Loki: An Allegory About Internalised Racism

I really enjoyed Thor when I first viewed it. Like many fans I found Loki to be one of the most compelling characters and villains I had ever watched. Then I stumbled across this short post on Tumblr, and I realised why I related to the character so much. I read Loki as a character who suffered from internalised racism, and I know that experience pretty intimately*.

All his life Loki believed he was Aesir by blood. For years he’s been fed negative messages about Frost Giants – probably that they’re backwards, barbaric and unattractive. For years he’s participated in the Othering of an entire race (species?) and hating them for just being who they are. As the victors of war, Asgard would paint themselves as the noble and courageous warriors in every story and the Frost Giants as untrustworthy, cowardly and sly. Frost Giants are the butt of every joke. It’s clear Loki views them as disposable as everyone else in Asgard when he lets them into Asgard to be killed, just so he can make a point about Thor’s inadequacies.So what does he do when he finds out he’s adopted and biologically Jotun? Naturally, he manipulates events just so that he can commit genocide on his own people.

Maybe this sounds like a long bow to draw for people who haven’t experienced internalised racism, but in my opinion his reaction is a realistic portrayal of what racism can do to people of colour. I’m not saying anyone is going to commit genocide but that’s a lot of hate that’s being directed to people who’ve done nothing to him personally. And because Loki is a Frost Giant that’s also a lot of hate directed inwards AT HIMSELF.

Realistically, those negative messages don’t melt away the instant Loki knows about his heritage. No, what he wants now is to be accepted as Aesir “in spite of” the fact he is Jotun. Because of that he has to be more Asgardian than anyone else in Asgard. He has to hate the Frost Giants more, he has to be tough (not “soft” like Thor at the end) and he has to do something that will prove beyond doubtthat he is Aesir at least at heart.

Imagine if Loki knew he was Jotun from the beginning. His friends and family in Asgard treat him well, but still make remarks about the Frost Giants and how they’re an ugly race of people. They’d try to watch what they said around Loki, but sometimes let a racist joke or remark slip. And they’ll glance at him guiltily and think they’re helping when they clarify: “No you’re good, you’re not like the otherJotun.” Loki will grow up thinking he’s loved as long as he’s a certain “type” of Jotun and one that acts like he’s Aesir and goddamn, why wasn’t he born Aesir?

After he finds out, Loki monitors his behaviour. He makes sure he does everything Aesir, divorces himself from any Jotun-esque traits he might hold. He denounces the Frost Giants more than anyone else, he hates them and their culture and everything they are more than anyone else. He makes derogatory jokes about them, maybe even encourages others to do the same.

I read much of Loki’s pain and loss through the film as an allegory for internalised racism because I experienced it for myself for many years. Internalised racism is growing up with the message that only white people can be complex and successful and happy. Non-white ethnicity and culture is, at best, regulated to a supporting role for the privileged; at worst, it is outright hated, mocked and derided. You want to be happy right? Your brain does a little irrational flip and tells you the only way to be complex, successful and happy is to emulate a privileged person, right down to the racism.

Of course you can never be as good as a white person but you can try**. You can try to be better, and you can try to out-act their privilege. You can proudly distinguish yourself as one of the exceptions to the rule, the “good” type of minority that “acts white”. The price is giving up your heritage, distancing yourself from native cultural practices, from languages, food and clothing.

The emotional toil of loathing yourself stays until you come to terms with your own oppression. But the sense of loss has never left me. When I think back to how I was operating under internalised racism, I remember the positive experiences and opportunities I refused to take because they were too “ethnic”. I remember the deep shame of being non-white, my embarrassment of being seen with other non-white people and especially those who couldn’t “act white” enough for me.

I think about the racist things I did and got away with because of my ethnicity and I’m really glad I’m not that person anymore.

When Loki announces he wants to “destroy that race of monsters” you know, on some level, he’s referring to himself as well. And then my heart breaks into tiny pieces because I remember exactly how it feels to hate who you are.

*I realise that Thor is pretty white-washed in terms of casting and there are only two characters of colour, but nevertheless I found this storyline compelling when analysing it from a racialised point of view.

**People of colour who are able to “pass” as white will have to be a subject of another post.

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.