Is Pepper Potts No Longer the “Damsel in Distress” in ‘Iron Man 3’?

Cross-posted here with permission from Bitch Flicks. 

Superhero films often exhibit assertive, outspoken female characters. Yet they often simultaneously objectify women’s bodies, reduce them to ancillary love interests or perpetuate gender stereotypes. So when I heard that Pepper Potts would have a more active role in Iron Man 3, I was excited yet remained cautiously skeptical.

Gwyneth Paltrow eagerly talked about putting on the Iron Man suit and getting tired of the “damsel in distress”:

“I was really hoping that Pepper would be more engaged in this movie…So I was really happy, not only that she was wearing the suit, but that you see her really on equal ground with Tony in their interpersonal dynamic, and as a CEO, and then she’s got all this action… I think in order to move things forward and keep it fresh, you can only be the damsel in distress for so long, and then it’s old.”

Producer and Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige also said they wanted to “play with the convention of the damsel in distress…there is fun to be had with “Is Pepper in danger or is Pepper the savior?” over the course of this movie.” Okay, okay, this all sounds awesome to me.

Now I’m all for subverting gender norms. But is Pepper really empowered? Or does she really remain a rearticulation of the Damsel in Distress trope?

When Pepper puts on the Iron Man suit, it’s not of her own volition. It’s not because she cleverly thought of it. Tony, who can now recall his arsenal of Iron Man suits on command, remotely puts it on Pepper to save her during an attack. Once she’s in the suit of armor, Pepper does make the most of it as she gets scientist Maya (who of course has to have had a sexual past with Tony) to safety and protects Tony from a falling ceiling as well.

However, when Gwyneth Paltrow discussed putting on the suit, I envisioned an assertive move by Pepper — that she boldly decides to put on the armor so she can go out and save Tony. Not something she passively has placed on her body by a man. What could have been an interesting exploration of Pepper and gender becomes a wasted opportunity.

Just because Pepper donned the Iron Man suit for like two minutes, doesn’t mean she isn’t a “damsel in distress.” She still is for a majority of the film. Archvillian Aldrich Killian kidnaps Pepper and ties her up, using her as bait to lure Tony and blackmail him. Yep, that sounds like a passive damsel to me.

In Iron Man, Pepper is Tony’s personal assistant and according to him, his only true friend. In Iron Man 2, she becomes the CEO of Stark Industries. By The Avengers, they co-exist as a team, partners both in romance and work as Pepper helps Tony develop Stark Tower and the Arc Reactor. In each film, Pepper grows and progresses to have a more important role. So how did Pepper — Tony’s friend, partner and brilliant CEO of Stark Industries — get reduced to an objectified and victimized “damsel in distress” yet again?

Discussing the Damsel in Distress Trope in video games, although it’s also completely applicable for film too, Anita Sarkeesian at Feminist Frequency talks about how the trope provides incentive and motivation for the male protagonist. The trope is also a form of objectification and is not synonymous with “weak” but rather a form of disempowering women, even strong ones, while empowering men:
“So the damsel trope typically makes men the “subject” of the narratives while relegating women to the “object.” This is a form of objectification because as objects, damsel’ed women are being acted upon, most often becoming or reduced to a prize to be won, a treasure to be found or a goal to be achieved…The damsel in distress is not just a synonym for “weak,” instead it works by ripping away the power from female characters, even helpful or seemingly capable ones. No matter what we are told about their magical abilities, skills or strengths they are still ultimately captured or otherwise incapacitated and then must wait for rescue. Distilled down to its essence, the plot device works by trading the disempowerment of female characters FOR the empowerment of male characters.”

Surprisingly, as it revolves around Tony, Iron Man 3 passes the Bechdel Test. Huzzah! A brief conversation transpires between Pepper and Maya, the botanist who invented the Extremis virus. Maya laments being naïve about science, just wanting to help people and how her ideals became distorted. Pepper reassures her, telling her that Stark Industries once carried out military contracts so she shouldn’t be so hard on herself. What a nice moment. But don’t get too cozy. This moment of sisterly bonding shatters when Maya betrays Pepper. Sidebar, it’s interesting that Maya has a change of heart not after talking to Pepper but after talking to Tony later in the film.

There’s a telling exchange near the end of the film when Killian tells Tony he injected Pepper with the Extremis virus because he wanted to make Pepper perfect. Tony, ever the good boyfriend, retorts, “That’s where you’re wrong. She already was perfect.” This could have been a nice albeit clichéd message about accepting and appreciating people how they are, rather than trying to change them. But 5 minutes later, when Pepper asks if she’s going to be alright because she’s got the unstable virus in her, Tony says he’s going to “fix” her because that’s what he does, he “fixes things.” Ahhh the mechanic imagery strewn throughout the film comes full circle.

It’s a strange juxtaposition between “she’s perfect the way she is” and “I’ll fix you,” especially in proximity to one another. This dialogue could have easily been altered to show Pepper’s agency — that either she wanted to keep the virus and harness the superpower or have it removed. We could have seen things from her perspective. But instead, it’s all to convey how Tony is decisive and protective of his woman and how he’s grown emotionally.

Taking place after The Avengers, we see a changed Tony Stark. Due to the stress of combating aliens and traveling through worm holes, Tony suffers anxiety, insomnia and PTSD. I was pleasantly surprised at the film’s respectful depiction of mental illness. Although its treatment of people with disabilities is abhorrent. We see the weight of Tony’s obsession creating Iron Man suits straining their relationship. Pepper is frustrated that his suits come before her. But they never resolve their issues. It’s as if Pepper said, “Oh I almost died, got injected with some fiery shit and now you fixed me? Okay, we’re good now!” Um, no.

So what’s the lesson here? Don’t worry, ladies. The right man will fix you and all your problems.

Pepper isn’t an empowered, self-actualized character in Iron Man 3. Instead she’s used as an object for the two dudes to fight over. She’s used to show that Killian is a villain who never really loved her while she’s used as an incentive for Tony to fight and to realize what truly matters in life. Tony and Killian battle it out with Pepper as a trophy to the victor, aka the better dude.

As film critic Scott Mendelson said: “For Potts, the movie was about other men giving her temporary agency/power and then quickly taking it away again.” Despite her intelligence and success, she possesses no agency of her own. Men bestowed power upon Pepper. Any power she appears to exert stems from men. Now some superheroes (Spiderman, Wolverine) have their powers given to them by others, either by accident or against their will. But once they have their powers, they decide what to do with them. They decide through their intelligence or cunning how best to utilize their powers. But Tony and Killian make all the decisions for Pepper. She doesn’t make any for herself. Pepper doesn’t choose to don the suit. Tony does. Killian decides to inject her with the Extremis virus that grants superhero powers. She doesn’t choose to keep the Extremis virus or have it removed. Tony decides to remove the virus. Even though she has a brief romp with superpowers and briefly kicks ass, Pepper somehow remains less empowered in Iron Man 3 than in the other films. Men decide her fate.

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If the film really played with the conventions of a “damsel in distress,” rather than playing out every other superhero trope, Pepper wouldn’t have been kidnapped or if she had, she would have saved herself, rather than needing Tony’s rescue. At the film’s climax, we do see Pepper, injected with the Extremis virus, kick ass and save Tony. Oh and of course she does it in a skimpier, sexy outfit. So even in the shadow of empowerment, Pepper must be anchored as a sex object, intertwining power and sexuality. Again, it isn’t about Pepper’s growth and development. It’s about how Tony sees her.

While she acknowledges it “isn’t perfect on gender issues,” Alyssa Rosenberg posits that Iron Man 3’s “progressive gender play is noteworthy when you consider the kinds of roles actresses in superhero movies usually get stuck with.” But no, no it’s not progressive. Did we watch the same movie? Having women scientists and women CEOs in your film, while a good start, isn’t smashing gender stereotypes if you ultimately reinforce the same old tired gender tropes and clichés. It isn’t actually showcasing powerful women if you continually undercut women’s agency.

While action sequences are enjoyable, fighting is probably not what audiences find empowering. It’s characters’ decisiveness, assertiveness, ingenuity, struggle to survive — all of which can be conveyed through a visual manifestation of action sequences.

Sure, it was nice to see Pepper kicking ass. But let’s be clear here. Just because a female character wields a sword or shoots a gun or uses her fists to punch a villain, doesn’t automatically make her emotionally strong or empowered. Possessing agency to speak her mind, make her own decisions, chart her own course — these are what make a character truly empowered.

The problem with the Damsel in Distress trope is that it strips women of their power and insinuates that women need men to rescue or save them. And yet again it places the focus on men, reinforcing the notion that society revolves around men, not women.

Maybe I’m a greedy feminist but four minutes of ass-kicking does not automatically make an empowered female character shattering gender tropes, nor does it satiate my desire for a depiction of a nuanced, complex, strong female character. Sigh.

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