Iron Man, Firefly and different layers of feminist analysis of pop culture

// 6 May 2008

[Update: WOC PhD has posted a much more thorough expose of the problems with Iron Man, which is definitely worth checking out!]

I’ve been interested by the different reactions to the film Iron Man this weekend in the feminist blogosphere. I saw it myself on Friday night, and found it objectionable for a whole host of reasons that the soundtrack could not compensate for, running the full gamet of imperialist fantasy, racism and sexism.

One little example: every scene involving the lead character, Tony Stark, in his jet, which is staffed with women air stewards whose jobs seem to primarily involve being sexually available for him to use and as symbols to project his status, wealth and playboy lifestyle to the viewers. One big example: Stark realises that the arms trade is immoral because of his weapons ending up in the hands of Arab terrorists in caves (wonder who they’re meant to be!) Stark/Iron Man intervenes when the US military can’t because of pesky rules or something (let’s invade someplace! woohoo!); when the US army/he personally is weilding deadly weaponry, that’s OK, because they’re the good guys.

So I was quite surprised to read Patrick’s post at the Hathor Legacy, exulting the film because of the main female character Pepper Potts, Stark’s PA:

I never expected to see a superhero movie in which the female lead evades getting captured by her own wits, takes out the bad guy, and turns down the hero because of his personality. Amazing.

Lisa at Punkassblog, though, has another perspective on Ms Potts:

He can’t live without her! Because who else would schedule his meetings, get his dry cleaning, fix his coffee, and sweetly flub everything of cinematic importance she is cast to do on except when he’s on the phone with her giving her exact, minute, step-by-step instructions what to do. She never complains, except very passive-aggressively and with the shyest smile. And she validates him not once but twice in his total misogyny-she’s actually the only one who ever outright calls one of his easy conquests a slut and she tells him how he is with “girls” is “fine, of course!”

What this speaks to, for me, is not that either analysis is completely right or completely wrong, but that feminists may need to develop selective hearing or bypass the multiplex completely.

Which brings me on to the latest installment in Allecto’s deconstruction of Firefly. Go, read, and have illusions about Joss Whedon shattered.

Comments From You

InnerBrat // Posted 6 May 2008 at 5:35 pm

I loved it. As a feminist and as a comic fanboy, I adored the movie – mostly for the reasons outlined in the Hathor Legacy post. Pepper is a welcome relief in the relam of comic movies – hell, is movies in general. She’s smart, capable, *sensible* (which is most unusual) and capable of running for her life in high heels.

The misogynistic treatment of women that Tony indulges in before his epiphany (and because it’s a comic movie, you expect the hero to have a life changing epiphany. I’m just glad no one had to be stuffed in a fridge for him) was there purely as a contrast to his change in purpose when he makes the journey to hero.

And Pepper obviously isn’t fine with his actions, but she puts up with them because he’s her boss. She’s an intelligent, sensible woman and respects the boundaries between her and her boss.

Pepper came across to me as nothing less than a female Alfred, and she was amazing.

Anne Onne // Posted 6 May 2008 at 7:06 pm

I think feminist analysis of any type of media is never going to be easy. Even if the series was deliberately and blatantly feminist, there would be still things to disagree with, things that could be improved, or handled differently.

It’s important to remember that misogyny is integral to society as we know it, and will crop up in media. Even when we try to be feminist, but especially in works with little concern for matters of equality.

On the other hand, there will be pro-feminist things in a lot of works, even in surprising places. When I critique something, I try to acknowledge the positives and the negatives. But in the end, how something is interpreted will depend on the lens of the viewer.

That and everything will have misogyny in it to some extent, however small or insidious or hard to see.

Davina // Posted 6 May 2008 at 8:13 pm

I haven’t seen Iron Man and I don’t intend to – just not my type of film!

So this is a bit off-topic, but regarding Allecto, there’s an analysis of Buffy that I came by via Racialicious:

And after reading Allecto, my view of Joss is definitely changing, which is a shame because I have a deep abiding love for ‘Buffy’ (seasons 1-5 mostly) (oh, apart from Riley). I must say thanks to Jess for linking to her posts – certainly thought-provoking.

And I second what Anne said, especially ‘in the end, how something is interpreted will depend on the lens of the viewer. That and everything will have misogyny in it to some extent, however small or insidious or hard to see.’

Seph // Posted 7 May 2008 at 1:58 pm

I’m planning on seeing Iron Man, so now i’ll keep my eye out for the things mentions, I was a fan of the cartoon as a kid and that was a bit on the ‘everything-ist’ side.

As for Whedon, I never could get my head round how exactly Buffy was a strong female, she always seemed like a more fashion-obsessed Red Sonja to me.

Runolfr // Posted 8 May 2008 at 8:57 pm

With all due respect to InnerBrat, Tony Stark’s epiphany has more to do with his business interests than his social interactions. I don’t think he’s going to stop being a womanizing jerk just because he’s discovered the need to exercise more control over how his company does business.

I liked this movie myself, but it’s definitely not a feminist movie. It’s nice that Pepper manages to sneak evidence of Obadiah’s villainy right out from under his nose, but she’s still not a feminist icon.

Lion Kimbro // Posted 9 May 2008 at 5:36 pm

I honestly don’t see the misogyny, which I interpret as hatred (or, more lightly, anger) towards women.

The movie shows that if women like men just for their money, that’s shallow. And the movie shows that if a man just sees a woman’s appearance, then that’s shallow as well. (We see this through his relationship with his assistant, who has trustworthiness and character.)

The movie doesn’t really condemn shallowness; It just shows it for what it is.

The main character obviously likes seeing girls naked, but I don’t see how that turns into “anger towards women.” Pride & Prejudice doesn’t equal misandry, just because the text repeatedly notes that Elizabeth fell in love with Darcy when she saw his estate, both in narrative declaration (her first visit to the estate) and Elizabeth’s own words (at the end.)

If liking to see girls naked is “misogyny,” then all men are misogynists — and misogyny ceases to be a name of an anger; rather, just a epitaph for men (“misogynist” = “he who likes to see girls naked.”)

Anne Onne // Posted 10 May 2008 at 11:17 am

Lion, misogyny is more than the literal ‘hate’ for women. Maybe contempt for, or lack of respect would be better as a description. Just like we don’t read the word ‘Homophobia’ to mean someone with a literal phobia of anyone homosexual, so we take misogynist to mean someone who does not see women as equal to men. This includes seeing them as nothing more than visual titillation for men, whereby they see women as existing to give pleasure to men. If the character ‘likes seeing girls naked’, but never thinks about whether women really want to be naked, or that women have a life apart from being eye candy for him, then he is a misogynist. You can’t focus solely on someone as a sex object and then say that you see them as a whole person, with rights (including not being ogled or harassed by men, including the right to not consent, and not get flak for it) and an existence of their own.

If the film doesn’t criticise the objectification of women, then is supports it, because given the context of the media we have, it is just another chance to put half-naked women in for no reason, because women are a kind of currency, something to lure men, rather than realistic characters or people. If it’s not a biting critique, then it’s simply using sexy women to get men to watch, and not actually a parody at all. If it doesn’t condemn shallowness, is it not celebrating it? Maybe one person sees it shown for what it is, but given the current celebration of shallowness that is the media, can we honestly not call it a celebration?

Pride and prejudice also occurs in a time when women couldn’t work, earn their own money, and had to depend on whatever assets the person they married had, for their survival. You’d have to be pretty screwed up to accuse Elizabeth Bennet of being a gold digger if she turns him down because of his actions, despite her dire financial situation, until she actually loves the man, and he treats her like a person. Divorcing a text from the context of more than a hundred years ago, and comparing it with something with a timeline more comparable to today’s culture really would be too silly, even for a ‘battle of the sexes’ type of comparison.

Besides, if in the end, the capable female characters in films have to always be PAs, wives, mothers and girlfriends of the leading character, and never the MAIN CHARACTER themselves, we still have a long way to go. We’re 50 % of the population, I’d like to see us being 50% of the protagonists.

Kit Kendrick // Posted 12 May 2008 at 3:53 pm

Lion: “If liking to see girls naked is ‘misogyny,’ then all men are misogynists — and misogyny ceases to be a name of an anger; rather, just a epitaph for men (‘misogynist’ = ‘he who likes to see girls naked.’)”

It’s not liking to see women naked. It’s seeing the primary worth of women to be their ability to be naked. With the exception of Pepper, the only women allowed to even speak to Tony must be vetted for their ability to be attractive to him naked and willingness to do so. And even with Pepper, he values her more once he sees her in a revealing dress. It’s the objectification that’s the problem.

As far a a direct response to Iron Man. I did enjoy it, especially in comparison to many other movies of the genre. From a greater distance, though, “but it could have been so much worse” seems to be faint praise. How sad is it to enjoy a female character because “at least she wasn’t kidnapped”?

sinclair // Posted 13 May 2008 at 3:19 pm

I haven’t seen Iron Man yet, but I’ll perhaps look up this review after I do (I prefer to draw my own conclusions with my own feminist analysis before letting someone else’s affect the way I see something) …

but, a comment on the Firefly analysis by Allecto: I’m amazed at how superficial it is. That show is so incredibly complicated and subversive, and to analyze the show on the basis of the overtly obvious misogynistic dialogue (which is making a larger point, actually) in that episode is incredibly short sighted. I’m kind of surprised the F-word would support her work, actually, because it’s so thoughtless.

I suppose I am also grateful that the feminist communities are large enough such that there can be two different people – she & I – who see things so incredibly differently and yet still both call ourselves feminists (and lesbians, for that matter). I’m glad there’s a lot of diverse opinion out there, and clearly she is getting a lot of support and commentary about her analysis. this makes me grateful that I can draw my own conclusions about art and media, that I don’t beleive everything I read.

Jess McCabe // Posted 13 May 2008 at 3:37 pm

Hi Sinclair!

I don’t agree completely with Allecto’s reading, which does take a very particular angle – and strips away quite a lot of the complexity in the show, making it seem uncomplicatedly misogynistic, which it is definitely not. And she is coming from a very particular POV. But some moments that she identifies really are problematic, in my view. I would really need to re-watch this episode, at least, to come up with a proper articulation of my own views, because it’s absolutely ages since I last saw Firefly.

Mercutia // Posted 20 May 2008 at 11:30 am

Can you do a cut-and-paste of WOC PhD’s entry? I joined WordPress for the express reason of reading that piece and I couldn’t get to it. Every link leads to the WordPress main page. Even the link from When Fangirls Attack (which is how I found you, and great article, btw) doesn’t let you in.

Thank you!

Jess McCabe // Posted 20 May 2008 at 11:33 am

Hi Mercutia,

It looks like WOC PhD has taken her blog private since I posted the link.

Neville Ross // Posted 1 June 2008 at 3:20 am

Hello, everybody, you’ve all got it wrong as usual.

Tony Stark at the beginning of the film is a womanizer and a death merchant, yes. But the whole thrust of his life afterwards is that he becomes a better person because he eschews making weapons afterward (with the exception of the subsequent Iron Man armors and the Guardsman armors ). Stark International becomes a maker of standard technological products there-afterward, many of which are quite peaceful in intent. I won’t go into all of the things that Stark’s invented, but I will go into a few of the more peaceful ones:

*Flesh healing serum (closes open wound in two seconds with synthetic liquid tissue)

*Electric memory bank (a repository where Stark has placed/recorded all of his activities and ideas so humanity can continue to benefit from his vast knowledge after his death. It contains Stark’s lifelong knowledge.)

*Micropower cell (a commercial version of Iron Man’s internal energy storage cells)

*Anti-Freeze Pills (aid in arctic exploration)

*Developed an electro-therapy technique to helped crippled people

*Electrosthetic conductor (an alternative to conventional anesthetics it uses sound waves to calm the body’s electronic impulses)

*Running shoes equipped with health monitor probe

*Tech-foam (non-lethal security measure, when exposed to air, it becomes as hard as titanium to immobilize intruders)

*Anti-grav mobility unit (a $2 Million anti-grav “wheelchair”)

*Changing machine (capable of dressing an invalid Stark, machine could even suggest the right clothes based on weather)

The inventions that I just posted more than make up for all the cynical bullshit about this character that I’ve seen in every review of this movie so far. Try and get it through your heads that this is the ongoing story of a flawed but noble human being who, womanizing aside, uses his genius to make the world a better place.

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