Following the recent announcement that the next Thor will be female, Pete looks at genderfluidity in SFF.
If you’re white, straight and male you’ve probably never stopped to think about diversity in genre entertainment; but if you don’t fit into that very specific box it can be a very important subject indeed. Peter MacKenzie examines representation and depiction of alternative cultures in geek entertainment, highlighting when it goes right and explaining why it’s a problem when it goes wrong…
I admit it. I’m not overly familiar with the original, comic, versions of the Marvel and DC multiverses. For various reasons, I’m more au fait with the cinematic and/or TV universes. To me, Ben Grimm is Michael Chiklis, the Hulk is Lou Ferrigno and Superman is either Christopher Reeve or Tom Welling. Or Dean Cain. Or George Reeves. You get the picture.
So, now knowing that my default Iron Man is Robert Downey Jr, you can imagine my surprise to hear that Thor is now a woman.
To me, Thor is the specific prince of Asgard as seen in the movies, a single character who looks a bit like Captain Kirk’s dad and the only entity deemed worthy of lifting Mjolnir.
I had no idea that anyone who picks up the mythical hammer assumed the mantle of “Thor” and that there have been several incarnations of him over the years and not all of them even Asgardian.
This being the case, there is presumably no reason why a woman cannot be deemed worthy (particularly since several women have already wielded Mjolnir) and it is a logical, arguably even overdue, progression of the tale.
It’s certainly not without precedent. There has been at least one female Robin that I’m aware of. In TV’s Battlestar Galactica, both Starbuck and Boomer switched gender between the original and reboot series and, in our very own Red Dwarf, Holly not only changed his apparent gender on a whim, she was also changed back when her own nanobots recreated him from scratch.
However, the line between casting decisions and actual story arc progression can still be very clear-cut.
In Battlestar Galactica, the gender swap needed no explanation onscreen. The tale was a complete retelling, these were new and completely different versions of the characters – the fact they shared the same name was incidental, even almost coincidental, and no different to any two actors you care to mention who have played, say, Hamlet over the years. I imagine John Gielgud and David Tennant had very different interpretations of Hamlet, but I sincerely doubt that either would be considered less significant.
Conversely, in the case of Robin (and presumably Thor) they are shown as completely different individuals who assume the title, rather than two sides of the same character. No one ever confused Margaret Thatcher and Gordon Brown as being the same person.
But it is the Hollies of this world who prove to be the most interesting. These are characters who actually changed gender within the same narrative. Although, to be slightly unfair to the production team, it was generally not through actual gender reassignment.
Holly, obviously, is, strictly speaking, a computer avatar and, as another example, Star Trek’s Trill species are arguably not actually the same person, tending more towards being a parasitic infection rather than any pretence at true symbiosis, although as an analogy it was handled pretty well on Deep Space Nine.
As a side note, it was also rather gratifying when one of Star Trek’s first gay coupling was a Trill which, as usual in my eyes, was better than the analogy anyway. Sadly, the pairing of Lieutenant Sean Hawk (from First Contact) and unjoined Trill Commander Ranul Keru is non-canonical but it’s in my own personal canon and that’s what matters to me.
The nice thing with the Trill, though, is that you have to accept that, with their presumably near-unique physiology, same sex relationships must be pretty commonplace. Symbionts resuming relationships after joining a new host may be illegal, or at least frowned upon, but they plainly do happen so gender issues, at the base level, are seemingly moot. The acceptance of gender-changing personalities must be pretty much written into their DNA.
Of course a topic such as this must also legally discuss Doctor Who and the age-old question. If the first question, the oldest question in the universe, is hidden in plain sight, the second question has to be… can Time Lords change sex? Fortunately, the answer is there, in canon thanks to Neil Gaiman, and cannot be denied or ignored, although I do know that there are several caveats that have been dreamed up by the fans
The concept of the Doctor himself changing gender was something I was never sure about myself. I know that the Doctor has been played in various guises by women – notably Arabella Weir and Joanna Lumley – but the idea of a female Doctor just didn’t sit comfortably with me.
Until someone suggested Sue Perkins to me and I have now made it a personal quest to see this come about. And I’m only partially joking. Of course the Doctor can change sex – it just remains to be seen if there’s a showrunner brave enough to try it.
Which is a sad state of affairs. A showrunner shouldn’t have to be “brave” enough. She should just have to be able to do it.
True gender reassignment is very rare in mainstream genre. Without Wikipedia, I could only think of one – Quark in Deep Space Nine – but it was both temporary and played for laughs. It’s nice to believe that it was an attempt to show it as a run-of-the-mill thing in the 24th century, such as can be seen much more often in the written word, so let’s not delve too deeply there.
Of course, there’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Frank-N-Furter, but seeing as the individual’s interpretation of sexuality is such a large proportion of the theme of the movie, it seems vulgar to even mention it.
And, sadly, that’s it. It is possible that this really is the one final taboo in which science fiction and fantasy is not at the forefront of challenging perception, and this is most definitely the case in mainstream genre media.
Happily, though, the baton was picked up by speculative fiction literature quite some time ago. From Robert A.Heinlein to David Gerrold and, more recently, Kim Stanley Robinson, there have been tales where gender is as fluid as sexuality – and accepted as such – in our own future civilisation.
Let’s hope that TV and film catch up soon, because it seems almost ironic that one of the most hotly debated potential examples – Doctor Who – could actually be the one that brings it home…