Guest post by David, who lives in Provo with his amazing wife. He is entering into his first year of graduate school at Northern Arizona University in Applied Communications with an emphasis in media and gender studies. He writes at www.experimentalcriticism.com about religion, media, society, and gender.
Note: This post contains some spoilers for Iron Man 3. If you have not seen the movie, then I suggest you see it before reading.
It’s not surprising that Marvel Comics do not have a great reputation with the way that it treats women. Traditionally there superwoman are dress in clothes that defy the laws of physics, reveal as much skin as possible, and have extremely disproportionate sizing (seriously they make Barbie look normal). However, as time has progressed Marvel has taken small strides in the way they treat women, beginning in 1971 and culminating with the depiction of Pepper Potts in the latest installment of Iron Man.
Many people were surprised to see the role that Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) took in the latest installment of Iron Man. While Pepper is still not entirely there in terms of a well-rounded woman, anyone has to admit that she has grown into an amazingly empowered woman. At the beginning of the film, she’s the CEO of one of the largest companies while still maintaining her femininity. By the end of the film she not only uses parts of the Iron Man suit, but has additional super powers and destroys the villain in the matter of a few minutes, all while doing flips and kicking butt. Now, just because a woman can save the day and runs the most powerful company in the world does not mean that she is empowered. It’s true that Pepper was given everything by Tony: the suit, the job. Tony even comes to save her in the movie. What Tony does not give her though is her independence. So while Tony forces the suit upon Pepper, it is what she does with it that makes her heroic. She saves Tony from being crushed by his collapsing house. She saves Doctor Hansen from the building using a suit she’s never used before (remember that hilarious sequence in the first Iron Man when Tony was learning to fly?) It is not the choices that other’s make for Pepper that empower her, but it is the choices that she makes that show her true empowerment. However when looking at the evolution of the way Marvel treats feminism that Pepper has in Iron Man is not surprising.
In 1971 the comic book, The Incredible Hulk released an issue where “The Vengeful Valkyrie” holds The Hulk over her head an proclaims “Every male chauvinist pig will tremble when he sees The Hulk hurled to his death–by a woman!!” This is exactly how many people viewed 2nd wave feminism. They believed that feminists wanted nothing more than to overthrow the chauvinist pigs who were currently in power and replace them with women.
Hulk defeats Valkyrie (and thus defeats the feminists) in an epic battle of strength, however a large enough portion of the readership liked Valkyrie so much that writers Roy Thomas and John Buscema eventually brought her back as a part of a superhero team called The Defenders. She no longer wanted to kill all of the men in charge, but to this day she is still known as one of the most feminist superheroes ever created because of her stance against the male dominated Marvel world.
At the same time that Thomas and Buscema were writing Valkyrie as an extreme 2nd wave feminist Roy Thomas also started writing Carol Danvers, known later as Ms. Marvel into many story lines. Danvers starts as a high-ranking Air Force officer with no powers beyond that of extreme awesomeness. However, shortly after introducing her Thomas decided to combine her DNA with alien DNA giving her super human strength, flight, and a host of other super powers. She leaves the Air Force to become and editor for a progressive woman’s magazine in the Marvel universe, which ironically J.J. Jamison funds, perhaps the most prejudice character in the Marvel franchise. Why she gets super powers and then leaves her high-ranking position in the Air Force I don’t know. I like to think that her character was, in part, trying to pull some of the popularity away from DC’s Superman franchise.
Danvers’s progressive ideals were limited to women’s empowerment in the workplace and the radical notion that they
are just as capable as men in all things. These ideals made her a rough fit for one of Marvel’s many super hero teams. So, after bouncing around a slew of super hero teams (including the Defenders with Valkyrie) she eventually lands herself with The Avengers in the late 1970s and is a key plot element in the 200th issue of The Avengers, one of the most controversial issues to date.
Ms. Marvel is abducted by Marcus, taken to a different dimension, brainwashed and forcibly raped and impregnated. More controversial than the rape, however, is that none of the Avengers care. The think they’re fine without her. The story received so much criticism from the public, what called the issue “The Rape of Ms. Marvel” that the writers wrote a story that essentially undid the entire plot through means of time travel.
Since that moment head writers Thomas and Buscema and several other writers have started changing the way that they write women in their stories. Sure, it’s a slow, subtle change, but a change nonetheless. Women are no longer just occupying the same heroic positions as men do, but many of them are fighting for equality in the interpretation of those roles. While there are many examples of the shift that Marvel industries has represented women, it is easiest to see the major shifts that have taken place in the last couple of years. In 2012, Kelley Sue DeConnick renamed Ms. Marvel to Captain Marvel and does a complete suit redesign, making her suit more practical and fixing her proportion issues, making her one of the most real women in comics to date. She also doesn’t put up with any other characters giving her grief about being a modern, independent woman, specifically putting one character in his place for calling her “Captain America’s Secretary”.
Pepper Potts has developed in both the comics and the films. In 2008, after a long and complicated storyline Tony Stark makes Potts CEO of Stark Industries and he goes into hiding. One night after Stark leaves Pepper discovers a secret room in Stark’s office and an Iron Man suit designed specifically for her. She takes the alias of Rescue on her and saving Maria Hill, Black Widow, and everyone with super human abilities from destruction with no help from anyone. This plotline is very different than the way that Pepper is represented in the films, and in complete honesty, I love this way even more. It is clearer that she is the one making the choices; it is her plans and tactics that make her the hero’s mantel. It is not forced or thrown on her by anyone. She willingly takes it because it is what a hero does.
I’m not condoning Marvel’s history of objectifying women. The traditional role of women in comic books is deplorable. However, the entire industry is making a steady, but slow, shift be more inclusive to women by showing more empowered women who are able to save the day while not doing anything that might objectify them. Do not be surprised when in a few years we see a Rescue movie in theaters or more woman than Black Widow in the next Avengers movie.