Iron(y) Man 3: Saving Muslim Women

Iron(y) Man 3: Saving Muslim Women July 2, 2013

An Iron Patriot action figure.

Explosions, gripping fight scenes, artificial intelligence, funny one-liners, sexist playboy arrogance and close-ups of Robert Downey Jr.’s face overlaid with computer graphics are everything I expect when walking into an Iron Man movie. What I don’t expect are convenient and overused Hollywood tropes about Muslim women.

So now you know my guilty pleasure. I’m a science-fiction-superhero-action-film geek — and I frequent these movie genres in part to turn off my brain, enjoy some CGI eye-candy, and go fanatical over favourite characters and stories. And while I always secretly hope that films involving terrorists, vague references to Arabs, or locations in the Middle East will avoid using oft-repeated narratives that demonize Muslims, I’m still surprised whenever they pop up.

It’s frequently discussed on Muslimah Media Watch that Hollywood movies often orientalize or objectify Muslim women characters as marginalized props — creating scenes with women shrowded in black just to illustrate how “foreign,” “other,” or oppressed women are by the “bad guys.” These tropes conveniently justify all sorts of terrible actions by the “good guys” to save the day and liberate teh womenz.

Even when identified as essential to the plot, Muslim women are only given agency to play terrorists or victims of Islam and Muslim men. Rarely are they positively portrayed as strong, intelligent, amazing women. And when they are, they’re killed off. Like my all time favourite (and only) Muslim character in the television program Doctor Who — a fantastic woman who uses her enviable wit and intelligence to help the Doctor solve an essential problem. And then promptly dies at the hands of an alien monster.

Her role as a Muslim is to drive the plot by the virtue of her “Muslimness” and unwavering faith in God — a key clue in resolving the episode — making her fantastic character completely and utterly expendable.

Muslim women own about 20 seconds of screen time in the latest edition of Iron Man, during which they are nothing more than a convenient plot element.

Scene from Iron Man 3.

Iron Man 3 picks up where The Avengers movie left off. After Loki’s failed attack on New York City, the United States is left vulnerable and now faces a new terrorist threat: The Mandarin. This anonymous terrorist hacks television signals to broadcast verbal threats and claims responsibility for several bombing attacks on military installations and personnel. The United States’ government-backed military responds by deploying “War Machine” — an Iron-Man-like-mechanical suit worn by the character Colonel Rhodes. We soon learn though, that he is re-branded, and the newly marketed “Iron Patriot” cavorts around the globe seeking out terrorists, delivering the government’s unwavering message of strength in this war against The Mandarin.

At one point, the military sends Iron Patriot to Pakistan to investigate a suspected Mandarin broadcast point of origin. After he breaks down the door to a sweatshop, we see a room full of women in black niqab working away at sewing machines. “Target not armed” flashes across one woman’s veil as he scans the room for weapons — objectifying her face into a convenient projection screen. Reporting back to his superiors, Iron Patriot jokes:

“Unless the Mandarin’s next attack on the US involves cheaply made sportswear, I think you messed up again.”

And to the women as they flee the scene:

“Yes, you’re free, if you weren’t before. Iron Patriot on the job. Happy to help. No need to thank me.”

Unfortunately for the Iron Patriot, among the veiled women is an actual female terrorist, who uses the anonymity of the veil to blend in with the other women. He’s quickly given a supremely harsh ass kicking, and is captured.

In just twenty seconds, this film manages to hit almost every stereotype and constructed fear about Muslim women imaginable, including: Muslim women need saving, Muslim and Pakistani women are easily homogenized, Muslim women are oppressed, Muslim women are terrorists, Muslim women are anonymous props, Muslim women are voiceless, and, score one for the anti-niqab lobby, the niqab poses a security risk.

To make matters worse, some reviews of Iron Man 3 note that the film openly criticizes drone strikes, the war on terror and the military-industrial complex. So even though pains were made to poke metaphors at the current millitary actions of the United States, it seems that no one thought to use this as an opportunity to break down stereotypes and challenge status quo Hollywood representations of Muslim women.

I don’t think this is too much to ask for, especially considering the fact that actor Faran Tahir was successful in challenging an anti-Muslim script during the first Iron Man movie — changing it from having a group of Muslim terrorists kidnap Tony Stark to a group of “international mercenaries.”

Then of course, there’s the elephant in the room:

A tweet from Wajahat Ali: “Why do all the Muslim women in IRON MAN 3 wear niqabs when they are surrounded by only women? Hmmn.”

This scene does nothing more than support tired stereotypes of Muslim women. And if it was supposed to be ironic, making fun of American millitary intelligence and the current media construction of these stereotypes, it still failed miserably.

Now, does any of this really matter when action films and comics in general are sexist and objectify women indiscriminately?  What does it matter if Muslim women are pulled along for the ride?

Downplaying strong female characters and relying on Muslim women stereotypes is problematic not only because it help perpetuate negative attitudes and incorrect assumptions, but also because it alienates portions of the fan base. I may be a fan, and enjoy this media — but I can also simultaneously be critical of its more problematic aspects whenever they crop up. Just like other fans, I want to be able to see myself as a superhero taking down bad guys, flying the TARDIS, or piloting a starship. But when there is a concerted effort to erase or stereotype Muslim women, it hurts my geeky pride to see myself erased as well.

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15 responses to “Iron(y) Man 3: Saving Muslim Women”

  1. Well, Islam must have arrived as a major American religion if you’re getting stereotyped in movies. Kick your pride aside and learn to laugh about it like us Catholics. Seems like Hollywood is slowly deciding you’re no better–or scarier–than we are. And be glad you don’t have a Pope to poke fun at.

    • Normally I would say that you are absolutely correct, but Catholics aren’t hated as much as they used to be. When crimes are committed such as physical beatings, assaults, destroying/vandalizing mosques, etc., it’s not easy for any Muslim to “kick [their] pride aside and learn to laugh about it like us Catholics.”

      • None of this is either good, nor something to laugh at. But I do feel we all must guard against being so super vigilant in spotting slights that we see offense behind every tree. This will neither narrow the gap between diverse ethnic/religious groups, nor enable any of us to co-exist together peacefully.

        • Holy false equivalencies! Muslims get the same treatment Catholics do in Hollywood movies! Thats why there are so many blockbusters where the main characters is a Muslim and Muslims are portrayed normally, with their religion being an incidental detail. Really I just can’t stop listing the many, numerous examples like …. um, yeah.

          Remind me again, is every second portrayal of Catholics in Hollywood movies, about how they are bunch of irredeemable boyfuckers, who continuously molest children and are secretly working to bring the United States under nefarious Vatican Law? Because that is the only way, that spurious equivalence would be even halfway tenable.

          Oh Ⓔⓢⓣ⋅Ⓠⓤⓞⓓ⋅Ⓔⓢⓣ thanks for helpfully linking to a rabidly Islamophobic book by arch- neocon thug Douglas Murray (With a blurb by “Mad” Melanie Philips of all people) and removing all doubt about your motives, you prick. Perhaps you should stick to the comments sections of Atlasshrugs and Jihad Watch, where you patened brand of concern trolling bigotry is more welcome.

  2. I’ve noticed “trope” is becoming a widely overused word of choice for critics and reviewers.

  3. This is getting good, I think. Has anyone seen ‘Traitor (2008)’ with Don Cheadle and Guy Pearce from IM3? Check it out and tell me that isn’t pretty much a feel good movie about Islam. The basic thrust is that Islam has been hijacked by a few “traitors” who don’t even follow the precepts of the religion. Don Cheadle is a REAL Muslim who goes undercover to bust the terrorists who aren’t really Muslims. It’s a gas.

    • Yes one (One!) movie no one saw makes up for all the other movies Hollywood churns out. Hell even that movie has plenty of problematic elements. (Predictaably enough with movies like these, all Muslims other than Cheadle’s character are eeevil terrorists out to attack America)

      BTW. you haven’t addressed where you get off thinking that you could reccommend blatantly Islamophobic thrash on this website. Like I said this isn’t the JihadWatch forums.

      I swear, moderation has gone to shit on this site.

      • I’m not sure that you understand the movie. In the movie, Cheadle’s character represents the supposed vast majority of Muslims whose religion has been hijacked by the few violent radicals. The bad guys are shown to not be devout Muslims at all–they eat pork, drink alcohol and are totally decadent. Cheadle is cooperating with Americans but his handler gets offed and he’s all on his own. So he puts all the martyrs on the same bus and ruins their plans himself. The Americans are shown as a bunch of bumblers who don’t really get it.

        I think this is a complete fantasy and total unrealistic. Actually the evidence supports that the more devout a Muslim is the more likely he is to be violent. But the movie does a good job of getting it’s message across. Let me know if you ever need any other films explained to you.

        • Oh, I think understand the movie perfectly, whatever the intentions of the filmmakers. One token “good” Muslim surrounded by tens of bad ones, makes the point unambiguous and places it in a long tradition of Hollywood movies with a similar theme.

          But since you are such an expert, do you think the more devout a Catholic, the more likely they are they are to be child molesters? How about my proposal to castrate all Catholic Priests for the safety of all children? Or would it be better to expand it to all “devout” Catholics? In the interests of child safety of course.

          A sub par 2/10 on the trolling Spencer fanboy. Like I said, stick to the JihadWatch forums.

        • “Actually the evidence supports that the more devout a Muslim is the more likely he is to be violent.”

          This is really untrue. See, for instance, this: Jeremy Ginges, Ian Hansen,and Ara Norenzayan, “Religion and Support for Suicide Attacks,” Psychological Science, Vol.20, No.2 (February 2009), pp. 224-230.

          There they show that ‘devotion’ (how would one operationalize this anyway?) is not correlated with support for suicide attacks, at least not with Muslims.

          I have never seen a study, in fact, that gives support for your claim.

    • There is no such thing as Islamophilla shithead, except in the fevered imaginations of knuckledraggers like you and your fellow Islamophobes. And a Spencer fanboy like you is no position to decide who is “very smart” or not. You are a particularly dumb troll, as it took only your second comment for you to expose yourself. A quick look at your other comments and your blog shows you to be just another dimwitted Islamophobe, here only to troll for reactions. Just sticking to whining about abortions in Catholic websites from now okay, dumbass?

      BTW, I think that as all Catholic Priests are potential child molesters, they should all be castrated without exception for the safety of all children. Anybody who disagrees is either a child molester himself or suffering from a terminal phase of Christianophilia. (Note: In deference to Poe’s law, this comment is merely satire, unlike the sincerely expressed bigotry of troll Ⓔⓢⓣ⋅Ⓠⓤⓞⓓ⋅Ⓔⓢⓣ, above)

      • Moderator note: As per our comment moderation policy, please make your points without calling people names.

  4. Faran Tahir should have played Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness.

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