Here’s why some people find the Loki-Sylvie romance unsettling
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.
Note added after publication: A few commenters have said that the perceived incest actually does squick them. For the record, I don’t doubt that this is true for *some* people. Although from studies I’ve seen, the incest taboo is typically most intense for people who grew up in the same family together (not the case here). 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 no one seems to make a big deal about it! Anyway, the point of this essay is not to outright dismiss the potential of incest to be fueling some of these icky feelings, but rather to highlight another under-discussed taboo that also appears to be contributing to them. Others have commented that they dislike the Loki-Sylvie romance because it strikes them as “too straight”; I share my thoughts on that in this thread.
Further note: A few weeks after this was published, it came to my attention that some people were decrying the Loki-Sylvie pairing because it supposedly constitutes “autogynephilia”—I disagree and address such claims in this thread.
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