Summer Blockbuster Feminism: Iron Man 3 vs. Star Trek Into Darkness

This is a guest post by Rebecca Deatsman. Rebecca is a naturalist and environmental educator by day, but in her free time she’s also a lifelong sci-fi fan who spends large chunks of time over-analyzing fictional characters with her friends. She blogs about nature and wildlife at Rebecca in the Woods and can be found on Twitter as @rdeatsman.

Warning: Spoilers for both Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness.

You can draw a straight line from me as a little kid cheering on Princess Leia when she picked up a blaster and took charge of her own rescue to me as an adult circling the May release dates of Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness on my calendar. I’ve always been a geek, and my view of geekdom has always been colored by my gender. When both of my current favorite fandoms (Star Trek I’ve loved in all its incarnations for as long as I can remember, Marvel I really discovered with the release of the original Iron Man film) scheduled new movies to come out within two weeks of each other, I was excited, but I also braced myself for the possibility of once again seeing female characters get the short end of the character development stick. Over the years as I’ve become more and more interested in feminism and privilege, I’ve started turning an increasingly critical eye on how these franchises portray non-male and non-white characters, and I’ve had to come to terms with how to love something while acknowledging its flaws. A previous post here on Geek Feminism discussed a major problem with race and Into Darkness’s villain, but today I want to focus on the ladies.

Although Star Trek has varied a lot over its long history, passing through the hands of many writers, producers, and directors, overall it has always been about a vision of humanity’s future in which discrimination is a thing of the past and all people are equal and empowered. On the other hand, comic books, the source material for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, are known for depicting scantily-clad women in anatomically unlikely poses. If you tried to guess based on this history which franchise’s new release this spring managed to pass the Bechdel test and portray its female characters as competent human beings, though, you would guess wrong. Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness each contain one established female character (Pepper Potts and Uhura) and one new one* (Maya Hansen and Carol Marcus), but their approach to these characters is vastly different.

The trailers for both movies included a shot of a woman in her underwear (black, of course). However, when you see these moments in context, they feel completely different. Pepper Potts has apparently been stripped to her underwear during the Extremis experimentation her captors subjected her to, but the shot that appears in the trailer is from the moment when Pepper—Pepper, not Tony Stark!—delivers the final killing blow to the movie’s villain, turning the damage that Killian and AIM were trying to inflict on her into a strength. Alice Eve’s Carol Marcus, on the other hand, strips for no apparent reason other than to pander to the fanboys in the audience. Why does she randomly change clothes in a shuttle in the middle of a scene? While Kirk, whom she barely knows, is standing right there? It’s gratuitous and, frankly, annoying. For a woman who’s supposed to be a brilliant scientist, Carol seems to spend most of her time running, screaming, and undressing.

How these women approach their relationships, which still often define female characters, also highlights the difference between the two films. Uhura chooses the most inappropriate, unprofessional moment possible, the middle of a dangerous mission to the Klingon homeworld, to start a conversation with Spock about their relationship, and persists even after her commanding officer gently points out that this isn’t a good time. Yes, reboot Uhura gets more lines, more plot, than the Uhura of the original series did, but her storyline revolves almost exclusively around her romantic relationship with a fellow officer.

What about Iron Man 3, then? If any two women have ever seemed set up to have a catty conversation about a guy, it’s Pepper and Maya—Pepper, the current serious girlfriend, and Maya, the old one-night stand. Instead, the movie neatly subverts your expectations by having them not go there at all; as Laura Hudson put it in her piece for Wired (link below), “There’s a bit of a record scratch where you expect the stereotypical claws to come out—and they don’t.” Pepper is secure in her relationship and is already fully aware of Tony’s history with women before they got together, so she’s not thrown at all by Maya. Instead, the two immediately move on to more important business, specifically the current crisis involving Killian, AIM, and the Mandarin, and the film passes the Bechdel test with flair. (If you’re wondering, Into Darkness does not pass, with Uhura and Carol not exchanging so much as a single line of dialogue about anything, much less something other than a man.)

I walked out of Iron Man 3 feeling pleasantly surprised about its strong women, but a genre move that depicts women as professional, capable adults should not be a surprise. It should be the norm. This sort of thing matters, because there is another generation of little girls discovering sci-fi and superheroes just like I did, and they need moments of their own like the one where Princess Leia picks up a blaster and reveals herself to be a total badass. Fictional those these worlds are, their stories teach us that it’s important to live by our principles even when it’s hard, that teamwork and courage and creativity can save the day, and that even misfits can be heroes. Women and girls need these stories just as much as anyone else. And we need to see ourselves in them.

More on the women of Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness:

*Before someone corrects me in the comments, I know neither of these characters is technically “new”; Maya Hansen appeared in the Extremis storyline of the Iron Man comic books, and Carol Marcus was a character in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. However, in both cases, this was their first introduction in this particular movie universe.

5 thoughts on “Summer Blockbuster Feminism: Iron Man 3 vs. Star Trek Into Darkness

  1. Tao

    Iron Man has consistently amazed me at the high level of writing / development for Pepper Potts (especially when you consider her origins). Star Trek just disappointed in general, from both it’s characterisation of women to it’s white-washing. It’s sad, considering Star Trek’s roots and general utopian ideals, but particularly noteworthy in it’s reboot.

  2. erindubitably

    I do find it a bit depressing that a film with one conversation between the female characters can be considered to have passed the Bechdel test ‘with flair’. Not an argument with your summation of the two films, Rebecca, but it’s sad when we’re excited by one instance of a decent female interaction in a film full of great male relationships (friends, rivals, enemies, father-figures, etc).

    1. MadGastronomer

      Well, that was kind of the point of the original test, wasn’t it? That it took so little, but was so uncommon.

      1. erindubitably

        Yes… I just feel that nearly 30 years after the test was first coinced describing a film as passing ‘with flair’ over one conversation is a pretty sad state of affairs.

        1. Rebecca Deatsman

          Erin, you have a point. (Sorry if the phrase “with flair” set your teeth on edge.) I hate that a movie with well-developed female characters is exceptional, not the norm.

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