In dealing with the portrayal of women in Iron Man, there are two distinct, but obviously related points we need to discuss:
How Tony, as an individual, relates to women and How women are used to advance the plot by an author. These are pretty difficult things to discuss because how Tony relates to women is part of the plot, so in trying to talk about it, it is really hard to keep them separate and the whole post gets ramble-y and hard to follow.
How Tony, as an individual, relates to women is something that has changed considerably over time. Fraction and Gillen have consistently written Tony has having borderline anonymous sexual encounters with people he doesn’t care to have in his life long term. (With the exception of Tony’s trysts with Maria and Pepper while brain damaged.) Tony speaks about this as something he has been doing for a long time. In team books, where Tony’s personal life is not a focus, any reference to his social life is off-handedly treated the same way. He’s screwing some woman who does not matter.
The way the text devalues is women is self-aware. The writers are purposefully writing Tony as someone who has problematic relationships with women. He treats them like they are things. He treats them like they are disposable. We as readers recognise that there is something off in Tony’s mind. He’s not okay, somehow, and his treatment of women is a symptom of that.
Okay. Fine. The text is aware. The author is critiquing something. Gillen’s Iron Man #4, with it’s 13 identical demon women was a very unsubtle attack on the way comics as a medium (and Tony as an individual) views women as interchangeable. The issue ends with the admission that treating people as things is wrong, wow, brilliant message.
This is a far cry from the Tony Stark of the 70’s-90’s. For most of his history, Tony has pursued serious relationships almost exclusively. When on a social date with someone he did not care to continue seeing, Tony did not take the evening all the way to sex and then depart in the morning. If he didn’t want to keep seeing her, he made that clear. Tony wanted to be loved. Tony wanted to get married. Tony wanted to have children. He pursued women with those goals in mind. He was not looking for someone to have a roll in the hay with, he was looking for someone to spend his life with.
This is not to say that Tony necessarily treated the women well. He was manipulative. He lied long-term. Both versions of Tony are someone who does not know how to appropriately deal with other people. But the difference in Tony’s goals meant a difference in his relationships with women and in the way the text portrayed women. The relationships were important. The characters were significant. They were not treated as objects or things to be replaced or disposed of.
Being pursued as a long-term partner, the women were intelligent, (largely) confidant, driven and (largely) successful. Tony dated a variety of women, but they all stood as his equals. They had back stories and goals and even when the text or Tony did not agree with their choices, the text did not demean them. The women in Tony’s life were worthy of and allotted respect, from the gun-toting bodyguard to the pregnant alcoholic who abused welfare. There was no value judgement placed upon them. We were not expected to think that one woman inherently had more worth than another.
Compare to today. Pepper Potts, and Pepper Potts alone, is given respect. (And even that is problematic — I’ve written a lot about the issues with the Rescue storyline.) The women Tony romances are dismissed and made fun of. Women known for being successful in a given field fail in that field, almost universally. Tony speaks openly about his history of mostly anonymous sexual encounters, effectively erasing easily a dozen serious relationships and the respect given to those women as individuals during their time in the book.
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