“I am the monster parents tell their children about at night”: Depictions of Internalised Racism in Thor
This all started out because I was having a hard time rationalising Loki’s apparent character shift from his assertion that he “never wanted the throne” at the end of Thor
, to his repeated proclamations that he “was a king!” in the Avengers
. What I’ve actually concluded, after thinking about it, is that it’s consistent with what we know about his character from Thor
, and what’s changed is not Loki’s character, but Thor’s
. It’s also decisive proof that I need a hobby, and that I take this stuff way too seriously. Obviously I have a lot of feelings about Loki.
I’m sure this has probably been discussed to death elsewhere, but here are my two cents, for what they’re worth. I should also point out that this essay comes with a trigger warning for racism
, which is a delicate topic at the best of times. I think there are some real-world parallels that can be drawn between the treatment of race within the film, and racism as it exists today, although by doing so I by no means intend to belittle the seriousness or damage that real racism does on a daily basis. I’ve tried to treat the topic respectfully, but if anything does come across as poorly or inappropriately phrased, please let me know.“A world of cold and darkness”: ‘Norsewashing’ and depictions of racism in Asgard
One of the earliest scenes in Thor
shows Odin recounting the history of the war with the Jotun to his sons. He sets up a deliberate contrast between Jotunheim and Asgard – Jotunheim is a world of “cold and darkness”, and Asgard “a beacon of hope, shining out across the stars”. “It was Asgard,” he says, “and its warriors that brought peace to the universe.” It’s largely acknowledged that history is written by the victors, and it’s quite clear that the Aesir were the decisive victors here. Jotunheim looks like it hasn’t recovered at all from the Aesir assault, even though it was more than a millennia
ago. From what can be seen of the sets on Jotunheim, the buildings look incomplete – almost echoing the images of bombed churches from France and England in the Second World War. The casting and costuming of Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston reflects this motif as well, Loki is dressed in dark colours throughout most of the film, whereas Thor’s Asgardian digs are bright and reflective – they literally shine.
After recounting this history, Odin tells his sons they were both born to be kings. He means this literally – Thor is the firstborn son of the king of Asgard, and Loki the son of the king of Jotunheim. I read this scene as Odin having taken Loki from Jotunheim as his own in a deliberate attempt to raise him with Asgardian ideals and make him loyal to the house of Odin, and then install him on the throne of Jotunheim as a sockpuppet ruler, thus ensuring Jotunheim won’t be a problem anymore. Odin essentially says this: I thought we could unite our kingdoms […] bring about a permanent peace, through you.”
And by raising Loki with Asgardian ideals, I mean making him racist against himself. Loki has been raised to hate the frost giants – this is pretty clear from his reaction to learning that he actually is one. He explicitly says: “I am the monster
that parents tell their children about at night” (emphasis mine). We’ve already seen him manipulate three Jotun in a plot to prove a point about Thor, knowing full well that they’d be killed, so he clearly places very little value on their lives. He has been taught to view the Jotun as sub-human (or sub-Asgardian), and now must reconcile that fact with the reality that it now also applies to him. This is internalised racism, and it is, in my opinion, central to everything Loki does from this point onwards.
Internalised racism can be defined as: “the conscious and subconscious incorporation and acceptance of all the negative stereotypes and images from media, folklore, accounts of history, and so forth, that define persons of colour […] as inferior.”1
Racism, particularly internalised racism, has been linked to increased incidences of violence, particularly among families, depression and anxiety. Expressions of internalised racism separate individuals from their families and sources of support, and perpetuate the oppression of the group, making the group party to their own disempowerment2
– this, I think, is what Odin was envisioning when he said he wanted to bring about a “permanent peace”. Furthermore, it’s central to the way he treats Loki. Loki picks up on this right away: “that’s why you favoured Thor all these years, because no matter how much you claimed to love me you could never have a frost giant on the throne of Asgard.” He’s precisely right – although it’s not precisely internalised racism for Odin, he’s literally unable to love Loki the way he loves Thor because of the belief that the frost giants are inferior. Ironically, right after this scene we have… a frost giant on the throne of Asgard.
In the novel, Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man
, which discusses internalised racism, the mixed-race protagonist begins to identify as white after seeing a black man lynched and burned. He identifies with the mob, rather than the victim: “I understood that it was not discouragement, or fear, or search for a larger field of action and opportunity that was driving me out of the Negro race. I knew that it was shame, unbearable shame. Shame at being identified with a people that could with impunity be treated worse than animals.” Loki, who in his own estimation has fallen from the lesser-loved son of the most powerful man in all the nine realms, to a self-declared monster, seems to go through this same thought process.
So, what does he do? He sets up an elaborate plot to prove that he supports the Aesir ‘ideals’ that he’s been taught – and he basically takes these ideals and stretches them to the extreme. First he contrives a means of committing patricide – he lures Laufey away from Jotunheim, where he protected by the sheer number of frost giants around him, and then kills him right as he is about to kill Odin. The last thing he says to Laufey, before killing him, is “[your death] came by the son of Odin.” He is legitimising his right to be
the son of Odin by both killing his father’s sworn enemy and saving his father’s life (it’s actually a remarkably well executed plan, from a logistical point of view, although morally it leaves a lot to be desired).
Then he sets off to kill his entire race: which, given he’s been raised to believe that killing off a few Jotuns at a time is just fine, one can see how he reaches the conclusion that killing them all off will demonstrate his allegiance to Asgard, his value as one of its people, and his ability to ‘pass’, so to speak, as an Aesir. At this point in the narrative, too, Thor is disgraced (or so Loki believes) in his father’s eyes – and Loki has made arrangements to ensure that Thor won’t step in to steal his thunder when Odin wakes up and he does the big reveal of all the “good work” he’s done while he was asleep. Loki has put himself in the mind of the mob – and has internalised his hatred towards himself to such an extent that he lashes out violently against his family (by sending the destroyer after Thor), and his kin.“I only ever wanted to be your equal.” Loki’s love-hate relationship with Thor in the Avengers.
As mentioned, Loki is contrasted with Thor in the film. Thor embodies the “beacon of hope” (or, given the costume designing, beacon of space glam), that Odin mentions, versus the much darker, smaller Loki. Loki himself obviously feels he falls short to Thor, and that others perceive him that way. In the Avengers he describes their childhood as living in Thor’s shadow.
His line, “I never wanted the throne; I only ever wanted to be your equal” is interesting given that he now knows his true parentage. He is literally trying
to be Thor’s equal – we see him go from the more calculating and cautious one of the two, who makes a point about Thor’s unfitness to rule by provoking him into launching an all-out and ill-conceived attack on Jotunheim – which is exactly
what Loki turns around and does during their final confrontation. He is modelling himself after Thor’s behaviour, trying to be the golden son.
Instead of the recognition he’s expecting, both Thor and Odin – the two people who had launched attacks on Jotunheim, who are, in Loki’s eyes, the embodiment of the Asgardian ideals he was raised with – turn around and tell him he’s wrong. Unsurprisingly, this pushes him (literally) over the edge.
Which brings us to the next time we see Thor and Loki together. Here’s what they say to each other:
Thor: I thought you dead.
Loki: Did you mourn?
Thor: We all did. Our father…
Loki: Your father. He did tell you my true parentage, did he not?
Thor: We were raised together. We played together, we fought together. Do you remember none of that?
Loki: I remember a shadow, living in the shade of your greatness. I remember you tossing me into an abyss. I who was and should be king!
Thor: So you take the world I love as recompense for your imagined slights? No, the earth is under my protection, Loki.
Loki: And you’re doing a marvellous job with that. The humans slaughter each other in droves, while you idly threat. I mean to rule them. And why should I not?
Thor: You think yourself above them.
Loki: Well, yes.
Thor: Then you miss the truth of ruling, brother. The throne would suit you ill.
This exchange touches on several interesting points. Firstly, Loki’s sarcastic ‘did you mourn?’, I think, is hiding a genuine question. The Aesir don’t mourn the death of Jotun, so there’s no guarantee that they would mourn his death either. After all, in his mind, he was clearly rejected by Odin when he was hanging from the bridge and he seems to hold Thor to blame for it as well - he says Thor threw him into the abyss. Not literally, of course, but by rejecting him, they, in his mind, threw him out of the family. He'd failed to prove himself a son.
Secondly, there’s the assertion that he was and should be
king. This, I think, ties into the question of why he’s on Earth at all, and why he cares about ruling it. Thor implies that it’s because Thor has promised to protect it, but I don’t think that’s quite true. I think Loki is still trying to be Thor’s equal here. He flat out tells Thor that he’s doing a terrible job of protecting the Earth – in Loki’s mind, Thor’s sitting around doing nothing while the Earth is tearing itself to pieces slowly. It’s clear from the speeches he gives in the movie – “a world made free from freedom”, and the “is this not your natural state?” speech in Germany, that he considers the enslavement of humanity to be for their own good. They’ve tried to govern themselves, and they’ve been terrible at it. And Loki grew up with stories of the Aesir bringing “peace” to other worlds, by invading and oppressing them. He is actually trying to do the job he thinks Thor should be doing, and, once again, to prove himself an Aesir.
I think there’s a huge amount of dissonance in Loki’s mind between what he was taught growing up – that the frost giants are expendable, that they are sub-human, that their world was made better through their oppression – and the sudden turnaround of Thor. When Thor asks him if he thinks himself above the human race, Loki says “well, yes” like it’s the most obvious thing in the world. And to him, it is, because that’s what they were taught. He doesn’t understand why Thor and Odin seem to have made an abrupt volte-face on the issue, and why his actions aren’t being met with the praise he feels they deserve. When he says he should be
king, he’s criticising Thor for not upholding the belief in the inherent nature of Aesir superiority that he holds. It is this internal discord, however, that makes Loki such a complex, and engaging villain. References:1
Cunningham, G. 2005. "Internalized Racism and Oppression". Disciples Justice Action Network
Poupart, L. M., 2003. "The Familiar Face of Genocide: Internalized Oppression among American Indians". Hypatia
18 (2): 86-100.
Johnson, J. W., 1912. The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man
. New York: Sherman, French & Co.
That is, at least, the only explanation for his behaviour that makes sense to me, but I certainly welcome other opinions.
For anyone who's interested: Some Thoughts on Norse Gender Construction and the Role of Loki in the Myths