Manipulative, emotionally volatile, and a drama queen: Loki is definitely a girly bad guy.
The femme fatale is dangerous because she is seductive. She is a deliberately gendered villain because to seduce a hero you must be a woman, in traditional heteronormative Hollywood. These images aren’t confined to the Film Noir genre where our image of the femme fatale originated. In every reboot of the Batman franchise, for example, we can see an example of the femme fatale: Catwoman in Batman Returns (1992), Poison Ivy in Batman and Robin (1997) and Talia all Ghul in The Dark Knight Rises (2012). However, the methods and imagery of the femme fatale are certainly present in characterisations of male characters also. Writing last week’s post, on gender and the emotional side of heroism, I noted plenty of similarities between Joss Whedon’s depictions of Spike and Loki, and this made me think more about gender and villainy.
Villainous male characters who use seduction very often have sex itself as their endgame, rather than using it as a means to another end – these characters are not labelled homme fatale, but have excellent old-fashioned terms such as cad, rake, rogue, or scoundrel. This ties into the regular presentation of women as goals – what does the cheated woman have to offer the cad, other than herself, that he can cheat her out of? Women in such narratives rarely have powerful jobs and access to the nuclear launch codes. Occasionally, they have access to another more powerful man – a creepy little trope used recently in season three of BBC’s Sherlock.
So, how does this history of seduction relate to Loki? As far as his on screen depiction is concerned he might be asexual for all we know of his personal life. Well, you don’t have to actually sleep with anyone to be labelled a femme fatale, you just need to attract them and emotionally manipulate them.
Although women are traditionally associated with using emotional manipulation rather than brute force, there are plenty of emotionally manipulative male bad guys – and Joss Whedon writes them rather well. Regular Buffy watchers would remember examples such as the frat boys luring girls to be sacrificed to a snake monster, or the Mayor of Sunnydale as an arch-manipulator of his underlings’ loyalties, but the most extensive emotional manipulation across all seasons of Buffy comes from Spike. Spike’s ability to observe others and manipulate their emotions is remarked upon by many on screen and off; Arwen Spicer has argued that Spike’s personality traits suggest a hybridisation of traditionally binary gender markers. The development of Loki in the MCU is very like Spike, I would argue, with the same gender blurring effect.
Loki, like Spike, uses his knowledge of the Avenger’s team dynamic and their interpersonal relationships to sow disharmony amongst them. His knowledge is gained through his manipulation of scientist Eric Selvig and Avenger Clint Barton, aka Hawkeye, (by poking them in the heart with a phallic object, ok it’s not sexy seduction but the symbolism is unmissable). His end-game, once captured, is angering Dr Banner into releasing the Hulk persona. So many of the key plot points in The Avengers revolve around how well a group, the majority of which are men, know about each other and their emotional triggers.
Loki’s goal is power, feeling that he has a birthright to rule over others. This can be read as a very traditionally masculine trait – after all, hyper-macho Thor originally has the same goal and beliefs. It might be intuitive to think Loki would be easier to reason with since he is attuned to the need to understand others. After all, his fighting style is misdirection and misinformation, whereas Thor is much more interested in physical battle to solve problems, and is not the best at verbal communication. Although the films try to suggest that what Loki lacks, and Thor gains, is a sensitivity to the needs of the community, a less positive reading is also possible. Asking what is it that makes Thor the one receptive to this teaching, makes him the one who becomes ‘worthy’, I argue that the main differences between the brothers are overtly gendered: the personality traits that make Loki unacceptable are all those traditionally associated with femininity.
Loki is portrayed as highly emotional, vain, overly concerned with his personal reputation and image, arrogant, and irrational. Though Tony Stark recognises elements of his own ego-driven success in Loki, and Thor recognises his own previous lust for glory, Stark still describes him in feminised terms – as a ‘full-tilt diva’. Just like many of the femme fatales of film noir and previous superhero films, Loki is rarely acting on his own. Just as he manipulates, Loki is in turn manipulated, the pawn of more powerful men – such as Thanos, and arguably the Chitauri leaders also.
Physically, too, comparisons between Loki and Thor show how Loki is depicted in ways that connect him with characteristics often considered feminine; Loki likes long-lines to his clothing, multiple layers, and patterns; to ‘dress-up’ formally and dramatically. Thor keeps his muscular arms bared, and his tunic is short over his trousers, while Loki wears a long tunic and multi-layered coat that could be described as ‘fussy’ in its detailing, by comparison. After Stark mocks Thor’s cape as ‘Shakespeare in the park’, asking ‘dost mother know that you weareth her drapes?’ – referencing femininity directly, through domestic soft furnishings, and theatrical performance – Thor abandons the cape for much of the film, further distancing his physical presentation from Loki’s dramatic persona. When dressed in earthly fashions Thor ends up in a t-shirt, even at Tony Stark’s glamorous party, whereas Loki enjoys dressing fastidiously, with his opera scarf and three-piece suit.
That Loki is feminised in presentation is not inherently a bad thing. We all want to see a wider range of types and performances of masculinity on screen, to reflect the enormous diversity of the real world. However, I am uncomfortable with the parallels between him and previous female villains in the femme fatale mold. After all, what makes a woman ‘fatal’ is often simply an exaggeration of her womanliness, or rather, of ideas men have about womanliness – that if a man is easily distracted by sex, then it must be the woman’s fault; that women are inherently manipulative because they lack the physical power to enforce their will; that women are more emotional, and thus less rational, than men. This nonsense holds women back, and it stigmatises anyone who presents with feminine traits or style.
The way the films have presented Loki so far, they make it seem that all his negative traits are rooted in his being a bit girly. I’d like to see more parallels with Stark’s vanity and ability to go ‘full diva’, more of Loki’s emotional side as a potentially positive rather than destructive – he couldn’t even mourn his mother without making a scene – and less suggestion that an eye for a dramatic entrance and sweeping hemlines is a sign of dictatorial lust for power – after all, Nick Fury also clearly knows the value of good tailoring on making an impression. Given Loki’s incredible popularity with fans, particularly women, perhaps it is in part his femininity that makes him so accessible, and relatable?
 Arwen Spicer, “‘Love’s Bitch but Man Enough to Admit It’: Spike’s Hybridized Gender” Slayage: the journal of Whedon Studies, 2.1 , May 2002