In dealing with the portrayal of women in Iron Man, there are two distinct, but obviously related points we need to discuss:
How Tony, as an individual, relates to women and How women are used to advance the plot by an author. These are pretty difficult things to discuss because how Tony relates to women is part of the plot, so in trying to talk about it, it is really hard to keep them separate and the whole post gets ramble-y and hard to follow.
How Tony, as an individual, relates to women is something that has changed considerably over time. Fraction and Gillen have consistently written Tony has having borderline anonymous sexual encounters with people he doesn’t care to have in his life long term. (With the exception of Tony’s trysts with Maria and Pepper while brain damaged.) Tony speaks about this as something he has been doing for a long time. In team books, where Tony’s personal life is not a focus, any reference to his social life is off-handedly treated the same way. He’s screwing some woman who does not matter.
The way the text devalues is women is self-aware. The writers are purposefully writing Tony as someone who has problematic relationships with women. He treats them like they are things. He treats them like they are disposable. We as readers recognise that there is something off in Tony’s mind. He’s not okay, somehow, and his treatment of women is a symptom of that.
Okay. Fine. The text is aware. The author is critiquing something. Gillen’s Iron Man #4, with it’s 13 identical demon women was a very unsubtle attack on the way comics as a medium (and Tony as an individual) views women as interchangeable. The issue ends with the admission that treating people as things is wrong, wow, brilliant message.
This is a far cry from the Tony Stark of the 70’s-90’s. For most of his history, Tony has pursued serious relationships almost exclusively. When on a social date with someone he did not care to continue seeing, Tony did not take the evening all the way to sex and then depart in the morning. If he didn’t want to keep seeing her, he made that clear. Tony wanted to be loved. Tony wanted to get married. Tony wanted to have children. He pursued women with those goals in mind. He was not looking for someone to have a roll in the hay with, he was looking for someone to spend his life with.
This is not to say that Tony necessarily treated the women well. He was manipulative. He lied long-term. Both versions of Tony are someone who does not know how to appropriately deal with other people. But the difference in Tony’s goals meant a difference in his relationships with women and in the way the text portrayed women. The relationships were important. The characters were significant. They were not treated as objects or things to be replaced or disposed of.
Being pursued as a long-term partner, the women were intelligent, (largely) confidant, driven and (largely) successful. Tony dated a variety of women, but they all stood as his equals. They had back stories and goals and even when the text or Tony did not agree with their choices, the text did not demean them. The women in Tony’s life were worthy of and allotted respect, from the gun-toting bodyguard to the pregnant alcoholic who abused welfare. There was no value judgement placed upon them. We were not expected to think that one woman inherently had more worth than another.
Compare to today. Pepper Potts, and Pepper Potts alone, is given respect. (And even that is problematic — I’ve written a lot about the issues with the Rescue storyline.) The women Tony romances are dismissed and made fun of. Women known for being successful in a given field fail in that field, almost universally. Tony speaks openly about his history of mostly anonymous sexual encounters, effectively erasing easily a dozen serious relationships and the respect given to those women as individuals during their time in the book.
But Can We Talk About The Ladies: It goes all the way back
I’m sitting in Medieval Art class right now, and essentially this idea of men and male relationships with other men taking over or dominating goes far back. Really far back. The whole idea of courtly love is not about Love at all, but instead the struggle of one man reconciling his damaging lust with his bond/oath to his lord.
The whole Arthurian legend with Lancelot, and why even BBC’s Merlin can’t escape sidelining Guinevere, is about the destruction of a trusting bonded relationship between two guys. It’s about Lancelot and Arthur’s relationship, Guinevere is a vehicle for the problems/conflict within it.
My teacher is trying to stray away from the “taking away man-hating in response to Courtly Love” business, but it’s not exactly easy to buy into the idea that a little hate and annoyance isn’t the appropriate way to respond to this nonsense. The idea of courtly love is to objectify women. This is where women are intentionally made into objects and are fought over and pined after and lusted for and “worst of all tear men apart” from their duties/honor/etc etc. And people still do this. It’s not hard to see this freaking everywhere, man the middle ages really screwed us over in a lot of ways because this is when it began to get popularized and then renaissance came and tripled the terribleness.
I mean every time someone says bros before hoes, you literally have my permission to punch them in the face because it is the worst and most OVERUSED narrative ever.
You don’t get to talk about ladies in courtly love narratives and that’s the problem. when you write a courtly love narrative I.E. any story or arc that only uses women as objects to cast men’s relationships/developments/feelings upon, you’re not making women characters. your bros before hoes stories are terrible.
AND GUESS WHAT: Courtly Love was popularized for women. So if you needed more proof about how and why women end up relating to male dominated stories rather than ones about female characters/developments/etc it’s because men have been feeding women stories that eliminated them from being really much of anything for quite some time. Male writers gave male narratives for women and then expected women to relate to men being people and women being objects and they are still doing this right now.
Deliberate choice of images
There is this site, Role/ Reboot, where both Clarisse Thorn and Hugo Schwyzer write regularly. The site is supposedly devoted to issues of gender and sexuality. I don’t check it often but every now and then I see a link to it and click. This was the main page today when I checked it out.
I was all oh, finally they have brought some diversity to the site? Is this a young Black woman exploring her issues with dating? Considering the title of the post is “I’m single and they are never going to like me”, I was hoping for a personal story of singledom. So I clicked. And this is what the post looks like:
I read the post and throughout the text, I kept wondering why the author would never mention her issues with interracial relationships or “dating while non White” or, you know, what you’d expect to find if you are led to believe this is about a young Black woman. Except that the author, Hilary Sherratt? She looks like this:
And then I let out a screech because really, the only photo in the entire main page that features a WoC illustrates how this woman feels “ugly and unwanted”. Nothing in the way we choose media or look at media depictions is random. Our lens is informed by the culture in which we are immersed and the way we have been influenced by decades (or centuries as the case might be) of depicting “the Other”. That the editors of Role/ Reboot would pick this one image to associate with the title of this post says a lot about the care and attention they put when considering their choices. Because when it is about media? Nothing is innocent.
Maybe we can have a woman write an episode of Doctor Who?
In the new series, there has only been ONE woman to write for Doctor Who—Helen Raynor, and that was in S3 and S4.
Four episodes have been written by one woman in the reboot. That’s insane.
Moffat, how about you show us you’re not a sexist and hire some of the great women writers out there?
Also, which women do you want to write for Doctor Who?