On Defrosting: What Marvel’s Thor Announcement Means for Women in Comics Culture

23/07

In 2013, I published an article titled “Fangirls in Refrigerators: The Politics of (In)Visibility in Comic Book Culture,” detailing the erasure of women from scholarly work on comic book culture, and growing efforts by fangirls to challenge the notion that women don’t read comics and speak back to the sexism that pervades both comic book representations and comics fan culture.  Examining transformative interventions such as the Kickstarter funded Womanthology and genderswap fan art sites like The Hawkeye Initiative, I (somewhat optimistically), suggested that:

we are currently witnessing a transformative moment within the comic book industry, comic book fandom, and comic book scholarship, in which gender is one of the primary axes of change.

Well, it’s a year later, and Marvel just announced that, come October 2014, the comic iteration of Thor will now be female.  Mission accomplished? Misogyny thwarted by the mighty Mjölnir? Not exactly.

The inevitable press release touting Marvel’s “ever-growing and long list of female-centric titles that continues to invite new readers into the Marvel Universe” quotes creator Jason Aaron, who emphatically notes:

This is not She-Thor. 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.

Concept art for Marvel’s new Thor

Marvel is making a concerted effort to distance this character from oft-critiqued female “spinoff” superheroes. So far, so good, right? But scroll down to the comments section of that press release, or peruse the response to the announcement on your preferred social media platform, and the entrenched sexism of comic book culture quickly emerges.

If my 2013 article argued that “female fans of comic books have long felt ‘fridged,’ an audience segment kept on ice and out of view,” Marvel’s Thor announcement (especially when coupled with Marvel’s synchronized announcement that African American character Sam Wilson/The Falcon will be picking up Captain America’s shield), suggests that we might be entering to a defrosting period towards minority comic readers.  However, until this “defrosting” moves from characters to comic book creative teams and cinematic franchises, I’m hesitant to call this a win.

It’s heartening to see Marvel brass like Ryan Penagos reply to a raging geek chorus of “WTF?!” on Twitter about the Thor announcement with a curt “WTF is that we’re doing it and it’s awesome,” but it would be more heartening if Marvel would show equal commitment to hiring women or African Americans to the creative teams for their new “diversified” heroes. Because of this, and some fannish quibbling aside (the inevitable design critique of Thor’s “boob plate” armor, disappointment that Marvel didn’t instead create and invest in an original female superhero character, etc.), the Thor response from female comics fans has mostly fallen into the “hopeful, but wary” category.

This wariness, at least in part, stems from questions around how this might impact the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Chris Hemsworth, as the cinematic incarnation of the character, is contractually tied to one more Thor sequel and two more Avengers films, and has been vocal about his desire to continue playing the character).  Another key issue is that, rhetorically, these initiatives are still presented as part of an effort to “bring women” to comics, reinforcing the faulty demographic suggestion that women aren’t already reading comics or contributing to the MCU’s opening weekend box office.

There’s a cognitive dissonance emerging in comics culture: Superhero screenwriters like David S. Goyer (Batman BeginsMan of Steel) belittle She-Hulk as “a giant green porn star that only the Hulk could f–k,” while Charles Soule and Javier Pulido’s stellar current run of She-Hulk comics reads like a superheroine-infused The Good Wife, focused wholly on Jennifer Walters’ law career.  We’re witnessing a moment in which a solo Wonder Woman movie remains stuck in perpetual development hell, while Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Captain Marvel fan club, the Carol Corps, grows ever stronger.

Per Mjölnir’s inscription, Marvel may have decided that a woman is “worthy” of Thor’s mantle, but the empowerment of female comics creators and consumers is still a long ways off.  Unfortunately, until systemic changes are made to reflect a commitment to female fans, their “worthiness” will remain a source of debate within comics culture.

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