Here’s why some people find the Loki-Sylvie romance unsettling
(updated to address queer/genderfluid representation, incest/“selfcest,” and “autogynephilia”)
NOTE ADDED 10–23–23: I was originally inspired to write this piece during Loki season 1, after listening to a couple podcasts and reading a few social media posts from seemingly straight commentators who expressed vague feelings of discomfort about the Loki-Sylvie romance. They seemed to have difficulty putting their finger on precisely why they were “squicked” by the pairing and I thought I might be able to provide some illumination.
After its original publication, I received responses regarding three additional potential reasons why some might find the Loki-Sylvie romance unsettling: queer representation, incest/“selfcest,” and “autogynephilia.” Since Loki season 2 is now afoot and this topic is receiving renewed attention, I just added three additional sections to the end of this essay to address these latter concerns. While season 1 of Loki is discussed in detail here, there are no spoilers for season 2.
The Disney+ TV show “Loki” is about a magical god-like character (named Loki, of course) who, like the Norse god he is named after, can take any form he wishes. In the series, he meets an alternate-timeline version of himself named Sylvie, who is played by a female actor, and the two seem to be falling in love. This has apparently freaked out many people out. I’ve observed numerous people attempt to explain why they find this romance so unsettling, and they don’t seem quite able to place the reason why. They will say things like “It’s weird to fall in love with yourself,” even though that’s not very convincing, because they are obviously quite different characters. I’ve heard others deride the romance as “incest,” even though Loki and Sylvie are not actually siblings, nor did they grow up together.
If I had to guess, I’d say that unconscious transphobia is likely driving these reactions. Allow me to explain.
Even if you don’t know much about trans people, you’ve seen the recurring movie scene where a guy finds a woman attractive, but then learns that “she used to be a man,” and he’ll respond by freaking out, and perhaps he’ll even vomit. (For an excellent analysis of these “trans reveal” and “vomit” scenes, I encourage you to check out the documentary Disclosure.) But of course, she’s still the same attractive woman! So what’s changed?
Well, most people are gender essentialists. For those unfamiliar with the term “essentialism,” here’s how I describe it in my book Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive:
Essentialism is the assumption that objects within a particular category — especially for those categories that are assumed to be “natural” (e.g., dogs, cats, trees, humans) — must share some kind of underlying essence with one another. For example, all dogs must share some underlying “dog-ness” that makes them similar to each other and distinct from all other animals. Children especially rely on essentialism in order to make sense of categories, and often essentialist beliefs remain with us well into adulthood. One can see essentialism rear its head when people presume that there must be essential differences between women and men, between homosexuals and heterosexuals, and between different races or ethnic groups.
In other words, essentialism is a form of “magical-thinking” that has no material or biological basis — there is no hidden “essence” underneath.
With this knowledge, let’s return to the “trans reveal” scene: The reason why the guy freaks out is because he believes that he has just found someone with an imagined “male essence” attractive, which in his mind “makes him gay” — even though she is very clearly and visibly a woman! For what should be obvious reasons, this belief in magical male and female “essences” undergirds much of societal transphobia.
Anyway, getting back to Loki and Sylvie: Even though Loki is a fictional and magical god-like character, we puny humans tend to project a “male essence” onto him. Because of this, many viewers are likely to interpret Sylvie as “a male who has taken the form of a female,” when in actuality the character has no fixed form or essence. Thus, the freak outs over a Loki and Sylvie romance are structurally similar to “trans reveal” freak outs — they are rooted in societal transphobia (and homophobia).
So if you’re someone who is disturbed by this plot-line, I’d encourage you to ask yourself whether it’s because of gender essentialism and “magical essences,” and to consider how this unconscious tendency complicates the lives of actual trans people.
Regarding queer, trans, and genderfluid representation
While I believe that my gender essentialism explanation likely applies to many straight people’s discomfort with the Loki-Sylvie pairing, some queer people have taken issue with it for very different reasons. Many of these reactions stem from the fact that the show explicitly stated that Loki was genderfluid and that both Loki and Sylvie were bisexual. Which makes them the first prominent queer relationship in the MCU. Exciting! Isn’t it?
Well, yes and no. There was definitely a “having their cake and eating it too” aspect to this particular pairing: Disney was obviously trying to appease LGBTQ+ audiences’ calls for queer representation while simultaneously packaging that relationship in a form that would read as “cis-hetero” to straight audiences (were it not for the aforementioned lingering gender essentialism).
Some queer people have denounced the Loki-Sylvie relationship as “straight,” which I take issue with. Bisexual people don’t cease being queer when we just so happen to be in a boy-girl relationship. Especially when one or some of the bisexuals involved also happen to be genderfluid.
Speaking of, many people rightfully pointed out that this wasn’t a good depiction of genderfluidity. From what I hear, the comic book character Loki is canonically genderfluid and changes their gender presentation on many occasions. But we’ve only ever seen Tom Hiddleston’s Loki depicted as unwaveringly male. And in episode 5 of season 1, we meet several other Loki variants, all portrayed by male actors, with the obvious exception of alligator Loki, who is nevertheless referred to as “he.” Our Loki even asks these other variants if they’ve ever come across a woman version of themselves and one responds, “sounds terrifying,” as though the very idea of taking on a female form has never even crossed their minds before.
The only female Loki we ever see is Sylvie, who has seemingly always been that way. We see her as a young girl when she’s abducted by the TVA, and in another scene, she strongly rejects the name “Loki,” as though she views it as a deadname. In other words, Sylvie reads more like a trans woman who has “always known” she was female, rather than as someone who is genuinely genderfluid.
Furthermore, given that Sylvie the child is merely playing with toys when the TVA abducts her, it appears as though the only thing she did to warrant being removed from the timeline was deciding to be a girl rather than a boy. This suggests that the TVA may be intentionally pruning trans variants from the timeline. Unfortunately, this potentially intriguing (if horrifying) plot point is never explained or explored further in subsequent episodes.
To summarize, from a queer/trans/genderfluid representation perspective, Loki season 1 left a lot to be desired. And I completely understand why that aspect of the show might garner disappointment or criticism. While those are reasonable reactions to misguided media depictions, I don’t believe this explanation accounts for the level of freak-out or disgust that some people have exhibited toward the Loki-Sylvie pairing.
Regarding incest and “selfcest”
While I dismissed incest as a potential cause of discomfort in the opening of my essay, a few people have insisted that the incest aspect really did squick them. To be clear, I don’t doubt that this is true for *some* people. Although from studies I’ve seen, the incest taboo is typically most intense with regards to siblings who grew up in the same family together — this is obviously not the case for our Loki and Sylvie. And I’m not sure whether concerns about DNA and genetic inbreeding apply to Norse gods. In fact, ancient gods often engaged in incest, and people don’t usually make a big deal about it!
Anyway, the point of my essay was not to outright dismiss the possibility that incest is fueling some of these icky feelings, but rather to highlight another underdiscussed bias that appears to be contributing to them (i.e., gender essentialism).
A few people framed the incest argument in terms of “selfcest” — that is, having romantic or sexual interactions with yourself, or with a different version of yourself. Is masturbation selfcest then? Or is the term strictly reserved for instances where you stumble upon a past or future or multiversal version of yourself, and the two of you hook up?
The question of “would I fuck myself if I met an alternate version of me” is too fantastical for me to take seriously as a moral or ethical dilemma (your mileage may vary). But the “selfcest” complaints began to make more sense to me when, about a month after this piece was first published, I learned about a seemingly related complaint that was garnering some traction within certain corners of the Loki/Marvel fandom.
So this abstruse argument goes something like this: The Loki-Sylvie romance constitutes “autogynephilia” and is therefore transphobic. This didn’t make any sense to me at first until I learned that some of the people promoting it are transmedicalists — that is, they adhere to a form of respectability politics wherein they are “real” or “true” trans people, whereas other (less savory, in their eyes) trans people are mere “fakes” or “perverts.”
What makes someone a “real” trans person according to this scheme? Well, some combination of “always knowing” they were trans, transitioning early, and/or being heterosexual, gender-conforming, and “passable” post-transition — these are the same criteria medical gatekeepers historically used to limit access to gender-affirming care back in the day. Hence the name “transmedicalists.”
One ancient theory from way back then — which both transmedicalists and anti-trans activists alike continue to tout — is “autogynephilia.” In a nutshell, the theory asserts that there are two types of trans women: those who fit the “real trans” criteria described above, and the other basically being “perverts” (or “paraphilics”). And what perversion does the latter group supposedly suffer from? “Autogynephilia,” which is intended to mean “love of oneself as a woman.” According to Ray Blanchard, the psychologist who invented this theory, the latter group is so obsessed with the sexual fantasy of becoming a woman that they transition in order to bring that fantasy to life. (Note: Blanchard doesn’t actually believe that anyone is a “real” or “true” trans woman, as his theory suggests that the former group are merely effeminate gay men who transition in order to attract straight men.)
There is so much wrong with this theory that it’s hard to know where to begin, other than to say please read my other writings about it (compiled here). If you read just one, make it my 2020 article Autogynephilia: A scientific review, feminist analysis, and alternative ‘embodiment fantasies’ model [PDF link]; it was published in a peer-reviewed academic journal, but I tried to make the language as accessible as possible.
Here are the two main take-home points you need to know:
1) Both the taxonomy (the supposed “two types” of trans women) and etiology (that sexual fantasies are what drives non-heterosexual trans women to transition) have been disproven. In other words, Blanchard’s theory of “autogynephilia” is incorrect.
2) Blanchard never used controls — seriously, he only ever examined sexual fantasies in trans female/feminine-spectrum people. Subsequent studies by multiple independent research groups have shown that cisgender women and men routinely experience similar or analogous sexual fantasies: both sometimes fantasize about being the other sex, and cis women often have sexual fantasies that are primarily or solely focused on their own female body. I have come to call these embodiment fantasies, to acknowledge their diversity and to get away from the pathologizing and trans-woman-specific framing of “autogynephilia.”
Returning to Loki and Sylvie: There is zero textual evidence that embodiment fantasies played any role in their romance: They are clearly two separate individuals, and Loki seemed to genuinely appreciate and care for Sylvie as her own person, rather than imagining her as a mere fantasized female version of himself. Furthermore, even if Loki (or Sylvie) did experience female embodiment fantasies, there would be absolutely nothing wrong with it, as they are merely sexual fantasies that some people across all genders have.
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