar mean so little to the Asgardians that they cannot be bothered to check in on them after they almost wiped them out. They have completely dehumanized the Jotnar, to the point that not even the audience really notices that they never speak of what happened to them because of Loki.
Loki is made king when Odin falls into the sleep, but he is still considered lesser by his subjects. When Sif and the Warriors Three, Thor’s companions, ask him to end Thor’s banishment, Loki refuses, explaining that he cannot undo Odin’s final order. Instead of listening to their king, as is their duty as soldiers of Asgard, they decide to travel to earth and go find Thor instead. They commit treason against their king, because they do not trust him as they do their warrior kings. Hogun, one of the Warrior’s Three is the first to suggest that Loki is responsible for disrupting Thor’s coronation[xvii]. Hogun distrusts Loki’s magic and his intentions. Loki is not as straightforward as the warriors that Hogun is used to interacting with, and this combined with Loki’s status as the second son seems to mean he must be up to something. It does not matter what they thin though, because at this point in the film, Loki is still a prince, and second in line for the throne. He outranks them completely, and yet the film establishes a pattern whereby Loki is constantly second guessed and mistrusted by all who surround him.
The Warriors Four do not commit their treason alone, the gatekeeper of Asgard, Heimdall, allows them to use the Bifrost even though Loki, the king, forbid it. Not only is Heimdall aiding in the commission of treason against his rightful king, he is aiding desertion. The Warriors Four are soldiers in the armies of Asgard, and due to their little trip into Jotunheim, Asgard is at war. By going to Earth, they are deserting their posts. Asgard is a monarchy, and it is difficult to imagine that Odin would accept his subjects disregarding his orders just because they don’t feel like it or because they don’t like him. That is not how monarchies work, and Loki was the king by right. With Odin in a coma, Frigga refusing to leave his side, and Thor banished, who else was supposed to take the throne? While Loki certainly does some terrible things, he certainly does not reach the body count of his father and brother. Sending the Destroyer to Earth was not the best decision, but it can also be argued that he sent it after the Warriors Four. They were close companions of both princes for many years, and it is likely that they have information about the defenses and organization of Asgard that a regular soldier does not. Getting rid of that potential information leak is perfectly logical. Thor is also a threat because, if Loki were really negotiating a peace treaty with the Jotnar, he would definitely not want Thor, the one who got them into the whole mess, around spouting his bigoted nonsense at every turn. But, without ever asking Loki his motivations, those closest to him instantly condemn him for his actions. After all, he is not a warrior. He fights with words, knives, and magic, he doesn’t bulldoze into every situation throwing a hammer around to make himself feel better. Thus, he cannot be honorable to a race that values Thor’s bluster over Loki’s cunning. Better to be a violent idiot than an intelligent magician.
On the subject of Thor, he redeems himself rather quickly. In the span of a long weekend, he goes from a bloodthirsty homicidal brat to a changed and wiser man. This further reinforces the gender politics in the film. Thor has but one fault in the eyes of Asgard and her people, he rushes into situations without thinking, and this can apparently be cured in three days with the introduction of some spunky scientists. After all, a weekend with a new lover is all it takes to combat centuries of racism and bigotry. It is completely ridiculous to think that Thor could so completely change his personality in such a short period of time and is thus forgiven for his actions, but the same forgiveness not be applied to Loki. Loki, who went from being a sane and intelligent tactician to a deranged genocidal maniac over the same period of time as his brother, is not given the chance by Odin to atone for his sins. When Loki is hanging, quite literally, on the brink, instead of reassuring him, Odin decides to take a shot at his unmanly second son. Loki tells him that he was going to destroy Jotunheim for him, as he hangs off the edge of the rainbow bridge, and Odin decides to respond with “no Loki” [xviii]. In that moment, Loki realizes that he will never have his father’s approval, and so he lets himself fall into the abyss, attempting to take his own life. Odin could have very easily waited until his son was safe to judge him, especially considering he quite literally just woke up from his coma and probably doesn’t have all the facts, but instead, he says the one thing that pushes Loki to suicide. Loki was never going to be Thor’s equal in Odin’s eyes, he was not the warrior Odin shaped Thor to be and thus was not worth the same effort as his elder brother.
Marvel’s 2011 release Thor flew relatively under the radar in relation to other Marvel films. The film introduces to the franchise Thor, the Norse God of Thunder, and his brother Loki, God of Mischief. As a film that is not often critically discussed, it has the ability to really show the gender and race discourse that we find acceptable. Through Thor and Loki, the film shows what is acceptable masculinity, namely Thor’s straightforward and violent approach, and what is unacceptable, Loki’s more cunning and feminized appearance and attitude. The gender politics also cross racial boundaries in the film, as the Jotnar, the inferior race, have vastly different gender norms than the Asgardians. Of further import in the question of gender and race in Thor, is the original mythology, which adds some context and give clarity to some of the relatioships in the film. Loki is judged by the standards of Asgard even though he is not even though he is not one of them, while his brother is paraded as the perfect son and heir, never questioning his position in society, whilst Loki is constantly reminded to “know [his] place”[xix].
[i] Thor. Directed by Kenneth Branagh, Marvel Studios, 2011. 00: 07: 27 - 00: 07: 34.
[ii] Thor, Kenneth Branagh. 00: 08: 46 – 00: 09: 06.
[iii] Collins, Hannah. “’Mommy’s Boys’: Villainy, Motherhood, and Fractured Masculinity in Pop Culture.” The Mary Sue, 5 April 2018.
[iv] Thor, Kenneth Branagh. 00: 20: 29 – 00: 20: 32.
[v] Thor, Kenneth Branagh. 00: 22: 41 – 00: 23: 04.
[vi] Thor, Kenneth Branagh. 00: 41: 30 – 00: 41: 34.
[vii] Thor, Kenneth Branagh. 00: 14: 29 – 00: 14: 35.
[viii] Ciklamini, M. “Odin and the Giants.” Neophilologus, vol. 46, no. 2, 1962. 147.
[ix] Ciklamini. “Odin and the Giants”. 147.
[x] Ciklamini. “Odin and the Giants”. 147.
[xi] Lindow, John. Norse Mythology a Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs. Oxford University Press, 2002. 207-08.
[xii] "matronymic, n. and adj." OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2018.
[xiii] “Loki (Norse Mythology).” 2001, pp. World Mythology: Handbook of Norse Mythology.
[xiv] Lindow, John. Norse Mythology. 274.
[xv] Thor, Kenneth Branagh. 00: 26: 09 – 00: 26: 17.
[xvi] Thor, Kenneth Branagh. 00: 38: 54- 00: 39: 00.
[xvii] Thor, Kenneth Branagh. 00: 38: 52 – 00: 39: 00.
[xviii] Thor, Kenneth Branagh. 01: 40: 08 – 01: 40: 33.
[xix] Thor, Kenneth Branagh. 00: 20: 29 – 00: 20: 32.