Warning: Mild Avengers: Infinity War spoilers from the first 15 minutes of the movie. Scroll past Pepper and Tony when you’re ready.
Maybe it’s just because the trailer for Incredibles II came right before our showing of Avengers, but one thing in the movie really struck me wrong–the way women, primarily Pepper Potts, harass their (stronger, super-er, more impressive) boyfriends/fiances/love interests.
Pepper Potts is by far the worst offender. When we first see Tony and Pepper, Tony is going on about wanting to have a baby with Pepper. She tsks him away, pointing to the arc reactor on his chest and asking him when he is going to stop. When a wizard opens a magic portal in Central Park and insists Tony Stark has to go somewhere right now to save the world, Pepper’s first thought is to tell Tony not to go. When Tony misses their dinner reservation because he is off doing some super-heroism, Pepper is nagging away on the phone as Tony cringes in sadness as the signal fades out.
But why? Why hasn’t Pepper accepted that this urge to protect the world is just part of who Tony is? She has been with him the longest. She has risen in the movies from employee to CEO of Stark Industries, been rescued and worn the suit. Iron Man is an integral part of Tony’s life. How can she claim to love Tony if she can’t accept that this is part of who he is?
Sure, she doesn’t have to like it. And I get the writers threw in that call as a heartstring-tugging moment to let Tony be a bigger, more impressive, more self-sacrificing hero. But come on, Pepper. You’ve got a lot going for you. If you didn’t like this part of Tony, you could have left.
This is my same problem with the Incredibles‘s Frozone. Yes, that “I am the greatest good” line is pretty funny, but I’m really disappointed to see it continued in the newest movie (at least, according to the trailers). It bothers me, a lot, that Frozone and Mrs. Frozone (who we never even see on screen!) can’t sit down like reasonable adults and talk this out. Why can’t he be sitting down to dinner, and then the wife looks out the window, sees the giant attacking robot before Frozone does, and hurries to help him get dressed? Why can’t she insist he move faster before that robot destroys her azaleas? Why can’t she be supportive of his activities outside the house?
What I would like to see out of at least some female supporting characters is…support. In other movies, we get firefighter wives who cook a meal for the whole fire house, or triumphant military wives who are proud to be able to see their men off to war, or boxers’ wives who go moment-to-moment through the fight afterward with their man, patching him up for the next go or whatever. They may not like the danger, but they understand that this is important to their spouse so they do what they can to make it happen.
Where is that for a superhero movie?
I think it’s missing because of cultural norms. Thanks to Victorian America, we have this concept of separate spheres: the man’s place is outside the home, the woman’s place is in it. Women are constantly trying to “snare” a man, to “trap” him and “hold him back” with marriage. That ball-and-chain gag depicts the relationship; it’s gross.
We should be beyond that. We live in a two-income world, where relationships are supposed to be decided based on love and mutual interests. And relationships are supposed to be based on trust and understanding. Something like understanding when the motivation of your partner is to run toward danger rather than away from it.
I do have one example that gets it right. In the Dresden Files books by Jim Butcher, Michael Carpenter is a Knight of the Cross–basically a holy crusader who is always being called to danger at a moments’ notice, often with wizard Harry Dresden. He has a passel of kids and a wife, Charity. Charity does not like Harry much; she doesn’t like the dangers her husband gets in with Harry around. She doesn’t quite trust Harry. But she trusts her husband and his calling 1000%. She supports him in everything. Her fear and anger at Harry is turned into something formidable; she’s one of only a few humans who can scare Harry Dresden, and he’s fought vampires and werewolves. But for her husband? She is understanding. She helps out. She is a great spouse and an excellent role model.
I want to see more Charity Carpenters in superhero movies. I want the women, even those who are “just” supporting characters, to have nuanced, good relationships. Because the nag thing is a tired trope.