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!


How Do You Solve A Problem Like Slave Leia?

I am a dyed-in-the-Tauntaun-hide Star Wars fangirl, and I have a confession to make. Slave Leia, by which I mean the geek culture meme that resulted from the original scene, makes me uncomfortable. For a long time, it has made me uncomfortable in a way I couldn’t articulate. But I think I’ve distilled out what is lurking beneath the surface of the Slave Leia cultural phenomenon, and unfortunately I think it’s problematic.

I want to make it clear that my problem is with the cultural trope only, not the individuals who dress up as Leia in this costume or the individuals who find it attractive. There is simply no way for us on the outside to know how those individuals are framing the situation. I believe that it is possible for individuals to choose to wear a Slave Leia costume with full awareness of the issues of sex slavery and with healthy reasons behind their decision to don the costume. Only each individual really knows whether their behaviour has healthy or unhealthy motivations, or whether they are being mindful of the context of their actions. Since I can’t know that, I’m not concerned with that. What concerns me is how this trope plays out in the aggregate, in geek culture as a whole. That’s what I think is problematic.

First, the meme makes me uncomfortable because the in-narrative context of Slave Leia is the humiliation of a female political leader. I’m not suggesting that wearing a bikini is humiliating – there’s nothing microproblematic about wearing a bikini. I am suggesting that being forced into slavery, forced to wear a bikini and shackled to a chain is supposed to be humiliating. It is, by the way, clearly sub-textually coded to be sexual slavery – as evidenced by the damn bikini.

Now, in the narrative Leia actually strangles Jabba with the very chain he uses to imprison her, which makes this – in the text – actually a bit of a triumph for Leia over those who seek to dominate and subjugate her! Go Leia! Cast off the shackles of oppression! I believe therefore that an argument can be made for the integrity of the scene itself, although I have seen no evidence that George Lucas really thought about it.

However, this triumph is not what the subsequent Slave Leia meme is about. The Slave Leia meme is about those glorious 150 seconds of bikini-clad stateswoman on a leash. Nobody draws sexy pictures of Leia strangling Jabba. Nobody makes anatomically-creative statues of Leia vanquishing her captor. Regardless of what Fangirl Blog says, when you see women in Slave Leia costume, you don’t see them strangling their oppressors (in fact, you see this instead). People make statues and fanart of Leia sitting in shackles. Virtually no references are ever made in media or in geek culture to the empowering part of the scene.

The focus is always on the gold bikini and the manacles and the chain – the tools of Leia’s forced submission. The focus is on how sexy Leia looks in the garb she was forced to wear as part of her subjugation. If this bikini were Leia’s personal choice for a pool party or a beach holiday, it would not be problematic for geek culture as a whole to collectively salivate over it and elevate it to a trope. But it isn’t her choice. This bikini is the outfit chosen for Leia by the males who forced her into slavery.

I also want to note that the real-life context of the original scene with Carrie Fisher is also all kinds of skeevy. From the Star Wars wiki: “Fisher herself also found the costume to be difficult to endure and referred to it as “what supermodels will eventually wear in the seventh ring of hell.”[11] Fisher also said it was particularly revealing to the cast and crew around her.[6][12] In particular Jeremy Bulloch, the actor who played Boba Fett, could see more of the actress than she was comfortable with.[12] In an interview years later, she said, “if you stood behind me you could see straight to Florida. You’ll have to ask Boba Fett about that.”[6]”

The meme of Slave Leia pretends to be coyly ignorant of its origins. We as a community like to pretend it’s just popular because it’s a “girl in a bikini” moment. But it if you stop and think about it for half a minute, you should see that it is way more problematic than that (as I just outlined above). So either we have a fanbase full of people who have a strong aversion to any form of introspection, or we collectively have an alarming willingness to gloss over the fact that the costume is a reference to sexual slavery.

I say the meme “pretends” to be ignorant of the origins of Slave Leia because it seems to me that everyone knows the slavery aspect of the whole thing is not a neutral force here. Some of the cosplay doesn’t bother to pretend Leia is in control in the meme version of Slave Leia. Indeed, again from the Star Wars wiki: “During a broadcast from Celebration IV, Spike television personality Nicole Malgarini (wearing the Slave Leia costume herself) referred to Fite [webmaster of Leia’s Metal Bikini] as the “slavemaster”[19] and “the pimp ofStar Wars.[19]” Oh great, that’s not harmful at all. Nothing problematic about that. Let’s trivialise slavery by flippantly referring to it as though it’s sexy rather than one of the worst things a human being can experience. Oh and while we’re at it, let’s flippantly refer to “pimps” as though that’s a big damn joke too. Good job everyone.

Let’s be honest with ourselves: the Slave Leia meme is macroproblematic. We have a situation on our hands where one of the biggest nerd fantasies apparently involves at the very least a reference to forced sex slavery. It is concerning that the geek community doesn’t appear to give this two seconds of thought, and when we do, we find it appropriate to joke about slavemasters and pimps. If Slave Leia is seen as the hottest female geek cosplay costume, this literally means that the community recognises as the hottest girls those dressed up like sex slaves.

Leia may have strangled her oppressor in the movie and emerged victorious, but geek culture couldn’t care less about that. In our world, Leia never got out of the damn bikini at all.


Is Thor a feminist movie? (Yes)

There’s no easy way for me to break this to you, so make sure you’re sitting down: Kenneth Branagh’s Thor (2011) is a feminist movie. Okay, I admit that on the surface a movie about an uber-masculine hammer-wielding thunder god doesn’t exactly seem like fertile ground for a feminist reading. But it’s surprisingly subversive of the genre of action movies and an extremely sensitive portrayal of a group of human beings who are dealing with their own crap and other people’s crap and not doing very well with either.

Now, Thor is still vulnerable to the critique that applies to most movies in our culture: it focuses too much on the men’s stories and not enough on the women’s stories. I don’t deny that this is a problem. But where it does focus on women, the film portrays them as real, whole people with internal motivations, emotions and agency. This portrayal is virtually unique in the genre. Consider Jane, the physicist who, er, “stumbles” across Thor in the first scene and becomes his major love interest. Already, this is a departure from mainstream portrayals of women: she is a physicist, a profession that is socially-coded male, and she seems to be dedicated, passionate, and good at her job.

Not only that, but Jane is not your typical leading lady, who might mention her job once and then focus entirely on the leading man for the rest of the movie. No, Jane is obsessed with research and very focused on her career. Several times, she literally risks her own life and the lives of others to get data (I didn’t say she had her priorities straight!). In fact, she repeatedly says that her work is her “whole life”.

Basically, Jane is a highly intelligent workaholic – a kind of female character that is rarely portrayed at all, let alone as a person with emotions and agency. Even better than that, when she meets Thor, this doesn’t change. Jane is never punished in the narrative for being a workaholic – she never has the cliched epiphany that her career-obsessed ways were or are making her miserable, and she does not need to compromise on her workaholism to keep Thor’s interest (indeed, Thor even helps her get her data back).

Yes, Jane is Thor’s love interest, but even in that context she is portrayed as a whole, interesting person, to whom Thor is attracted because she is curious, bright, compassionate, and self-possessed. She is not just a McGuffin to make Thor want to defend Earth. We, the audience, see all of Jane and this implies that Thor sees all of Jane, not just her beauty. Consider by contrast the portrayal of Rachel Dawes in Nolan’s otherwise excellent Batman films, who exists mainly to look pretty, deliver moral lessons to Bruce, and get threatened by bad guys. Superman Returns even butchered Lois “ambition is my middle name” Lane, turning her into a character entirely defined by her relationships with the men in the narrative.

Jane’s assistant Darcy also deserves a mention here, because this kind of wise-cracking, jokester bit-role is rarely given to women in big budget films. The dynamic between Jane and Darcy feels very real, and again, the two play off one another and interact in almost a buddy-comedy-esque manner (ambitious career-girl and sarcastic sidekick have adventures!).  It is their interaction that ensures Thor even passes the freaking Bechdel test in the first scene, which I’m not sure any other superhero movie has ever done (please comment if you can think of another).

Sif is another prime example of how to do female characters right. A super competent female warrior, who is neither hypersexualised nor the butt of jokes? Fuck yes! Even better, Sif refuses to let jerkwad!Thor take any credit for her achievements – he wants kudos for supporting her in her career as a badass warrior, but she shuts him down, and so she should. Believing that women can reach goals that society says are for men only, and supporting women’s right to agency and self-determination, is literally the minimum standard of human decency. No cookies for you, Thor. But refreshingly, Thor’s comment is supposed to be read as arrogant and egocentric – the narrative supports Sif, not Thor, who shortly afterwards gets himself banished from Asgard for being arrogant and egocentric in general.

Not only does the narrative treat Jane, Darcy and Sif with the respect they deserve, but so does the cinematography. In most mainstream action films, the camera often pans up women’s bodies or lingers on their most “attractive” features – not only when a male character is looking at them, but just generally, by way of presentation of these characters to the audience. This may also be accompanied by ridiculously context-inappropriate wardrobe choices such as high heels, tight shirts and short skirts worn regardless of what the female character has to do in a scene (see: every James Bond film ever). Thor does neither of these things! Sif, Jane and Darcy are never panned over by male characters, nor presented for the audience’s visual consumption.

In fact, it is Thor’s body that is panned over to show to the audience that Darcy and Jane are very attracted to him. For the first time in a mainstream superhero movie, ladies and gentlemen, I give you: the heterosexual female gaze! This is a huge deal! Of course it was terribly confusing for some straight men, who apparently began to feel, well, a little bit “gay” (their words). This is a really wonderful subversion of the heteromale gaze, and it shows straight men what it’s like to go to the movies and see bodies not exclusively packaged for their consumption. Now, we can disagree on the extent to which people should ever be sexualised like that, but clearly when this is virtually always done to women and almost never to men, we have at the very least an inequality problem. Correcting this imbalance is one way to start making our culture better for women. And in this context, it is downright subversive. Bra-fucking-vo.

The female characters also wear clothing that is realistic and appropriate! Jane is shown as having very basic personal style, wearing jeans, t-shirts, and baggy checked shirts over the top. Darcy has a more funky style, which expresses her wise-cracking, off-beat charm – again her wardrobe meshes coherently with her characterisation. Sif’s outfit is perhaps the biggest achievement in this department: her armor looks both functional and fucking awesome! Her hair is up and out of the way for fighting! She looks badass, intimidating and strong, in the same manner that Thor, Loki, and the Warriors Three do.  A+, costume department. Even her movie poster is in the exact same style as the men’s posters!

Another way in which Thor breaks down sexist narratives is by challenging the traditional hypermasculinity of the superhero. Thor is built like a tank and possesses strength, courage and supernatural power. But his character is achingly vulnerable: he tears up when Loki visits him on Earth, asking plaintively if he may please return home (it broke my fucking heart, you guys, you don’t even know). And his vulnerability does not make him weak! Indeed, it is Thor’s transition from arrogance and bravado to humility and vulnerability that permits him to regain his powers and wield Mjolnir again. Loki, too, is presented as emotional and vulnerable – but again his expressions of anguish make him no less dangerous, intelligent, devious, and threatening. Indeed, it seems to me that Loki is perhaps the first truly convincing and serious supervillain who has cried on screen.

Branagh’s Thor is more feminist than I thought a movie about a male superhero could ever be. Of course, it occurs to me that most of the things I am praising here are things that all films should be doing. They aren’t doing them, though. Thor is. Still, maybe I shouldn’t be giving Kenneth Branagh kudos for not being as outright misogynistic as Michael Bay or as obliviously sexist as Chris Nolan.

Nevertheless, Thor is one superhero movie that I can watch without wanting to reach into the screen and throttle someone. In fact, it is the first superhero movie that has made the social justice part of me very happy. As a fan of the superhero genre and as someone who cares about geek culture, that means something to me.