Monday, May 12, 2008

Iron Man Review - Spoilers, Spoilers, Spoilers

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 than to repeatedly show him treating women as soulless objects. Yet, while the first fifteen minutes of the film were intended, I am sure, to establish Stark as an 'unlikely hero,' one that is so self-centered as to not recognize the hurt that his misogynistic attitudes cause, these scenes actually reveal this clueless sexism in the film's makers. Had the intent truly been to show Stark to be an ass, and not to use his mistreatment of women as proof of his success and charm, then some of the women would have registered disgust or discomfort in his company. By portraying women as being universally susceptible to the 'seductiveness' of Stark's misogyny, the film implies that all women either like being belittled, don't have the dignity to stand up for themselves, or are too empty-headed to notice a pig when he stares them in the face chest.

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!)


FeministGal said...

oh my goodness, i couldn't agree more. with all of it.

I saw Iron Man over the weekend and thought all the same things! While reading your post i kept thinking in my head, "oh, i'll comment about that!" "I'll add that!" But you covered it all :) Awesome post.

La Pobre Habladora said...

I'm actually relieved other people saw the problems with this film too - before seeing I.M. I'd only read glowing reviews. When we left the theater, a couple of my friends teased me about being surprised by sexism(!) in a film based on a comic book. I realize that the costumes in this type of movie are usually revealing (tights and capes for everyone!), but I have to admit - I was surprised.

I'm glad I'm not the only one who's not ready to accept sexism and racism as standard elements of the action movie genera.

Casmall said...

Great post! I have mixed feelings about the film, but I'll be recommending Iron Man to the people I know who like this sort of movie.
Here's why- It's light hearted and self aware and so ridiculously bad in the some parts that it just made me lol.

La Pobre Habladora said...

Go ahead and recommend Iron Man for its graphics or its amusing bits with anthropomorphic robots. You could also say it has pretty actors and lots of flashing lights. Maybe you liked that it was loud. But you simply can't say that this movie is self-aware.

This is a movie thinks that it is using women to show Stark's narcissism, but instead uses women in a stereotypical and sexist manner in order to establish Stark as a successful, popular 'stud' in the eyes of a sexist audience.

This is a movie that thinks that it has done something interesting by showing the biggest villain to be Corporate Weapon-Making Guy instead of the expected Afghan warlord guys in the desert, but that still shows our racism through its dramatically different levels of comfort with depicting violence against people of different races.

This is a movie that unwittingly makes its hero downright creepy as he never listens to the no's of his love interest. No, she doesn't feel comfortable dancing with him or rooting around in his chest wound. The digging in Stark's chest scene is, I think, meant to be the romantic highlight of the film - but it instead shows him as coercive and disrespectful.

This movie feels like it was written by a bunch of racist, sexist frat boys who were told to write a movie that would appeal to liberals. They know that it is supposed to be culturally tolerant and enlightened, but they don't really understand what such a film would look like.

brightbluelizard said...

Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! I saw all these positive reviews of that steaming pile of horseshit on the feminist blogosphere and thought huh? Has the entire blogosphere taken leave of its senses? Iron Man's sexism & racism isn't even original horseshit! It's same old, same old.
So thanks a million!

Anonymous said...

Good god, cant you people just LIGHTEN up? I'm a chick, and while I get your point, I'm not going to sulk through a movie over meaningless jokes, and complain and moan later. When men are shown in a bad light, you don't see them whining all the time. This is why people have issues with feminists. Gahd.

the amazing kim said...

Welcome to the feminist blogosphere, Anonymous. You might find these: Changing Pop-Culture to Change Ourselves, FAQ: Aren’t feminists just sexists towards men?, and Feminism Friday: Humour as a tool for shaming and silencing
, useful for addressing your concerns. Have a lovely day.

To La Pobre:
Found your blog from the Feministe's Shameless Sunday. Congratulations on a damn fine analysis. If all pop culture was so closely scrutinised, instead of being dismissed as trivial, individual instances of minor prejudice, we'd have equal pay tomorrow (or at the very least, before Thursday). Good work.

La Pobre Habladora said...

Kim, thanks for the links, and for the introduction to your incredible site.

Feminism 101 is always a great resource. The Official Blog is new to me, and looks like it will be a great as well. I certainly have a lot of use for a good break-down of the impact of pop culture, like the one in the link you give. I'll have to go introduce myself to Andrea some time today.