During the third episode of the Disney Plus series, Tom Hiddleston’s debonair villain became the MCU’s first canonically bisexual lead. But it’s not quite the big representational win some are making it out to be, writes Louis Chilton
It both means the world, and means nothing at all. Whatever your opinion on the artistic merits of the Marvel cinematic machine, the suffocatingly large space it occupies in our culture is undeniable. Marvel films are among the most widely consumed media on the planet. So when, as happened yesterday, one of its lead characters – Tom Hiddleston’s silver-tongued god of mischief, Loki – is canonically revealed to be bisexual, it becomes more than a throwaway piece of character development. It becomes, in some slippery way, important. Writing such a beloved character as bisexual opens the door to a litany of new possibilities. Just don’t be surprised if Marvel slams the door in your face.
TV has a problem with bisexual men. Bi (or pansexual, used here interchangeably) representation on TV has made some significant strides in recent years, but in terms of prominent, leading roles, the progress has predominantly been for cisgender women. There are exceptions – Lee Pace in Halt and Catch Fire or Dan Levy in Schitt’s Creek – but they are few, far between, and almost never in the biggest mainstream projects. Of the 360 regular and recurring LGBTQ characters across the whole of US TV and streaming series last year, 99 were bisexual, per GLAAD’s 2020/21 Where We Are On TV report. Sixty-five of these were women; just 33 were men. The report concluded that “bisexual+ people continue to be underrepresented and often poorly represented in both entertainment and news media”.
It’s possible that representation for bi women is marginally better because of the nature of gendered biphobic stereotypes (bi men are “actually gay”, and bi women are “actually straight”, therefore more palatable to TV’s longstanding homophobic prejudices). Or perhaps it’s because bi men are more existentially threatening to straight, small-c conservative men, still the imagined “default” viewer for many TV producers (as opposed to bi women, who are not only seen as nonthreatening but perhaps even titillating). Whatever the reason, it’s a plain fact that bi men are used to not seeing ourselves represented on-screen. Which ought to make Loki something of a big deal.
Marvel has made false steps with queer representation before. A much-ballyhooed “first gay character” in Avengers: Endgame was rightly scorned when he turned out to be an unnamed one-scene character who made a passing allusion to a dead off-screen husband. Loki, too, is brisk in its acknowledgement of Loki’s sexuality; Hiddleston’s character simply mentions to his interdimensional counterpart Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino) that he enjoys “a bit of both” when it comes to romantic partners.
No matter how many queer Marvel fans gush over this fleeting recognition of their own existence, it’s hard to see that anything has really changed. We have not seen Loki in a relationship with a man, and, if the ongoing flirtation with Sylvie is any indicator, there won’t be one in his immediate future. In real life there is no need to “prove” one’s sexuality through romantic demonstration; you are simply what you know and say you are. On screen, it’s a little more complicated. If he is canonically bisexual, but this doesn’t manifest in any of his on-screen behaviour, then he is simply bisexual in a way that won’t affect Disney’s bottom line: invisibly. If the entirety of Loki’s bisexuality is something you could miss while checking the time on your phone, maybe the series needs to do more.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe (and, by extension, much of current popular cinema) has developed an almost childlike aversion to sexuality in all forms. Still, this is no excuse. There is always a base level of desexualised romance, ever present, ever heterosexual. Is it really so much to ask for Loki to have the same miserably chaste, sexless courtship that Captain America, Iron Man, and Ant-Man have been granted (only with a man instead)?
Director Kate Herron, for her part, emphasised it was “very important” that Loki’s sexuality be acknowledged in the series, and admitted it was only a “small step”. It’s easy to imagine the kind of internal struggles that are involved in making such a prominent character queer, especially when Disney is trying to tailor content towards international markets that are even more homophobic than the UK or US.
People rightly say we shouldn’t look to huge media conglomerates for representation, that we should turn instead to queer creators, to independent artists who have the creative freedom to depict lived experiences authentically and honestly. But that doesn’t make the mainstream any less popular. A series such as Loki is a massive opportunity for representation, simply due to the number of people, queer and otherwise, it’s able to reach. It is, of course, possible that Loki will lean into its protagonist’s bisexuality in the latter half of its six-episode season (though somehow I doubt it). If they don’t, it may just feel like a case of wasted potential, a blown opportunity for a genuine landmark in mainstream bi representation. For the time being, we’re feeding off crumbs.
Loki is streaming now on Disney Plus, with new episodes released on Wednesdays