The surprises came in a trio: First, Marvel Comics announced that the character of Thor, based upon the Norse God of Thunder, would become a woman. The second surprise was the venue in which the switch was announced — ABC’s feminine-minded daytime talk show The View — but perhaps that was predictable, considering that Marvel and ABC Television are both owned by Disney.
But the third, and biggest, surprise is that anyone thought this was a good idea.
“This is not She-Thor,” senior writer Jason Aaron said in a Marvel release. “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.”
The “She-Thor” reference is meant to address the complaint that some of comics’ most high-profile heroines are just female versions of previously existing male heroes — Supergirl, Batgirl, Spider-Woman, She-Hulk, Namorita . . . characters that seem derivative and superfluous in the hands of the wrong creative team.
Comic-book characters go through all kinds of seemingly permanent changes — broken backs, retirements, deaths — only to return to “normal” within a few months or years — which is often a sign that a new editor or writer has taken the helm, or that the dramatic change flopped with readers. For what it’s worth, Marvel insists Thor’s new womanhood isn’t a brief experiment.
Marvel editor Wil Moss declared, “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 now the one and only Thor, and she is worthy.”
In changing the gender of one of its higher-profile heroes, Marvel appears to be trying to address the complaints of female comic readers and creators that Marvel and its equally iconic rival, DC Comics, don’t know how to reach a female audience and don’t have many ideas about what to do with their female characters. Comic publishers may be more attentive to these complaints in the face of a trend of slumping sales.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with an entertainment entity attempting to reach out to a new or bigger audience. Of course, some forms of entertainment are quite comfortable with an audience skewing heavily to one gender. You don’t hear much griping that romance novels aren’t selling well among men, or that men aren’t watching enough soap operas.
Women willing to venture into a comic-book shop are rare enough — we all know the stereotypes of the proprietors and patrons. Once a woman steps inside, she’s greeted with comics, posters, collectible art, action figures, and other merchandise featuring mostly male characters, while the superheroines and villainesses are almost always depicted with centerfold bodies in skin-tight clothing.
Some of this is the nature of the genre and, in fact, mass media. Most of the men in comic books have at least the muscle tone of Michelangelo’s David. The fictional worlds of superheroes are hardly the only ones to feature near-ideal physiques and beautiful people. Attractive people smile, wink, and pose for us on our movie screens, television screens, and magazine covers.
And it’s not just male creators who create sexually explicit, almost impossibly attractive characters. Stroll through a bookstore and you’ll see the female-written and largely female-read supernatural thrillers of Laurel K. Hamilton, Jacqueline Carey’s explicit alternative-history Kushiel series, and of course the Fifty Shades series by Erika Leonard, a.k.a. E. L. James.
But the world of superhero comics, a field with so many creative minds that provides Hollywood with so much of its raw material, shouldn’t really be struggling to imagine and depict female characters memorable for more than their cup size.