The Critics’ Jane Foster

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thor the dark worldI’ve liked Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster since the first Thor. In particular, a scene that still makes me laugh is when Jane accidentally puts her dirty dishes right back in the cupboard of her cramped trailer the first time Thor comes calling. It’s a cute scene, and Portman’s muttering Jane is flummoxed.

In Thor 2, Jane spends about a third of the film in a weakened state. No, she doesn’t fight like Sif or Frigga. And no, she doesn’t have snarky quips like Darcy. But the other two-thirds of the film? She’s a cute, spunky science nerd who, yes, cannot fight and doesn’t have snarky quips but still puts her life on the line for an actual God.

So I never really understood the hate for the character. I also never got the sense that Portman’s Jane Foster and Chris Hemsworth’s Thor didn’t have chemistry nor that Portman had wooden acting. But maybe it’s just a personal opinion.

Since the advent of the “strong, female character,” female characters who cannot fight or are perceived as being weaker have usually been derisively ignored or outright hated by fans and critics alike. Take Skyler White: for all intents and purposes, she is a complex female character, but one who has had many weak moments. And yet, despite the need for complex female characters in any medium, Skyler White was utterly loathed to the point that the actress, Anna Gunn, wrote an op-ed about it in the New York Times.

More to the point, even strong female characters tend to get ignored by critics. Black Widow in the Avengers was one of the most feminist portrayals we’ve had of a kick-ass lady in a long time. In fact, Natasha Romanoff had the third most screen time of all the Avengers at 33 minutes and 35 seconds. And yet… in many critical reviews of the Avengers, Black Widow barely got a mention by the male reviewers or was simply addressed as the “token sexy female.” It was female reviewers who devoted more time to addressing all of the many different skills she brought to the table as one of the few without superpowers on the team.

So with that in mind, I wanted to see how Jane Foster fared under critics’ scathing reviews. The Toronto Star’s Peter Howell calls her “sexy but needy.” Funny, I thought Thor too spent a lot of time pining after her–asking Heimdall on a daily basis about her–but I suppose that gets overlooked. NPR’s Ian Buckwalter calls Jane a “starry-eyed schoolgirl” and a damsel in distress. The Boston Globe’s Ty Burr just says Portman looks depressed.

So what is it reviewers: is she starry-eyed, sexy, needy or depressed? Or is it all of the above?

Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly says: “Portman plays her like a petulant schoolgirl, and that’s the movie’s notion of a joke: Jane just wants a boyfriend, while Thor, who loves her back, has weightier concerns.” (I didn’t have the same take-away as this reviewer; in fact, the blind date Jane was set up on had been two years after meeting Thor. And she leaves the date because of a scientific phenomenon. That doesn’t sound to me like someone who is desperate for a boyfriend). Despite all of her smarts, degrees and actual work as an astrophysicist, it doesn’t match up to the superhero’s role in saving the world. Simon Abrams at RogerEbert.com is one of the very few who actually notes that Jane is “super-smart.”

And what did female reviewers say about Jane or Portman’s portrayal of her? Amy Nicholson of LA Weekly says, “Portman seems to be inwardly rolling her eyes that she’s followed up her Oscar win with two roles that’ve stuck her in a metal bra.” Michelle Alexandria of Eclipse Magazine says, “Jane’s reaction to being on Asgard was fun, she had just the right amount of awe and seeing her interact with Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and Thor’s mother Frigga (Rene Russo) was good stuff.” Mara Reinstein at US Weekly wasn’t that big of a fan of the movie, but she thought Portaman’s Jane had some good line delivery: “Fine, to be fair, Portman didn’t win an Best Actress Oscar for her zippy comic banter. But her incredulously delivered zinger to Thor—”You told your parents about me?!”—is about as good as it gets.” And, finally, Jeannette Catsoulis of the NY Times, says: “…Not that we can blame Ms. Portman. Handicapped by technology that makes her head resemble a bowling ball perched on a pipe cleaner, and a character who spends an inordinate amount of time in a dead faint, she may be an unconvincing brainiac, but you’d be hard pressed to find an actor who looks better unconscious.”

It’s noticeable as well that the female reviewers devoted much more space not just to discussing Jane, but to other female characters as well, including Darcy, Frigga and Sif.

When one looks at the language used by male reviewers to describe the character, Jane comes off as someone who is not very likeable. She is needy, petulant and depressed. All of these are negative connotations. And although some female reviewers did not enjoy Portman’s performance, there was still a lot of praise for the actress and the character overall. It is almost as if male and female reviewers were watching two entirely different characters.

So, what’s the point of this exercise? It’s not that I necessarily think that everyone should love Portman’s performance of Jane Foster or even the character. But rather, to look critically at how reviewers look at a female character who is the love interest or has few powers in a superhero movie starring a male hero and a mainly male cast.

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  1. While in theory I agree with your overall point, I’m one of those women who thought Portman was horrible in Thor 1 and 2. Sincerely, it’s almost like she’s trying to get fired from the franchise so that she can get back to more important projects. Now, my dislike for her character and performance doesn’t necessarily mean that I think all female characters in these superhero films has to be a badass spy or another Beatrix Kiddo. No. I like the idea of a neurotic scientist as the love interest for a God. I like the idea of a Lois/Superman dynamic. I like the idea of a flawed woman with little upper body strength and zero fighting skills. Just a regular everyday woman. That said, I think Portman did a lousy job of giving us that woman. And that’s a shame because we need one of those women and we need one that is well portrayed. Portman fails horribly at that task. Her performance was cringe inducing and the 4 girlfriends who saw the film with me felt the same. On the flipside, we all loved….LOVED Kat Dennings. All I’ve been hearing from people who I talk about this movie with (mostly women) all wish that Dennings had been given the chance to play Jane Foster instead of Portman who shows nothing but contempt for the role, in my opinion.

  2. Frustratingly enough it seems most days that ‘strong female character’ only counts of that character embodies stereotypically masculine traits. Thank you for this wonderful article!

  3. I feel like I watched a different movie from many of these reviewers.

    Jane was sad and upset Thor was gone after promising he’d come back. But she didn’t put her whole life on hold waiting by the metaphorical phone. She did her job. And she got set up on a blind date with a guy she clearly had no chemistry with, nor much in common. But she gamely tried to proceed even when SCIENCE!! was happening.

    Dennings would not have made a good Jane Foster IMO because she was where she belonged — the quippy sidekick role. Thor wouldn’t be as intrigued by a quippy, snarky woman than by a brainy one. That is, after all, why he picked Jane.

    And she was needy in the film — with GOOD REASON! Her scientific curiosity had gotten her in trouble, like it does with most scientists in genre films. And she was then transported against her will to a world where the people see her as interesting, but so short-lived as to not even be worth attention. The only person who WANTS her there can’t be at her side every minute like he wants, due to his responsibilities. She was literally out of her depth in every way possible.

    It’s also worth noting that while possessed by the Aether, Thor was the only one who could touch her. Why? Because he was the only one who didn’t try to touch her AGGRESSIVELY. The Aether responded to any aggression against Jane as aggression against itself, and responded in kind. Thor only EVER touched her gently, tenderly. And as such, the Aether left him alone. She spent most of the first third of the movie in bad shape because she was DYING, but while awake, her scientific curiosity was all over Asgard. “OMG, is that a quantum field gnerator?”

    And let us not forget that on finding him returned, Jane went upside Thor’s head with all her strength (knowing he could take it) when he showed up after two years. And Loki, who KILLED a dear friend of hers, got PUNCHED with every bit of Jane’s rage behind it. If that’s not strong, given the fact she was on a world of people who could pretty much snap her like a twig? I don’t know what is!

    Depressed? Well, that was with good reason too. The man was willing to risk the wrath of his father, the king, for her well-being. He obviously was in love with her in return, but his responsibilities kept tearing him away from her. And his last promise to return took TWO years. They’re the definition of star-crossed, but even science can’t override human emotion.

  4. I absolutely ADORED Jane’s complete awe and geeking out while in Asgard, that was where her character really shined. Honestly I was disappointed in her portrayal in the middle third, but that was more because the story completely IGNORED her once Loki showed up on screen. I would have been happy if the camera bothered just once during the fight on the Dark World to switch to her, just to remind the audience ‘Oh yeah, Jane is in this scene too!”. Heck even if it were just her hiding behind a rock watching the action from a safe distance, so long as she were presented as a character in the scene. As it were this part of the story treated her basically as a prop, for which I completely blame the writing. At least in that last third she got her agency back. I really don’t get the hate she gets.

    • I am not a big fan of Natalie Portman,but I don’t hate her as Jane either coz she was just following the script. It’s such a pity if those Jane haters hate her just because she cannot fight. What about Pepper,Louis Lane,Betty Ross…they don’t fight either,right?

  5. But I guess haters will always hate,no matter how well Natalie may act as Jane, those haters will always have something against her. Or perhaps those haters were merely jealous coz Jane became the love interest of the hot god of thunder?