Iron Man is a film that dares to ask questions - questions like 'which is worse - an unabashedly sexist and racist movie, or one that is sexist and racist while pretending not to be?' You might have read reviews (from usually credible sources, no less) that say this movie is decent, that it is an action flick made for a thinking audience. Don't believe it. Here is the real deal, with tons of spoilers.
Tony Stark's condescending attitude towards women and outright sexism is portrayed as central to his charm. A female soldier giggles coquettishly when he throws some low-grade harassment her way, because what soldier wouldn't love to hear words like 'Now that I know you're a woman, I can't take my eyes off you. Does that make you feel uncomfortable?' drifting her way over the romantic rumbling of the humvee she's driving? A socially conscious journalist is charmed into Stark's bed by his snarky remarks about her liberal education and the accusation that she is naive to the point of stupidity. Flight attendants bat their lashes at Stark when he ogles them, and then perform a little mid-flight pole dance, because in the world that the film creates there are no female professionals who wouldn't happily dispense with decorum for a rich man's entertainment. I'm sure the script writers would claim that the intent is to establish Stark as a self-centered ass, giving him room to grow throughout the film(s). And as we know, there is no better way to illustrate a character's immaturity
Pepper Potts, Stark's personal assistant, does little to combat the sexist portrayal of women in Iron Man. Sure, she wears a suit in most of her scenes - Hollywood short-hand for 'smart.' She also carries a clip board and scolds our hero when he misses meetings, which clearly indicates competence, right? Yet, she still goes gaga for the boss who manipulates her. Ms. Potts tries to kiss Stark immediately after expressing her discomfort at his forcing her to dance with him despite her attempts to turn him down. 'But she saves his life!' the writers might yell. 'What could be more feminist than that?' Indeed, it is true that in one of the most contrived scenes in the film, Pepper Potts does reach deep into a hole in Stark's chest with her 'little hands' and pull out a wire that we are to believe would have been dangerous if left in his chest cavity. Yet, the scene is a little creepy - showing Stark as willing to contrive a life-or-death situation so that Ms. Potts can be coerced into an intimate situation with him - one to which she might not have consented otherwise. Stark does not ask, 'hey, will you pull this wire out when I take out my glowing-heart-machine, or should I have a doctor or the robot do it?' Nope, that would show that he respects her and would allow her to make her own decisions regarding her relationship with him. Instead, he convinces her that if she does not overcome her clear discomfort and perform this highly intimate act, it will cause him harm. 'But she turns down his offer to be his girlfriend at the end of the film!' the writers might insist. Yet, she doesn't say 'no,' but merely points to the fact that he left her waiting for a promised drink the last time he tried to woo her - essentially telling him that she's available if he just tries a little harder to convince her that he's serious this time. He doesn't, because he's not.
Iron Man is also racist. While we are supposed to believe that Tony Stark sees the error of his weapon-making ways (the character is supposed to be the brain behind the U.S.A.'s most important weapons development company), the violence in the film relies on an American audience being comfortable - even amused - by the sight of people being killed -as long as they're brown. "Funny" scenes include a bullet bouncing off the super fighting suit and hitting an attacker in the head - killing him instantly. 'But he was a terrorist!' Sure, but when an attacking fighter pilot's plane is accidentally hit by the suit and the white pilot is in danger - well, that's a scary moment in the film. Help, white guy is in danger! (Don't worry, even though he was trying to kill our hero, the pilot lives - this is a family film, after all!) This disparity in the depiction of violence shown towards people of color vs. white westerners is also evident as the Afghan bad guys are shown dropping to the ground or being engulfed in flames to a rock-and-roll score; but when the white villain (played by Jeff Bridges) bites the dust, well, the audience is not shown the result of the fall that finishes him.
'But the Doctor Yinsen, who is captive with Stark, is a good-guy, and he's middle eastern too!' Yeah, and Stark depends on Yinsen's help to escape, yet is happy to let him face the danger with no real protection so that Stark can escape in the super suit. Even as Stark begs his 'friend' not to die, Yisen seems to know that Stark (and the film makers) see him as expendable, saying "This was always the plan, Stark." You bet it was the plan, if Stark had cared at all about the doctor who saved his life, he'd have made two suits! Or at least some spare body armor to share.As for the Hathor Legacy Mo' Movie Measure (a feminism meter by which a movie is judged on whether or not two female characters talk to each other about something other than a man during the whole course of a film), a brief exchange between Pepper Potts and the journalist is the only time two female characters exchange words. It is quickly ruined when the two start sparing about which of them has been used by our hero in a more embarrassing manner. Mo' Movie Measure: fail.
UPDATE: For a completely different take on Pepper Potts from a source I respect, read Patrick's post at the Hathor Legacy.
UPDATE II: And for even more examples of how Iron Man fails to be either anti-racist or feminist, visit WOC PhD.
UPDATE III: Another great feminist take on Iron Man - from RH Reality Check (oh, and thanks for linking here, guys!)