Content Warning: transphobia, transmisogyny
This contains spoilers for Loki: Agent of Asgard, J. Michael Straczynski’s Thor, and Thor and Loki: The Tenth Realm.
Today, Disney+ begins airing Loki, a show following Marvel’s version of the Norse god of mischief. Tom Hiddleston, who takes the title role, has stated in Empire Magazine that Loki is about identity, and in Disney Twenty-three Magazine has discussed how the show will focus on Loki trying to escape “a wheel of repetition, a compulsion to repeat the same damage, the same story…. We are breaking the record. We’re releasing him from that trap… we’re showing that he can change.” Readers who have followed Loki in the comics are likely aware that these themes — exploration of identity and Loki’s desire to change — have been driving motives for the deity lately, and nowhere more than in Loki: Agent of Asgard. Agent of Asgard is being republished this week and one of the show’s trailers has shown Loki with a flaming sword much like the one Loki carries in AoA. All of these elements lead me to believe the show will be referencing the comic heavily. Here, though, I want to focus on a part of Loki and of Loki: Agent of Asgard that can be glimpsed for a millisecond in a trailer but may be left unexplored: Loki’s genderfluidity.
My commentary here is a combination of many things: a look into how creators through time have failed Loki — and in turn very real trans people; a love letter to Loki: Agent of Asgard; and a look at where trans representation stands in Marvel and more generally in comics as well as where it needs to go. I’ll be delving into a single character I love deeply, but if you’re interested in broader overviews, I’ll suggest the pieces my friend/editor Duna Haller has written here and here on trans representation in Marvel and DC comics. I’ve also written extensively elsewhere about the idea of #OwnVoices books, and what often happens when well-intentioned cis (non-trans) writers tell trans narratives that trans writers themselves aren’t given a place to tell. (We Need Diverse Books has recently announced they are retiring the OwnVoices hashtag. More on that here.) AoA, for me, is an example of how it’s possible for cis writers to write wonderful, impactful (albeit flawed) trans characters without writing unneeded stories explicitly about being trans.
I’m splitting this look at Loki’s genderfluidity into two — potentially three — parts (depending on the Disney+ show). In this, the first half, I’ll focus on Loki’s past, examining transphobic tropes perpetuated by Loki’s writers. (Transphobia, whether intended or not, is bigotry towards trans people.) I’ll also offer an analysis and celebration of Loki: Agent of Asgard.
Loki and Genderfluidity: A Crash Course
By way of establishing a common frame of reference, I want to offer a little background on both genderfluidity and Loki as a character. Genderfluid people like me understand our gender identities as changing over time, rather than seeing gender as static. Genderfluid is a gender identity that falls within/overlaps the umbrella of both “nonbinary” gender (neither male nor female) and more broadly “trans” (referring to people who don’t identify with the gender they were assigned at birth). Gender, rather than a line between most masculine and most feminine, is a galaxy of identities. To be genderfluid is to glide between gender identities, to contain multitudes. A genderfluid person might one day or month or year be a woman, or a man, or agender (having no gender) or bigender (possessing multiple genders at once), etc. Some genderfluid people may even feel that one of their genders is the one they were assigned at birth. It’s also of absolute importance to note that many forms of nonbinary gender have existed and continue to exist culturally, but have been erased or oppressed by colonialism.
Personally, it took me years to find a term comprehensive enough to encompass my own often chaotic experience of gender. I knew I wasn’t a man or woman, but “nonbinary” alone didn’t capture it. Finding the right word — “genderfluid” — felt liberating. I finally have a word that allows me the space to have a gender that isn’t static, one where past gender and future gender can be equally real without devaluing one another.
For comics fans like me, Loki’s presence as a genderfluid character is particularly crucial. As many readers know, Loki is a Norse god, often considered to be a trickster deity, who works with and also against the gods. Loki is a frost giant (Jotun), the blood-brother of Odin, a shapeshifter, the mother and father of various humanoid and monstrous offspring, and the deity who will inevitably bring Ragnarök. Some academics argue that he pre-exists the Norse pantheon. Additionally, most of these myths were passed on orally, and not written down until Christianity came to Scandinavia, and it’s difficult to know how these stories were originally told.
When Marvel introduced Loki in its comics, he was introduced as a primary antagonist for Thor and was rewritten to be Thor’s (rather than Odin’s) adopted Jotun brother — and the God of Evil. And Lies. And Chaos. And Mischief. And later, Stories. And Outsiders. Loki workshops titles a lot. And betrays everyone — mostly Thor — a lot. And dies a lot. And lately, has tried to reinvent himself a lot.
Loki has been genderfluid, mythologically speaking, forever. Loki has been — among other things — a man, an old woman, a handmaiden, a horse that gave birth, and an assortment of other animals. That said, Marvel didn’t directly portray Loki as genderfluid in its comics until Loki: Agent of Asgard in 2014, a few years after Marvel Comics began to re-position Loki as an anti-hero.
Note: I’m referring to Loki with multiple pronoun sets (predominantly he/his, but also she/hers) in keeping with how Loki is portrayed in comics, mythology, and elsewhere. I myself use they/them pronouns, but many non-binary, genderqueer, and genderfluid people use multiple pronoun sets.
“Truly Beautiful” (Not): Lady Loki and Transphobia
In order to explain what I love so much about Loki: Agent of Asgard, we first need to discuss the ways writers have used Loki to perpetuate a terrible transphobic trope. An early and significant example of Marvel’s Loki shapeshifts into a woman came in 1993’s Thor Annual #18 (from Ron Marz’s run), in which Loki tries to tempt the hero Hrimneer by taking on a variety of forms including that of a seductive woman. Still more influentially, Loki first takes on a female form for an extended period of time during J. Michael Straczynski’s Thor run (issue #s 5-12 and 600-602). In these issues, Loki steals Sif’s body, exploiting the sexuality and vulnerability of the feminine to manipulate both Balder and Thor and bring about Asgard’s downfall. This version of Loki has been widely referred to as “Lady Loki” by comics fans, and was created before Marvel’s Loki was canonically genderfluid. When I refer to “Lady Loki,” I’m referring specifically to this moment in the character’s history, rather than to all moments when Loki is a woman. For the creative team, Lady Loki wasn’t a woman — only a con.
This comics arc culminates with Loki taking off Sif’s skin as if it were merely a costume, rejoicing to Hela “My own hands… my own heart… my own flesh… my own blood! Thus is Loki born anew! Thus is Loki truly beautiful!” Rather than self acceptance, this ominous declaration lures readers into seeing Loki as a deviant man disgusted with the woman’s body he has stolen, treated as a prop, and finally cast aside. In Oliver Coipel’s striking composition, Loki is revealed to the audience leering and crouched in a way that isn’t simply chilling but predatory, before later crawling back into Sif’s skin until the deception is finally uncovered.
In modern western media, trans people are frequently depicted as tricksters in similar awful ways. Ideologically, this plays into the idea that “gender isn’t a costume,” an assertion often made by trans-exclusionary radical feminists and transphobes more generally. The assumption herein is that the genders of trans people are costumes. Our genders themselves are seen as tricks — lies — weaponized against vulnerable and unsuspecting cis people, just as Loki — Marvel’s literal god of trickery and lies — manipulates Thor and Balder. The idea of trans women manipulating poor cis men into sex or using gender as a disguise to perpetrate violence appears time and time again across media (i.e.: Dressed To Kill, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, and the JK Rowling novel Troubled Blood). It even appears in Norse mythology itself when Loki dresses Thor in drag to trick giants in Þrymskviða (The Lay of Thrym).
The brunt of these fictional portrayals — of trans people as con artists intent on causing harm — falls on trans women and transfeminine people, who experience transmisogyny (an overlap of misogyny and transphobia weaponized in specific ways towards these groups). When perpetuated, this idea of transness-as-trick reinforces the fears of cis people wishing trans people harm. For example, it plays into the “trans panic” defense, which is used to justify anti-trans violence and is only explicitly illegal in 12 US states. So far in 2021, the Human Rights Campaign has reported the murders of at least 28 trans and gender-nonconforming people, most of them Black trans women. It’s also the idea of transness-as-trick that gives faux legitimacy to a variety of anti-trans legislation like the new trans bathroom law in Tennessee and a variety of anti-trans sports bills. As of April 12th, 2021, CNN reported a total of 117 anti-trans bills introduced at the level of state legislature: more than the last three years combined. A majority of these bills — split broadly into bans on medical care and bans on trans people in sports/locker rooms — specifically target trans youth, who are also at higher risk of suicide and depression. According to Gallup, only 0.6% of all adults in the USA self-identify as trans (though Gallup doesn’t have data on trans youth and can’t account for closeted trans people). If these statistics tell you anything, it should be the degree to which the US’ tiny trans population is currently hyper-visible and thus hyper-vulnerable. Every depiction of us, both good and bad, carries a colossal weight.
“I Am Always Myself”: Loki: Agent of Asgard
Loki was already a prominent Marvel character, but the act of making Loki officially genderfluid recast him as Marvel’s most famous trans character. As such, the weight Loki carries is heavy. Luckily, the creative team behind Loki: Agent of Asgard shifts that heavy weight in a wonderful direction.
For anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure of reading AoA yet, I’ll offer this synopsis: the original Loki died, coming back both as a spirit (Ikol) and a little boy (Kid Loki). Before dying, the original Loki had put a plan in place so that Ikol would eventually take Kid Loki’s body — and Kid Loki’s innocence — as his own. By replacing Kid Loki, the newest Loki (Ikol) finds himself with a clean slate, an opportunity to escape a cycle. In AoA, Loki takes on a new role as a secret agent for the All-Mother, three goddesses sharing joint rule of Asgardia. As a reward for completing his missions, Loki/Ikol is promised the reward of his sins being struck from the past: he’ll have an even cleaner slate. What the All-Mother don’t tell Loki, however, is that they are colluding with a villainous futuristic version of Loki — who looks almost exactly like the old, dead Loki. For the newest Loki, to reach that future would mean accepting that no one can ever trust him, that he’s doomed to eternally repeat himself, and that a “fresh start” is impossible. Over the course of the series, old sins come to light, frenemies are outwitted, and Loki is temporarily Worthy of weilding Thor’s hammer. There’s even a casino heist. I can’t express what a fun, fast book this is, one that never loses sight of its characters.
In Loki: Agent of Asgard, Loki is treated fully as a trickster hero. While still mischievous, Loki ultimately uses trickery to good ends, and questions systems of authority from a position simultaneously within and outside of them. Loki alone is fully capable of forcing the gods to confront their hypocrisy. By the story’s end, Loki experiences ego death and learns to accept his past, present and potential futures. Loki also takes on a new title and role: the God and Goddess of Stories. For deities like Loki, who are themselves stories — here written within stories — stories are reality. To tell new stories of oneself can mean becoming someone new. Loki takes control with the knowledge that it’s so much better to create yourself than wait for the world to make you into something worse. Fundamentally, Loki attempts — and to some extent succeeds — in rewriting and retconning himself.
Loki may not cease to be a trickster, but Al Ewing and Lee Garbett ensure that Loki’s gender is no longer one of the tricks. And while Loki is learning and struggling to accept herself in a variety of ways in AoA, being trans isn’t one of those struggles.
AoA establishes Loki’s genderfluidity early on, in the comic’s second issue at a point when Ewing introduces readers to a new character: Verity Willis. Verity, whose name literally means truth, is a “human lie detector” capable of perceiving all lies no matter how small. Loki, the consummate liar, can’t lie to Verity except by omission. As Loki shapeshifts between genders regularly throughout AoA, reiterating the words “I am always myself,” Verity affirms each of Loki’s genders as fact. Were Loki a man pretending to be a woman (à la Lady Loki), Verity would see the lie. Here, there is no lie to find. During this book, Loki is also incapable of shapeshifting into anyone other than some version of Loki, further reiterating the idea that Loki’s ability to move between genders isn’t an act of deception, simply Loki continuing to be Loki.
The world around Loki is constantly affirming in a way that the real world often isn’t for trans people. In AoA, it’s incredibly refreshing to read a work where a cis writer doesn’t go out of their way to depict the traumas of being trans (a territory best left to trans writers). Loki experiences trauma and conflict, but transness isn’t part of it. Friends and family recognize Loki’s gender even when they’re lousy at supporting Loki in general. In both the comics and MCU, Odin is a terrible dad. However, he acts as an unexpectedly affirming voice in AoA, referring to Loki as — rather than son or daughter — “my child who is both.” In the crossover Thor & Loki: The Tenth Realm comic (written by Ewing and Jason Aaron), Loki’s gender continues to be reiterated and reinforced.
AoA doesn’t spend much time directly addressing Lady Loki within the context of the current Loki’s genderfluidity. That said, in a particularly moving moment, when Loki grovels in Asgard — after his largest and worst secret has been uncovered — it’s Sif who pities him. Sif, whose body the old Loki wore as a costume, is one of the only people capable of seeing that this Loki is different. This moment also acts outside of the story to separate this current genderfluid Loki further from the past transphobic narrative of Lady Loki.
On an artistic level, AoA does a wonderful job of separating this new Loki from Lady Loki, even when this Loki is regularly a woman. The costume designs by Lee Garbett in Agent of Asgard and the Tenth Realm tie-in miniseries (which also has art by Simone Bianchi) don’t change much even when Loki’s gender does. In one of AoA’s final issues, she changes genders while changing clothes but the scene lacks the voyeurism so often part of trans dressing/undressing scenes written and drawn by cis creators. She’s simply putting on a tunic he took off before a shower. Unlike the moment when Loki slips out of Sif’s skin, there is nothing here that feels predatory or an accompanying sense of revulsion. It’s simply ordinary.
(I will note here that one limitation of AoA’s depiction of genderfluidity is its reliance on a binary idea of gender, thus that Loki’s gender never really goes beyond man/woman or beyond binary pronoun sets. The word genderfluid itself, in fact, is nowhere in the book.)
Moving between genders is a simple, elegant act as easy for Loki as changing clothes. However, Loki’s gender itself never “comes off.” Shapeshifting for Loki is the act of inhabiting and embracing living in one’s skin truly and fully. Loki sometimes has explicit reasons for changing gender expression, but more often than not it’s quite casual, something that happens between two panels when swinging a magic staff or standing in a room.
There was, in some ways, no better character or book for me to find when I was starting to rediscover myself. The first comic I read serially was Kieron Gillen’s Journey Into Mystery, following the adventures of Kid Loki as he tries desperately not to be the previous (and possibly future) Loki. Ten years later, the ending still makes me cry. When I began Loki: Agent of Asgard, I did so at a time I was beginning to explore my gender and orientation. What I found in AoA remains dear to me.
While AoA isn’t explicitly about being trans, its thematic material still resonates with me — and perhaps other trans people — because it nonetheless captures some element of the fears and joys that have surrounded my experience of being trans thus far.
When I’m misgendered or see an old photograph of myself, it feels like facing a version of myself I wish I could erase from existence. It’s not the sort of secret Loki keeps, as most of Loki’s past secrets are moral failings that need forgiving. However, the sensation of wanting to outlive who you’ve been is still one that resonates with me. In a variety of ways, both interior and external, societal pressure accumulates trying to project me into a version of myself who no longer exists.
On some level, being trans is an exercise in rebuilding yourself from scratch, much like Loki does. It involves looking over your life and figuring out which pieces are worth keeping: separating prejudices — often internalized, things that may cause dysphoria, and things that simply don’t reflect your gender as it stands — from things that affirm your gender. Loki’s active choice to get rid of an old title and role in favor of a new one can feel reflective of finding the right words to describe your gender, changing pronouns, or renaming yourself. It’s a dramatic and euphoric moment of rebirth and renewal.
For all that AoA surrounds Loki with exterior validation in a multitude of ways, the book is also about self-acceptance. The self-acceptance of AoA means living true to yourself rather than being bound by the expectations of others. It means accepting yourself unconditionally: not to withhold love for some perfect version of yourself that fits who everyone else has decided you should be, or the version of yourself you assume you should be by now. When I was reading AoA, I was figuring out what that meant for me and learning how to love myself as who I am: a genderfluid person worth not only acceptance but celebration.
Of course, Loki as a character still has limitations in terms of trans representation. In part two, I’ll also be taking a look into how writers and artists have treated Loki’s gender post-AoA, how it’s reflective of comics more generally, and how things have to change. (A hint: hire more trans creators!)
For now, I’ll end on Loki’s words: “I have a friend who believes in me… I am my own, and I will not sit long in any box built for me. These things are right. These things we’ll keep. As for the rest… let’s tell a different story. Let’s be something new.”
If you’ve enjoyed reading this and want to support me/my writing by “buying me a coffee,” you can do so at my Ko-Fi here.
Loki starts streaming on Disney+ on June 9th.
Reprints of Loki: Agent of Asgard — The Complete Collection are available starting June 8th.
Shapeshift with Me: A Personal Analysis of Loki: Agent of Asgard (Loki’s Genderfluidity in Marvel Pt. 1)
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