News flash: Women actually like comics! OK, I'm kidding, it's not that newsworthy, but women are now participating in comic book fandom like never before: buying graphic novels, attending superhero films, and showing up at ComicCon in droves. Comic book companies have taken note, albeit slowly (glaciers move with more urgency), leading up to a big reveal by Marvel a few weeks ago: "Thor is now a woman!"
The announcement came on the female-focused morning talk show The View, along with some concept art depicting a heavily armored (but without question female) God of Thunder. The announcement sparked an online firestorm that seems to have only gained momentum weeks later. Some praise the initiative, while others are less than enthusiastic. Everyone seems to have an opinion one way or the other, but before jumping to any conclusions I’d like to establish some facts.
First of all, Thor becoming a woman is not as innovative as it sounds. The Norse gods have been known to transmogrify—alter their physical appearance, become animals, and yes, even change genders. Delve into Thor’s historical mythology, or Marvel’s version of the character, and you’ll discover that he’s been a woman before! He’s also been a horse. A burly Nordic man is just one of many forms he’s taken over the millennia, so becoming a woman once again is hardly groundbreaking.
What’s more, the Freaky Friday body-swapping trope is nothing new to the world of comics. Anyone familiar with Spider-Man can relate: In January 2013, Peter Parker’s mind switched with that of Doctor ‘Octopus’ Octavius, leading to a series called The Superior Spider-Man, a thirty-three-issue run where "Doc Ock" struggled as a villain in a hero’s body. While sales were brisk and the Dan Slott–scribed story was very well done, the fact remains that it was viewed by many as a gimmick. No one really believed that Peter Parker was gone for good.
In fact, I would suggest Marvel’s recent move is not innovative enough: Why not leave Thor a man, and create a new Asgardian warrior, a fierce goddess who could exist on her own merits?
Historically, women have been represented in comics as an extension of a male in a lead role. They’re echoes— gender-swapped versions of existing characters who display many of the same traits, aptitudes, or abilities: Supergirl, Batgirl, She-Hulk, Spider-Girl. The list goes on and on.
Many of these one-dimensional facsimiles have been given fair treatment by various creators over the years. They’ve been granted stand-alone titles where they developed layered personalities and their own ambitions, desires, and unique opportunities to shine. But this doesn’t change the fact that they were never created with that purpose in mind. They were designed to be part of a male character’s world, either as a sidekick, love interest, or in some cases a villain—not the main attraction.
The new Thor isn’t ‘Thorette’ or ‘She-Thor.’ This is Thor, just as a woman. It’s the same person. So changing the gender of the character isn’t really creating anything new. It’s a half-measure that is at the same time historically accurate, intriguing, and completely frustrating.
A female version of Thor simply can’t exist without carrying the baggage of being compared to the male counterpart. Once the series begins this fall, the conversation will never be about some obstacle that she’ll have to face or a personal struggle she’ll have to overcome. Regardless of how well-written, the fan narrative surrounding the new Thor series will always be about when she will once again become a he and finally shake loose the feminine identity. Even if the female Thor persists for months—or even years—she’ll always be a shadow of the character that came before.
Welcoming girls into an industry that has been a boys club since the mid-thirties is going to take a series of wins over the course of several years. If Marvel’s move causes more women to take interest in graphic novels, mythology, or any of the wonderful geekiness that they’ve shied away from in the past due to the male-dominated slate of characters, then I say it’s a step in the right direction. But we still have a long way to go.