Curator’s note: This week we’re looking at issues of race in two popular texts, Kenneth Branagh’s Thor and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. We begin with schadenfreudessa’s interrogation of the racist themes and the racialized gaze of Thor.
Kenneth Branaugh’s Thor at first merely appears to be a Shakespearean update to the Nordic god turned comic-book superhero. However, while it certainly plays the part of a traditional blockbuster superhero film – with climactic battles, a damsel in distress, and a sidekick or four – it also hits upon topics much more serious than would be thought. For pushing this godly protagonist forward through the narrative are serious currents of racism and bigotry, though they aren’t widely treated with the gravity they deserve. In fact, in the film Thor, the theme of racism, both internal and external, is lost to the film’s usage of dominant gaze, its biased portrayal of the film’s minority, and the ignorance of the dialogue and narrative.
To further expand, some knowledge of either Norse mythology or of the movie itself is first needed. Thor, as the title of the movie would imply, is the hero of this film, and he belongs to the proud race of gods, the Asgardians, who live on Asgard. Eight other realms occupy the film’s universe as well, including the Earth that the audience is familiar with, and one other of note – Jotunheim. This realm is home to the Jotun people, or more colloquially, the Frost Giants.
In speaking of the Jotuns and Asgardians and how they view each other, using the term ‘racism’ might not seem entirely accurate. These are, in fact, two entirely separate species from two different worlds. However, Davids (2006) describes racism as being a projection of unwanted aspects or traits that the perpetrator themselves cannot or will not admit to in themselves. He labels race as a category “empty of ‘real’ objective meaning” (p 70), which not only makes it ideal for this projection to occur, but also forces any interaction through this projection to follow a rigid set of rules which are not to be exposed or pointed out. So while the Asgardians and Jotuns can be labelled as separate species, the relationship between them follows these rules of interaction based upon subjective distinction and expected norms. It is racial tensions and bigotry that lead to Thor’s fall near the start of the narrative, and race is a driving motivation to the film’s antagonist, Loki.
The audience first begins to learn of this racial divide through an ominous voiceover by Odin All-Father, King of the Gods. Speaking briefly of the realms, he talks about Earth, and how it was once attacked by the Jotuns. “From a realm of cold and darkness came the Frost Giants”, he says, and the camera, which has before been showing images of scenic mountains and peaceful villages, flies with growing speed across the landscape until it lands upon the vast army of Jotuns, assembled under a dark and stormy sky. They are lit only blearily from above, casting shadows across their faces and features; it renders them an impressive force instead of allowing the individuals to be viewed. Left nameless and faceless, they are not able to engender the sympathies of the viewers. And while this might certainly be a good way to introduce the film’s ‘bad guys’, the Jotuns are not the antagonizing force of this narrative.
Despite that fact, however, this entire sequence focuses on the Jotuns’ attack on Earth, featuring most prominently a shot of a woman and small child being encased, and presumably killed, by magical ice. Earth is only saved when the Asgardians appear, literally descending from the heavens in a column of light. Thus, the audience is again reminded of the morality of the film – the Asgardians, in their golden armor, seem to almost glow while the Jotuns, with dark blue skin and again in shadow, are the darkness.
This sequence establishes the camera’s view of the Jotuns for the entire film. Through the few shots in which they are featured, they are figures left mostly shadowed or darkened, while their Asgardian counterparts stand clearly in the light. They are also left mostly faceless for the audience, with nothing done in the way of costuming or lighting to give them separate identities. To the camera, and subsequently, to the viewer, all Jotun are the same. This dominant gaze sets the tone for how Jotun are perceived, and it bends the audience to that same perception – as Russell (1991) states, “the dominant gaze subtly invites the view to empathize and identify with its viewpoint as natural, universal, and beyond challenge” (p 244).
With the dominant gaze determining who the audience identifies with, than it can be said Thoris filmed from the perspective of an Asgardian. With Odin’s narration having established the Frost Giants as enemies to the Asgardians, it is a safe assumption to make. This idea of the Asgardian gaze is furthered when Asgard itself is shown in a long, panning sequence set to charismatic music that details the many buildings and natural wonders of the planet. However, the first introduction of Jotunheim is brief with no music but the sounds of echoing winds, quickly zooming in on one single set of architectural structures that seem to serve no discernable purpose, whereupon the final defeat of the Jotun army is shown, and then the camera cuts away.
This brevity when filming the Jotunheim sequences is a familiar pattern throughout the entirety of the film. Even when Thor and his friends travel to the planet, we see one small portion – a single setting of collapsing ruins for an entire realm whereas Asgard is shown to have many halls, elaborate rooms, and shining corridors. The audience is given no visuals of how Jotuns live, or what their homes would be on a planet of ice; there are no celebrations or gatherings, no images of a Jotun’s daily life to establish societal norms or traditions. Jotunheim is almost entirely lacking of a discernible culture. This is one of the ways that the dominant gaze functions to promote racism, by “the marginalization or complete absence of indigenous perspectives on… history, lives, and experiences” (Russell, 1991, p 246).
The narrative’s first overt introduction of racism comes from its hero, Thor, who is seen as a child, joyfully proclaiming how he wishes to grow up to slay all the Jotuns not killed by the war. With a wide smile, he labels them as monsters to be hunted, and speaks of genocide like it’s a game or sport. Unfortunately, his exclamation is not met with horrified disbelief or even vehement reprimand by his father. Instead, Odin calmly preaches the wisdom of preparing for war but not to seek it out – he fails to address the blatant racism of his young son’s words. This is the foundation of all of Asgard’s behavior towards the Jotun, and it is also the attitude adopted by the movie’s narrative.
Thor is not the only son of Odin who labels the Jotuns as monsters, though. Loki, in finding out that he is one of the Jotuns himself, reveals that Asgard’s racism runs deep. “Because I’m the monster parents tell their children about at night”, he says in his accusations towards Odin. This is a salient form of racist talk, as Hill (2008) would label it; the dialogue plainly indicates that, to Asgardians, ‘Jotun’ and ‘monster’ hold the same meaning.
This scene, however, also provides an example of “covert racist discourse” (Hill, 2008, p 119). When speaking of Odin’s final assault, Loki says that he was “knee-deep in Jotun blood”. On the surface, this statement would not seem to be deliberately or obviously racist. It is the intent, though, that makes this statement covertly racist; Loki is not merely intending to present the facts of Odin’s warmongering, he is segregating the Jotuns even in their death by labeling their blood as distinctly ‘other’. This is a theme that holds solid throughout all of the Asgardians speech – they hold the Jotuns to be distinctly separate from themselves, though they are also an organized society capable of strategy, intelligence, and communication. Even after Thor’s eventual redemption, when he attempts to stop Loki’s own plot against Jotunheim, he holds the Jotuns separate from himself and from the Asgardians or people of Earth. It is consistently “the Jotuns” or “them” in the Asgardians’ language.
Covert racism can also be found in what is not said. The basic premise of Thor’s plotline is that he falls from power and into disgrace, and then earn redemption. Specifically, Thor leads an attack on Jotunheim that triggers a war amongst the realms, and is subsequently banished for his actions, stranded powerless on Earth until he is ‘worthy’. What the audience sees is Thor leading an attack on the Jotuns, savagely and gleefully fighting them, though he and his group had been given plenty of opportunity to leave Jotunheim unbothered. Thor himself deals the first blow on Jotunheim in response to an insult against his manhood, and he injures or possibly kills many of them. But this is not why Thor is later banished. Odin makes clear to him in the aftermath that it is not the Jotun casualties he is concerned with, but more so Thor’s arrogance leading to this new outbreak of war. In fact, any damages dealt to Jotunheim are never addressed in the movie at all. Nor is the underlying racism of Thor’s behavior spoken of or brought forward for examination.
After all, it would seem that the Earth would be a good realm wherein Thor might learn that tolerance and acceptance is preferable to his bigoted behavior. He is sent there to earn redemption, and ends up under the guidance of a young and intelligent female scientist. That they could possibly have a thoughtful discourse about Thor’s behavior and the potency of his racist ideology seems rather obvious, yet this never occurs. Thor never speaks of his actions, and so never shares the significance of them with someone who might be able to show him the error of his ways. Jane, that young female scientist, could have been a moral guide and educator, but instead, we find the topic of the hero’s racism discarded for blows against Thor’s ego and a developing romantic interest.
In the narrative, racism is used merely as a plot device to motivate Thor and push him forward through the story. But despite its usage, that same racism is never dealt with, a serious problem in itself, as racism is still a significant negative force in everyday life for many people. It is not trivial, but the film treats it as such, giving little, if any, weight to Thor’s racist behavior. Instead, Thor is held up as a glorious hero who has overcome a significant character flaw – arrogance, as the movie would have its audience believe – to become a better person and live a good life.
Still, some might argue that Thor is intended to merely represent racism instead of spreading it – that filming from the Asgardian perspective is meant to be a sort of hidden social commentary for the high-minded to see and understand. Willis (1997), however, best addresses this distinction:
But this view depends on a confidence that we can establish a clear separation in this case between the film’s point of view and that of its characters… Moreover, such a critical position also would that in our historical and cultural moment it could ever be possible to “represent” that discourse of racism or misogyny without, from time to time, speaking them directly. This would suggest, in turn, that there is a clearly defined “outside” to these discourses and that we can identify and occupy that outside. (p 133-134).
Thor lacks this distinction or a clear “outside”, despite how several of the human characters, who are centuries removed from the conflict that inspires racial hatred amongst the Asgardians, could have provided that standpoint. In failing to ever address the racism, both blatant and covert, of its hero and his kingdom, it fails to provide any commentary on racism whatsoever. Instead of representing racism in any sort of realistic way, this film perpetuates racist thought and privileged ideology.
“What’s a Little Racial Violence Amongst Gods? An analysis of the film Thor and how it (doesn’t) deal with racism” ©schadenfreudessa, originally posted on Dec. 8, 2013