Iron Man and the problem of Pepper Potts

Note: this post will discuss the first Iron Man movie but contains spoilers for both this and the sequel. The sequel will be discussed in a post coming to an SJL blog near you very soon.

Iron Man is, without a doubt, an immensely entertaining movie. RDJ gives a very charming and entertaining portrayal of a man who is basically unlikeable. He coasts along on genius and family money and seems to avoid anything even vaguely like hard work and responsibility and is basically a man at the beginning of his very own redemption arc. (Not, I would argue, a traditional heroic narrative, as seen in the more recent Captain America movie.)

Marvel has, generally, done a very good job with their adaptations (for an analysis of Thor as a feminist movie, click here!). Iron Man, unfortunately, falls on its face with regard to its main female character, Pepper Potts. Not assisted by an unremarkable performance by Gwyneth Paltrow, the narrative has nothing positive to offer us with regards to Pepper that is not directly connected to Tony Stark. She is Tony Stark’s assistant, a job that she seems to be quite good at, but unfortunately reinforces the distinct impression given to the audience that Pepper has no life and no personhood at all outside of her job and her job itself is all about Tony. Her only role in the movie, and it seems, in her life, is to help Tony be Tony.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with being an assistant, in life or on screen. Many assistants in many films and tv shows are amazing characters, filled with agency and interiority and power all their own. For instance, Donna from Suits, Mrs. Landingham from The West Wing, Patti from Eli Stone, Leonardo from Fairly Legal. However, considering the lack of overall agency and interiority that Pepper is afforded within the narrative it would be nice if they would have at least indulged in the pretense of having given her half a thought when developing the movie.

Early on in the movie, not long after he returns from captivity in Afghanistan, Tony tells Pepper than she is ‘all [he] has’. This is a rather bizarre statement, considering what else the movie has shown about him—for one, he has Rhodes (in a wonderful, layered performance by Terrance Howard, who was bafflingly and insultingly recast in Iron Man 2) and his work, which he seems to find fulfilling. For another, at least some members of the audience are going to be aware of the friendship that develops between Tony and Steve Rogers (Captain America) and that he ultimately joins the Avengers. She is most assuredly not all he has. She is, potentially, all the (created, non-related) family that he has, though this is never outright stated in the text.

Later in the movie, Pepper tells Tony that he too is all she has, a statement that, sadly, seems far more literal than Tony’s. At the Tony Stark Benefit for Firefighters Family Fund* she appears not to have a date (which is, without context, fine) and no friends or family are mentioned throughout the movie, except for some non-specific plans that she has on her birthday. Not only does Tony not remember her birthday but he actually states that he ‘doesn’t like it’ when she has plans. These aforementioned plans could be anything. Is she going out for dinner? If so, with who? By herself? (Also fine! I do this!) Does she have a date with takeout food and her television? I don’t care what she’s doing; I would just like to have some idea of what it is.

There is no indication that when she isn’t on screen, that she’s doing anything, which is the death knell of any character. Her job is Tony. She is not really his assistant, in my opinion. She is his nanny. Literally, her entire life as presented by the film is Tony Stark. More than that, it seems to be presented that she has worked for Tony for years and the question of why she hasn’t quit is never explained, beyond her being in love with Tony. There is nothing wrong with any of these things in isolation. There isn’t anything wrong with any of these things even not in isolation. If she did all these things and they made sense because of the way in which she, as a character, was constructed that would be fine. But they don’t, because she isn’t presented as a character; she is presented as an object to be desired.

This perhaps can be best summed up as the fate of so many women in film and television, that of the Love Interest. She has no life or existence beyond that. Every choice that she makes ultimately comes back to her being in love with Tony, which is pretty sad considering that Tony is a pretty terrible human being.** Not only that, but she doesn’t function into his choices at all. Even if Tony himself hadn’t noticed that she was in love with him, somebody, sometime, surely would have pointed it out. Yet he still leaves her to dry clean his one night stands clothes and escort them out in the morning.

Last, but surely not least, is the scene in which she literally refers to a woman that Tony has casual sex with as ‘trash’. It’s rather ironic, that the text and Leslie Bibb’s performance do not at all support this rather horrific instance of slut shaming. The woman is a reporter named Christine Everhart, a woman who is portrayed as being driven, smart, funny and has all the agency and interiority that Pepper lacked. We unfortunately don’t get a reaction shot from her after Pepper’s  ‘trash’ comment. (When a character who has about four scenes^ and five minutes of screen time—tops—has more interiority and agency than your female lead, you have a problem.)

There were some truly great things about the first Iron Man movie—RDJ and Terrance Howard’s performances, the display of Tony’s wit, the rather interesting story of a fairly terrible person who chooses to use an horrific experience to work towards his own redemption—but, unfortunately, Pepper is not one of them.

Coming soon: A discussion of the mess that was Iron Man 2, in which Rhodes was the only person recast, Tony is accidentally George W Bush, Pepper has a brief brush with agency and I ended up rooting for the villain.^^

*I don’t know it’s something like that okay?
**Yes, yes, beyond being rich, charming and handsome. She’s spent years with him. Those three things would have gotten old by the time the movie starts.
^One of them the most awkward sex scene I have ever seen on screen.
^^Not actually relevant. True nonetheless!

20 thoughts on “Iron Man and the problem of Pepper Potts”

  1. It’s been a while since I’ve watched Ironman but I don’t remember feeling Pepper was presented as an object of desire. I think you’re correct that she comes across as his nanny who’s hopelessly in love with him, and you explain well why that’s problematic here, but Pepper feels more like a utility that Tony has rather than someone he, or the (male gaze) audience, should desire. She’s like a more competent robot arm.

    And +1 to Rhodes egregious recasting being jarringly unnecessary, looking forward to your follow up.

    1. Having watched it recently, I can tell you that I think that’s a perfectly valid reading of the text. My main thing was that she wasn’t a character, just a prop, and I think not even a very consistent one. She certainly is portrayed at certain points as being like ‘a more competent robot arm’.

      Rhodes recasting is pretty horrifying really. Iron Man 2 is just a massively rushed mess. (I really hope it was rushed. If it wasn’t, I literally have no explanation.)

  2. Rhodey was recast between Terrance Howard had a massive fight with the producers and wanted a vast amount of money. I do agree he was a perfect Rhodey.

    As for Potts, that is her entire function actually, to allow Tony to be Tony. I wish like hell that they had gotten an actress who could convey that in some way other than whinging at him. Her shrillness really throws me off of the canon Pepper. I can see why you would be disappointed in a larger sense of the use of a female character, but seriously, short of them having her become Rescue, and some of the other comic canon stuff, that is Pepper does.

    1. I am glad you can understand why we would be upset with this portrayal of a female character. But there are a few problems with your comment. The first is that, although you probably did not intend to, you used several sexist concepts. The word “shrill” is often used to convey the idea that a woman has overstepped her position and is being irrationally demanding and emotional – as such it is now a charged term that has sexist connotations. Similarly, you have to be careful when you talk about a woman “whinging” at a man because to invoke this concept is to reference broader, harmful tropes about how men and women interact – namely, that women nag men to get them to do things and that’s how male-female dynamics work. I actually do not recall Pepper ever whinging at Tony, she seems to be much more long-suffering and patient than most human beings would have been in her position. In any case, it’s better not to invoke these tropes when we talk about men and women because they are laden with cultural baggage.

      Also, by saying that Pepper has no function other than to be Tony’s assistant in the canon and therefore the movie had to show that, you’re suggesting that there is no way to portray a dedicated assistant without making them a two dimensional cardboard cutout without any interior agency. But as Clare discussed, there are lots of media portrayals of assistants who are very dedicated to their jobs but who also seem to have personalities and lives of their own. Also, even if it was in canon that Pepper have no interior agency, movie adaptations change canon all the time.

      The main problem with the portrayal of Pepper is not that she’s Tony’s assistant, but that we are never given any idea that she is also a human being with her own throughts about things other than Tony, feelings for people other than Tony, and life outside of Tony (and if she has none, then why she chose that – there’s nothing wrong with being a workaholic but you have to have some reason to do nothing but work!). In the movie they show her as being in love with Tony, although even then most of the time we only get a watered down, vague impression that she might have feelings for him. Alternatives would include: Pepper is a neocon who is super dedicated to making Stark Industries successful, Pepper wants to be rich and her job pays extremely well (in which case we could have had lots of jokes about how much she gets paid), Pepper is a grad student who couldn’t find any other job, etc. So there’s definitely a way to do it without making her a prop rather than a person.

      1. Marvel has been very careful not to change continuity whenever possible. It’s sad that Pepper is mostly a one-dimensional character, but that’s a larger problem with comics. As far as her “interior agency”, the reasons why Pepper doesn’t quit, etc, not being addressed in the movie–why would they be? What bearing would those things have on the plot? How would they fit into the overall narrative? Like so many other characters (male and female) in so many other movies, these things aren’t addressed because they really don’t matter to the story. Ultimately, the movie isn’t about her.

        1. I don’t think anyone is advocating spending hours on why Pepper chooses her job, or giant monologue from her. Interior motivation is often expressed by well-crafted dialogue. Even a throwaway line about how, I don’t know, she gave herself a payrise after Tony threw another tantrum would be some indication of her interior motivations.

          I don’t know if you’ve seen Suits, but the comparison with Donna is a great one. She is Harvey’s Pepper Potts, and we only see her character in relation to her job and her role as an assistant to Harvey. Yet it’s clear from her dialogue and manner that she’s clearly there by choice because she likes her boss, deeply respects him and they have a great working relationship – mostly through snarky one-liners and onscreen chemistry. We don’t see a similar treatment given to Pepper IMO.

    2. With re: to Terrence Howard being recast, my understanding of the situation was that he wished to be paid the amount stipulated in his contract and the producers wished to pay him less, so they recast him.

      Nevertheless, the whole thing is incredibly problematic-one African American actor is not interchangeable for another.

      Anything I had to say about Pepper has already been said by Rachael, so I won’t repeat it!

      1. I was watching Iron Man the other day and thinking about just this. The BBC does this a hell of a lot (just go look at the casting choices for ‘Spooks’) and I agree it’s very problematic. On the other hand there’s a bit of a catch-22 with this one, because I suppose alternatively they would have had to cast a white actor to replace him, meaning we have one more role played by a white man instead of a POC.

        1. I think my preference is not recasting him at all but if given no choice, another POC actor is definitely preferable to a white actor. Can’t really comment on ‘Spooks’ though as I haven’t seen it! It is certainly a problematic practice, particularly if white actor have kept their roles as they did in Iron Man.

  3. You know, I really like Pepper and I enjoyed the movie – but I kind of realise now that I was pretty much projecting a personality onto her while I was watching (being a workaholic myself this is something of a tendency). But I agree with your analysis. The personality is not really in there. Pepper could have been a great character if they had bothered to develop her.

    1. I think there are so few positive portrayals of women who dedicate themselves to their work that I think this is understandable. Men are Harvey Spektor; women are any number of rom com heroines who need a man to get them to value other things. (Ie men.)

  4. Personally, out of the recent superhero movies (lets just say first x-men until now) the one that always really bothered me was Mary Jane in the Spiderman movies whose sole purpose is to wait around to be rescued by Pete Parker whenever a super villain decides to kidnap her. Sure she may have autonomy and acting aspirations that don’t include Parker but when the chips are down she becomes just another damsel in distress.

    Pepper Potts on the other hand gets to save Starks, at least as I recall, when the bad guy removes his old energy source heart thing and I rather appreciated that touch. I also don’t recall her turning into a damsel in distress at any point but then like I said, it’s been awhile since I saw either.

    Not that this refutes your points, I’m just saying that the damsel in distress trope bothers me a lot more.

  5. The Iron Man movies aren’t among my favorite of Marvel’s and, though you did a good job, it’s hard for me to nail down the Potts/Stark relationship. I feel like that’s the point in some ways (dropping in on a long-term relationship so complex, it’s impossible to understand; fluctuating so often, Potts is the maid one day, CEO the next).

    Not to give it too much credit but, kinda like His Girl Friday, it’s a functional marriage where they act like it’s not and it seems/is abnormal. Unlike HGF, though, where you figure out how they love and relate to each other as the movie progresses, the Potts/Stark relationship just gets more confusing…which has or will prove to be either brilliant, shitty or sexist.

  6. I think you’re too hard on Pepper. I always read Pepper as someone who’s extremely dedicated to her career. Managing Tony is a hell of a job, but one I think she does actually enjoy immensely (though the ‘managing Tony’ parts are clearly her least favorite bit). I also don’t buy that she’s only staying at Tony’s side because she’s in love with him. Clearly there are feelings there, but they’ve grown out of their long standing professional and personal relationship. She keeps Tony at a distance and actually shoots him down when he makes a poorly executed pass at her.

    And the ‘trash’ comment actually came after Christine tried to shame Pepper for being a lowly PA.

    1. RE: the “trash” comment – I think the word “trash” has a very particular meaning when applied and used against women, and it’s not acceptable to call any woman “trash” no matter the context.

    2. I’m not 100% sure how I can be “too hard” on Pepper? If the character of Pepper doesn’t hold up under examination (and I, clearly, don’t think she does) then that is the problem. My analysis is not. I’m not sure what reason Pepper would have for staying in her job BEYOND being in love with Tony? The money is probably very good but the hours are terrible and her boss is possessive of her time in a HUGELY inappropriate way and opportunity for advancement doesn’t seem to exist. This is all things I have discussed in the post. We have a disagreement about interpretations of the text. Frankly, you have brought up nothing I have not already obviously considered and talked about in the post.

      As Connie has already pointed out, the “trash” comment itself is inherently problematic with regards to its wider cultural context. Also, I think you’ll find that the comment Christine made is “After all these years, Tony still has you picking up the dry cleaning.” While it’s never stated whether Pepper is a personal or executive assistent, she reads as executive, and there is no world in which delivering dry cleaning to Tony’s one night stands would be part of Pepper’s job even if she WAS a personal assistent. The comment is as much a condemnation of Tony as it is of Pepper and her BOUNDARIES, not Pepper and her job. (The comment itself is also meant to establish for the audience that everyone knows that Pepper is in love with Tony. Contempt is not a KIND reaction to that but Christine is not meant to be kind nor is she trying to be. Judging a female character on their niceness in a movie that contains Tony Stark is all kinds of gross btw.)

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