The final scenes from Loki have been bouncing around in my head for the past year since the show ended. The imagery of the splitting timeline is still so vivid. And I don’t think I’m alone in my appreciation for the show because Loki has the highest IMDB rating of all MCU TV series to date.
From the very beginning of the TV series the theme of the authoritarian regime depicted in the Time Variance Authority (TVA) was evident. But I struggled to make sense of the themes that the show was trying to depict in the remaining aspects of its plotline. What to make of “variants?” And why was the fracturing of the multiverse the culminating event in the show?
Was it done out of pure convenience for the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) content in the pipeline to unfold or was there a deeper symbolic meaning behind it that served as the fitting ending to the Loki series in and of itself? The more I ponder this show, the more I think it’s the latter.
Upfront, this show makes it pretty clear that it is going to play with the relationship between authority and identity. Consider these two quotes from TVA employees in the first episode alone.
“It’s not your story, Mr. Laufeyson[Loki]. It never was.”
“You weren’t born to be king, Loki. You were born to cause pain and suffering and death. That’s how it is, that’s how it was, that’s how it will be. All so that others can achieve their best versions of themselves.”
Loki doesn’t get a say in how his story would unfold according to the TVA, much like every other character within each universe. The story is scripted and any deviation from that defined role is punishable by eradication. Within that first episode it is clear to the viewer that this is a dystopian regime with a rigidness to how it governs. Despite the seemingly good reasons they give for their existence, it doesn’t take long to see the TVA isn’t functioning as it ought to.
Hierarchies work in a particular manner. When functioning well, the top gives identity, meaning, structure, purpose, and love to the bottom. The authorship part of “authority” is quite evident in well functioning families, communities, workplaces, teams, and churches. However, when the authority fails to fulfill its purpose – like the TVA – that sense of a cohesive identity across the group is lost, and the hierarchy decays into a multiplicity of varied identities. Variants begin to emerge when this loss of cohesion occurs.
Sometimes the authorities lose the trust of their community by being incompetent or overbearing. Sometimes revolution results in the forcible removal of their leaders. And sometimes advancements in technology and the shifting sands of culture undermine the hierarchy and cause it to crumble. Whatever the cause, the outcome seems to follow a particular pattern. An explosion of variability in identity through the community.
loki and the conversation regarding gender identity
The show Loki fits this mold and reflects our current cultural moment. When the show first released there was a broader cultural conversation about the significance of Loki being the first non-binary Marvel character. What does it mean that Loki could be either male or female in different universes? The whole show is in essence an exploration of Loki and Sylvie’s (female Loki) identities – and not only in regards to their sex – in a context that gives no room for variation.
But the show does specifically raise the question as to whether or not gender or sex should be considered immutable and integral to one’s identity? This is certainly a topic germane to the times, and as such prompted the typical partisan responses. Some on the right said this was just Disney going “woke” for the sake of scoring political points. And some on the left viewed it as support for their cause, especially with its coincidence with Pride Month. But I actually think the topic fits the story well and can help speak to both sides regarding the topic of gender.
This explosion of various identities in the wake of a crumbling authority has played itself out previously in history. We have seen excessive authorities undermined like the one depicted by the TVA. One of the most influential historical examples in our cultural context would be that of the Reformation in the 1500’s and the fracturing of the Catholic church. Sure many might not know much about the event and therefore not have much appreciation for how it continues to affect us today. But the aftershocks from that chapter of human history can still be felt even if we don’t understand the epicenter of where it began.
So maybe an exploration of the Reformation, Marvel’s TV series Loki, and the current conversations regarding gender identity movement could be worthwhile.
the reformation resulted in the fragmentation of the catholic church
Today, we are surrounded by a multitude of Protestant Christian traditions that all derive from that critical moment in the 16th century when the Reformation occurred. Prior to the 16th century there were really only two main branches of Christianity. The Orthodox and Catholic churches, which had split from one another in the 7th century. Pretty much every church denomination that isn’t Catholic or Orthodox has its roots in the Reformation. But what was it exactly that caused the Catholic church to lose so much hegemony in Europe at the time and explode into the variety of denominations we see today? Here’s what I believe are some of the substantial causes.
The Reformation occurred at the tail end of the Middle Ages, or what some term the “Dark Ages.” Much of the literature that served as the foundation for the culture had been reserved to monasteries and only a select group engaged with the very philosophical ideas that underpinned their society. I don’t think this was done malevolently, as literacy rates were a fraction of what they are today. But as a result, the practices of the Catholic church drifted in many respects from the principles by which it was intended to function. And the people at the bottom who most needed to be cared for by the institution, were most let down.
A growing interest in ancient literature and old manuscripts of the Bible by people like Erasmus and Luther, combined with the new technology of the printing press, allowed for the spreading of alternative perspectives, new interpretations of key Biblical texts, and critiques of the current hegemonic power in a way that wasn’t possible previously. Increased literacy rates allowed commonfolk to access these new ideas in a way that wasn’t previously possible. And it wasn’t so easy for the church hierarchy to combat the spreading of these new ideas. Sure they could lean on draconian measures like the threat of death and burning of the pamphlets that ran counter to the church leadership’s perceived interests. But the identities associated with these new movements were spreading like wildfire in the aftermath of new technological advancements. And exacerbated by the very authoritarian measures used by the church. The gatekeepers had effectively been circumvented.
And so, while the original goal for many like Luther and Erasmus was to simply reform the Catholic church and rediscover the ideals by which it was to live, the movement quickly devolved into the fracturing of the church. And that process continues today and resulted in what some say is in excess of 30,000 denominations.
the gender identity spectrum
The LGBTQ+ community has likewise followed a similar trend. Identities that were until very recently only considered within the strict conformity to a binary sexual and gender framework are now disrupted by the crumbling of society’s institutions, disintegration of family units, the introduction of the internet, which allows for new ways of making community, and new medical procedures that cause us to entertain new possibilities that were previously unimaginable.
Much like the explosion in the different expressions of Christianity and the variability now allowed within each of the unique universes within Marvel, we now hear of infinite sexual and gender identities, spectrums of expressions, and indefinite ways people identify themselves. Today’s gatekeepers have likewise been undermined in much the same way as the Catholic Church was in the 16th century.
Is our current culture much like the Catholic Church of the 16th Century and TVA as depicted in Loki? Probably at least in part. And are our identities malleable? Probably more than both sides of the political spectrum believe to be true. The interplay between authority and identity often follows a similar script. A script that I think Loki gets largely right.
So much focus gets put on the individuals who lay claim to these new identities as if they’ve created this environment, but few shed light on the way the top of our society’s hierarchies may have contributed to where we stand today.
what lessons can be learned?
One has to wonder, is there a way to get the genie back in the bottle? Is a strict binary for gender the way forward? And if we could, should we? What would it take to do so? Is some draconian measure, similar to the threats of death and burning of pamphlets in the early 16th century, the way forward? Form another authoritarian regime to enforce strict conformity of identity on all its subjects? What are the odds that approach is sustainable?
I think our hierarchies need to rediscover what it looks like to function well. For the top to love the bottom and give identity while making room for some diversity, even some that might seem a bit heretical. Because if the subjects of the authority don’t feel loved, they will find a new authority, that gives them that feeling. And that’s often how new identities form. Certainly easier said than done. It’s hard enough to get this balance right within our immediate families let alone across such a diverse society.
Regarding matters involving the church and gender identities, I think authorities probably need to allow some margin and buffer for expressions that might seem heretical. Otherwise we’re destined for disconnection and division all the way down. A split much like the fragmentation of the multiverse, and the church, and our communities today.
As the end of Loki shows, with the end of one authoritarian regime often comes the rise of a new one. And that change is rarely for the better. I think we would be wise to learn from that warning.