The superhero story is the story of a mask. Until the mask comes off, the face underneath could be your own.
And now the person under the mask (or the helm, as the case may be) has changed. Marvel this week announced two big changes to its lineup.
Thor is female now – at least, for the foreseeable future. The man we know as Thor has been rejected by his hammer, Mjolnir, and so the hammer is going to be taken up by … a woman. This woman will become Thor, and some people on the Internet are getting pretty Thor about it themselves.
Captain America, too, is undergoing a transition: Steve Rogers won’t be able to wield the shield, and so his African American colleague Sam Wilson will be taking over — for a while, anyway.
I’m a little torn about this.
I’m not sure what this gesture says. Stepping away from the intricacies of the comic book mythology (and the fact that both of these seem likely to be just story arcs, after which we will revert to default), I think this touches on some serious questions: How do you identify with the people you read about? And, more specifically for the new Thor, how do girls read?
When I go back through literature thinking of all the books I read and all the characters I wanted to be – whose mannerisms I aped, whose likenesses I drew obsessively, over and over again – they were pretty much all guys. Of course they were. When you read “Tom Sawyer,” you don’t want to be Becky Thatcher.
There were exceptions, of course. Lyra, from “The Golden Compass.” Meg, in “A Wrinkle in Time. Princess Leia wasn’t bad either.
I never thought of myself, the reader, sitting perched on one corner of my parents’ big sofa with fern upholstery, as being a Girl. I was what the poet Patricia Lockwood calls “the eleven-year-old gender: protagonist.” I was whoever was narrating. I was whoever the hero was. I was Macbeth, not Lady Macbeth, certainly not one of the three interchangeable weird sisters. I was Darth Vader, not Mon Mothma. If you had to limit yourself to the people who looked and sounded like you and had the same assortment of X and Y chromosomes, you cut off all the people worth being.
This was the curse — and the blessing — of being a female reader. You had to slip into unfamiliar skins if you wanted to have a good time. “I” was you, even if it wasn’t. “He” was you. If you insisted on only reading about people like you, you missed half the earth — more than half the good protagonists, according to a survey.
You never let the fact that the story was not about someone who looked like you stand in your way. And you came out richer for it.
So both sides of the response to the news of female Thor flummoxed me. Couldn’t identify with a female Thor? I wondered. Then what did you think the point of reading was? How do you think we’ve felt, all these years?
Couldn’t identify with Thor until Thor turned female? I wondered. Then what kind of a reader are you?
We’ve spent long enough with the male experience being taken as a proxy for the human experience. As they say, “men are people, and women are women.” Isn’t it time to shake things up a little?
But one thing you learn from reading lots of books is that if a story is told well enough, it becomes universal. If any story is true enough, it becomes a story about the reader. It speaks to people far beyond the particular demographics of the protagonist.
I’m excited to have a female Thor and a black Captain America (if only for a brief time) because I have always believed this cut both ways. A story about a woman, told well enough, is a story about everyone, male and female alike. A well-told story from a thousand years ago about a lost Greek veteran trying to get to Ithaca can be your story, too, no matter who you are. So can a story about a raccoon. Or a frog (Thor was a frog, once). Or, well — anyone, so long as it’s a good story.
I hope the trend continues until there are more women and people of color on screen and on the page, doing all the things white men have done so long, because that means more stories for everyone.
It’s great to see more people who resemble — well, more people. But sometimes the ones we identify most with are the ones who don’t resemble us, on the surface, at all. And that’s my concern with these new characters taking up the mantles. Just because a story contains a woman does not mean it is instantly a story for women. It doesn’t hurt. But it’s not a guarantee. The best stories for and about women are just stories for and about people. If female readers couldn’t see themselves in Thor while Thor had a Y chromosome, Thor must have been an awfully bland and limited story.
I love representation. I love strong female characters – the ones who are strong because they can roundhouse-kick, and the ones who are strong because they’re witty and collected, and the ones who are strong because they’re just so recognizably people, with all the flaws and wrinkles that entails. I love the increase in representation (has there been an increase? Or have I just seen “Frozen” too many times?) because it means more characters for everyone to identify with, and we all gain when the range of stories expands. That’s the great thing about having more characters who aren’t just your standard-issue cardboard white-bread protagonist. It’s more people to want to be! Boys, too.
For too long, boys have gotten by without having to read for their own experiences through the lens of someone else’s. I hope new Thor takes off and the consequence is that we keep writing stories for boys about girls. We need more stories with a female protagonist for everyone to latch onto, not just the girls in the audience. This should be the default, not a special exception. Stories about girls are not automatically stories for girls. Stories about boys are not automatically stories for everyone.
Imagine if you were to say “Katniss is a boy now! See, boys! It’s safe to come into the water.” No. The whole point is that the protagonist doesn’t have to be just like you. Reading is all about seeing yourself inside someone else’s story.
By and large we are not superheroes. We do not have webbing or spider senses. We do not mushroom in size and turn green and smash. But all these stories latch onto something deeper than that.
Because that should be the point: Thor doesn’t have to become female to speak to women. Thor’s female because that’s a story the writers want to tell. If the story’s good and the character’s true, we don’t need to care about her gender.
This is not to give everyone carte blanche to keep doing what we’ve been doing, where every story has the same hero and the bland white man becomes yet another mask behind which you are asked to see yourself.
A while ago, this Tumblr of little girls dressed up as female superheroes brought the point home to me. Batman doesn’t have to be a girl for little girls to be Batman.
But what I want is not more female characters stepping into familiar shoes.
I want more female characters who will make people want to do the imaginative work of dressing up and getting into their shoes. Not just a woman with a hammer, but a woman with a power of her own.