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Loki | Is the Loki/Sylvie Romance Incestuous or Just Super Creepy?

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Loki managed to achieve the seemingly impossible: introduce the Multiverse, add new dimensions to a beloved character, and set up stakes that could continue across multiple series for a multi-million dollar streaming service. However, in the process, it fell into some of the narrative traps most derided by both hardcore sci-fi fans and fandom obsessives: the sexualisation of the doppelganger. Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino)’s relationship both ties into this problematic tradition of sexualization and subversion, but also have uncomfortable overtones of incest and a pointlessly sexualized female character to boot. The decision received widespread condemnation from fandom circles, pointing to the twisted fan relationship with canonical romantic relationships in general but especially when involving multiple versions of the same character. If Loki made a misstep with its show and its fans, it was here.

Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston). | Disney+, 2020.

Taken from the German word for ‘double goer’, the doppelganger has been a staple of horror, science fiction and fantasy fiction for centuries. From Persian and Egyptian mythology to European folklore around Changelings to Jordan Peele’s unsettling Us (2019), the fear of meeting a perfect copy of yourself, and what that can represent (your dark urges, fears and anxieties) has been a through line throughout imaginative fiction, and of course into the television age. However, the televisual doppelganger has differed from his counterparts in one specific aspect: sexualisation.

See also: Marvel | The Raging Women of the MCU by Soma Ghosh

State of the Duplication

Consistently, scif-fi TV doppelgangers have been presented as highly sexual beings, representing an explosion of restrained sexual urges unable to be expressed by their series regular opposites, and often used for sexual comedy or titillation-like eye candy for the audience. Take, for instance, the use of two separate doppelgangers of Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) in Doctor Who to both create comedy (in the ‘Space’ and ‘Time’ Red Nose Day shorts, 2011) and pathos (‘The Girl Who Waited’ – S6, Ep10) around her relationship with Rory (Arthur Darvill), which is usually side-lined in favour of exploring the Doctor’s past and personality.

And there is, of course, the Star Trek mirror universe, which in addition to being heavy on the facial hair is also heavy on (at least subtextual) sadomasochistic power dynamics, oiled bodies, and actors feeling the liberty to play their characters as hedonistically as possible. In short, modern science fiction television has used the traditional tropes of the doppelganger as a fearsome gaze into the subconscious to allow its cast to play sexual tension and explore the power dynamics of sexual relationships, whilst maximising sexual content for gags and the gaze of the viewer.

Enter Loki

Ever since his original depiction in Norse mythology, Loki’s otherness has been linked to his ability to double himself, be that literally in transforming into multiple beings/genders, or by adopting traditionally female or queer aspects that challenge both the historical and modern social norm. Loki’s mythological appearance also has subtextual, sexualised aspects that prefigure the doppelganger’s treatment, ranging from the focus on his lips (they are sewn shut but also mark out his slipperiness through frequent smirking) to one of his transformations, into a mare, leading to him mating with a stallion. Like the hedonists of the Mirror Universe, mythological Loki enjoys these transgressions, as when Loki eagerly volunteers to dress as Thor’s handmaiden as they attempt to sneak into Jotunheim.

The MCU’s Loki brings both this, and the identity fluidity of Marvel Comics’ Loki (Lady Loki and Kid Loki as two noticeable examples), into play within the series. Loki transforms himself into other people both to tease (as with his impersonation of Steve Rogers in Thor: The Dark World, 2013) and obtain (his reign as Odin between Dark World and Thor: Ragnarok, 2017). He becomes the representation of the feminine, studying his mother’s magic, and the queer (he is ridiculously happy jumping between bodies) in stark contrast to the hypermasculine Thor (Chris Hemsworth). Mythological and comic representations of Loki have both pushed his relation to doubles, doubling and the other, thereby making it no surprise that his first solo series should focus so much on the character’s multiplicity.

Examples of this multiplicity are rife within the series. The Loki we see here is in many respects a doppelganger of the Loki of the central MCU series, who of course dies at the beginning of Avengers: Infinity War (2018)—the show is so immediately playing with our expectations of who Loki should be by presenting us with someone who is not the character we have come to know over a decade, but who has access to his character development.

Boastful Loki (Deobia Oparei), Alligator Loki (???), Kid Loki (Jack Veal), and Old Loki (Richard E. Grant) in ‘Journey into Mystery’ – S1, Ep5. | Disney+, 2020.

The initial structure of the series appears to be about chasing down Loki’s doubles in a buddy-cop setting, before becoming about the relationship between Loki and his variant Sylvie, along with cameos from other Loki variants in fan-favourite episode ‘Journey into Mystery’ (S1, Ep5). The relationship between Loki and his doubles so serves as the center of the story, and the audience’s character-driven way into the wider MCU’s Multiverse arc. As a result, it might have seemed inevitable that the series would play into the tropes about doubles and dopplegangers—the classically ‘evil double’ is of course crucial to the end of the series—but in doing so lays itself open to problematic tropes about sexuality and sexualisation without analysis, particularly in the show’s insistence on shipping Loki and Sylvie.

See also: Loki | From Myth to MCU, Loki Was Always Queer by Clint Worthington

Sinking Ship

The ship, canonized by the show in its final episode, brings with it both the legacy of the doppelganger’s representation, Loki’s history, and fandom interest in the relationship between doubles. Selfcest and incest have become increasingly popular within fandom spaces, ranging from Supernatural’s Wincest to the horrendous Onceler saga that infected Tumblr for a year in 2012, but is often a trope either within a crack ship or limited to the outer reaches of fandom space. By placing it into the centre of a show, specifically one with the most popular character of the MCU movies with this demographic, it was of course going to cause controversy, and the reaction to the relationship has been very mixed. Some fans have celebrated Loki’s ability to find love outside of himself, the show’s clever writing of both characters and the undeniable aesthetic appeal of both Tom Hiddleston and Sophia Di Martino. Others have found it an awkward return to previous fandom standards, relying on outdated tropes and failing to appreciate the creepy undercurrents of the relationship. 

The show itself seems to be uncomfortable with the Loki/Sylvie relationship, and not know what to do with it. The two are often written to seem closer to siblings than to lovers: Sylvie no longer considers herself a Loki, making it analogous to a dead name, and the two have different personalities, but were raised and born from the same parents, thus making their relationship (technically) a sibling one. This has made many with siblings uncomfortable, and the development of this into a romantic setting unnecessary and off-putting. Similarly, in developing this relationship the show places the lead female character into a relationship with the lead male character, which rather than making them equals (which seems to be what the show is going for) instead reinforces the idea that a strong female lead can only exist in romantic relation to her male co-star, a reductive choice for such a seemingly progressive show. Kate Herron, Loki’s showrunner, has also highlighted that the emphasis in Loki is on ‘identity’, and asked:

“Who’s a better match for Loki than himself?”

Kate Herron, Loki executive producer

The gendering of that phrase (‘himself’) reinforces the emphasis lays on Loki himself, rather than Sylvie. 

This is not to negate the intention of the relationship between the two, which appears to be in order to illuminate Loki’s feelings of self-loathing and offering him a chance to heal. As Bibu Prasad Panda’s excellent article on the issue illustrates, within both this show and previous appearances, Loki frequently speaks about his issues within the show, how his Asgardian experiences have shaped him, whilst also reinforcing the aspect that he “believes himself so perfect and considers his self as so high and mighty that he finds no one worthy of his attention.” Episodes such as ‘Lamentis’ (S1, Ep3) subvert this, allowing Loki and Sylvie to speak on an equal platform, to share their disparate but equally traumatising experiences, and to aid each other in healing. However, nothing in the above narrative necessities suggests a romantic relationship. If Loki loving Sylvie is a step towards loving himself, and in creating a romantic relationship is an important milestone for both characters, the choice to present it as a romance still recalls the uncomfortable connotations of selfcest and uses outdated tropes about male/female relationships with little-to-no analysis.

The infamous kiss. | Disney+, 2020.

And yet despite these reservations which are embedded into the text the series goes full blast into Loki/Sylvie. Mobius (Owen Wilson) highlights his “demented crush” on her, and the two kiss in the final episode. This in turn has forced the creators to emphasise that the characters are the same and not the same, a hedging-your-bets argument that prevents the awkwardness of the relationship in general. There is also perhaps a sense that this is only a temporary relationship, a stepping-stone towards loving someone who is not fully him – but as the crux of the series hinges on Sylvie’s betrayal of Loki, this doesn’t seem entirely plausible. The crux of the show does present Loki and Sylvie as true to themselves—Loki is tempted by He Who Remains’ offer for the Sacred Timeline, whilst Sylvie remains committed to revenge. This does go some way to redeeming her as an independent, individual female character in a show dominated by variants of the same male; but perhaps too little too late. This is reinforced by how Loki attempts to convince her that he has their best interests at heart in the finale by kissing her: their fate literally sealed with a kiss.

See also: Marvel | Why Have Audiences Gone Mad for the Multiverse? by Becca Caddy

Choosing Chaos

This fate also seems designed as an audience-poking piece of fanservice, a provocation to audience members uncomfortable with sexual transgression. As Penn State professor and philosopher Christian P. Haines discusses in Charles Pulliam-Moore’s essay on the subject:

“I think a lot of the fascination with incestuous shipping (the brothers in Supernatural come to mind) is that people get excited by the transgression this represents,” Haines said. “At this point, those kinds of fan fantasies are so prevalent, it’s hard to imagine that showrunners and writers aren’t riffing on/playing with them.”

Christian P. Haines, Assistant Professor of English at Penn State University

But this subversion necessarily contains within it reinforcing the male lead/female love interest trope and the sexualization of the double, with very little to challenge either idea. The audience titillation and sense of transgression resulting from this is only a momentary benefit, immediately undermined by the sense that this is a strange storytelling choice.

Similarly, the series takes a strange attitude to Loki’s sexuality in general. Although both characters reveal their bisexuality, little is discussed or analyzed about how Loki and his variants relate to their sexuality – body swaps and doubles are used only for the plot or for a singular, hetero-presenting relationship. Although it could be possible that the connotations of Loki’s bisexuality, coupled with his gender fluidity and mythological role, could be explored in later series, the need to relate the show to the wider narrative arc of the Multiverse suggests that this character development will recede into the background, the implications of doubling again used for a side act rather than the main event. The Loki series is commendable for its investigations into one of the MCU’s most popular and interesting character, fun fast-moving plot, and the inclusion of Loki’s variants, all of whom assume a level of individuality that makes them fascinating for the viewer.

Unfortunately, this reliance on doubling and doppelgangers open the series up for uncomfortable implications revolving around incest, selfcest, sexualization, poor storytelling, and restricted female narrative. The show seems little interested in the wider implications of its characters’ genders and sexualities, or in how these relate to wider tropes and mythological texts. Although it can be argued that an MCU show on Disney+ doesn’t need to do these things, by including their characters coming out the showrunners are making a statement about inclusivity which they immediately undermine in story terms. The problematic legacy of the doppelganger’s representation can’t help but loom large over Loki.

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Issy Flower is a freelance writer and actor. When not trying to complete fifteen different projects, she can be found on Twitter @IssyFlower

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