I’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.