[24 May 2011]
When the white supremacist group Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC) protested Idris Elba’s casting as Heimdall in Thor, they contextualized their outrage within a larger struggle over identity and charged a “relentless attack on European heritage” had been “expanded to mythology.” The attack was jarring for several reasons. Elba, a British born actor of African descendent who recently starred in LUTHER on BBC One, has a distinguished film and television resume in both United States and the United Kingdom. Moreover, he is not the first example of casting against type in film history.
Ironically, as a recent article by Bob Calhoun points out, despite the era’s racism, African Americans were casted as Vikings in the 1950s. Finally, even a vague consideration of Marvel’s version of Thor makes clear that their adaptation is riddled with inaccuracies that suggest the creators’ understanding of Norse folklore is based more on the aforementioned Viking films than mythology.
If transgression of tradition is the issue, why not take attack the Australian playing Thor, the Englishman directing, the American portraying Fandral or the Irishman playing Volstagg? The nub of the protest rests exclusively on the symbolism offered by Elba’s racial identity. Thus, the controversy offers insight into the kaleidoscopic effect created by the superhero in the United States.
A gestalt on which diverse elements of the social, economic, and political experience in have been infused, the superhero easily acts as orienting narrative that showcases the beliefs, values, and fears ingrained in the conflict between an ideological “whole” American self rooted in an imagined agrarian past versus the schism intrinsic to a diverse society of urban dwelling individuals.
Seen through this lens, the debate over race in Thor takes on a new light. Indeed, the wording of the CCC protest is edifying. Not only did they recognize Marvel Studios as a company with a “left-wing ideology,” they also pointed to the controversy over diversity in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit stemming from the casting director’s appeal for actors with “light skin tones” and the production’s rejection of a performer for being “too dark.”
For all the absurdity associate with a protest about a mythological figure, the weight of the CCC’ complaint rests on the charge that, “Marvel Studios believes that white people should have nothing that is unique to themselves.” While the vast majority of comic fandom, the media, and casual observers ignored their calls for a boycott, the questions provoked by the film reverberate in unexpected ways.
Within Marvel’s fictional universe, Thor can be understood as an extension of white male power fantasy expressed in a god figure. Continuing this line of inquiry, an examination of Thor Odinson’s elicits a reflective consideration of the privileges and powers granted through identity as linked to masculinity and race. The problem, hidden but vexing, is that race, especially whiteness is not a stable identity. Thus, the CCC’s anxiety over alternations to Thor’s superhero mythology connects to historical questions posed by the fluidity of race categories.
Thor’s 1962 debut in Journey into Mystery #83 introduced the Silver Age Thor as the son of Odin, king of the Asgardian gods, and Gaea, the earth goddess. Conceived in Norway and raised in Asgard, in Marvel’s fictive universe Thor is a deliberate attempt by Odin to sire a son more powerful than him.
Unconsciously, but not surprisingly, Thor’s parentage connected long-standing notions of purity tied to Northern European heritage with concepts of power linked to the land in the U.S. experience. More than simple symbolism, in the colonial era a link between sociopolitical power and the land shaped the U.S. experience.
While the promise of plentiful land defined British North America, that promise was constantly under threat from land speculation. As the new republic was formed, conflicts over access to supposedly “free” land threatened our cohesion. While political power and citizenship in Europe was tied to land ownership, the United States shifted toward universal white male suffrage promising the power formerly associated with owning land would be held by individual white male voters.
Having limited citizenship to “free white person” of “good moral characters” in 1790, the new political status effectively barred non-white people from position of privilege and power in the United States. Thus, a link between political identity, whiteness, and the land was infused into the U.S. tradition. Famously, Thomas Jefferson ultimate vision for the United States was a republic of yeoman farmers (i.e., white), independent landowners free from the corrupt influence of urban masses (i.e., multicultural) linked to urbanization.
Embellished and celebrated throughout the nineteenth century, the yeoman was a distinct cornerstone of U.S. social and political philosophy. Lessons learned working the land provided the values that protected the republic. So powerful was this idea that the loss of free land triggered concerns about the country’s safety. At the end of the nineteenth century, a rising population of European Jews, Italians, Slavic immigrants challenged status quo of Anglo-Saxon experience in the United States. The closure of the western frontier coupled with an explosion of immigrant communities in major cities represented a looming crisis of identity. While the United States was a land of immigrants, those early settlers shared a northern European (white) background. Whatever the hostilities that existed, British anti-German sentiment or Irish anti-British feelings, the opportunity to restarted free of old social, political, and economic limitations was a compelling truth.
Yet, as historian Frederick Jackson Turner explained in an address given in July 1893, making U.S. society work required the indoctrination associated with shaping the land. Summing up the United States’ development experience, Turner argued the loss of the frontier robbed the United States of the process it used to transform newcomers into citizens. Thus, white ethnics sans an assimilative route would engulf the United States.
The source of this fear was clear. As historian Nell Irvin Painter explained in The History of White People, for “most of the past centuries—when race really came down to a matter of law—educated Americans firmly believed in the existence of more than one European Race.” The implication of race meant the struggle to be identified as white, and then once recognized, protect that identity challenged every resident.
By the mid-twentieth century the link between identity and power continued to plague the United States. While anti-black sentiment cemented African-American exclusion, Italians, Puerto Ricans, and Jewish Americans who sought to enter into the mainstream struggle to define themselves in opposition to the otherness linked to blackness.
As a grassroots civil right movement challenged social prejudice based on race, institutions and individuals sought new standards to understand identity. From its inception, Marvel recognized 1960s youth-centered culture promised an end to old conventions. While Marvel introduced the first African-American superhero in 1966 and offered new example of white masculinity and social awareness that incorporated uncertainty about the U.S. experience, their heroes also sought to reassure the public that establish beliefs still held true.
In creating Thor Stan Lee explained, “… I wanted to create the biggest, most powerful superhero of all and I figured who can be bigger than a god?” By introducing a god Lee was able to find a character that was powerful and noble, but at the same time tied to the human experience in a way other Marvel characters were not.
For all the popularity of Spider-Man, the X-Men, and the Hulk, those characters explored issues of alienation and difference providing allegories for rising societal strife. Like Captain America, the other major release from Marvel Studios this summer, Thor represented the innate strength romanticized within U.S. society. The Marvel style stresses the challenge of being a hero, yet the metaphorical struggle humanizes the hero and resonates as an allegory of national experience in the twentieth century. The superhero’s adventures reflect societal values and act as a guide to acceptable action. Thus, like the United States, Marvel heroes are often obligated by their power to act in defense of the innocence, creating a rationalization for action that can be understood beyond officially authorized standards.
Thor is no different. While powerful, he is arrogant and reckless. To teach him humility, Odin strips him of his identity and transforms him into a “lame” medical student named Donald Blake. In the movie, the central struggle remains centered on accepting the responsibility that comes with identity. While the broad narrative of the movie made small changes, the essential element of Thor’s emergence as protector of Earth remains. This element assured, the changes suggest a worldview that is more inclusive.
While we can argue that mythological figures could be any “race,” the CCC’s critique is focused on Idris Elba as he highlights the historic and contemporary tension over identity. The actor is already linked to concerns about the functionality of the U.S. experience through his role as Russell “Stringer” Bell in HBO’s The Wire. As Bell, Elba was placed in the center of one of the greatest rumination over urban social decline in modern media history. Now, as Hemidall he provides a physical marker of a new reality link to U.S. identity. A black Norse god reminds us that the self is subject to collective definition.
The CCC assumes the decision to diversify the cast signals whiteness is eroding in the face of the transition to a multiracial future. Indeed, the U.S. census bureau proclamation that the country will be a majority racial minority country by 2050 looms as the threat for the Council of Conservative Citizens.
Indeed, Kenneth Branagh’s assertion that he cast Elba because he provided the gravitas needed for Hemidall made a distinction between the content of his character versus the color of his skin. Thus, while we can be dismissive of CCC, we should take note of their protest within the shifting landscape of identity. Like questions about President Obama’s birth and debates about immigration policy, the fixation upon race in Thor forces us to consider what are the systems that define society and how the new millennium will reshape our world.
Julian Chambliss is associate professor of history at Rollins College in Winter Park, FL. His teaching and research areas focus on urban development and culture in United States.