Saturday, November 16, 2013

Loki and the Language of Sexual Violence



[Trigger warning: discussion of sexual violence, consent issues, and rape. NSFW language]

All this talk of Marvel’s Thor: The Dark World (2013) inspired me to break out my Blu-ray edition of Marvel’s Thor (2011) last night. By all accounts, it’s my favorite film of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) since it taught me to love Thor and Marvel, which then inspired me to apply for an internship there and the rest is geeky history. So I love this movie. I love Thor. And like most in the Marvel fandom, I love Loki.

But there’s a moment in Thor that I always found troubling and I often try to forget it happens. When it does occur, I find myself incredibly uncomfortable, especially for a movie that I thoroughly enjoy as both a feminist and a geek.

Towards the end of the film, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) returns to Asgard to confront and battle his wayward brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and now the two brothers face each other as opponents and deeply changed men. Loki is the combative and aggressive one and Thor is the hurt one trying to find a reasonable solution. Thor doesn’t want to fight his brother; he claims he’s changed. Loki then taunts him:


“Come on, what happened to you on Earth that turned you so soft? Don’t tell me it was that woman. Oh, it was! Well, maybe when we’re finished here, I’ll pay her a visit myself!”

This prompts a battle cry from Thor and they begin fighting.

Now, I have several issues with this moment and this essay will most likely be a continuation of my exploration of Loki and the feminine but suffice to say, I always felt that this line was a threat of sexual violence.

Loki could very well just be threatening to kill Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) but the gendered way in which he worded this threat and the fact that Thor reacts so violently always gave me pause. He accuses Thor, the hyper-masculine god of thunder, of becoming “soft” because he doesn’t want to be violent. In other words, Thor is now weak and not too far from feminine. We have evidence that this is a major faux pas on Asgard, such as Thor’s taking insult to being called a “princess” on Jotunheim and then proceeding to kill numerous Frost Giants. Loki then blames “that woman” for this change, blaming an exposure to femininity on Thor’s new apparent weakness. Also, if he wanted to kill Jane, why didn’t he just say so? Cloaking his threat in “paying her a visit” implies something deeper and darker. To be succinct, I can’t help but suspect that Loki is threatening rape.

Now, I get it; it’s a PG-13 movie made by Disney Studios. There isn’t going to be overt sexual violence. And we all love the complex and complicated and terribly attractive Loki; I do, too. Something does not have to be overt, however, to be triggering. I also believe that when it comes to sexual violence, there is no overreacting. And just because a character is flawed and tragic, does not excuse all of his actions, no matter how expertly played by a charming and attractive man.

Loki in Sif's body
So, if Loki is threatening sexual violence against a woman, does this clash against his reliance on the feminine (magic and witchcraft)? Now, we know that the Loki of the Marvel comics and Norse mythology is gender fluid. He even gave birth to several monstrous creatures in the myths and famously stole Sif’s body in the comic books (another issue of consent). As I discussed earlier, Loki’s strength lies in the feminine realm; that is, in magic which was taught to him by his mother, Frigga. In the Asgard of the MCU, we can infer that the sorcery that Loki relies on is considered lesser or Other to brute strength and a warrior’s cunning.

Why, if Loki is at home in and relies on the feminine or the Other, does he throw out this upsetting reference to sexual violence? Is it because in that moment in the film, he is now the ultramasculine one? Thor, we know, has become more calm, understanding and less prone to violence by this point in the film. Was this line an effort to demonstrate the stark changes the two brothers went through? And if so, why are we still relying on threats of sexual violence and rape to demonstrate hypermasculinity? That is offensive to all genders.

What’s even more troubling is that this is not the only time Loki speaks of sexual violence. The famous “mewling quim” scene in Marvel’s The Avengers (2012) has a great deal of violent sexual overtures directed at the Black Widow by Loki. A lot has been written about this scene and the worrisome sexist moments in it. In case you didn’t know, the famous insult that Loki spat to the Black Widow and on stage this summer at San Diego Comic-Con (to applause and screams of delight) translates to “whiny cunt.” Even the Oxford Dictionaries defines "quim" as a vulgar British slang for “a woman’s genitals”. Remember when I said a PG-13 Disney movie wouldn’t have a scene of overt sexual violence? Well, apparently it can’t be overt or in American English either. 

So, we’ve got an overwhelmingly gendered and sexual insult thrown to a woman immediately after she is threatened with another of Loki’s implications of rape:

“I won't touch Barton. Not until I make him kill you; slowly, intimately, in every way he knows you fear. And then he'll wake just long enough to see his good work, and when he screams, I'll split his skull! This is my bargain, you mewling quim!”

Again, Loki could just be threatening death but the manner in which these lines are delivered, plus the use of a slow and intimate death featuring Black Widow’s worst fears seemed to go beyond murder. Again, I found this moment upsetting because my first thought was that he was referencing rape. Whether or not he is, other viewers evidently felt the same way, which demonstrates that the connotations are there no matter what Loki actually intends.


Of course, Black Widow is tricking the trickster in this moment and uses his assumptions of her fears (and after all, isn’t rape the universal fear for women? Even some feminist scholars have argued that rape is a process of intimidation by men against women[i]) against Loki, which brings the power back to her. As always, rape is about power and Loki used implications because he thought he was the one in power in both scenarios. He was wrong.

Admittedly, it’s been a while since I’ve sat down and watched all of the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe but I really don’t recall another male character using language that implied rape and sexual violence. There is the obnoxious soldier in Marvel’s Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) who mocks Agent Peggy Carter: “Are we gonna wrestle? Because I got a few moves I know you’ll like,” to which Agent Carter responds by knocking him down literally and figuratively. This is sexual and super gross and offensive but it is not violent like the previous lines. Furthermore, it was used to demonstrate Agent Carter’s professionalism and toughness while illustrating the mindless sexism she had to endure.

Tony Stark makes numerous sexual references but they are almost always vaguely “ha ha I used to be a womanizing playboy but now I’m in a committed relationship with Pepper Potts so all is forgiven, am I right?” Tony is too busy making us laugh or breaking our hearts with his daddy issues to really be offensive, it seems. If I am missing any other examples, please let me know.

So why Loki? Is it just because he’s the bad guy and bad guys say bad things? Or does it have something to do with the duality he seems to struggle with: good vs. bad, Frost Giant vs. Asgardian, brother vs. enemy, masculine vs. feminine? Most of us are already aware, from the countless Internet jokes, memes, and fanart about it, that the Loki of the Norse myths was the victim of nonconsensual sex[ii], though his son, the eight-legged horse, Sleipnir is rarely referred to as the product of a rape among the fandom. We see Odin atop Sleipnir for a brief moment in Thor on Jotunheim, though the horse is never named and it’s only by the presence of its eight legs that we even know that it is Sleipnir. Whether or not the MCU follows the Norse myths has been a source of lighthearted joking among the fandom since 2011 but either way, Loki’s story here is also one about coercion and a lack of consent.

Does Loki use this sort of language to rebel against the feminine realm he seems to depend on? Is the feminine that unpleasant even to a being as powerful and intelligent as Loki? Or, as I’m sure plenty will argue, were these moments simply the results of Loki being not in his right mind (driven to rage and despair in Thor and under alleged mind control in The Avengers)?

Around this point, a voice in my head would argue that I was overthinking all of this, but the very fact that Joss Whedon, writer and director of The Avengers, claims that the thing he’s most proud about the Avengers was “[g]etting ‘mewling quim’ out there to the masses” signifies that sexual violence is very real in our pop culture and very problematic in its mass acceptance.

At the end of the day, I still am a Loki fan but I can’t ignore it when a favorite character is being extremely troubling or triggering. I also stand by my belief than when it comes to sexual violence or rape, we cannot ignore or neglect its presence in our culture and our entertainment.


[i] Susan Brownmiller argued this in her 1975 book Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape.
[ii] My knowledge of the Norse myths comes from Kevin Crossley-Holland’s The Norse Myths. You can read his interpretation of this myth here.

No comments:

Post a Comment