Thursday, January 13, 2011

Iron Man 2 in a Sexist and Racist World

(This was written for a political science class. See also a fifteen-minute video version here.)

The 2010 American superhero film Iron Man 2, sequel to the 2008 Iron Man, is in its purest form a fantasy appealing to the white male demographic. While the film makes some attempts to be respectful to its black male and white female characters, ultimately it is the white male characters that are the ones given power and respect in the plot of the movie. White male protagonist Tony Stark is a womanizer and self-identified narcissist who forms the basis of the male fantasy by presenting an exaggerated figure with which the male viewers can identify to enjoy power, respect, and the ability to ogle attractive women while simultaneously having the traditionally feminine and stable love interest Pepper Potts. Tony Stark’s black friend James Rhodes appears as a similar powerful masculine figure, presumably with whom the black male audience is supposed to identify, but he takes a secondary sidekick role to Stark. Ultimately, the movie truly pays respect to white men, while leaving all others in a secondary position.

The subject of feminism is relevant to the analysis of Iron Man 2. Feminism is a political movement dedicated to destroying patriarchy, which in this context refers to a society in which men have power over women (Van Belle, and Mash 25). Feminist film theory has a concept called the male gaze, which can be used to analyze Iron Man 2. The male gaze refers to how a film is created to be perceived by the general male audience in a manner that it may be exclusively appreciated by such. This concept was created in 1975 and refers specifically to the culture of that time, but many modern works continue to be produced for a male audience and can be analyzed as under a male gaze. A common thing for media created by and for men is visibility of sexually attractive women who may be dehumanized to the point that their sexual attractiveness is the primary value they bring to the material, which is the primary facet of the male gaze concept (Rubenstein).

Tony Stark is a womanizer who uses his capitalistic power and fame to be able to behave in a sexual manner toward numerous women without any desiring any emotional bonds with these women. While not as overt as in Iron Man, Iron Man 2 continues to depict Stark as living a comfortable playboy lifestyle. The movie begins with Stark making a big display at the start of his Stark Expo, in which he makes an impressive skydiving stunt in his Iron Man suit down to land on the stage where he is framed by female dancers in Iron-Man-themed skimpy outfits. While technically both he and the women put their bodies on display, they are strictly distinguished. Stark shows off his transhumanist prosthesis in a very active and athletic way to demonstrate his power, while the women around him are very passive and only show off their bodies as sex objects to be enjoyed by the male audience both within the diegesis and in the real world movie theater. This is an example of male gaze functioning both within the fiction and as a part of Iron Man 2’s development, as the camera specifically pans over the dancers’ bodies from various angles as they move erotically. The dancers are later belittled by antagonist Justin Hammer, which indicates to the film audience that the dancers are to be appreciated. Iron Man 2 does not have the same focus on Stark having sexual relations with several women as does Iron Man, but it does imply that he still actively does this, and he openly admires Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division (SHIELD) agent Natasha Romanoff’s sexualized body.

Natasha Romanoff is another superhero in the fictional universe shared by Marvel Comics characters, and she makes an appearance in Iron Man 2 as an agent from the SHIELD organization sent to evaluate Tony Stark and his Iron Man persona for inclusion in the organization. Her first appearance in the movie is as legal representative Natalie Rushman, there at Stark’s mansion to oversee his transfer of the company Stark Industries to his assistant Pepper Potts. Despite the serious nature of her reason for being there, her body is needlessly sexualized. Both Stark and his chauffeur Hogan ogle and flirt with her. Stark invites her into the boxing ring to spar with Hogan, and the camera follows her body as she ducks under the rope surrounding the ring in such a way that it evokes classic erotic imagery and shows her face in a demure expression that is overtly appealing to heterosexual men. Potts specifically tells Stark to stop ogling Romanoff, offering the fact that Romanoff could be “potentially a very expensive sexual harassment lawsuit” as motivation for him to stop. Despite this act of hanging a lampshade on it—a writing technique of having characters point out problematic aspects of the plot—the plot does not portray the sexualizing as a bad thing. Hogan underestimates Romanoff’s fighting ability and gets entirely taken out, which is progressive because it depicts a woman as having greater power than a man in what is traditionally a male activity but this is muted by the constant sexualization and objectification that leads Stark to remark “I want one” as she leaves the room. The sexualization of Romanoff even as she acts as a powerful fighter remains an aspect of the movie.

Romanoff takes part in the climax of the film as an active fighter racing to combat the film’s antagonist, during which she is further sexualized. When Hogan drives her to Hammer Industries, she changes her clothes in the backseat. Hogan gets tempted to peak at her in the rearview mirror, but humorously almost crashes and is told dryly to watch the road. Though Hogan is put down here, his voyeurism is not directly challenged. Though it is not wise to do while driving a car, his desire to ogle her is legitimized by her overall sexualization, and Hogan comes off as a more comedic bumbling version of countless male viewers who would sneak a peek if they could without getting caught or putting anyone in danger. Romanoff dresses in a skintight dark blue outfit presumably suitable for combat, but it needlessly allows for her body to come on display as a sex object as she strikes a series of dramatic poses while fighting. Again, her portrayal is progressive to an extent because Hogan insists on coming along with her as a fellow fighter but is shown to be dwarfed by her combat skills, which is unusual for a woman to demonstrate, but this aspect is minor compared to the way Romanoff is consistently sexualized to appeal to the male audience. Most women are heavily sexualized to appeal to male fantasy in Iron Man 2, with a notable exception being Pepper Potts.

While female characters like Natasha Romanoff fulfill the role of sex object under the male gaze, Pepper Potts fulfills the different role of fantasy love interest. Pepper Potts is Tony Stark’s main assistant and she takes care of all of Stark’s business duties when he is being too lazy to take care of it himself. Similar to the case with Romanoff, the depiction of Pepper Potts is somewhat progressive in that she is shown to be smart and capable, but this is overshadowed by the way her strength is limited to a position in which she is subordinate to Stark. When Stark fears he is about to die, he gives her control of his corporation because he feels she is the one best-suited to carrying on the Stark legacy. From what can be seen, she carries on her new duties as CEO to a greater extent than Stark actually did, and yet she receives media criticism in regard to her supposed lack of experience. After the film’s climax, when Stark has stopped dying and has just saved her from an explosion, she returns control of the company back over to him because she cannot handle the stress of Stark’s vigilantism. Upon this return to simply being Stark’s assistant, she melts into his arms as his romantic interest and they share a kiss. Her status as his romantic interest is flexible, however, as she only assumes this persona in certain parts of both Iron Man and Iron Man 2. As they do not officially date, Stark is free to behave sexually toward numerous women for most of the movie. Pepper Potts thus acts as a fantasy woman for the male audience, able to be a smart assistant and love interest only when it suits the male protagonist.

Though the film has a focus on appealing to men, there is a hierarchy within this where it is specifically white men who are the target audience. Black male characters James Rhodes and Nick Fury are given roles of relative power within the diegesis, but are marginalized within the film’s plot. James Rhodes is a friend of Stark’s in the military, who partially serves as antagonist to Stark in his conflict with the government over ownership of the Iron Man powered exoskeleton. When a drunken Stark becomes rowdy in his Iron Man suit, Rhodes steals one of Stark’s other Iron Man suits in order to subdue him. Stark incites violence with a diegetic fight score to find out who is the better fighter. They turn out to be evenly matched and Rhodes leaves with the suit, but it is later implied by Romanoff that Stark planned the whole thing and intended for Rhodes to take over as Iron Man after his death. Rhodes’ strength is thus put into question. Rhodes hands the suit over to the military, where they have Hammer equip it with a variety of weapons, and Rhodes shows up in the suit for Hammer’s weapons display at Stark Expo. Hammer’s modifications allow main antagonist Ivan Vanko to gain control of the suit, however, and Rhodes is made into a puppet until Romanoff remotely reboots his suit. Rhodes and Stark only stand together at this point, when the film approaches its end. While Rhodes helps defeat Vanko and his drones, he is ultimately placed in a role secondary to Stark. Virtually the only other black character is Nick Fury, leader of SHIELD. While in a position of power, Fury acts only in a minor role as he advises and criticizes Stark. The way he makes a brief appearance to get Stark on the right track to determining how to take his life out of jeopardy places Fury in the Magic Negro stock character role, which is a black character who shows up to do some essential service to a white character that makes his or her life better as a way of attempting to be progressive by portraying the minority as valuable but ends up being racist (Kempley).

In conclusion, Iron Man 2 was made to specifically appeal to the white male audience. Female characters are subdued and made to appeal to a male fantasy that demeans them. Characters like Romanoff are sexualized to the point of objectification, while Pepper Potts fits an idealized submissive love interest role where she is pretty but not overly sexual and is devoted to the male protagonist. The male black characters occupy a similarly reduced role compared to Stark, making the film friendly only to white men.

Works Cited

Iron Man 2. Paramount Pictures: 2010, DVD.

Kempley, Rita. "Movies' 'Magic Negro' Saves the Day - but at the Cost of His Soul." The Black Commentator. 03 Jul 2003. Web. 6 Dec 2010. < >.

Rubenstein, Andrea. "FAQ: What is the “male gaze”?." Finally, A Feminism 101 Blog. Word Press, 26 Aug 2007. Web. 4 Dec 2010. < >.

Van Belle, Douglas A., and Kenneth M. Mash. A Novel Approach to Politics. 2nd. Washington DC: CQ Press, 2010. 25. Print.

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