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Is ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ A Subversive Takedown Of White Supremacy?

Is ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ A Subversive Takedown Of White Supremacy?

This essay was originally published on The Establishment on November 9, 2017. The Establishment is media funded & run by women.

Spoilers ahead! You’ve been warned.

Full disclosure: Despite the almost overwhelming physical appeal of Chris Hemsworth as Thor, I dislike the Thor movies. The first had potential, but that unnecessarily compressed timeline killed it dead. Thor 2 was just a vehicle to introduce the Infinity Stone of Reality, turning the characters into a senseless backdrop to achieve that goal. It was wretched, and I don’t care if I never see it again.

But the trailers for Thor: Ragnarok were promising. The film wouldn’t be set in Asgard. Hulk was there. Mjölnir was destroyed. Valkyrie was Black. And the trailers were funny — really funny. Not to mention how bad-ass Hela seemed to be. I mean, she shattered Mjölnir and it wasn’t a dream sequence. I was in.

Happily, I found the film to be as fun as advertised. More importantly — and surprisingly — it also contained an extraordinary, eviscerating message about colonialism and white supremacy.

I will freely admit that I am tired of seeing powerful white men wielding power they do not deserve and earned through violence. That narrative is played out, yet it is the crux of the Marvel cinematic universe. In Thor: Ragnorak, this trope is challenged by Hela — the first-born of Odin and sister of Thor and Loki — when she returns from exile to reclaim her spot atop the throne, and calls out Asgard’s ill-gained riches and powers in the process. As Hela points out in one particularly stunning scene, the spectacular gold of the Asgardian Palace was bought through brutal conquest and war. Before becoming ostensibly “peaceful,” Odin used his own daughter as his executioner, mercilessly taking lives to achieve his place in the kingdom. The he stashed the murdered bodies in an underground vault, never to be spoken of again.

If that sounds familiar, perhaps you know the history of colonialism, includingin the United States, where we tout our exceptionalism while ignoring the violence it was built upon. All of which makes the film’s ending — Asgard and Hela are completely destroyed by the fire-demon Surtur, the lies of perceived superiority left in ashes — particularly satisfying.

But it’s one line in particular that I keep returning to:

Proud to have it, ashamed of how he got it.” (I remembered this later as “Proud of where you are; ashamed of how you got there.”)

When Hela uttered these words about Odin’s rise to dominance, I froze in my seat. This sentence, spoken as she destroyed the veneer of Asgard and shattered its image of itself, was so much truth. This sentiment is at the core of American exceptionalism, this pride in being American without acknowledging the horrors committed to become this nation people are proud of. (One could say we have buried the dead bodies in our own underground vault.)

Just last week, I watched white people on Twitter argue about equating Robert E. Lee to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. The original tweeter was actually not trying to call all these men monsters, but was using the framework to humanize Lee. Still, his tweet sparked outrage among proud Americans arguing that Lee was much worse than Washington and Jefferson.

The truth is, though, that they were all violent, capitalistic hypocrites who profited off human suffering — monsters who used dishonorable tactics to emancipate themselves from a dishonorable ruler while lying about the humanity and suffering of people they chose to own and treat as property. All of them committed treason. All of them exploited people for financial gain. All of them owned people. Yes, I know Jefferson’s role in abolishing slavery, but he still owned slaves, some of them his blood relatives, refused to free them, and believed Black people were less human.

Yet despite Washington’s and Jefferson’s active engagement in the horrific, emotional, and physical violence of slavery, they are considered heroes. There is nothing that erases the horror of their choices from their histories. There is nothing that erases the barbarity of slavery from the fabric of America. Yet the keepers of history have tried time and time again to downplay the brutality of colonialism; how it decimated indigenous people, empowered European imperialists, and created America. It is still argued that Washington and Lincoln are “good,” if problematic, white men.

“Proud to have it, ashamed of how he got it.”

Hela’s words spoke to the crux of the American identity. For hundreds of years, this country brutalized peoplecreated and maintained a racial hierarchy used to justify this brutality, and then denied its existence. Our history books are sanitized to remove the gory history of colonists and how they tortured and murdered people at will, seeing their violence as intellectual superiority. Americans view the willingness of colonists to kill those in their way as proof that they deserve to lead; that it makes them strong. Yet they deny the shape violence has given our current reality. They deny that violence gave these people the power and access they still wield today. They lie and lie and lie and can no longer discern what is true.

“Proud to have it, ashamed of how he got it.”

The acceptance and denial of this violence is the foundation upon which we stand today. The lover’s embrace of white supremacy at all costs — specifically the embrace of white, male, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied whiteness — remains our modus operandi. It’s how white male rapists can admit to and be found guilty of rape but still be protected from consequences like imprisonment. It is how white men can kill Black peoplechildrenchurch-goers, and still not be labeled terrorists. It is how they can inflict violence on a massive scale, and still be left unharmed by police — and how they can then be diagnosed with mental illness, pathologized and treated rather than punished. It is how they can march and kill in the name of whiteness and still be humanized. White people in America are comfortable with violence because their violence maintains their power. Violence is their power. Many of the nicest white people I know carry guns because they accept the violence of their culture and believe they need to protect themselves from it, all the while not quite sure why there’s so much of it in this country.

“Proud to have it, ashamed of how he got it.”

So much patriotism masking American violence. So much American pride harboring inhumane behavior. So much blood flowing freely within this country — sanctioned violence, glorified violence, artistic violence. A country full of vicious monsters convinced they are saviors. Just as Asgard presented itself as the “benevolent” ruler of the Nine Realms, saturated with the blood of all that was conquered, America asserts its “dominance” through worldwide violence under the mask of democracy. The United States is a violently racist thunderdome, where only white people and their agents of white supremacy are armed.

“Proud to have it, ashamed of how he got it.”

And then there’s Hela, Odin’s first-born, the gloriously violent tool used to unite the Nine Realms under Asgard’s rule. Is it an accident that a white woman was the tool for Asgard’s rise to power, a tool later hidden so well that no one remembered her? Is it coincidence that Hela sought to re-establish Asgard as the violent, conquering, imperialistic power of old, and that her reappearance was the impetus for the complete destruction of Asgard?

Maybe.

Or maybe Thor: Ragnarok is a deliberately subversive commentary on our current state of affairs — our battle with the increasing popularity of white supremacy. A nod to how the safety and protection of white women was used as a rallying cry to unite racists under the banner of the KKK. An acknowledgement of the weaponization of white womanhood to encourage savage violence against Black people.

Maybe, just maybe, this Asgard really did need to burn.

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