Film, Media & TV / Films / Women and Gender

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

Iron Man 3 poster with Pepper Potts

Originally published at 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 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 it’s 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 moviewas about other men giving her temporary agency/power and then quickly takingit 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 decided her fate.

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 not it satiate my desire for a depiction of a nuanced, complex, strong female character. Sigh.

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

      • Same here. Great article. Iron Man 3 frustrated me not so much because it was a terrible movie (it wasn’t) but because it wasted so much potential, even aside from its treatment of the female characters. I think if done right, it could have been almost as great a superhero movie as The Dark Knight, but the filmmakers seemed more interested in endless action sequences than exploring social or political issues in any sort of meaningful way.

  1. Reblogged this on The Sin City Siren and commented:
    First of all, this post has major SPOILERS for Iron Man 3, so if you don’t want to see spoilers, just come back after you’ve seen the movie. Secondly, I agree with this about 90%. I definitely have some major issues with the Pepper Potts character. Can we ever see a girlfriend in a male-centered superhero movie that is not a “damsel in distress?” But my other issue with Pepper is that she is, essentially, not much better than Tony sometimes. (I was sort of appalled at Pepper’s reaction to a scene in Tony’s workshop in which he bares his soul to her and her response is, “I’m going to go take a shower.” -pause- “And you’re joining me.” Sexy time is fun, yes, but that may not be the most emotionally connective response to your partner when s/he is in trouble.) So, I have a lot of issue with Pepper. And I agree that just because a woman in a movie is portraying a CEO or other allegedly powerful archetype, it doesn’t mean that character has agency. And let me be clear: I LOVE superhero movies. In fact, the Iron Man franchise in particular is my favorite. I went to see Iron Man 2 while 9 months pregnant! I don’t think every character has to be fully actualized. Flaws make people interesting to watch. Certainly seeing Tony Stark’s evolution as a character is part of what makes him fascinating. And I don’t think it’s fair or good to say that every woman in a movie be portrayed as a feminist icon. Some women are deeply flawed, too. Some women cling to sexist roles. But — and here’s the big BUT — when something is so pervasive throughout an entire genre, like it most certainly is with superhero movies, then it deserves to not only be critiqued but addressed. We’ve seen some brilliantly entertaining, yet flawed, female superheros on TV — Buffy, Sidney Bristow, Veronica Mars (sort of detective superhero-y). So the question is, why can’t we see them up on the Big Screen? I would also point to the animated series Justice League, in which Wonder Woman and Hawk Woman are very much their own people and equals with male superheros. Perhaps we need to draft Joss Whedon to write every superhero movie? Just kidding. Maybe.

    • I agree that not every female character has to be a feminist role model. But good female characters still have to be complex and interesting, even if they’re not necessarily strong. Lots of TV shows do a great job with female characters, like Mad Men and even Game of Thrones (the nudity double-standard is problematic, but the female characters themselves are arguably more compelling than the men). Fringe’s Olivia Dunham is one of my favorite female characters ever, and she essentially takes on a superhero role later in the show. I also don’t think Joss Whedon’s The Avengers should be considered the epitome of feminist superhero movies. It was a good movie, and I loved Black Widow, but it still wasn’t ideal. In a perfect world, Hollywood would actually let women direct superhero/action blockbusters.

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  4. If women kick ass looking fantastic like Pepper/Gwyneth does, it does not sexualize them, it makes them more powerful and better. Why do you think they chose RDJ for Tony Stark and not Adrien Brody? Also the inventor of Extremis was Maya Hansen, it was her serum, not Killian’s.

    • A woman “looking fantastic” doesn’t necessarily or automatically sexualize or objectify them. But that is what’s happening here. In the end of the film, Pepper kicked ass in a skimpier outfit which Tony commented on about how sexy she looked, asking why she doesn’t where this look more often. Again, it was placed in the film for the Male Gaze. Yes, I said Maya was the inventor of Extremis. But Killian called the shots and is the one who injected Pepper with the Extremis virus, not Maya.

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  6. I agree with pretty much 90% of what you said in this article. It’s also sad to note that despite the biggest superhero movie boom in history, we have barely had any movie that focused on a female superhero (the X-Men had some female heroes and there was Elektra but she was more of an anti-hero) despite there being a lot of awesome superheroines in comics.

    One thing I would like to point out though is that when Pepper had that Extremis virus injected into her, she managed to survive the process on her own considering the fact that other characters have been shown to explode if they can’t take it. YMMV but I thought that was kind of awesome. Though even then, it would have taken like one scene focused on Pepper showing her fighting the Extremis but even then she appeared as a hologram when Killian was giving his evil monologue to the capture Tony so even that was sort of problematic.

    Another problem is Maya; I felt that they had wasted her character in the movie especially by killing her off. Maya was Tony’s colleague in the comics and Killian was just a bit character in the movie. Maya was a morally gray character who meant well but had done some morally questionable things in the past. Instead of Killian, why not make Maya the real big bad behind it all and flesh out her motivation beyond being spurned by Tony? That definitely would have been more interesting.

    • I liked Killian as the villain, mostly because I like Guy Pearce a lot and I thought he did a nice job, but I definitely agree that Maya should have had a bigger part, especially since Rebecca Hall is kind of a good actress. Basically, I really just thought Killian and Maya were way more interesting than Tony and Pepper.

      • It’s the opposite for me; I enjoyed Tony and Pepper a lot more. Another thing about superhero movies and the genre itself is that you don’t see superhero couples a lot; either the story ends with the two getting together or in the case of comics they don’t stay together for long. So for me, it was nice seeing Tony and Pepper together in a relationship, how it progressed from each movie and in this movie, it was about them being in a relationship and facing a huge hurdle. Not to mention they avoided all the cliche soap opera drama during their development, especially given that with Tony’s character it’s very easy to throw in some kind of ‘he cheats on her’ or ‘love triangle’ plot line into the mix.

        As for Killian, I thought Guy Pearce did well with what he was given but I thought his character could have been fleshed out more. I remember yelling, ‘HE WAS LEFT ON THE FUCKING ROOF’ to my friends after watching the movie. Whiplash and Loki all had well developed motivations for what they did and in the case of Obadiah and Justin Hammer, they didn’t actually need a lot of exposition to know what their deal was. Up until this one, the Iron Man movies (and the MCU as a whole since I’m counting Loki here) have done really well with the villains.

        That said, from what I heard, the Iron Man comics does have some good female villains. Fingers crossed for if they introduce Madame Masque in Iron Man 4 and do right by the character.

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