What if men are made of iron and women are made to ogle? (A review of Iron Man 2 with a few spoilers)

(cross-posted at the Ms. Magazine blog here)

It’s right there in the title – Iron MAN- not man in terms of the (supposedly neutral) term meaning “human,” but man meaning male. As I sat watching the movie with my thirteen year old son (and cringing at all the overt sexualization of females), I came to the conclusion that Iron Man 2 is really about the glory of males, the fact they are indeed “iron,” that with their strength and ingenuity, the world will be saved.

Along with this key lesson, a number of other gender lessons are imparted in the film:
On men and masculinity:

  1. Men don’t cry, they scream – as Ivan (played by Mickey Rourke) does when his dad dies.
  2. Men like power tools, technology, welding and weapons. Talking, not so much.
  3. Men are “big wheels” and “lone gunman.” They may say “It’s not all about me” – as Tony Stark (played Robert Downey Jr) does at the beginning of the film – but, really, it is.
  4. Men need to leave a “legacy” and build a better future. The best way to do this is via weapons, wealth, and womanizing
  5. Men are fabulous businessmen – so fabulous they can successfully privatize world peace.
  6. “Real men” (aka Tony Stark) think the “liberal agenda” is “boring.”
  7. Men will always need to be in “the theatre of war.” As such, they might as well turn their bodies into weapons.
  8. Men’s hatred of women is cute and humorous – or as one blogger puts it, “Tony stark’s privileged sexist playboy antics are hilarious” teaching viewers that “Men’s sexism is funny and endearing, as is their greed.”
  9. The male body is a weapon. Literally, figuratively, metaphorically. Man is iron. Or, as Andrew O’Hehir naming of the Iron Man suit as “impenetrable iron-dong costume” in his Salonreview suggests, the iron suit allows for the fulfillment of the male body not only as weapon, but as walking erection – hard and ready all the time.

On females and femininity (these lessons are longer, you see, because females need a lot of teaching):

  1. Women are for dancing – either around poles (as in Iron Man 1) or on stage as props for Tony Stark at the Stark Expo (in Iron Man 1). Wherever they are dancing, they should be scantily clad. And a note to cameramen – shoot them from behind so as to get maximum amount of booty shots – as in the opening scene of Iron Man 2 where our gaze is directed to numerous bent over butts in tight red spandex hot pants. As O’Herir points out in his Salon review, there is “no irony” in these “loving, loop-the-loop tracking shots of these dancin’ hoochie-mamas with their spray-bronzed legs and perfect Spandex asses.” Rather it is, as this blogger aptly names it, “a vomit-inducingly sexist scene involving various swooping close-ups of womens’ body parts as they gyrate.”
  2. Women are objects to be ogled and joked about. This lesson permeates both films. In the sequel, when Tony is shown his new car and “the new model” is ready, he makes a joke about the woman standing next to the vehicle: “Does she come with the car?” Or, in other words, women, like cars, should be sleek, good looking, fast, and expendable. Tony assesses the new female character Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson) using the same parameters – her intelligence, multi-lingual skills, and martial arts training don’t seem to matter as he uses Google to find her old modeling pictures. As Froley of ReelThinker notes, she is put “in her underwear just for the hell of it” and her character is no more than a “near-cameo.” This incites Froley to assume that director “Jon Favreau must be some kind of chauvinist dog, because he takes every opportunity to objectify women.”
  3. Women need to have good make-up know how. Both Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Natalie are not only beautifully made up themselves, but also have the foundation skills to mask Tony’s various bumps and bruises. This skill, along with their ability to take precarious, mincing steps on incredibly high heels, frames femininity as a performance that benefits males (whether via hiding their bruises for press junkets, wiggling their butts for the male gaze, or spreading their bodies for male pleasure – as the female reporter, later referred to as “garbage,’ does for Stark).
  4. Womens most important asset is their body. Even when they are in full-on battle mode (as Natalie is near the end of the sequel) they should remain hyper-vigilant about their bodily display. They don’t get to wear “iron man” suits – only really tight body suits. What fun would it be if their boobs and butts were hidden under metal?
  5. Women are petty and jealous – as when Pepper refers to Tony’s reporter liaison as “garbage”. Make fun of their jealousy by telling them “green doesn’t look good on you” (as Tony says to Pepper when his ogling of Natalie is obviously bothering her).
  6. The female body is weak. Pepper, after being saved by Tony near the end of Iron Man 2, says “I quit…My body can’t take this stress.” So, after two hours of watching Tony’s body take bullets, bombs, electric shocks, and Palladium poisoning, we hear poor Pepper can’t take “the stress” of being CEO for a week.
  7. Women are very forgiving – ignore her, lie to her, bring her the one food she is allergic to as a gift (strawberries), and generally make it known that you are a lifelong womanizer – none of that will matter as long as you kiss her at the right moment. Or as Kyle Smith gleefully notes, “the Gwyneth Paltrow character is comfortable with being Tony Stark’s assistant instead of judo-chopping and blasting away at bad guys herself, in the somewhat silly manner of virtually every female lead in action movies these days.” Yes, it’s soooo silly when we act as if females want to be part of the action! Instead, as noted by Lou Lumenick at the New York Post, “Paltrow is reduced to mothering our hero.” Or, as another blogger more caustically puts it, “if I were Gwyneth Paltrow and I just played the role of a stiletto-heel-wearing submissive secretary cleaning up after some rich white chauvinist asshole, I’d send back my Oscar.”

In case these gender lessons are not enough backlash for you, the film also provides some lessons in racism, homophobia, and the wonders of militarized capitalism as follows:

  1. Tony Stark explains his desire to no longer making weapons with “I saw Americans killed by my own weapons in Afghanistan!” I can’t put it better than this blogger: “do I even need to mention how stupid and racist it is to say that he was ok with his weapons being used to kill all those other non-Americans?” In this same vein, as noted in my earlier post, various Others are framed as “evil terrorists,” namely Middle Easterners and North Koreans.
  2. Black actors are exchangeable. Swap Don Cheadle for Terrence Howard. No one will notice.
  3. Organizations which discriminate against homosexuals deserve huge donations. (In the sequel, Tony donates a modern art collection, which Pepper has collected over 10 years, to the Boy Scouts of America).
  4. The government is made up of almost entirely of white males. As is the military. This is a good thing. As is capitalism.  Or, as O’Hehir argues, the films takes the superhero genre and “embraces its most militaristic, fascistic, ultra-individualist ideology. “

And, that’s not all, the message of the films are spilling-over into our fast food culture with Burger King offering four lifestyle accessories for girls and four action-packed toys for boys.” Yeah, now those kiddos that may not get to see the film can still learn important gender lessons. Girls, get busy accessorizing! Boys, take action!

As for this feminist, I won’t be stepping out in my non-high heels in any hurry to see the sure-to-follow Iron Man 3, that’s for sure.

Published in: on May 10, 2010 at 5:51 pm  Comments (24)  
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  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by natalie wilson, Natalie Wilson. Natalie Wilson said: What if men are made of iron and women are made to ogle? (A review of Iron Man 2 with a few spoilers): It’s right … http://bit.ly/cz3IaC [...]

  2. Often when I’m watching movies I wonder what they’d be like if some sexes were swapped: if Tony Stark were a woman, would she take the name Iron Woman, or Iron Girl? Would Whiplash pull his punches when trading blows with Iron Woman, in some confused interpretation of gallantry? How would an audience react to seeing a female superhero get in the same physically violent situations as a male superhero?

    If Tony Stark were a woman, she wouldn’t employ dancers in skimpies to herald her arrival at a public event, her relationship with Pepper Potts would probably be a lot more reasonable, and … nobody would see the movie. Which is a shame, because it would be a lot more interesting to watch.

    • Great thing to ponder Froley — I would love to see many movies with such swappage!
      If Tony were Tania, she would prob be “Iron Girl” like Elastigirl or Supergirl. Our culture is very into infantilizing women.
      I think the audience would likely react to physically violent scenes with a female lead with worry – oh, the poor fragile creature! Then again, there was prette extreme female violence in the Kill Bill movies…
      But I do think people would see the movie – maybe not in the same numbers, but there is a definite audience for woman centered films that are not just fluff or “chick flicks” (hate that term though).

  3. “Would Whiplash pull his punches when trading blows with Iron Woman, in some confused interpretation of gallantry?”

    Aversion to physically harming women (or watching others harm them) is anti-feminist now? Huh.

    “If Tony Stark were a woman, she wouldn’t employ dancers in skimpies to herald her arrival at a public event…”

    Maybe not but then she wouldn’t be the same kind of character the writers were going for (ie., a flippant asshole nobody thinks is good or admirable but admires anyway, even they don’t admit it). To make the point she would have dudes dancing around; I think a lot of people would watch that, actually, just for the shock of seeing something so out of the ordinary.

    • I was thinking of the Whiplash scenario more in terms of Hollywood’s ickiness towards women in violent situations. If a woman were to be a superhero, would they pummel the crap out of her like they do Iron Man and Spiderman, or would they pull punches?

      Whether or not people WOULD watch that, Hollywood would probably never do it, especially in a comic-book movie, which are usually geared directly at the 12 – 35 male demographics.

      • I so think there should be a comic book movie directed at a female audience — Wonder Woman anyone?

    • I think you are mis-interpreting Not Lurking.

      And would watching dudes dance around for the shock of it be the same? Methinks no — kinds like a Full Monty type thing — men dance for shock/humor but are rarely sexualized in the way women pervasively are…

      • I think a good writer could do both: be funny from a male point of view, appealing from the female.

        Just look at how often people take completely different meanings from the same story. King of the Hill is one of my favourite examples: from my perspective it’s a loving parody of conservative Texan culture that is overall positive (which I like), but I’ve met several leftists who see it as unfriendly satire (which they like).

        The key is to portray everyone involved with as little judgment and soapboxing as possible.

      • I agree — sadly, mainstream hollywood only seems to see men (and usually white fairly conservative, etc) as good writers. But, with Diablo Cody and others now in the mix, there is hope…

  4. “I was thinking of the Whiplash scenario more in terms of Hollywood’s ickiness towards women in violent situations. If a woman were to be a superhero, would they pummel the crap out of her like they do Iron Man and Spiderman, or would they pull punches?”

    That is a good question, I’m just saying that the aversion to seeing women get the crap beaten out of them is more due to society’s ingrained repulsion to seeing women being harmed rather than a sexist desire to see them kept out of the fun. That’s why women get killed so much in horror movies: when a typical man sees another man being killed/mutilated it’s part of the action experience; when a typical man sees a woman being killed/mutilated it’s shocking and disturbing because most men have a protective instinct towards females ingrained into them. It isn’t a desire to oppress, believe me.

    “Whether or not people WOULD watch that, Hollywood would probably never do it, especially in a comic-book movie, which are usually geared directly at the 12 – 35 male demographics.”

    True. It’s silly that comic book movies are marketed so exclusively toward this demographic, considering the very substantial female audience for them. I mean, having a chick objectify men could be profitable as long as it’s handled properly: pass it off as a joke for the boys while at the same time making it genuinely appealing to women, and you have a cash cow on your hands. But this is Hollywood we’re talking about, after all, so I sympathize with you but don’t see anything changing soon. Maybe in 20 years :-(

    • Not Lurking,
      To your last paragraph — the point is not to carry out equal opportunity objectification though… I do think Hollywood has a lot of subversive, progressive, even radical people but unfortunately it seems the big money is not in this camp. And for films to really make it, there needs to be a lot of publicity money etc. Not that some small indie numbers don’t breakout, but it’s rare… And we can’t place all of this on Hollywood — it is also about the cultural construction of masculinity and femininity…

      • “To your last paragraph — the point is not to carry out equal opportunity objectification though…”

        No disrespect or anything but I think that is the point; Tony Stark is a rich, harem-building, hedonistic badass who most people will agree is not GOOD but…come on, most people admire that archetype even though we know it isn’t healthy.

        To make an Iron Woman “progressive” (in the specific sense you just used the word for) is to make it sterile and boring. It defeats the purpose and you might as well make an entirely different movie or create an entirely different character.

        Besides, objectification isn’t bad in itself. It only becomes a problem when it involves only one gender/look in all instances and that one gender/look is never portrayed except in that context. Diversifying it, mixing it with developed characters, and keeping it plausible (ie., no objectifying when it doesn’t jive with the context) avoid this problem.

        I think most men would like to be objectified once in a while (not all the time but once in a while, same as women). I know I would!

        But then again, I don’t think our definitions for objectification are the same. We could be talking past each other.

      • Nihulunder,
        I agree with you that objectification CAN be okay if it done in the ways you define it – but then I wouldn’t really call it objectification — to me, that worries always implies turning a person into an object. I think they way you are calling for its use is more about sexuality and desire…

  5. Ah good point about the horror film trope, I’d forgotten about that! I agree that the demographic is poorly chosen. Science fiction and fantasy audiences/readers are split evenly down the middle when it comes to sex, at least in the literature market; maybe one day Hollywood will realise this and start making movies for everybody, instead of labelling them FOR BOYS ONLY and FOR GIRLS ONLY. Like you say — it’ll be closer to 20 years than 2, but I have faith it’ll happen eventually.

  6. Thanks for listing all of the reasons the move is a hot mess. I was forced to see it this weekend for my sons birthday party and I thought the torture was never going to come an end. Of course the men I was with just refused to see it and I was once again making it all up.

    • Thanks Renee. Hot mess is a perfect way to describe it!

  7. Is anyone surprised the movie is socially and artistically horrible?

    Thanks for the review, sorry you had to sit through the movie.

    I hope when my daughter is older, there will be good fun action movies for her to see. And Burger King toys, makes me angry. (I am proud to say, that during her potty training sessions, we read a Home Repair book to her. She likes the page of hammers.)

    Regarding “if a woman were to be a superhero, would they pummel the crap out of her”? I think “Kill Bill” answered that question. And Buffy & Xena got pummeled a lot. So did Sigourney Weaver (Alien) and Linda Hamilton (Terminator).

    Regarding replacing Don Cheadle for Terrence Howard, I don’t think that was a racist move. Remember, they replaced Michael Keaton with George Clooney in 90s Batman franchise.

    I was never an Iron Man comic fan, but I can tell you, back in the 80s, in the comic book, Tony Stark had to give up the suit because he was an alcoholic. And a black guy became the new Iron Man.

    Wow…all my pop references are more than an decade old.

    • I wouldn’t regard Kill Bill, Alien or Terminator as “superhero” movies, in the Marvel or DC vein, but you’re right. There was a slight bump in sexual equality in 80s sci fi and 90s TV, driven by the likes of Ridley Scott, James Cameron and Joss Whedon. But in a family-friendly, “Christian virtues” superhero flick like Spiderman, the women usually exist to be put straight in the refrigerator, or to act as collateral damage for the hero. It’d be nice to see it change up once in a while, you know?

    • Jon,
      Thanks for you comment. I was kind of surprised I so disliked the movie as I am a big fan of Downey and rather liked the first one (even though it had its problems too).
      So interesting that a black guy became IM in the comics. That might be a 3rd sequel worth watching — esp if he was accompanied by an Iron Woman…

  8. I’m “Not Lurking” btw. I keep forgetting that name changes are across the board for wordpress comments :(

  9. “I agree — sadly, mainstream hollywood only seems to see men (and usually white fairly conservative, etc) as good writers. But, with Diablo Cody and others now in the mix, there is hope…”

    Agreed on Diablo Cody. I haven’t seen Juno but loved Jennifer’s Body; the writing was funny, clever, and stylistically unique. I hope she puts out more quality work and opens the door for others like her.

    • Oh you must watch Juno! Do you watch United States of Tara? I blogged about it at Ms blog.

      I agree w/ you about Jen’s Body and meant to write on it but alas not enough hours in the day to keep up with everything. Did you blog about it anywhere?

  10. [...] Iron Man 2 reviewed by Natalie! [...]

  11. Pretty! This has been a really wonderful article.
    Many thanks for supplying these details.


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