ARTICLE / LONG READ
ONE of the breakout characters in THOR: RAGNAROK (Taika Waititi 2017) is Tessa Thompson’s legendary warrior Valkyrie, who joined the titular God of Thunder (Chris Hemsworth) in his quest to save Asgard, the world of the Gods, from its destruction. The gruff but courageous Valkyrie played a crucial role in the narrative and is poised
to reappear in the Marvel Universe going forward, her fate left open in the most recent instalment AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (Anthony Russo and Joe Russo 2018). Yet one significant aspect of her character was left out of the film: Thompson tweeted that her character was bisexual. If her sexuality had to be confirmed outside of the
film, does this count as LGBT representation, especially in the overwhelmingly heterosexual Hollywood?
As film theorist Wheeler Winston Dixon notes in his 2003 book STRAIGHT: CONSTRUCTIONS OF HETEROSEXUALITY IN THE CINEMA, “practically all mainstream cinema is straight, and has been since cinema’s inception”. Regarding Hollywood films, most contain a heterosexual romance either as the main story or
as a secondary subplot. It is still rare to see LGBT characters on the big screen, especially bisexual or transgender characters and, when they do appear, it is often only for a scene or a joke. Within the last few years, numerous films have been touted as having a strong LGBT presence prior to their releases, such as LeFou (Josh Gad)
in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (Bill Condon 2017), Trini (Becky G) in POWER RANGERS (Dean Israelite 2017) and Sulu (John Cho) in STAR TREK BEYOND (Justin Lin 2016). While the characters were important in the narrative, the moments that revealed their sexualities were all too brief; only one short scene or just one line of dialogue.
This sort of content is examined in the GLAAD Studio Responsibility Index (SRI), an annual report investigating the portrayal of LGBT people in films released by seven major studios each year. In 2017, the report found that “of the 125 films released by major film studios in 2016, only 23 (18.4%) contained LGBTQ characters. Nearly half (10 films, or 43%) of those 23 films included less than one minute of screen time for
their LGBTQ characters”. This shows the poor state of Hollywood’s LGBT representation and how hesitant major studios are to include LGBT characters. This attitude to LGBT people exists in a microcosm in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe (MCU). The biggest franchise in cinema today, the 20 films in the MCU have, according to movie industry data provider The Numbers, collectively grossed more than 17 billion dollars worldwide. However, the franchise has made few attempts to diversify, with every film starring a straight, white male.
HOW HESITANT MAJOR STUDIOS ARE TO INCLUDE LGBT CHARACTERS.
BLACK PANTHER (Ryan Coogler 2018) and CAPTAIN MARVEL (Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck 2019), starring a black man and a white woman respectively, are the first films in the franchise to break this trend but their release comes more than a decade into the franchise. This lack of diversity also affects the franchise’ treatment of LGBT characters, with GLAAD noting in their 2017 end of summer update that “the sum total of LGBTQ representation [...] in Disney’s Marvel films since the SRI began in 2012
are seconds-long cameos of out news anchor Thomas Roberts appearing as himself in THE AVENGERS and IRON MAN 3”. It is a sorely disappointing outcome for the world's biggest movie franchise. When asked about including LGBT character prior to the 2017 release of GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2, director James Gunn hinted to the Press Association that: “We might have already done that. I say watch the movie”. However, in a later interview with Digital Spy, he backtracked, stating: “What I meant to say is this: There are a lot of gay [and] bisexual people in the world. There are a lot of characters in the MCU… We don't really know who's gay and who's not. It could be any of them”. It is a statement reminiscent of the US military’s rescinded policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, which allowed gay men and women to serve as long as no-one discovered their sexuality. This allusion to LGBT characters without showing them is typical of heterosexist Hollywood.
“Heterosexism denies the reality of bisexuals as well as those people whose identity or behaviour is exclusively homosexual”, write scholars Robyn Ochs and Marsha Deihl in a 1992 essay “Moving Beyond Binary Thinking”. By not including LGBT characters, both Marvel Studios and Hollywood choose to deny their existence within their universe, erasing what could be anywhere between 3 and 11% of the population.
However, THOR: RAGNAROK could be the first Marvel film to buck this trend in suggesting Valkyrie’s bisexuality within the film. Throughout the first act, Valkyrie is reluctant to talk about her past, seeming torn and troubled. Her secret is revealed when the trickster Loki (Tom Hiddleston) reads her mind, seeing Valkyrie and her band
of all female soldiers - the Valkyior - fighting against the villainous God of Death, Hela (Cate Blanchett). Hela massacres the soldiers and goes to kill Valkyrie when another warrior takes the blow, sacrificing herself. While only a brief sequence, the close-ups of Valkyrie’s expression and her reluctance to talk about her past imply a romantic relationship between the two. Indeed, in a 2017 interview with Rolling Stone, Thompson stated that in her mind they were lovers. The actress also revealed that she convinced director Taika Waititi to shoot a scene where a woman leaves Valkyrie’s bedroom, but the scene ended up cut. The fact that this scene was considered nonetheless makes for a promising start. It is a refreshing change to see that Valkyrie was given her own narrative arc and is not simply Thor’s love interest, therefore not defining her character by her sexuality.
AN ALLUSION TO LGBT CHARACTERS WITHOUT SHOWING THEM IS TYPICAL OF HETEROSEXIST HOLLYWOOD.
In SEXUAL IDENTITIES AND THE MEDIA: AN INTRODUCTION, Wendy Hilton-Morrow and Kathleen Battles reference a system devised by Cedric Clark in a 1969 Television Quarterly editorial, describing four stages of media appearances minorities must pass through. The first, “non-recognition”, refers to the minority group simply not existing in the media. Next is the “ridicule” stage, where the group exists purely to be mocked for the presumed normative audience. This is followed by the “regulation”
stage where the representation consists of roles associated with law and order. The final stage is “respect”. Valkyrie falls into the regulation stage as a superhero, or even the respect stage due to her important role in the strength of character, but, conversely, she could also fit into nonrecognition due to the lack of acknowledgement
of her sexuality, since if it is not evident Valkyrie is bisexual then, for all intents and purposes, she is not, and her bisexuality does not exist in the text.
This hesitation to clearly show Valkyrie’s bisexuality could be down to the film producers not wanting to cause any controversy. In discussing sexuality in GENDER, ETHNICITY AND SEXUALITY IN CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN FILM, author Jude Davies quotes gay filmmaker Marlon Riggs: “So much of being gay in this country is effacing who you are, so that you can assimilate, so that you can be a part of the larger culture, and nobody will notice you, so that you can be invisible, because once you become visible... you become a problem in other people's minds”. Since the Marvel films have such a global appeal, the creators may want to avoid problems that would arise in other less tolerant areas of the world and affect box office results.
Valkyrie’s character could also be seen as an important portrayal of bisexuality since she defies many of the stereotypes typically associated with its representation.
In AMERICA ON FILM: REPRESENTING RACE, CLASS, GENDER, AND SEXUALITY AT THE MOVIES, theorists Harry M Benshoff and Sean Griffin note how non-straight characters are often “conspicuously different” and how they are usually “defined primarily (if not solely) by their sexuality”. Valkyrie defies these descriptions since
she easily fits in amongst the cast of RAGNAROK and her strong character outweighs her sexuality. Similarly, Valkyrie circumvents another stereotype in that she has no romantic elements in the film and her arc focuses on overcoming her survivor’s guilt.
The casting of Thompson as Valkyrie is also significant. In the source comics, Valkyrie is a tall, blonde Amazonian woman; a stark contrast to the 5’3” African-American Thompson. This helps make the portrayal of Valkyrie more unique as she represents a more intersectional idea of diversity, progressing Ochs and Deihl’s observation that,
“Bisexuals, especially bisexual women, who are not middle class or rich, traditionally ‘beautiful’, able-bodied, or white are invisible”. The decision to not address her sexuality and label the character could represent a postmodern view of bisexuality
since sexualities are, as described by sociology professor Merl Storr in BISEXUALITY: A READER, “a white western construct”. Since Valkyrie is an Asgardian warrior goddess, she might not need or want to limit herself with a label and this could be a clever method of representing a different world with different hegemonic values.
On balance, Valkyrie stands as a complex portrayal of bisexuality and, taken in isolation, she represents what bisexual representation should be, once it has reached Clark’s stage of respect. However, given the current climate of LGBT and especially bisexuality in Hollywood, it does not go far enough to blaze a trail for LGBT representation. Since bisexuality has had so little exposure and media recognition it will likely not be recognised by mainstream audiences.