eruthros: (Avengers - Pepper Potts smiling)
[personal profile] eruthros
So, okay, this post is about the ways in which people are having a conversation about Pepper Potts in Iron Man 3, and how she is going to [spoiler]. I'm also going to talk about some comics in which she does [spoiler], and also the comics in which she does a similar but different [spoiler], but I can't list which ones here because they'd reveal [spoiler]. This post is full of conflicted feels; if you're looking for a squeeful post, this isn't it.

I want to talk about one of the trends I've seen in conversations about Pepper Potts as Rescue/Pepper Potts wearing an Iron Man suit in Iron Man 3, here and on twitter and tumblr. (A lot of people are calling her IM3 suit Rescue in conversations, though it's pretty clear that it's not going to be called that in the movie, and that the movie armor is one of Tony's suits.) I didn't bookmark all of the posts/tweets, so this is more about the overall impression of those conversations, and about things production people have said. I love Pepper and I love Rescue, but I get really sad about the way people frame the conversation.

The impression I get, reading in the Pepper Potts tag on tumblr, is really strongly that getting a suit is a promotion for Pepper - there are many excited posts explaining that now Pepper can be a superhero, that finally she doesn't have to be just a girlfriend, that now she'll have something to do. That she finally gets to be powerful. That now she can really be Tony's equal. That wearing a suit for five minutes means she's not a damsel in distress. That this is an awesome move. A few random examples: it's about time we see a girl rise up and end this 'damsel in distress' stereotype and who's the damsel in distress now? and not just standing around, looking class and not being relegated to the role of damsel in distress she is a motherfucking hero and finally the girl isn't just there to scream "HELP!" "I LOVE YOU!" and to make the 'hero' look good and this is fucking revolutionary to have a woman be the hero or a co-hero instead of the damsel.

And here's part of where it's coming from, in this super-spoilery Kevin Feige (president of production for Marvel Studios) interview:
I will tell you this. In this movie we play with the convention of the damsel in distress. We are bored by the damsel in distress. But, sometimes we need our hero to be desperate enough in fighting for something other than just his own life. So, there is fun to be had with "Is Pepper in danger or is Pepper the savior?" over the course of this movie.

In terms of where we go with future movies, we’ll see. In the comic books she does get a taste for the suit and becomes her own hero named Rescue, who doesn’t necessarily battle other people, but is on missions to help people and to save people. Will we do that down the line with Gwyneth Paltrow? Who knows. But her being in the suit is something we have been playing with since Iron Man 2, where we did some designs and it didn’t end up fitting in that movie. But the little taste you saw here [in an Iron Man 3 clip] is something that we’re certainly interested in.
I am ... not entirely sure why "we'll just pretend she's in distress to give Tony motivation" is supposed to be a super cutting-edge take on the damsel in distress trope. Or why Tony can't be desperate because the fate of the world is at stake rather than the fate of his girlfriend. To me, it still reads as making Pepper's decisions all about Tony's story, even though Feige is talking about leaving that trope behind.

And a while ago people passed this rdj quote around a bunch, talking about how great it was - and indeed the headline on the Mary Sue is Robert Downey Jr. Says Awesome Things About Women in Superhero Action Films. He says:
How do we have it so she's not going [whining], 'Tony!' and I’m going [growling], 'Where's Pepper?'… That’s the other thing that I have been pushing for. She's in great shape, she's really game. There's all these genre movies and you have these capable women and they're like, 'Oh my god, some action is happening, I better step away or get caught in something over here.' It’s like, 'Really, is that where we’re at in the 21st century?'
And again, here, right, she's in great shape so she's got to be an action hero. If you've got abs, you'd better be punching shit. There's an opposition between superhero and damsel in distress and if you're not one you're the other. (Though, hilariously, the new trailer actually shows Pepper shouting "Tony!")

But, okay, is MCU Pepper Potts nothing but a damsel in distress? I'd argue that she isn't - there's that amazing shot in Iron Man 2, where Tony swoops in on the Iron Man suit to grab Pepper up from the stairs where she's surrounded by drones. And it's super dramatic and it looks like damsel in distress in all the vids. But the whole reason she's there is that she was using her being-a-CEO and organizing-shit skills to save everybody; the drones attack the HammerTech Expo, and it's not even Pepper's event, but she and Natasha rush backstage and take over. The reason Pepper's alone there is because she spent time getting the evacuation set up and calling the authorities and getting the information that leads Natasha off to break into the HammerTech building. She's not going "I better step away or get caught in something over here" (thanks rdj). She's not waiting to be saved. She's clearly scared but she steps right into that shit and takes over and save lives.

Which is ... kind of the same story that she has in Iron Man, wherein she walks into the office of a killer to spy on him. Or the story at the beginning of Iron Man 2, where Pepper and Happy drive into the Monaco Grand Prix and then drive up to the bad guy so that Pepper can kick the suit out of the car at Tony. And she is so obviously terrified there, and she's so obviously scared a lot of the time in the films, but she's still walking into scary situations to save lives. When people call Pepper a damsel in distress in the films, it feels like the people who look at Natasha in Avengers and see nothing but tits and ass, like there's this role she's got to fit in, when in fact she's instrumental in the ass-kicking. It's just that Pepper doesn't ... actually kick ass. She yells at people. She runs shit. She takes over. She does stuff that puts her in danger because it's the right thing to do and because she can help. She saves Tony's life. It's depressing as hell to think that that stuff doesn't count to the production people because she's scared or because she's typing stuff instead of punching people in the nose or because at other points in the movies, she needs to be saved. That they think that in order to count, she'd better be wearing a flying mechanical suit.

And it's a problem because I know, when I'm talking about it, that a bunch of Marvel executives do think of an Iron Man suit as a promotion. They make superhero comics! And they obviously really value that kind of power and really undervalue kinds of power that involve talking to people and organizing things. When people say "Pepper gets a suit," Marvel hears "finally she's a real superhero." But not enough of a superhero to actually write about her outside of the Iron Man comics, or put her on a superhero team, or give her her own title - like, only two people who work for Marvel have ever written Rescue, Matt Fraction and Kelly Sue DeConnick. Seriously. Because she's still almost always only part of Tony's story. To the point that when Matt Fraction stopped writing Invincible Iron Man, he made sure to take Pepper's suit away first. Getting Tony to a comfortable status quo means a reset for Pepper as well, because the writers still think of her as a sidekick, and you'd better not give Kieron Gillen a canon that has to include the sidekick. (Versus some other distaff superheros - Betty Ross as Red She-Hulk may have a horrible superhero name, but after she was in Hulk comics she was in the Defenders and now has her own title, and she was introduced at about the same time as Rescue in 2009. This isn't a reflection of the innate awesomeness of those characters, it's just a telling sign of how much the Marvel execs and editorial people are interested in those characters and what they think those characters are about and where their stories belong. And they think Pepper's story belongs in Tony's story. ETA: Actually as of like half an hour ago Cullen Bunn said she might be in Fearless Defenders eventually? Which would be awesome. But is still not guaranteed and would still be her first appearance as Rescue outside of an Iron Man title.)

Which gets me to how talking about Rescue as a promotion is also a problem because Rescue in comics is ... complicated. And my feels about it are complicated. Sometimes Pepper loves the Rescue suit, and sometimes she's torn about it it, but she doesn't really own it. Rescue is still a distaff version of the Iron Man suit. It's a suit that belongs to Tony and not Pepper - and he takes it away from Pepper twice, first when he needs it to save his own life (she gives it up voluntarily, but he sets the situation up so she has to and then tries not to give her a replacement) and later just for ... no real reason, at the end of Fraction's run. It's a suit that has saved people without Pepper in it (with JARVIS driving; the Iron Man suit sometimes drives itself too, but it feels different when it's the Rescue suit). And it's a suit that is, as it turns out, partly controlled by an AI who falls in love with Pepper and has to be destroyed (which is just ... oh my god so awful). And in the lead up to the Rescue suit, when Pepper just had a chest repulsor, Fraction made a big point of telling us that it made her not just stronger, but smarter - when she gets a chest repulsor, her IQ goes up. Because she needs to be smarter to be a superhero. I was going to include some representative panels here, but it turned into a giant giant thing, so I made a separate long post filled with large images.

So here's what Rescue sometimes looks like in comics: Rescue doesn't entirely belong to Pepper in the same way that War Machine doesn't always entirely belong to Rhodey. Rescue makes Pepper a better, stronger, smarter person. (At one point Pepper asks "Tony Stark, are you transforming me into your dream girl?") Rescue finally makes Pepper a superhero, but her superheroing doesn't always belong to her. And so I know a bunch of comics fans who were excited about Rescue initially, but then grew steadily more uncomfortable with the execution of Rescue, and the lack of integration into the rest of the Marvel universe, and especially the whole JARVIS is a creepy AI who is in love with her thing. (And of course I also know comics fans who think Rescue is awesome conceptually and in practice.) I find it really sad, because some of the arc is so great - she loves the suit so much, she has such joy in it, she flies and she feels electromagnetic fields and she loves her new senses and she argues with Tony to get the suit - but in the end, someone else can take it away. Maybe for good. And that doesn't mean that the Rescue suit is bad, or that it's not a good idea to use it in the movies, or that it's not an interesting move to make with Pepper, but it makes it complicated for me. When I hear "Rescue suit in the movie," I do get excited, but I also have that anticipatory wince thinking of all the things that can go wrong and have gone wrong in the comics.

Because Rescue doesn't really solve the underlying structural problem of Pepper Potts as sidekick. Kelly Sue DeConnick, who I really love in a lot of ways, and who wrote the Rescue one-shot, described the introduction of the Rescue suit like this back in 2010:
But now she's given the opportunity to don the mantle herself. She doesn't have to be support staff anymore, not a plot device, not tied to the train tracks, not doing her part to make exposition less obvious. She's stepping into position not only as a heroine, but as a protagonist. That's really interesting to me because it's completely foreign territory for Pepper; it’s way out of her comfort zone. Doubt and fear are not emotions with which Pepper's accustomed. Having the opportunity to be with her and sort of metaphorically hold her hand as she makes her way through this particular minefield, creatively, it’s a great place to be.
But of course that's a lie, right, I mean, it's a hugely hopeful statement about what Rescue will be in comics, but it's not true; Pepper's still a sidekick, she's had that one-shot but she mostly appears in Iron Man comics. She's still a plot device sometimes, she's still tied to train tracks sometimes, and giving her the Rescue suit doesn't really reduce the ways in which she could be tied to train tracks. It gives Pepper a new way to be awesome - though she also saved people before the Rescue suit showed up - but it also gives writers a new way to put her in distress. And it doesn't fix the underlying structural problem. She's still a sidekick, and her superheroing can be taken away at any time. (Indeed, as far as I know there are no plans to do Rescue in the Gillen run, but I'm not reading Iron Man comics right now because Greg Land I can't even, so correct me if I'm wrong.) And Kelly Sue DeConnick thinks of the Rescue suit as a way to make Pepper doubt herself and feel fear, not as a way to make her feel awesome and competent. This isn't the narrative I see people talking about in hopeful tumblr posts, where Pepper gets a suit and becomes an amazing badass superhero who kicks ass and takes names and shows no fear. And so it's weird to me to see people talk about Rescue as if that's the story arc in those comics and as if that's what Rescue represents.

It's also complicated because Pepper in comics had already had a different heroic identity before Rescue that many people ignore in talking about her backstory - for a while in like 2007 in Matt Fraction's short-lived Order comics, she was Hera, helping to lead the Order in California, and doing it superpower-less. Basically she was like Barbara Gordon as Oracle - the person managing the flow of information, watching the superhero team and giving them orders. To me, Hera made sense as a storyline for a Pepper who wanted to do some superheroing; it uses Pepper's amaze organization and leadership skills and felt like something she could and would do. But almost no-one has called for Pepper to be Hera in Avengers 2 or 3, to do the organizational stuff and call the plays; instead, when people speculated about "promoting" Pepper to a superhero in the MCU, it was always about the suit. It's about grabbing falling airplanes and flying around saving people, because organization and leadership isn't enough. (And hey, Oracle isn't Oracle anymore, either, because it's important that she kick people in the face as well.)

Which isn't to say that people shouldn't be excited about the Rescue suit - it's pretty cool! I look forward to it a lot! But framing Rescue in opposition to being a damsel in distress, as if movie!Pepper's never done anything but be tied to railroad tracks and as if Rescue will prevent it from ever happening; or framing Rescue as the only natural and logical choice since Pepper is so awesome, as if there's no other way to be awesome; or, basically, calling it a promotion to move from an undervalued kind of power that's often seen as feminine (organizing, managing, taking care of shit) to an overvalued kind of power that's often seen as masculine (catching falling airplanes single-handed), is really depressing. And I see it all the time, in all of these interviews and in all of these squeeful tumblr posts.

To compare to some other parts of comics/movie fandom, just from a single forum thread on superherohype about whether Rescue should be introduced in IM3: It's the "logical progression" of the character in the movies (because CEO -> flying superhero!). It's the thing that fixes her "damsel in distress"-ness and makes her a "femme fighter." It would let her fly away "instead of screaming, yelling and running in circles like in IM and IM2." And of course, because comics fandom, we also get sexism in the other direction, with people talking about how it's "cheesy" and "ridiculous" and "repetitive" and "makes the armors feel cheap." And "building a suit of armor to protect his girlfriend/wife makes no story sense. What's she supposed to do, go with him on missions/adventures?" And then other people saying that of course it makes sense, but doesn't make her a superhero: "She'll just be wearing it to protect herself. I don't see it as being ridiculous, and I don't see her suddenly becoming a superhero." So you can't win, right, if she's Rescue it's just to protect her and not to make her a superhero. Or it's a promotion, it means she can stop being a damsel in distress and be a superhero; if she's not Rescue, then she's just screaming for help, whining "Tony!" Or she can't be Rescue because unlike Tony and Rhodey she doesn't "deserve" a suit. The bazillions of different ways that people can be sexist about the same character.

And making Rescue the thing that proves Pepper has value is responding to those sexist arguments; it's partly because people say that she doesn't deserve a suit that people say "no but she can be an awesome badass superhero and kick people in the head." But that argument ends up participating in the same game by agreeing on first principles: that kicking people in the head is more valuable than CEOing. That women who don't kick people in the head don't count. It privileges the exact same kinds of competence and the same kinds of power as the arguments about who "deserves" a suit.

And so I'd really love it if people who love Pepper, and people who call themselves feminists, and people who say they love "strong female characters," could avoid replicating the same side of that argument over. And over. And over. If we could say "oh man I hope Pepper's awesome as Rescue!" without saying "because she's worthless without the suit."

Many people have talked about this before me - people talking about how MCU Pepper isn't a damsel in distress, fuckyeahblackwidow talking about distaff superheros, captainsmarvelandamerica starting a conversation about why people keep saying now Pepper can 'do something', and greatspookybutt and ourladyoftheironmasque have a long conversation about their feels about Rescue starting here; note also that ironmasque also doesn't like Pepper as a character in that arc. Also since Fraction took away the Rescue and War Machine suits before the Gillen/Land Marvel NOW Iron Man, there are many conversations about that, e.g. this thread on tumblr. Giant canon, lots of meta!

And if you want to see some of what Rescue looks like in comics, I made a giant highlights and lowlights of Rescue post which I moved to another post because it was so huge.

PS: Speaking of "I hope Pepper's awesome as Rescue," just think of it, though, okay, that Tony/a suit scene from the first trailer that everyone fanarted for days? That's Pepper. AWESOME. If nothing else, we can get some amazing fic out of this, right?
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