CW: sexism, transphobia, sexual violence
Spoiler warning: Spoilers for all of season 1 of Loki, the MCU in general, and some comics spoilers.
Slight spoilers for Netflix’s Ragnarok, Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman, and Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard: The Hammer of Thor by Rick Riordan.
A central theme of Marvel’s latest Disney+ show Loki has been identity and destiny. How much can we change our path, and how much of it is set in stone? A clear example of this has been the different variants of Loki that the viewer has encountered, from kid Loki, to Gator Loki, to, of course, Sylvie. The introduction of Sylvie led to many people discussing what her gender identity could mean in the grand scheme of things, with many speculating that it was the reason that the Time Variance Agency were after her (eg. @LokiSnakes 2021; Screencrush 2021). Her appearance also raises many more questions regarding gender, gender fluidity, and gender essentialism. Basically: what does it mean that a Loki is female presenting? This is especially interesting to consider since Tom Hiddleston has recently said that MCU Loki is gender fluid (Johnston 2021), and in the show, we see that the TVA records Loki’s sex as fluid. So in this essay I will take a close look at the presentation gender and gender fluidity in Loki while comparing it to Norse Mythology, other pop culture representations of Loki, and what (trans)gender scholars might have to say on the topic.
If we look at the Loki of mythology, it is clear that both his sex and gender is presented as fluid in many ways (eg. Laidoner 2012). As a shapeshifter, Loki can take the form of more or less anything he likes. He variously appears as hawk, a salmon, a seal, a mare, a young maiden, and an old hag. In general, in Norse mythology, Loki often shifts between being feminine and masculine, male and female, father and mother. Sometimes this is just in demeanour, sometimes the shift is physical, such as when he transforms into a mare, gets pregnant, and gives birth to the eight-legged horse Sleipnir.
As another researcher describes him: “Loki, the trickster god who exists in a perpetual state of being ‘in between,’ particularly in regard to his gender.” (Sprenkle 2020, 39)
Contemporary works of fiction that has drawn on Norse mythology has incorporated this aspect of Loki’s character to various degrees. There are too many examples of Loki in popular culture to go through them all, but I wanted to touch on three of them briefly. Neil Gaiman has written about Loki on various occasions, for instance in American Gods and Norse Mythology. In Norse Mythology, Gaiman does include the Loki as a mare incident(Gaiman 2017, 84-89). In that instance, the pronouns used for Loki are also shifts from “he” to “she.” But besides this moment, Gaiman doesn’t focus much on Loki’s gender fluidity. Another example I want to discuss briefly, that lingers a bit more on the queer aspects of Loki, is the Netflix show Ragnarok. This show takes place in contemporary Norway, but as the name hints at, much of the plot is influenced by Norse Mythology. In the show the viewer is introduced to the character Laurits, who is very clearly influenced by Loki. I’ve previously written about some of their parallels, and how the show portrays some of Loki’s queerness. I would argue that Ragnarok more focuses on Laurits/Loki’s queer sexuality than his queer gender, but there are some instances of gender non-conformity too. For instance, Laurits shows up at a party wearing his mum’s blouse (Ragnarok 2020a), and another time he dresses in a women’s folk dress, a bunad (Ragnarok 2020b).
All of this shows some degree of queerness and gender nonconformity, which is similar to the Loki of mythology. One example of a contemporary work of fiction that actually incorporates on Loki’s gender fluidity to a significant degree is the Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard series by Rick Riordan. The Magnus Chase series takes place in our contemporary world, but a world where (unbeknownst to most humans) the Norse gods still exist. The main character, Magnus Chase, is a demigod who through the series goes on adventures through the nine realms with a friend group consisting of humans, demigods, Valkyries, dwarfs, and elves. In the second book in the series, Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard: The Hammer of Thor, the reader is introduced to the character Alex Fierro, another demigod, who is a gender fluid child of Loki (Riordan 2016). I’ve written about this previously, so I’ll include an excerpt from that essay here:
Alex grew up on Midgard (the human world) in a human family who neither liked Loki nor their child for being gender fluid, something they blamed on the god (Riordan 2016: 288). The novel presents Loki as gender fluid as well, having temporarily been a woman who got pregnant with Alex’s dad (which is similar to a story from the Norse myths), and it is out of that union that Alex is born (Riordan 2016, 300). Loki is also a shapeshifter and is thus capable of changing into for instance animals, an ability that Alex has inherited and embraces. This is in direct contrast to her cis half-sister Samirah who avoids using her shapeshifting ability at all cost because of its connection to Loki. Alex is a very tough person who informs the main characters that she is gender fluid immediately and to “Call me she– unless and until I telll you otherwise.” (Riordan 2016, 64). Later she says that “I’m gender fluid and transgender, idiot. Look it up if you need to, but it’s not my job to educate-“ (Riordan 2016, 70). Alex later explains that she uses both she/her and he/him pronouns depending on if she feels female or male at the time, and prefer that to they/them because shifting between she/her and he/him more accurately signify the fluidity in her gender (Riordan 2016, 286). In the story Alex’s gender is very much tied up with her shapeshifting ability, however she cannot change her gender at will, something she herself finds ironic (Riordan 2016, 285-286). Her shapeshifting ability is also very much connected to the fact that she is the child of Loki. Loki often symbolise flexibility and change, but also slipperiness and manipulation, and many other characters are therefore mistrustful of Alex at first (Riordan 2016, 52 & 92).
This is quite clearly influenced by the Loki of mythology, both in how Loki himself is presented (shifting sex/gender, getting pregnant, etc) and how Alex as a child of Loki is presented. It’s interesting to note how the gender fluidity here is partly connected to Loki’s general identity fluidity and ability to shapeshift. Loki can shapeshift into different animals, and he can shapeshift into being feminine presenting and able to bear children. I’ll return to the shapeshifting into both non-human animals and human animals later when discussing the Lokis of Loki.
But to return to Loki… As mentioned previously, the creators behind Loki and actor Tom Hiddleston himself has confirmed that Loki is genderfluid in the MCU (Johnston 2021). As is pointed out in that article, and as I have written about above, this is consistent with the Loki of Norse Mythology. The article also notes how Loki’s gender fluidity is mentioned in later runs of the comics as well:
In Marvel Comics, Loki also possesses the power to shapeshift. But when he does, it always seems to be in terms of a disguise, not as a gender expression. It wasn’t until 2014’s Original Sin Vol 1 #2 that Loki’s gender identity was clarified. In this comic, Thor and Loki find themselves in a female-run society. When Thor assures his brother “These are fair maidens,” Loki responds with “So am I, sometimes. It doesn’t mean I’m safe to talk to.” When Loki later takes on a female form to blend in with the society, she’s only referred to with she/her pronouns. This isn’t a disguise, it’s just another form of Loki. This fluidity is later confirmed in the same arc when Odin reflects on his children. “My son, my daughter, and my child who is both,” he says. At that point, Loki was no longer a male comics character who dressed up with shapeshifting as necessary, but those elements were considered additional parts of what makes up “Loki.” (Johnston 2021)
Based on that, it seems very logical that the MCU would take similar steps to make Loki’s gender fluidity canon. In previous properties, we’ve seen some instances of Loki shape-shifting or illusion projecting, for instance in Thor: The Dark World when he turns himself into Captain America (Thor: The Dark World, 58 min). In that same scene he also uses illusion projection to turn Thor into Lady Sif. It’s interesting to note that when Loki turns himself into Captain America, his voice also changes into Captain America’s voice. The same is true for later when he turns himself into Odin (Thor: The Dark World, 1 h 40 min). Thor, on the other hand, keeps his usual voice even in Lady Sif’s shape. This might indicate something about the depth of change Loki uses for himself, maybe this is shape-shifting, not simply illusion projection. Or maybe he just thought it’d be funny for Thor to keep his own voice. Then, in Thor: Ragnarok, Thor tells the story about how Loki once turned into a snake, but when Thor picked up the snake Loki turned back into himself and stabbed Thor (Thor: Ragnarok, 1 h 27 min). Based on all of this, we see that Loki can turn himself into people with different body shapes and into other species. It’s interesting to note that Loki never (as far as I can recall) turns himself into a woman in the MCU, even if he does so with Thor. Yet, according to the TVA, his sex is “fluid” and according the people behind Loki, he is gender fluid.
Now, I would argue that there is a difference between having a fluid sex and having a fluid gender. Of course, one simple explanation for the TVA form saying “sex” instead of gender is that official forms such as this generally record sex, not gender. But I still want to consider what this might say about Loki and his sex/gender. Generally speaking, sex as a term is used to describe someone’s body morphology. Gender, on the other hand generally speaking describes someone’s social/psychological experience (see this essay for a more thorough explanation of how non-binary/gender fluid/trans people might experience gender). That can relate to one’s own gender identity, gender expression, and how other people treat one based on their perception of one’s gender. Traditionally speaking, people have assumed that sex and gender is the same thing, but during the 20th century it became more common to talk about them separately. As anthropologist Gayle Rubin (one of the first people to use the term “gender” in its present meaning) argued:
(…)they provide conceptual tools with which one can build descriptions of the part of social life that is the locus of the oppression of women, of sexual minorities, and of certain aspects of human personality within individuals. I call that part of social life the “sex/gender system,” for lack of a more elegant term. As a preliminary definition, a “sex/gender system” is the set of arrangements by which a society transforms biological sexuality into products of human activity, and in which these transformed sexual needs are satisfied. (Rubin 1975, 34)
Basically, one way of understanding gender is as a social way of organising sex. It is worth noting that several contemporary scholars would argue that sex and gender isn’t as wholly separate as one might think but rather influences each other in a variety of ways (eg. Butler 1993; Kier 2010; Bremer 2013), but that’s beyond the scope of this essay. But something else worth noting, as mentioned above, is that besides being a way of organising sex, gender is also something we feel. As researcher Dana Stachowiak writes in regard to how genderqueer people might experience gender:
This felt sense [of gender] manifests through our lived experiences in relation to the social construction of gender and the attributes that are socially linked to what mediates masculinity, femininity, androgyny, and so forth. How we identify or disidentify with socially constructed ideals is attached to the multiplicity of our identity. (2017, 535)
So, if you’re gender fluid for instance, you might have a felt sense of gender where you sometimes feel more strongly connected to femininity, sometimes more with masculinity, and sometimes more with androgyny. Yet, it might feel uncomfortable to be referred to either a man or a woman, it just doesn’t fit with how you experience your gender. So that seems to be what the people behind Loki means when describing his gender as gender fluid, it seems as if they’re talking about how he experiences gender. Yet, Loki is also a being who can change his physical shape. In Norse mythology, and other works inspired by Norse Mythology, he changes his body in such a way that it is perceived as female. Would his ability to change his body impact his sense of gender? Maybe? On one hand, one’s felt sense of gender isn’t determined by one’s bodily shape. But as for instance researcher Signe Bremer notes when writing about trans people’s experience of gendered embodiment; while one might recognise that gender is not determined by body morphology, it is still difficult to separate the materiality of the body from gendered meaning (2017, 103). Other people will still interpret one’s gender based on one’s body, and for instance assume that someone with big(ger) breasts is a woman. And some trans and non-binary people want to get different forms of gender affirming treatments in order to change their body to make it feel more comfortable to inhabit. So, if you’re a magic wielding god who can change your body as you please, would that impact how you feel about your gender? I honestly can’t say, but it’s interesting to consider.
But let’s now turn from this Loki to some of the other variant Lokis. The main such that we see on the show is of course Sylvie.
She’s the only feminine presenting Loki we see in the show, which is quite interesting. While she’s not described as trans, gender fluid, or anything similar, there is still something a bit queer or trans about her to me. Julia Serano, researcher and writer, noted a similar thing recently:
Even though Loki is a fictional and magical god-like character, we puny humans tend to project a “male essence” onto him. Because of this, many viewers are likely to interpret Sylvie as “a male who has taken the form of a female,” when in actuality the character has no fixed form or essence. (Serano 2021b)
So, since we are so used with a masculine Loki, this feminine variant seems a bit queer to us. Also, as I mentioned previously, many people (including myself) thought that her gender was the reason the TVA went after her in the first place. After all, if a Loki was the “wrong” gender, that seems as something the TVA would care about. But it doesn’t seem as if that was the case. As the History of the MCU suggested in recent episode, it might instead have been because she was a good Loki (2021). She wanted to do good in the world, not just rule it as many other Lokis. So, if her gender wasn’t what caused the nexus event, then that indicates that the TVA accepts fluid Lokis. Perhaps because according to “the sacred timeline” (even if that’s just propaganda), Loki is supposed to be fluid. So, it doesn’t matter what form he takes. Which brings me to a fan favourite, Gator Loki.
Gator Loki’s existence, and the fact that they didn’t get pruned by the TVA because of their gatorness but because they apparently ate the wrong neighbourhood cat (if the other Lokis are to be believed) again indicates that the TVA was okay with this form. They recognised that Lokis can not only shift between human shapes, but also into non-human shapes and that this is a part of Loki’s fluidity. As mentioned previously, this is also the case in mythology. It’s interesting that Loki’s fluidity gets connected to non-human animals in this way, especially in the context of sex/gender. On the one hand, there are many cases of non-human animals whose sexes are quite fluid (Roughgarden 2013). Oftentimes binary sex is considered something natural, how nature actually works, but as Roughgarden shows this is often not the case with non-human animals. For instance, there are many organisms that changes sex throughout their lifetimes, and there are organisms where there exists more than two genders and they do not necessarily correspond to one specific sex. That Loki can change his body into both different types of human bodies, but also non-human bodies might then almost be symbolic of how nature isn’t as fixed as we often think. There are many fluid beings out there, challenging our ideas of what is “natural.”
But speaking of “natural”, another aspect worth thinking about in regard to how Loki’s fluidity is connected to non-human animals is how that does (partly) position him as non-human. Of course, he isn’t human, he’s a god and a Frost Giant. But in his usual form, he reads as human to the person watching. As a snake or an alligator, he seems much less human, more animal or even monstrous. Gender non-conforming and trans people are often seen as monstrous, something many trans scholars have written about (eg. Stryker 1994; Wagner 2010). Someone who doesn’t conform to gender norms, who try to forge an existence outside of those restraints often aren’t quite seen as a person, as fully human (Wagner 2010). More akin to an animal, a freak, a monster. One strategy to deal with that is to reclaim the label of monster, similar to how many other groups have reclaimed slurs (for instance LGBTQ+ people reclaiming “queer”). To instead of feeling shame for being labelled as monstrous, claim it as an empowering position and use it to further challenge norms around what’s considered normal. One such example comes from trans scholar Susan Stryker (1994). Stryker, in her quest to reclaim the “monster”, notes that the word monster is derived from the Latin noun “monstrum” which means “divine portent” and is formed from the verb “monere” which means “to warn”. In ancient times, monster ended up referring living things of anomalous shape, or fantastical creatures such as the sphinx “who were composed of strikingly incongruous parts” (ibid, 240). This was because the people of the time thought such beings were the sign of some supernatural events and considered monsters (similarly to angels) to be messengers and heralds of the extraordinary. Stryker therefore takes up the voice of the monster to convey this message:
Hearken unto me, fellow creatures. I who have dwelt in a form unmatched with my desire, I whose flesh has become an assemblage of incongruous anatomical parts, I who achieve the similitude of a natural body only through an unnatural process, I offer you this warning: the Nature you bedevil me with is a lie. Do not trust it to protect you from what I represent, for it is a fabrication that cloaks the groundlessness of the privilege you seek to maintain for yourself at my expense. You are as constructed as me; the same anarchic womb has birthed us both. I call upon you to investigate your nature as I have been compelled to confront mine. I challenge you to risk abjection and flourish as well as have I. Heed my words, and you may well discover the seams and sutures in yourself. (ibid)
Essentially what she’s saying is that trans people can function as a wake-up call to question the limiting norms of society if people have the sense to listen, and not demonise us. I think a character like Loki has the same potential. But I think it’s quite clear that the Loki of the MCU does not currently meet that potential. Loki the show does touch on parts of this gender fluidity, as I have mentioned above with the TVA form and the different Loki variants. But a casual viewer who isn’t looking for how gender is presented in the show might easily miss the implication of this. Marvel might do interviews where they claim Loki is gender fluid, but they have yet to show this in a meaningful way.
Before wrapping this up, I want to briefly discuss another aspect of the presentation of gender fluidity in Loki that I see as potentially problematic. Loki is the god of mischief, known for backstabbing people, for lying, and for trickery. Oftentimes, his trickery is connected to shapeshifting and illusion casting. In the show, we see this with Sylvie as well who can enchant people and essentially speak through them. When I first watched the episode where we see that happening, it concerned me a bit. It reminded me of transphobic narratives about how trans people exploit other people’s bodies and sort of push in where they don’t belong. As infamous transphobic “feminist” Janice Raymond once put it when talking about trans women (TW sexual violence and transphobia):
Rape, of course, is a masculinist violation of bodily integrity. All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves. However, the transsexually constructed lesbian-feminist violates women’s sexuality and spirit, as well. Rape, although it is usually done by force, can also be accomplished by deception. It is significant that in the case of the transsexually constructed lesbian-feminist, often he [sic] is able to gain entrance and a dominant position in women’s spaces because the women involved do not know he [sic] is a transsexual and he [sic] just does not happen to mention it. (…) Because transsexuals have lost their physical ‘members’ does not mean that they have lost their ability to penetrate women—women’s mind, women’s space, women’s sexuality. (Raymond 1979, 134)
Raymond’s argument is basically that not only are trans women not women, but by “appropriating” female bodies they exploit women. And if trans women want to join women only spaces, that is a violation. Hence me feeling concerned about a character associated with gender fluidity and deception literally taking over people’s bodies. It’s not as if this idea of trans people being deceptive is something that was left behind in the 1970s with Raymond’s writing either. As many trans scholars have noted, the idea of trans people being “deceivers” and/or predators has continued since (eg. Bettcher 2007; Serano 2021a). As Bettcher points out, trans people are often seen as deceptive if they are not upfront about being trans, and risks violence if someone finds out. Yet, if a trans person is honest about being trans from the beginning, they risk violence too. It is a double bind. But to tie this back to Loki, Loki/Sylvie’s ability to inhabit different shapes seems very tied to why people mistrust them. Of course, it’s also because Lokis actually tend to be deceptive, but the magic fluidity enhances that. As I argued previously, someone who breaks gender norms tend to be viewed with suspicion. This can, however, be argued to be a problem with most versions of Loki, from mythology to other pop culture adaptations. But something Loki does show is that Lokis aren’t inherently deceptive and evil, they can work for good too. In the end, maybe people’s mistrust of them says more of their preconceived notions.
In the end, the way Loki deals with gender fluidity is a mixed bag, in my opinion. There are a lot of interesting aspects of it, like how Sylvie and Gator Loki’s existence hints at a quite radical potential in the Loki character. A potential of challenging normative ideas about gender, essentialism, and what is “natural.” Yet the show doesn’t do more than very lightly hint at this. This is disapointing, since they also spent some time before the show talking about the fact that Loki is gender fluid. Yet, a casual watcher won’t pick up on that fact in the show. That makes it seem like they try to take credit for more than they actually show. There are also some aspects I find more problematic, like how the Lokis’ fluidity/shapeshifting is associated to their deceptiveness. While this is hardly unique to this portrayal of Loki, and the show partly moves against it by showing that Lokis can be good, it still reminds me of transphobic ideas about trans/gender nonconforming people being deceivers. All in all, however, I find the portrayal of gender in Loki interesting. I just hope Marvel continues to develop it in later properties.
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