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So Thor is back, hammering his way to another blockbusting run at the box office. But this time, it's almost as if the producers of Thor: Ragnarok read an analysis I posted to this blog on November 11, 2013, when Thor: The Dark World appeared, because some interesting things have happened to the franchise this time around that seem to be in reaction to what I argued back then. So let's have a look first at what I said in 2013, before turning to the present. Here's what I said then:

 

Well, the dude with the big hammer just pulled off the biggest box office debut for quite some time, and such a commercial success calls for some semiotic attention.

 

There is an obvious system within which to situate Thor: The Dark World and thus begin our analysis. This, of course, is the realm of the cinematic superhero, a genre that has absolutely dominated Hollywood film making for quite some time now. Whether featuring such traditional superheroes as Batman, Spider Man, and Superman, or such emergent heavies as Iron Man and even (gulp!) Kick-Ass, the superhero movie is a widely recognized signifier of Hollywood’s timid focus on tried-and-true formulae that offer a high probability of box office success due to their pre-existing audiences of avid adolescent males. Add to this the increasingly observed cultural phenomenon that adulthood is the new childhood (or thirty is the new fourteen), and you have a pretty clear notion of at least a prominent part of the cultural significance of Thor’s recent coup.

 

But I want to look at a somewhat different angle on this particular superhero’s current dominance that I haven’t seen explored elsewhere. This is the fact that, unlike all other superheroes, Thor comes from an actual religion (I recognize that this bothered Captain America’s Christian sensibilities in The Avengers, but a god is a god). And while the exploitation of their ancestors’ pagan beliefs is hardly likely to disturb any modern Scandinavians, this cartoonish revision of an extinct cultural mythology is still just a little peculiar. I mean, why Thor and not, say, Apollo, or even Dionysus?

 

I think the explanation is two-fold here, and culturally significant in both parts. The first is that the Nordic gods were, after all, part of a pantheon of warriors, complete with a kind of locker/war room (Valhalla) and a persistent enemy (the Jotuns, et al) whose goal was indeed to destroy the world. [ That the enemies of the Nordic gods were destined to win a climactic battle over Thor and company (the Ragnarok, or Wagnerian Gotterdammerung), is an interesting feature of the mythology that may or may not occur in a future installment of the movie franchise.] But the point is that Norse mythology offers a ready-made superhero saga to a market hungering for clear-cut conflicts between absolute bad guys whose goal is to destroy the world and well-muscled good guys who oppose them: a simple heroes vs. villains tale.

You don’t find this in Greek mythology, which is always quite complicated and rather more profound in its probing of the complexities and contradictions of human life and character.

 

But I suspect that there is something more at work here. I mean, Wagner, the Third Reich’s signature composer, didn’t choose Norse mythology as the framework for his most famous opera by accident. And the fact is that you just don’t get any more Aryan than blonde Thor is (isn’t it interesting that the troublesome Loki, though part of the Norse pantheon too, somehow doesn’t have blonde hair? Note also in this regard how the evil Wormtongue in Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings also seems to be the only non-blonde among the blonde Rohirrim). The Greeks, for their part, weren’t blondes. So is the current popularity of this particular Norse god a reflection of a coded nostalgia for a whiter world? In this era of increasing racial insecurity as America’s demographic identity shifts, I can’t help but think so.

 

OK, so that was then, what about now? Let's just say that the "white nationalist" march at Charlottesville has clearly brought out into the open what was still lurking on the margins in 2013, and I would hazard to guess that a good number of the khaki-clad crew with their tiki torches and lightning bolt banners were (and are) Thor fans. So I'll stand by my 2013 interpretation. And as for the most recent installment in the Thor saga, well, I can almost see the producers of Thor: Ragnarok having the following pre-production conversation:

 

Producer 1: The semioticians are on to us.

 

Producer 2: Oh woe, alas, and alack!

 

Producer 3: I've got it: let's give Thor a haircut this time, and, you know, brown out those blonde tones!

 

Producer 1: Good, but not good enough.

 

Producer 2: Oh woe, alas, and alack!

 

Producer 3: Tessa Thompson is available to play Valkyrie.

 

Producer 1: Good, but not good enough.

 

Producer 2: Oh woe, alas, and alack!

 

Producer 3: Idris Elba is available too.

 

Producer 1: Good, but not good enough.

 

Producer 2: Oh woe, alas, and alack!

 

Producer 3: You do know that Taika Waititi is a Jewish Maori, don't you, and that he's available too?

 

Producer 1: I see a concept here.

 

Producer 2: Oh goodie, campy superheroes!

 

Producer 3: And surely no one will object to Jeff Goldblum playing one of the evil Elders of the Universe, because surely no one remembers the anti-Semitic forgery "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" that Hitler made such use of.

 

Producer 1: We didn't hear that.

 

Producer 2: Oh woe, alas, and alack!

 

Producer 3: We’ll paint a blue stripe on Jeff's chin. No one will make the connection.

 

Producer 1: It’s a wrap!

 

I rest my case.

I’ve been thinking of this book ever since I heard Rankine speak at the 2017 Feminisms and Rhetorics conference at the University of Dayton this fall. She spoke candidly and passionately to our primarily white audience and held me spellbound: her descriptions of her (many, constant) encounters with racism and sexism not only rang bare-bones-honest-true, but they also challenged me to examine once again my own participation in our racist society. As much as I have thought about and written about white women’s failure to recognize and resist such racism, as much as I have tried to examine and reexamine my own actions over my lifetime and to interrogate my positionality, I find I still have much more work to do. Much more.

 

I expect the same could be said for many other white teachers of writing, as well as of many of our students. Coming to terms with my own racist background is thus an ongoing process, and it’s not an easy or pretty one. So I am especially grateful to writers like Rankine, who are able to let me see the world through their eyes, at least to the extent that I am capable. Which brings me to Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric. The New York Times review of this volume, also published in 2014, begins like this:

In light of the national demonstrations over the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, it’s tempting to describe “Citizen,” Claudia Rankine’s latest volume of poetry, as “timely.” Even the cover image of a floating hoodie, its sleeves and torso cut away, seems timely. Any American viewing it would immediately recall a certain black teenager who was shot and killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer in February 2012. But this work, by the artist David Hammons, was created in 1993 — well before Trayvon Martin was even born.

 

And this seems to be part of Rankine’s conceit: What passes as news for some (white) readers is simply quotidian lived experience for (black) others.

Rankine’s book treats the murder of young black men in a series of vignettes—prose poems—that cascade across the pages of the book, their lives held momentarily in suspension. Other entries render personal experiences with the constant and debilitating pressures of racist acts and comments. A longer section on Serena Williams left me in tears of rage—but also of recognition. No wonder Rankine’s book received the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry and the 2015 PEN Open Book Award, and was a finalist for the National Book Award in Poetry and the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism.

 

But it’s hard to limit this text to the genre of poetry: it is poetry, and it isn’t. It’s a meditation; it’s part memoir; as the title proclaims, it is a lyric; it’s a series of narratives, of stories, of painful encounters. And it is experimental, deeply so. To take just one example, Rankine’s use of personal pronouns catches readers up, leaving us unable to make easy assumptions about who is speaking:

            And still this life parts your lids, you see

            you seeing your extending hand

            as a falling wave—

            I they he she we you turn

            only to discover

            the encounter

            to be alien to this place.

            Wait.   (140)

 

So who is the “you” Rankine refers to over and over in this book? That’s one of the questions I’d begin with in reading this text with students. When do they feel that they occupy that “you” space and when not? And why? In my very diverse classes, answers to these questions are sure to vary and to generate thoughtful reflections that can open up conversation about the current divisions among us. So, I think I’d put Rankine’s work near the beginning of a writing course, ready to take it one page, one meditation, one insight at a time.

 

In times like these, teachers of writing need Claudia Rankine. And so do our students.