In ‘The Hammer of Thor,’ Rick Riordan Throws Convention Out the Window

***SPOILERS for Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard: The Hammer of Thor by Rick Riordan, which you should all read, suggested age range be damned.***

When I read the first book in Rick Riordan’s series about Norse gods in the modern world last year, Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard: The Sword of Summer, I noticed something unusual: the main character lacked a love interest. Samirah al-Abbas, the young Muslim woman Riordan created to fill the Strong Female Lead role, was engaged to and in love another character. Magnus Chase, the protagonist of the new series, had no romantic options in sight.

So I knew, when I picked up Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard: The Hammer of Thor last week, that Riordan would introduce a new character to serve as Chase’s love interest. I just didn’t expect her to be a gender-fluid, transgender person.

Alex Fierro was assigned male at birth, but realized when she was young that she identified as both male and female. Because of her gender fluidity, her parents kicked her out, making her homeless as a mere teenager. She asks her companions to call her “she” or “he” based on which gender she identifies with more on a given day, rather than using the pronoun “they.” (She usually feels more female, hence my use of the feminine pronoun in this piece.)

Through Magnus’ well-meaning but ignorant gaze, the reader learns about gender fluidity, being transgender, the perils of transphobia, and the history of gender fluid and transgender individuals — according to Norse mythology, they’ve existed as long as Norse gods have. (Certainly longer, too.) Yet Riordan also emphasizes that Alex’s story is not every transgender or gender fluid person’s tale. She is one of many: being the only gender fluid or transgender person Magnus knows does not make her a mascot.

It would’ve been enough for Rick Riordan, one of the most popular children’s authors in the world today, to write a gender fluid and/or transgender main character. That inclusion, by itself, would have continued his intentional representation of diverse heroes. But he went a step further: Alex isn’t just a main character, she is a love interest, too.

In this book, she’s only subtly so. She’s got a lot of baggage; so does Magnus. Not to mention the fact they’re busy trying to save the world — y’know, normal teen stuff. They’ve also just met. But from the outset, the reader feels a connection between Magnus and Alex. Magnus finds her beautiful as a woman; he finds Alex handsome as a man. He is fascinated by her, he cares about her, and even though this book is meant for readers as young as 11, he is attracted to her.

Even in literature and media meant for adults, I have seen few portrayals of gender fluid or transgender people as attractive. They may be good, brave people, admirable and strong; but flat-out attractive? That one’s rare. Yet Rick Riordan, in a children’s book, broke that barrier. And he did so in a book that, today, hit Number 1 on the New York Times’ Bestseller List.

It’s almost impossible to quantify how much books impact people’s worldview, even children’s. (The Bestseller List highlighting The Hammer of Thor hasn’t even come out yet; Riordan just announced it on his Twitter.) But to give you an idea: the first book in Riordan’s Norse series, The Sword of Summer, had an initial print of 2.5 million copies. Many prints followed, meaning millions more children read that book. (And adults like me.) Since we can assume most of The Sword of Summer’s readers will get The Hammer of Thor as well, that means millions of children will meet Alex Fierro. Millions of children will be introduced to a gender fluid, transgender person for the first time. Millions of children will see a gender fluid, transgender person who is sympathetic, attractive, brave, smart, self-possessed, and wonderfully human.

That is revolutionary. That representation — to embolden gender fluid and transgender young people, to educate other children as allies — can, literally, change the world.

So you could say I got a nice surprise when I started reading The Hammer of Thor. By creating Alex Fierro, Rick Riordan threw the conventions of literary love interests out the window. And we’re all better off for it.

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Five Years Too Late, Seeing Myself

I love movies. I’ll watch nearly any genre, and I can usually bear the tropes. But among movie tropes I dislike, one turns my gaze particularly red: Overweight Guy Gets With Insanely Hot Girl.

That’s not to say I oppose such relationships. Of course not — as long as both sides are happy, power to them. However, until recently, I could not remember a single movie or TV show that turned the tables. Yes, I have not watched anywhere near all movies or shows. Yes, I am as forgetful as a sloth is slow. But as a young woman who’s struggled with my body and self-image, I have spent 19 years searching for representation in the media. I have spent 19 years looking for a hot guy attracted to an overweight girl.

Today, I found it.

On Friday, the band DNCE released its music video for “Toothbrush,” in which model Ashley Graham plays lead singer Joe Jonas’ love interest. In the video, Jonas gives Graham loving, longing glances; they make out in a club; he pleads for her commitment.

All usual music video fare, except that Graham is a plus-size model. She wears a size 16, and accordingly to Internet estimates, weighs between 180 and 200 pounds.

As befits her profession, Graham is gorgeous. She deserves her appearances in Levi’s, Marina Rinaldi and Nordstrom ads. She deserves her Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue cover. But by standard definitions, she’s overweight, and obviously so. The woman whose body and companionship Jonas desires weighs even more than me.

Graham’s heaviness and sex appeal — simultaneous, intertwined— are so important. 

When I was 14, a few pounds tipped me over the healthy limit: at that most vulnerable of ages, I was overweight. I developed an eating disorder because of my conviction that no one could love me if I had fat. It took more than a year for me to overcome my illness. Learning my worth did not depend on my weight took months alone.

To this day, I still struggle with my body image. At every doctor’s office, I step on the scale backwards. Certain pictures and words trigger the despair and self-hatred I once felt. Only this month, years after my eating disorder, have I begun learning how to eat healthy. For the past three years, I’ve been too worried that if I watched my weight, my disorder would return.

I wonder what I would have done if, at age 14, I had seen videos like “Toothbrush.” I wonder how I would have felt about my body if I had seen Ashley Graham adored by Joe Jonas. I may have developed an eating disorder anyway. But I may not have — and that possibility is crucial. It’s also heartbreakingly new.

That’s what this video means for people like me. It means we are sexy. It means we deserve love. Of course, we are worthy whether this video exists or not. But sometimes, drowning in a sea of skinny girls deemed Most Beautiful, we can forget that worth. I did.

I finished watching “Toothbrush” with tears in my eyes, thinking of the overweight, 14-year-old girls who will see themselves in Ashley Graham. I can only hope that soon, they’ll see themselves in other media, too.

Maybe one day, we’ll even have a Hot Guy Falls In Love With Overweight Girl movie. I’ll buy the first ticket.