Thursday, August 9, 2012

“The Avengers” and Loki’s Suspicious Masculinity

Feminists have women in The Avengers well-covered. The conventional wisdom goes something like this: The only heroines exist alone in teams of men (the Smurfette Principle). The ladies kick ass but do so in skin-tight clothing, and one uses sexual wiles in the line of duty. But what’s more interesting in The Avengers, and what hasn’t been talked about much, are the different shades of masculinity on display in the more crowded field of male heroes and villains. It’s a consistent thread that, not surprisingly, reinforces suspicion and antipathy for men who drift toward the feminine and the queer.


The Avengers follows a group of heroes—some skilled warriors, some superhuman, and some aided by technology—who were assembled to fight an extraterrestrial threat to the Earth. That threat comes in the form of Loki, who was raised as a demigod with his brother, Thor. Loki is, even by sight, different than the heroes whom he is pitted up against throughout the film. He’s thin. He has an English accent (you can’t call what Australian Chris Hemsworth’s Thor—bless him—spits out a proper English accent). Loki has shoulder-length, slicked-back dark hair that those of us who curled our hair in the ‘90s (and the ‘60s!) would say is "flipped out." He wears a really dorky two-horned hat. He’s into fancy canes and scepters. And when he makes an appearance as a civilian, he chooses a posh art show in Stuttgart, Germany, and shows up in a suit with a long coat and a fashionable scarf.

Loki contrasts with the male Avengers, all of whom represent different facets of American machismo. Captain America/Steve Rogers spends his free time boxing and is the very embodiment of World War II (the good old days before the civil rights and women’s rights movements) white masculine benevolence. Iron Man/Tony Stark represents an unpracticed intelligence, a playboy sensibility that absolves him of his tight clothing and otherwise too-groomed facial hair, and the idea that enormously wealthy defense contractors will eventually have our best interests in mind. Hawkeye/Clint Barton is a covert ops military man whose archery sharpshooting, choice of a hunter’s weapon, and implied romance with Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff establish his toughness. Oh, and those arms

The dichotomy of acceptable and undesirable masculinity seems to be represented in both iterations of one of the Avengers: the Hulk. At first blush, the “rage-monster” Hulk looks like the picture of dangerously unbridled masculinity. The Hulk is a physical danger to everyone around him because he’s supposedly an uncontrollable destructive force. The other side of his personality is the unassuming, mumbling, shy scientist Bruce Banner—who, aside from his meekness is still a desirable American archetype because of his innovation and expertise in what we still know is a largely male, white job field. But if you think of the Hulk and Banner on polar ends of the scale of masculinity—a bullet-spitting monster versus a sometimes suicidal and ineffectual brainiac—that spectrum seems to be um, smashed, at the end of the film when we find out that Banner can control his transformations more than we thought. Banner says he’s secretly “always angry,” so his weaker self is bolstered by his hybridity—he always has smash-happy Hulk standing by.

The most direct comparison of Loki’s masculinity with his Avengers foes has to be made with his brother, Thor—the Viking-inspired demigod who wields a big hammer—and hilarious. Thor has long hair like Loki, but it’s the Fabio-like blonde locks that grace many a (similarly muscled) romance novel at your local CVS. But the similarities stop there. Thor couldn’t be more different as a man.

Thor and Loki were raised on another planet, and Loki was always jealous of Thor’s strength. Because he could never rival Thor as a warrior, Loki developed the skill of manipulation. On Earth, his scepter has the power to essentially reprogram people's brains into mental slavery. Through Loki, we see the dominance that masculinity supposedly craves diverted from physical power to dominance over men’s free will and very consciousness. And that’s a dangerous refraction of masculine angst. In the form of this villain, we learn to fear physically weak men much more than we fear strong ones—at least with the latter, what you see is what you get. 

The difference between and hierarchy of mental and physical power is clearest when the uncontrollable masculine force of the Hulk illustrates Loki's puniness. One of the most-loved parts of the film—at least the one that got the biggest laughs in the two screenings I’ve been to—is after one of Loki’s many harangues about how he’s the cleverest guy ever and how base and beastly the Avengers and humans are. The Hulk responds by grabbing Loki and beating him into the floor several times like a rag doll, after which Hulk utters his only line of dialog: puny god. This declaration comes after Loki’s emasculation is made phallic in jokes about Loki’s “performance issues” with his scepter.

If the Hulk is masculinity’s sheer force harnessed for good, that masculinity violently puts the puny Loki in his place. Of course, it’s not just that Loki is feminized. He’s also queered. He’s the only Avenger who hasn’t been explicitly or implicitly depicted as having a heterosexual relationship—in this film or in one of the other Marvel movies that led to this mash-up. But he also has an accent that is often associated with effete European men, and his dressed-down wardrobe is much more stylish and metrosexual than anything the other Avengers wear, Tony Stark’s tight shirts notwithstanding. But this subtext is made more explicit when Stark wakes up from a death-defying fall worried about whether one of his fellow male Avengers gave him CPR. Or in his words, “Please tell me no one kissed me.” So even fast-talking, beardscaped Stark draws a clear line to distinguish himself from queerness. Loki doesn’t specify any such aversion and is obsessed with his scepter and submission. And that’s on top of his racial otherness—in Thor, Loki is revealed to be an orphaned Frost Giant. So even though he seems like a regular old Aryan demigod, underneath he’s ugly, blue, and up to no good. 

Joss Whedon put together another smart, enjoyable film in The Avengers. He’s no feminist novice, which is why it's surprising that the men in this film reinscribe some troubling messages about masculinity and sexuality. The mostly male team and their villain reinforce the notions that the feminine, the queer, and the other are to be feared and quashed and that these traits need to be set up in diametric opposition to the idealized male hero.

Bechdel Test: Fail, I think? I can’t remember.
Overall Grade: B+
Feminist Grade: D

7 comments:

  1. It passed the named females part of the Bechdel test and that's pretty much it. Hill, Potts, and Romanov.

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  2. There is more than one reason why I do not agree with this review, but that is just my opinion. There is one thing, though, that I would like to point out.
    You call Joss Whedon's vision of Loki "troubling". You've stated that, because he dresses up, he is metrosexual; and that European men are effeminate. Afterwards, you claimed that, because he uses his brain more than his body when it comes to a fight, it makes him less masculine.
    But aren't these stereotypes? If, as a feminist, you are against them- and if you are against how women are usually portrayed in movies-, then why do you attack Loki so quickly? Because he has an accent? Because he dresses up? Because he uses a scepter as a weapon? Because he has less physical power than the Hulk? Loki is physically stronger than all of the Avengers, except the Hulk and his own brother. He just decides on using his brain as a weapon. But this does not make him automatically queer.
    (And, on a last note: shouldn't you be happy that he's breaking the stereotype, then? And, instead of criticizing the villain, why not commenting on how strong Maria Hill and Natasha Romanoff are?)

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  3. So this means that most european men are queer, because their accent? ect... uh?
    I think that villians usually do not show any kind of relationship in any film I can recall, because their motivation is not a woman/man they like or are in love, it's hate or power or whatever..
    Loki greatest power is his own intelligence, but that does not make him weaker, I found Cap Rogers masculinity more suspicious because of how sensitive he seems to be.
    And Loki, if you do not know he had 2 wives: a female giant and an lovely Aesir

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    1. Yes but he also had sex with a male horse and bore its offspring... in the form of a woman.

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  4. i don't think the author rejects the deviations from the stereotypical male traits. it's only that the villain possesses these more feminine attributes and none of the male "heroes" are allowed to be seen as such. the closest is tony stark who adamantly asserts his heterosexuality and prods at the mild mannered bruce banner to see if he can provoke the hulk out.

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  5. I have a few counter-arguments:

    I would argue that the line "Well, performance issues, it's not uncommon. One out of five..." is more of a reference to getting new technology to work rather than a phallic reference. Stark is a scientific genius, and the Iron Man movies highlight his many (often failed) attempts to improve his suits.

    Also, I think Loki's physical traits are more about contrast between him and the Avengers. Like how Arnold Schwarzenegger was so much larger than Kyle Reese in "The Terminator." Or how Iron Man has technological power, while the Extremis-empowered fighters have heat and physical healing powers in "Iron Man 3". It's boring to have heros and villains who are mirror images of each other. The visual contrast between Loki and Thor highlights the fact that Loki solves problems with intelligence and skill, while Thor solves problems by hitting them with a hammer.

    Contrast is also important in order to distinguish characters who are on the same side. Look at the physical contrast between Thor and Iron Man, or Captain America and Nick Fury.

    In talking about his look in "Thor," Tom Hiddleston said "[the director] wants Loki to have a lean and hungry look" (Source: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-1189315/BAZ-BAMIGBOYE-Weisz-words-philosophy.html) This shows that Loki's look is not so much feminine as it is wolfish.

    Also, Loki has never sought out spears. He inherited his father's spear in "Thor," and he was given his spear at the beginning of "The Avengers." His use of spears is more practical than intentional. Thor and his hammer, on the other hand...

    In conclusion, I think Loki's look is more about contrast with other characters and about showing his wolfish and intelligent nature. Also, this was a really interesting and well-thought out article. Good job!

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    1. Interesting insight! Thanks for sharing.

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