Is Thor a feminist movie? (Yes)

There’s no easy way for me to break this to you, so make sure you’re sitting down: Kenneth Branagh’s Thor (2011) is a feminist movie. Okay, I admit that on the surface a movie about an uber-masculine hammer-wielding thunder god doesn’t exactly seem like fertile ground for a feminist reading. But it’s surprisingly subversive of the genre of action movies and an extremely sensitive portrayal of a group of human beings who are dealing with their own crap and other people’s crap and not doing very well with either.

Now, Thor is still vulnerable to the critique that applies to most movies in our culture: it focuses too much on the men’s stories and not enough on the women’s stories. I don’t deny that this is a problem. But where it does focus on women, the film portrays them as real, whole people with internal motivations, emotions and agency. This portrayal is virtually unique in the genre. Consider Jane, the physicist who, er, “stumbles” across Thor in the first scene and becomes his major love interest. Already, this is a departure from mainstream portrayals of women: she is a physicist, a profession that is socially-coded male, and she seems to be dedicated, passionate, and good at her job.

Not only that, but Jane is not your typical leading lady, who might mention her job once and then focus entirely on the leading man for the rest of the movie. No, Jane is obsessed with research and very focused on her career. Several times, she literally risks her own life and the lives of others to get data (I didn’t say she had her priorities straight!). In fact, she repeatedly says that her work is her “whole life”.

Basically, Jane is a highly intelligent workaholic – a kind of female character that is rarely portrayed at all, let alone as a person with emotions and agency. Even better than that, when she meets Thor, this doesn’t change. Jane is never punished in the narrative for being a workaholic – she never has the cliched epiphany that her career-obsessed ways were or are making her miserable, and she does not need to compromise on her workaholism to keep Thor’s interest (indeed, Thor even helps her get her data back).

Yes, Jane is Thor’s love interest, but even in that context she is portrayed as a whole, interesting person, to whom Thor is attracted because she is curious, bright, compassionate, and self-possessed. She is not just a McGuffin to make Thor want to defend Earth. We, the audience, see all of Jane and this implies that Thor sees all of Jane, not just her beauty. Consider by contrast the portrayal of Rachel Dawes in Nolan’s otherwise excellent Batman films, who exists mainly to look pretty, deliver moral lessons to Bruce, and get threatened by bad guys. Superman Returns even butchered Lois “ambition is my middle name” Lane, turning her into a character entirely defined by her relationships with the men in the narrative.

Jane’s assistant Darcy also deserves a mention here, because this kind of wise-cracking, jokester bit-role is rarely given to women in big budget films. The dynamic between Jane and Darcy feels very real, and again, the two play off one another and interact in almost a buddy-comedy-esque manner (ambitious career-girl and sarcastic sidekick have adventures!).  It is their interaction that ensures Thor even passes the freaking Bechdel test in the first scene, which I’m not sure any other superhero movie has ever done (please comment if you can think of another).

Sif is another prime example of how to do female characters right. A super competent female warrior, who is neither hypersexualised nor the butt of jokes? Fuck yes! Even better, Sif refuses to let jerkwad!Thor take any credit for her achievements – he wants kudos for supporting her in her career as a badass warrior, but she shuts him down, and so she should. Believing that women can reach goals that society says are for men only, and supporting women’s right to agency and self-determination, is literally the minimum standard of human decency. No cookies for you, Thor. But refreshingly, Thor’s comment is supposed to be read as arrogant and egocentric – the narrative supports Sif, not Thor, who shortly afterwards gets himself banished from Asgard for being arrogant and egocentric in general.

Not only does the narrative treat Jane, Darcy and Sif with the respect they deserve, but so does the cinematography. In most mainstream action films, the camera often pans up women’s bodies or lingers on their most “attractive” features – not only when a male character is looking at them, but just generally, by way of presentation of these characters to the audience. This may also be accompanied by ridiculously context-inappropriate wardrobe choices such as high heels, tight shirts and short skirts worn regardless of what the female character has to do in a scene (see: every James Bond film ever). Thor does neither of these things! Sif, Jane and Darcy are never panned over by male characters, nor presented for the audience’s visual consumption.

In fact, it is Thor’s body that is panned over to show to the audience that Darcy and Jane are very attracted to him. For the first time in a mainstream superhero movie, ladies and gentlemen, I give you: the heterosexual female gaze! This is a huge deal! Of course it was terribly confusing for some straight men, who apparently began to feel, well, a little bit “gay” (their words). This is a really wonderful subversion of the heteromale gaze, and it shows straight men what it’s like to go to the movies and see bodies not exclusively packaged for their consumption. Now, we can disagree on the extent to which people should ever be sexualised like that, but clearly when this is virtually always done to women and almost never to men, we have at the very least an inequality problem. Correcting this imbalance is one way to start making our culture better for women. And in this context, it is downright subversive. Bra-fucking-vo.

The female characters also wear clothing that is realistic and appropriate! Jane is shown as having very basic personal style, wearing jeans, t-shirts, and baggy checked shirts over the top. Darcy has a more funky style, which expresses her wise-cracking, off-beat charm – again her wardrobe meshes coherently with her characterisation. Sif’s outfit is perhaps the biggest achievement in this department: her armor looks both functional and fucking awesome! Her hair is up and out of the way for fighting! She looks badass, intimidating and strong, in the same manner that Thor, Loki, and the Warriors Three do.  A+, costume department. Even her movie poster is in the exact same style as the men’s posters!

Another way in which Thor breaks down sexist narratives is by challenging the traditional hypermasculinity of the superhero. Thor is built like a tank and possesses strength, courage and supernatural power. But his character is achingly vulnerable: he tears up when Loki visits him on Earth, asking plaintively if he may please return home (it broke my fucking heart, you guys, you don’t even know). And his vulnerability does not make him weak! Indeed, it is Thor’s transition from arrogance and bravado to humility and vulnerability that permits him to regain his powers and wield Mjolnir again. Loki, too, is presented as emotional and vulnerable – but again his expressions of anguish make him no less dangerous, intelligent, devious, and threatening. Indeed, it seems to me that Loki is perhaps the first truly convincing and serious supervillain who has cried on screen.

Branagh’s Thor is more feminist than I thought a movie about a male superhero could ever be. Of course, it occurs to me that most of the things I am praising here are things that all films should be doing. They aren’t doing them, though. Thor is. Still, maybe I shouldn’t be giving Kenneth Branagh kudos for not being as outright misogynistic as Michael Bay or as obliviously sexist as Chris Nolan.

Nevertheless, Thor is one superhero movie that I can watch without wanting to reach into the screen and throttle someone. In fact, it is the first superhero movie that has made the social justice part of me very happy. As a fan of the superhero genre and as someone who cares about geek culture, that means something to me.

Author: Rachael

Rachael is a queer, nerdy, aneurotypical, white cisfemale with a bachelor's degree in economics and a give 'em hell attitude. She has a culturally unacceptable amount of body fat but sometimes "passes", and she accesses some forms of thin privilege but not others. She believes in leveraging the privilege one has in order to smash the kyriarchy. She is a big geek, an atheist, a skeptic, and a fan of science. In her spare time she enjoys meditation, going to therapy, and shouting.

47 thoughts on “Is Thor a feminist movie? (Yes)”

  1. Another thing to note is that after Thor destroys the Bifrost Bridge, he’s basically left stranded, and Jane has all the agency. Thor is moping around Asgard, but, Jane is looking for him. She has the smarts and the know how to fix something he broke (even if it was out of necessity) and is seemingly powerless to fix.

  2. Love your article, but I’ve been saying all summer that Captain America is the true feminist action movie of the year (after Hanna). The Peggy Carter character is in charge and actually fighting!

    Without her data-recovery C-plot, Jane Foster’s only function to the STORY in Thor is to provide transportation, whereas Peggy teaches the Cap. how to be a hero and stop being a glamour monkey. What do you think?

    1. We all really loved Captain America and Peggy Carter too! (I was joking at one point that we were going to do an individual post on each Avengers film and… that might still happen.) Peggy is a total BAMF and I think she was a great example of showing a strong female character rather than telling it.

      Jane is central to Thor’s redemption storyline. At the start of the film he is selfish, cocky and irresponsible, probably because he’s the son of Odin and has been super spoilt his whole life. However after spending time on earth with Jane (and Darcy and Eric) he learns how to care deeply for people other than himself. Unlike Sif and the Warriors Three, his human friends aren’t able to take care of themselves in battles with giant walking, fire-breathing suits of armour so he has to be responsible for their safety. Thor’s character turns a complete 180 – at the start of the film he’s all too keen to kill every Frost Giant. At the end of the film he is fighting his brother to prevent the destruction Jotunheim. Jane is responsible for that.

  3. Okay, that makes sense. I guess it becomes more a question of earning that 180, and Thor’s suffers in comparison to Loki’s (aka, most awesome and complex villain ever).

    I’d love to read those Avengers articles! Why not expand to include all Marvel movies and give kudos to X-Men: First Class for debuting the first mainstream homosexual action stars (yup. well, I’d like to think)?

  4. I must admit, this is an interesting reading of Thor that I hadn’t thought about before. After I walked out of the movie, I must admit I was seething at the portrayal of Jane. I was happy that we had a super-smart physicist love interest, but I thought it was a thin characterisation at best. For all her claims of being a workaholic, when Thor is explaining the reality of her theory to her, she spends more time checking him out than looking at the diagram he’s drawing that’s confirming her life’s work. I found that really hard to swallow in the sense I thought it showed her characterisation came a very, very far second to her role as adorer of the main character’s manly hotness.

    This post made me re-think Thor though. Thanks. 🙂

    1. Huh, I didn’t think she was checking Thor out when he was drawing the worlds, I thought she was staring at him in wonder due to what he was saying. I will rewatch and re-evaluate!

    2. She wasn’t checking him out during that scene. She did have a gawp at him with his shirt off, wouldn’t we all?

      When Thor explains the nine worlds she’s falling in love with him. She’s finally seeing someone who believes her and understands what she is saying an who can further her theories. Eric is intelligent, but a skeptic. Darcy believes but doesn’t understand. Along comes Thor and he’s on her level.

      She appreciates how gorge Thor is, there is nothing wrong with that. She’s awkward, she giggles, she’s not perfect and neither are we. She persues him because he fits into her work, not because she is attracted to him. We know she is but even then she lets him go when she is advised he might be dangerous. She’s not blind and she’s not stupid.

      1. Actually, now that you mention it, that makes her even more impressive. Not that he’s on her level, but that she’s on his – a Sufficiently Advanced Alien is sitting there beside her, explaining his people’s science and technology, and she’s understanding it. How often are even the best and brightest of humans allowed to do that in these movies?

  5. Might one trouble you for a working link for the movie-poster of Sif? The link you give in your article – which is very interesting – just takes me to a page that says the link expired September 12th.

  6. I mostly agree – the one point where it falls down is what finally goads Thor into attacking Loki – Loki’s threat to visit Jane after he’s killed Thor. It’s just a shame that it fell at the last hurdle. That moment aside, though, it’s a great film.

    1. Clare (from SJL) pointed this out to me and when I first watched the film I didn’t interpret Loki’s comment that way. But on rewatch I can definitely see the threat of sexual violence that could be interpreted from that scene.

  7. Great post! It actually inspired me to see Thor in the first place, since I totally assumed that it was going to be an hour and a half of some a super-cut dude running around and smashing things with a big hammer. So “bra-fucking-vo”, I have a new appreciation for geek culture, thanks to you.

    I just wanted to contest, or maybe clarify, your treatment of Nolan’s Rachael Dawes. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that those feminist films as well (far from it), however I appreciated that Rachael was a strong leading lady. Though never at the forefront of the action, but certainly at the heart of it, Rachael always had resolve, maturity, and ambition. She had them long before Bruce Wayne ever did as well, since it seemed like he was always trying to catch up to her level of morality. And he did so by constantly asking for –and always valuing, her opinions and advice.

    Ya, there are instances in both movies where she needed saving, but those were only because she was standing up for herself and what she believed in. If she had her own multi-billion dollar company and entire applied science department devoted to helping her cope with criminals, then it would have been a different story altogether. She fought for what was right within her own means. She used her brain, became a lawyer and did legal battle.

    As well, she never pined or swooned for Bruce Wayne. Instead she always spoke her mind and gave him no allowances whenever he was acting up, e.g. when she sees him for the first time after “he comes back from the dead,” and he’s arm in arm with 2 other women, she doesn’t line up to become another accessory of his, but tells him that she’s disappointed. Nor is she quick to allow him redemption, even after he reveals his secret identity to her, she’s still pretty much impassive and skeptical.

    So, maybe we’ll have to wait for “The Dark Knight Rises to see how Nolan depicts Catwoman before we can make any final conclusions on the feminist qualities of the franchise. However, I’m willing to put myself on the line and say that Rachael Dawes wasn’t the typical damsel in distress love interest.

  8. I really heart this analysis. One additional bit of perspective: not only are the male characters’ emotional vulnerability very evolved, they’re also historically accurate. Thor and the other Norse gods are typical of medieval men in more than just their fighting style; they express all emotions broadly, without gendered associations. Men used to cry when they were sad, mad, or frustrated, just like real humans!

    All you have to do is read “Song of Roland” to see how it was considered completely manly to shed tears and chew the wallpaper at the falling of a companion–even the great king Charlemagne is constantly weeping and pulling his beard in fits of emotion. Sure, the characterizations of this behavior in sagas and epics were probably outsized compared to everyday life, but like any caricature, they only emphasize features which already stand out.

  9. Hi! Just caught this, enjoyed it, and spread it around. A lesser point: Rene Russo’s character, Frigga, seems like she can barely pick up and swing a sword, but she does. It’s nice that even the “weakest” female character in the movie doesn’t hide the in corner.

    1. I’m pretty sure it was just a good comic book movie not a feminist movie. Hopefully the next will have more hammer smashing and less love story.

  10. Beautifully written. Lifelong female geek here, but I wasn’t into the superhero genre at all until this movie. I would also recommend ‘Captain America’ for similar reasons, even though much of the movie takes place in an era with less gender equality. If only they would make a movie with a female superhero lead. I’m glad Joss Whedon is with Marvel, but it would have been nice if they had let him do what he wanted with a Wonder Woman movie.

  11. I agree with about half of this. I would very much disagree with anyone who asserts that /Jane/ of all the love interests from this current wave of superhero movies is a fleshed out and interesting character. As a writer, I would be ashamed of making a character as badly developed as her be a ‘main’ character in anything I did.
    I do agree with the comments about Thor’s vulnerability, the costuming, the female gaze, and the relationship between Jane and Darcy.
    It’s too bad whoever made this movie was pretty content to shit all over millions of people worldwide that follow the Norse as actual deities.

    For better examples of strong, well developed female characters I’d love to point out Peggy from Captain America and Pepper Potts from Iron Man. Also Selina Kyle /and/ ‘Miranda’ from the Dark Knight Rises. (Though honestly I’d say Rachel Dawes is at least as well developed as Jane).

  12. Thank you for helping me articulate why I loved Thor so much. I was blown away when I saw it — the effects were so lovely and the characters were awesome. And in large part that was because there were so many amazing women.

    I’ve always enjoyed Branagh’s work, being a Shakespeare nut. I wonder if that kind of background helped informed this movie? I definitely think it’s why the hammier/emotional elements worked so well. I’m bummed Branagh passed on Thor 2; I hope the next director continues what was started here.

  13. I knew there was a reason this movie was one of my favorites! I was so psyched when I learned that Darcy and Jane were both going to be in Thor 2, I hope their dynamic and characterization stays true to the first. Now we just need a decent superheroine movie. Or a few. There are dozens of kickass ladies in both the Marvel and DC universes that deserve their screentime. Man, I hope Marvel gets their shit together and makes a Black Widow movie. Or maybe DC will give us a Wonder Woman movie. *crosses fingers*

  14. Nice article. I agree that ‘Thor’ did portray female characters quite well for a movie targeted at males. You were spot on with whatever you said about Jane, Darcy and Sif. I loved each of their characters as shown in the movie.

    But I disagree that Nolan’s movies are obviously sexist. While true that his movies are targeted mostly to male audience, I feel he does portray women well. Yes Rachel is damsel in distress in those movies but she is shown as a woman who cares about her career and the city. Also, not all women in Batman movie series were there just for being sex objects. There was Judge Survillo in ‘TDK’ along with officer Ramirez who were portrayed in similar fashion that male characters were. Take notice also of the fact that Batman is supposed to be very promiscuous in the comic books but Nolan downplayed that aspect of his personality as much as he can. He showed that Bruce Wayne was pretending to be a playboy to fake his image in public. Never once was he shown as bragging about all the women that he has had or expressing his desires of whom he next wants to bed.

    In contrast, both ‘Iron Man’ movies’ portrayal of women was extremely sexist. I can’t recollect one female character in those movies who was not objectified. Every female character was there just for Tony Stark and other males to leer at them. Tony Stark is also shown desperately trying to get into the pants of every female character and bragging about his conquests.

    There was a scene in that movie where after having sex with Tony, a female reporter wakes up and is greeted by Pepper Potts. The reporter taunts Pepper about her job and Pepper responds by saying that she does whatever Tony wants, including discarding thrash used by Tony. I cringed at the fact that being a woman she was implying something so extremely sexist. Then she falls in love with that same men who she herself implied that uses and discards women like thrash. I bet if the gender was reversed and Tony was some Tina then everyone would be screaming at how much of a slut she is and how much that movie sucks. But oh well for now he is a male, so it is completely acceptable and Iron-Man is everyone’s favorite comic book character. What double-standards!

    Anyways, I neither like Iron-Man as a comic book character nor did I like either of those two movies. Won’t be watching ‘Iron-Man 3’. My favorite Avengers Assemble movie was indeed ‘Thor’ along with ‘The Avengers’. Regarding the topic of more proper representation of women in comic book movies, I think that will happen only when women start supporting such movies more. Traditionally women mostly support romantic movies like Twilight or that upcoming Fifty shades of Grey (I personally can’t stand all that romance crap). Rest all genres like Sci-fi, Comic books, action, adventure, etc. are mostly targeted at men. Which is sad because I love them. I wish more women would start exploring other genres besides Romance. Only then will film-makers start making more female-targeted movies which are not blatantly sexist.

  15. I actually dumped my boyfriend because of Thor. I watched the movie, saw how Thor treats all the women with respect, and I just thought, “I want someone who makes me feel the way this movie makes me feel.” So next time I had a conversation with my now ex, I said to him, “I don’t like the way you’re acting, Thor wouldn’t treat me like this. I’m going to find someone who treats me the way Thor would.” (Yes, I really did reference a superhero movie in my break up speech. Sue me.)

    Then I went and watched Thor a half dozen more times over the next week, and gushed over Tom Hiddleston’s beautiful face every time I saw him. I also bought a whole pile of Thor comics from the Marvel online store as well, so I could have some Thor to read during lectures. It was awesome.

  16. Great article really, it’s funny that I didn’t notice this side of the film, I did notice that in a family with a female majority (4 of us against my dad and brother!) All the ladies in the house loved the movie. We loved Sif (and her amour!), we liked Thor a lot and found Loki incredibly appealing. Maybe our subconscious was drawn to all this details that make this film so attractive.

  17. I love your analysis! When I first watched ‘Thor’, I’ll admit, I wasn’t impressed. I remember cringing when Jane giggled as Thor kissed her hand, thinking “oh god, not another airhead.” But after reading this post, I’ve realized that just because Jane is (in this instance) a bit girly, it doesn’t mean that she isn’t a strong character. So, thank you so much for making me appreciate this movie more.

    Also, I’d like to thank you for making me aware of the gross slut-shaming in the first ‘Iron Man’-movie. When I first saw it, it passed me right by. If anything, Iit made me cheer for Pepper and that is SO wrong, I can’t even… I still like the movies (if not for anything else, then for the beautiful friendship depicted between Tony and Rhodey, even though I think Terence Howard did a better job), but that comment, upon closer reflection made me not-like Pepper as much.

    P.S. I’d love to read your analysis of the ‘Captain America’-movie. Especially the scene where Peggy “catches” another woman kissing Steve (she grabs him by the tie!) and there is no slut-shaming whatsoever! She’s actually mad at HIM for kissing back! (Ok, that’s maybe not logical, seeing as he thinks she’s dating Howard Stark, but still.) Or the scene at the Expo, where Steve offers his date some snacks and she looks at him in irritation and she isn’t depicted as bad for doing so.

  18. I agree that a lot of the credit for this goes to Branagh for his direction, but I think that J. Michael Straczynski deserves a ton of credit for his writing as well. If you look at his writing for Babylon 5 and other works, strong female characters abound.

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