I hadn’t intended to start blogging here until next Thursday, when my novel Hild comes out in the UK, but, hey, I saw the news about Marvel’s Thor and couldn’t resist.
So: Thor is now a girl. This changes everything. Sort of.
Let’s ignore the fact that Thor is a god, and mere mortals shouldn’t expect gods to behave like us, because if you take that thought train too far we end up wondering why gods are identified as one sex or another in the first place. And then we have to get into a long and complicated discussion of how religion works and next thing we know the wheels have come off. Today I’d rather stick to the notion of Thor as entertainment. (I can’t speak for tomorrow…)
Entertainment—just like religion—reflects culture rather than leading it. You could make a different argument, perhaps, about Art with a capital A but, again, for today let’s avoid those derailing possibilities and stick to entertainment. And comics, and the films based on them, are first and foremost entertainment.
Traditionally comics were supposed to entertain boys and young men, though girls and women have always also read them. Girls, though, were basically ignored as a demographic by creators and powers-that-be so comics were designed with the sensibilities of boys in mind. At least this is what I used to think until reading Saladin Ahmed's Buried Badasses: The Forgotten Heroines of Pre-Code Comics. Go read it. Women—and people of colour—were catered for, and advertised to, in comics until the fifties and America's moral panic over, well, everything. But in the last sixty years, and now, not so much. (This is currently true in much entertainment media. See, for example, women in film or women in literature stats.)
The results are apparent in the art. The bodies of comic book characters of both sexes are anatomically impossible. And women are ridiculously sexualised. If you have no clue what I’m talking about go read Jim Hines’ Cover Posing posts—be sure to click through to the group pose wherein our own Charlie Stross bares more than most of us would probably like.
So will Thor be drawn differently? The writer of Thor, Jason Aaron says. "This is not She-Thor. This not Lady Thor. This is not Thorita. This is THOR. This is the THOR of the Marvel Universe."
The preliminary art isn't terrible: the new Thor shows no cleavage, no bare midriff or thighs. But if her breasts get any bigger they will overbalance her. And I would like to have seen her posed in action mode instead of in a pose that takes up little space. The armour, of course, could be better--but it could be better in almost every comic I've ever read, where improbable isn't a glitch it's a feature.
So what if Marvel really means it? What if the new Thor behaves exactly like the Thor we know?
Call me wary. Old habits are hard to break, and these particular habits run deep in the f/sf genre in every medium. Genre—like gender—is a reflection of culture (and etymologically they come from the same root).
Think for a moment about the terms Hard SF and Soft SF. Or, actually, to save you effort, here’s a short (and deliberately provocative, sorry1) snippet I wrote for Science Fiction Studies five years ago:
Hard Takes Soft, Still
SF as a genre is terrified of the body. As a result, its depictions of physical pleasures are rare. Historically, writers and readers seem to prefer their characters to pop nutrition pills rather than delight in a gourmet meal, dwell 24/7 in sterile environments rather than wander through a wood, and jack into virtual sex rather than touch another human being.
When SF does dare mention sex, the focus is on the intellectual and emotional aspects of the experience. SF still subscribes to Cartesian dualism: the mind is pure, adamantine, and noble, the body bestial, soft, and squicky. (I have talked about this at length elsewhere: see my essay “Writing from the Body.”) Even a hint of body-to-body sex can be enough to earn an sf novel an Approach With Caution warning—that is, categorisation as soft SF.
In this regard, the world-view of the SF Old Guard has a lot in common with that of the cultural guardians of Old Iceland. Embedded in the Icelandic sagas is that society’s tendency to divide the world—politics, intelligence, gender, sexuality, the physical properties of objects—into hvatr (hard) and blauôr (soft). Hard equates to bold, independent, powerful, vigorous, sharp, dry, and decisive; soft to weak, powerless, dull, moist, and yielding.
Guess which was deemed the more admirable quality.
Guess which kind of SF, hard or soft, is privileged critically.
For the Old Guard, a novel’s hardness depends to some degree on the biological sex of bodies entwined. Women are perceived as literally and metaphorically softer than men. If the viewpoint character having sex in an SF novel is a woman, the squick factor is doubled. If she’s having sex with another woman, the Old Guard passes out.
Consider reviews of my second novel, Slow River (1995), in which much real estate was devoted to denouncing (I’m paraphrasing) the “exclusively and explicitly lesbian sex.” The thing is, there’s plenty of heterosex; reviewers just couldn’t see past the (to them) Othersex. Given the way they carried on, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was porn. Certainly many dykes read the reviews, thought “Woo-hoo, one-handed reading!” and bought the book. Then they sent me pissed off emails: Where’s all the sex??
Consider, too, a well-known experiment: put ten engineers in a room, three of them women. Ask observers how many are female; they will say “half.” The Other blots out the Norm. (Yes, this experiment is ancient as these things go—dating from the 1960s or 1970s, I think. No doubt observers in today’s brave new world would require as many as, gasp, four women to qualify as “half.”)
This is as true now as it was then. It’s the twenty-first century, yet still I have never seen Slow River—a novel stuffed with shiny hardware, chemistry, and extrapolations about the future—labeled as hard SF. The Old Guard still rules.
Given my brief Hard Takes Soft was a necessarily simplistic argument—in the real world nothing is uniform. But what's interesting to me, five years later, is that it already feels a little out of date. For starters, I’d change "is privileged critically" to "was privileged critically." Now I'd say, on balance, that the automatic privileging of hard sf over soft is no longer something to bet on unthinkingly. The world is changing. Again. A look at history shows many pendulum swings—each accompanied by much agitation from the peanut gallery ranging from complaints of the established citizenry to the destruction of civilisation, never mind all-white, for-boys comics—and I think this is one such. Notions of gender are undergoing a seismic shift—see, for example, my recent post about the word Wife—and the genre is moving with it. The great boulder is rocking in its cradle.
My hope is that soon it’ll be thundering downhill, unstoppable. My hope is that we can look back in five years and see the Thor news as a twitch in the seismograph. But so very much depends on how the artists draw her.
1 It was for the symposium, Sexuality in Science Fiction, a "mosaic of position papers" edited by Rob Latham and the brief was that we be pithy and provocative.