I recently came across a discussion on Tony Stark as a queer-coded character in the comics (which I’m not going to link to because many of the threads were already deleted, ergo I’m assuming that the participants didn’t want the conversation to be spread), and I found it very interesting. For years I have read Tony Stark as subtextually bisexual in the comics, which hasn’t really translated to the films – at least not to the extent that the character of Captain America has been coded as bisexual in them. There has always been a borderline homoerotic relationship between Tony and his armor especially. But adjacent to this conversation, there was also an interesting thread in which Tony Stark asthe most female-coded superhero was discussed that I found fascinating.
Someone commented on the concept stating that while it may be true for the comics, movie-verse Tony Stark is certainly not female-coded.
But isn’t he, though?
We’ve discussed before how hypermasculinity sometimes seems to go so over-the-top that it does a full 360, coming out the other side seeming rather feminized, the hypermasculine male presented as a sexual object with assets on display (slim waist, thick thighs, full chest) for the consumption of the male gaze. But that’s not the case with Tony Stark; it isn’t his hypermasculinity that makes him seem female-coded, it’s the question of agency.
Tony does seem to possess many traits that we consider culturally feminine, female cliches, such as talking a lot and talking fast, using a rich vocabulary, a short and petite stature as compared to other superheroes, the narrative passing jugement on his promiscuity, the narrative passing judgement on his desire for junk-food, his passive demeanor, his self-consciousness about his body and having to wear underarmor in public to manage his chest, his avoidance of interpersonal conflict, looking for daddy’s love and approval, the way in which he conceals much of his intelligence because he knows that if people saw him for how he really is, they would be off-put by it ie. giving the appearance of being smart-but-not-too-smart, the eroticizing of his appearance in the narrative, the focus on what he’s wearing, his obsessive-compulsive behavior, meticulous grooming habits, delicate features, dressing to impress professionally, carrying conversations, his weakness being his heart, the fact that he has to dress into a suit that conceals his identity, his true self, to interact with the world, a hard outer shell that conceals his soft inside. There are aspects to Tony Stark in the films that are female-coded.
I think that some people might find these aspects difficult to see because there are three distinct personas to the character: there’s the Tony Stark that he projects to the outside world to hide who he really is that is his true armor, there’s Iron Man that is a prosthetic, an armor that shields him and allows him the protection of being who he really is, and then there’s Tony Stark, the person he is in his heart of hearts that we see only when’s alone with the artificial intelligences he created for himself, as his friends, the only friends that really, truly get to see him, because he knows that they won’t judge him (outside of him being alone, we see glimpses of the ‘real’ Tony Stark in Afganistan, in his interactions with Natasha and in two scenes with Steve: while they’re cutting wood and Tony asking Steve whether he knew).
These are the three sides to Tony Stark, and I see a lot of fans confuse his Tony Stark armor, his protective persona, with who he is because that is, by design, the loudest, most visible side to him.
There are many sides to him that are female-coded, but it’s the limited agency that he is given in the narrative that is the most telling. Most of his stories seem to revolve around the stripping of his agency and his struggle to regain it. This character – a genius, billionaire, playboy, philantropist – who ought to be the ultimate male power fantasy has all of his stories constructed around his lack of agency and his need of a prosthetic to claim agency for himself. It’s easy to assume that an able-bodied, rich, good-looking, well-educated, white CEO of the American upper crust has all the power and control in the world, but the narrative begins disabusing the viewer of this notion right off the bat. The narrative deconstructs his agency.
What I appreciated about the Iron Man films was how they subverted the role of the damsel in distress in Pepper Potts. Especially the end of the first film in which Pepper marched through broken glass in her stiletto shoes to save Tony Stark was something that made me stop and think for days afterwards. The third film basically recreated this subversion of the trope louder for those in the back that hadn’t caught it the first time. It was Pepper Potts that was the knight in shining armor, not the title character.
And it is Tony that we see as the damsel in distress, particularly again in the first and the third films. The first film contains the iconic scene of Obadiah Stane literally removing Tony’s agency in a scene that is filmed like a sexual violation, a none-too-subtle air of erotic violence in the air as he uses his date rape technology to incapacitate Tony. This is a turning point in the film. The third film contains a scene in which Tony Stark is zip-tied to a bed frame with the villain taunting him. It is implied that Tony is similarly submissive in bed. The main villain in the scene acts like a spurned lover, a definite air of seduction to his conduct toward the tied-up hero.
That is two cases of villains making eroticized advances toward a physically incapacitated Tony Stark. And it isn’t the violence or the incapacitation that makes the scenes female-coded, it is the eroticization of it. It is female characters that are subject to eroticized violence, generally speaking. The second film does not follow the pattern, but it could be interepreted as an obsessive, spurned man making unwanted advances toward our hero.
I wrote about the interaction between Natasha and Tony previously, on how she allows us to see a side of him that we usually don’t get to see. Some people have described Tony’s hiring of her as sexist, undoubtedly influenced by Pepper’s interpretation of his behaviour as he tried to figure her out (“And she is potentially a very expensive sexual harassment lawsuit if you keep ogling her like that.”), but his interest in her was never that kind of interest. His eyes don’t track her sexual assets. Tony saw something of himself in her, especially in the way she was playing a role, but even more than that, I think Tony saw in Natasha Romanoff something that he wanted desperately to be. In control.
Natasha Romanoff gives the air of being in control even when she gives up control, and in this she is the opposite of Tony Stark.
With this in mind, and I don’t remember whether I wrote about this before, I was quite disturbed by the way the climax of Civil War was shot not unlike a pornographic sex scene, Tony Stark being double-teamed by the super soldiers. The ending of the scene especially, with Steve straddling Tony, pounding on him, grunting, finishing it off with breathing heavily as he falls off Tony having penetrated his arc reactor with his shield, having incapacitated Tony’s prosthetic. Tony spits out blood as the super soldiers walk away from him. It’s rather symbolic, the implications of the scene very uncomfortable.
While Bucky Barnes is another character whose storyline heavily features the stripping down of agency, the female-coding of the strong, stoic silent-type is largely absent. Bucky Barnes and Tony Stark share similarities, and in this he offers a contrast to Tony.
So, yes. I do see Tony Stark of the movie-verse as a female-coded superhero because his story revolves around desperately grasping for agency. Among these hypermasculine heroes, the genius-billionaire-playboy-philantropist is at a disadvantage, so Tony Stark invented, constructed, and put on a suit that hides his true identity in order to have a measure of agency in a hypermasculine world, that allows him to assert himself. And in Civil War he was willing to sign off on his self-created agency because the establishment had managed to convince him that as a person with near unlimited resources, he was a danger to the world that he had risked his life and the lives of his loved ones to protect.
I think one of the most telling aspects of his character vis-à-vis Civil War is that, convinced that it is too dangerous for him to attempt to influence the outside world and other people in it, Tony Stark instead turned within and attempted to modify his own internal world, to (literally) influence his own internal state instead – to accept what he can’t change. This is a classic strategy of the disenfranchised.
Tony Stark is the most female-coded of the male superheroes.
So it’s been pointed out to me that one of the first things Howl hears Sophie tell him is to find her in the future and the first thing he says to her is “there you are darling, I’ve been looking for you everywhere”
“Yondu is the leader of the Ravagers, a group of Space Pirates. Yondu found Peter Quill when the ship he piloted malfunctioned and left him stranded. The Ravagers rescued him as Peter tried to steal their ship. Peter managed to outsmart every member of the crew and even knocked out Yondu before capturing him.
After he woke up, Yondu managed to set himself free from his restraints, attacked Peter, and gave him a choice between letting himself be released to space without more trouble or getting killed right there. Peter instead asked him if he could join his crew.
Yondu wasn’t sold on the idea, but after he found out Peter was like him, a kid without a home, Yondu changed his mind and let him stay in the ship with his pirate crew as the cleaning boy. Peter decided to stay and try to learn everything he could from space while he was part of the pirate crew.”