James Cameron’s “Avatar” (PG-13)

James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) became the highest grossing film in history when he used cutting edge motion capture technology to introduce the world of Pandora. I am glad that this was my first time watching the film, because I must admit that the visual effects are mesmerizing. There is something completely different about Pandora and the Na’vi that an audience cannot find anywhere else accept in Cameron’s imaginative film. Despite its uniqueness however, Avatar has easily recognizable stereotypes about the female body.

To begin, I must point out that male bodies dominate the film. The first female character, with a name—Grace—does not appear until ten minutes into the movie, and even then, she is only one of four females in a list of thirteen named characters. The military presence on Pandora is heavily male. Female extras play office-assistant type roles, while only men are deployed to fight in the jungle. Similarly, the Chief of the tribe, Eytukan, is male while the spiritual leader, Mo’at, is female. Throughout the film, female bodies are placed in supportive roles to male bodies. The most poignant example of this is when Jake takes charge of the clan to lead them to battle. In this scene at the Tree of Souls, he finishes speaking to the crowd, takes Neytiri’s hand, dragging her behind him, then lifts her on to the Toruk and takes off with her riding behind him. This moment reflects the rest of the film so well because in this instance, the female body is used almost as an accessory—an object—to the ruling power of a man. He simply does what he wants with her, despite that the audience has certainly seen her to be very capable on her own. Ultimately, however, the Jake holds power and can use the female body as he sees fit.

At first glance, I thought that the Na’vi all had the same features; same body, same tail, same hair, same skin, same eyes, nose, etc. What I came to realize was that they do all seem similar, but when examined more closely through a critical lens, there are defined differences between male and female bodies within the tribe. The Na’vi all have the same blue skin tone, and tall, Avatar-543191lean body types, but there is a feminine edge that distinguishes Neytiri from Jake. I will use these two characters as a typical comparison. Neytiri wears much more jewelry than Jake. She has beads braided into her NeytiriJakeCouple_1600hair as well as earrings. The accessories she wears around her neck also serve to cover up her small breasts, and she wears a small cloth to cover up the bottom of her. Her body, while very similar to Jake’s, is smaller. Not surprising, but still very notable. While Jake has wide shoulders that drastically taper to a vlcsnap2010052903h15m53narrower waist, Neytiri is petite all over. Her shoulders, arms and waist are all smaller in diameter than Jake’s, and, while she is certainly lean in stature, Jake’s muscles are much more defined. These gendered characteristics can be applied to all imgresthe Na’vi characters in the film. Even Grace’s avatar body is less clothed than the male avatars at the beginning of Jake’s adventure. She too wears necklaces and beads in her hair.

I was almost taken aback when I did discover these gendered body images. In such an imaginative and alternative film, I thought that gender norms could be broken down, and not only that, but it might certainly be easier to accomplish by creating a new species. Remarkably, however, the Na’vi have the same gender regulated bodies as humans and with the same implications too. Ultimately, bodily differences between the male and female Na’vi serve to make the woman smaller and less powerful. The additional jewelry and earrings are gendered, but so is the way that the body is pronounced. The dominant muscles in the males give them stength over the feminine body. Additionally, while the hair among the Na’vi is similar across genders, the eyes are slightly distinct. Neytiri has much bigger and rounder eyes than Jake’s narrower almond shaped eyes, as shown in the image below. This holds for the rest of the clan as well. The gendered difference in animation here accentuates innocence within the female body, again putting them in a submissive position to the male bodies around them.

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Twilight (PG-13)

Most people living anywhere near the U.S. around 2007 knew about the Twilight craze. For a number of years these books and movies were a huge hit across a large and relatively diverse group of people, although women were the main audience. Twilight immediately started a new trend, vampires. A number of new television shows, movies, and books began popping up and it almost certainly had a lot to do with the mysterious, dangerous, sexiness of the vampire life. Although Bella herself is relatively conservative, the vampires are always fashionably dressed in tight, revealing clothing. Not only are they dressed beautifully, but they are “impossibly beautiful,” their skin even sparkles like diamonds. Although this sounds somewhat ridiculous, this is what young girls are consuming. It doesn’t matter that this is a completely fictitious world, to them these are people and they are, quite literally, setting impossibly high standards of beauty.

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Anyone who has seen this movie can tell you that Edward and Bella’s relationship is very creepy. Bella is completely captivated by the idea that this man wants to suck her blood and kill her. Edward is much bigger than she is, he has super human strength, and he uses all of his “powers” to stalk her. This is what makes their relationship so appealing. The craze around vampires suddenly made dangerous sexy. Is this really the message that we want to be sending to teens though? In my opinion, it encourages men to treat women poorly because it promotes the idea that women like a dangerous man, one who stalks her and looks at her like food.

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Although Edward is a source of danger, he is also constantly there to help Bella out of trouble. Throughout the movie she constantly needs to be saved. She is clumsy and weak compared to him, but he has the power to save her. It’s always the guy. We so rarely get to see a strong woman saving the male character because it’s a threat to the masculine ideas that society has created. According to societal norms, as we see constantly reinforced in the movies, the woman is supposed to need saving. Women are weak and need men to protect them and take care of them. When this message is clearly displayed in movie after movie, women internalize it and start to think that they aren’t capable of being on their own. This is not the message that we should be sending. We should be showing young girls and teens strong female characters that are willing and able to take care of themselves. There is obviously nothing wrong with men, but it is wrong to think that a woman can’t survive without one.

Somewhat negating what I just said, there are powerful female character represented in Twilight, the problem is that they aren’t natural. The female vampires, along with being impossibly good looking, are also strong and confident. The issue is that these women are not “normal.” The female vampires don’t accurately relate to today’s teens because they aren’t human. Whereas many of the female characters in the movie are somewhat timid, not making eye contact and closing their bodies off when they’re around boys, the female vampires know how to use their bodies and their good looks to gain power over men.

As a PG13 movie, Twilight is marketed to teens. Everyone who’s gone through middle school and high school understands the emphasis that this age group puts on looks and the pressure that they feel. So when one takes a deeper look at the messages that are reinforced by Twilight and other PG13 movies it is easy to see where much of this insecurity comes from. This movie, along with other PG13 movies, really focuses on looks, particularly the body, as playing an important role in getting men. The girls go shopping for prom dresses “that make their boobs look good.” This focus on looks in movies is a constant reminder to teens watching that they have to worry about the way they look. Not only that, but it emphasizes the importance of looks over everything else. Although Bella seems to be smart, many of the other female characters in the movie are portrayed as very superficial and completely focused on boys. If the media were to shift their focus away from the female body and were to portray women in a different, more positive way, using something other than their looks, then we would begin to see the rates of depression and eating disorders decline.

Ted (R)

Ah, Ted… From the makers of Family Guy bring you the heartwarming tale of a 30something-year-old man, John, who still relies on a speaking teddy bear, Ted, to fall asleep while sharing a bed with his girlfriend, Lori. This movie portrays a non-traditional image of a family–not non-heterosexual–but despite, John and Lori being heterosexually attractive, neither match an ideal masculine or feminine image. John has a low paying job, is not in control of his life, and still plays with that f***ing teddy bear. Lori is a successful businesswoman (although the movie doesn’t specify what her career is) and brings home the bacon for their lives at home. John is well aware of this and his inability to at least match Lori’s income disturbs him. John’s incompetence at matching a masculine ideal is also tied to Ted, who is referred to as his best friend. Ted smokes a lot of pot and calls on prostitutes regularly–both of these activities disturb John and Lori, but specifically Lori. Ted is really show as a very strange version of an ideal man–one who can say anything he wants without repercussions and have any woman he wants (he has very strange furry “sex” with almost every sexualized woman in the movie, excluding Lori).

And indeed this movie does does generally hypersexualize women and portray men in a dominant position, sexually or otherwise. Ted and Rex, Lori’s boss, are the most flagrant offenders here. Various parts of the movie show Ted taking advantage of women’s bodies and assuming that women want to have sex with him–this ranges from dry humping the check out scanner in a (successful!) attempt at seducing a woman to drawing Garfield on a topless woman’s chest to prove that Garfield’s eyes look like a pair of breasts. Rex, clearly an antagonist, repeatedly harasses Lori at the workplace, using his position to try to convince her to dump John and go on a date with him. In a scene where Lori and John go to Rex’s house to go to a party as a chance to extend an olive branch to the couple, Rex leads John away from the party and is seen putting something in John’s drink so that he can take advantage of Lori. John doesn’t drink the spiked drink because he leaves when he hears that the actor who played Flash Gordon is at Ted’s party and the movie does not show Lori being taken advantage of, but Rex is nonetheless pretty dangerous.

We should also look at how John and Lori’s relationship still shows how heteronormative behavior is encouraged in movies. John is always encouraged to be the active partner in the relationship. He is encouraged to actively step up for stages of the relationship when Lori is meant to passively expect these things coming from him. But since, as I mentioned earlier, Lori and John don’t have heteronormative power relations, this causes me to have a lot of questions about the premises of the movie. Isn’t Lori the one with the assertive personality which helped her become a successful businesswoman? She’s the one who brings home the bacon–why should she, and not John, who is hopelessly distracted from his job by his pot-smoking teddy bear, propose to John? Lori is filled with this contradictory view of femininity–she’s assertive but encouraged and expected to be passive and really plays into female stereotypes. I feel as though Seth MacFarlane (one of the writers and creators) was attempting to create a complex female character, but fell victim to heterosexist views of women.

 

Patrick Gallagher Landes

Gender Dimorphism

In an article from The Society Pages sociological images section, Philip Cohen analyzes the wrist circumference of animated female characters in relation to their male counter parts. Check out the full article here, but in the mean time, here is just an example using Frozen from the article.

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These images clearly depict the exaggerated size difference discussed within the Frozen post, but the article points out this prevalent phenomenon within many other animated films as well.

Frozen (PG)

It is easy to get caught up in the hype of Disney’s latest animated hit, Frozen. The film has become the largest grossing animated film of all time and caused a lot of buzz. Part of the attraction to the film is that it deviates slightly from the rigidly structured plot of most of Disney’s films. The first moment where this occurs most prominently is when Elsa and Kristoff question Anna when she wants to marry Hans after only a day of knowing him. This objection certainly steps away from the absurd trop of other Disney animated films where the lead female character meets her love interest and immediately know that it is “true love.” Additionally, Queen Elsa transforms during the film into a self-empowered leader in order to save her kingdom. This accomplishment is also a welcome turn from the usually Disney theme in which the princess has to find her prince by the end of the film. In this case, not only is she Queen Elsa, but she rules alone, without a man, strong and independent. Despite these qualities however, it is still very much a Disney animated film. Despite the marketing for the film, I was surprised to find that the heroine of the film was not Elsa, as I was lead to believe. Rather the story follows her younger sister Anna and her journey to help save the kingdom with the help of Kristoff.

Because of this, I will analyze Anna first, as the main character of the plot line. Anna remains entrenched in the typical Disney role due to several characteristics. The first is her appearance. The dresses that she wears within the film are certainly feminine, but they are less sophisticated than her older sister’s clothes. In addition, her hairstyle remains in two braids throughout the movie—with the exception of her sister’s coronation, a special event. Her hairstyle is certainly young, and, unlike Elsa’s transformed appearance, her clothes are ordinary. The result of these physical traits is that Anna seems almost childish despite the fact that she is the main heroine of the movie. Her clumsy demeanor perpetuates this childish persona. Some viewers would say that Anna is not afraid to speak her mind and, in combination with her clumsiness, this makes her different from the image of the perfect princesses seen in other Disney movies. Unfortunately, her goofiness serves the same function as her clothing; it makes her seem childish. This trivializes Anna’s character, thereby diminishing her influence as the main heroine of the film.

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Unfortunately, even within Frozen women are categorized into filmic tropes that lessen their credibility. Anna is placed in a silly, almost dumb blonde category, while Elsa is seen—quite literally—as an ice queen. The beginning of the film serves to establish why Elsa is so shut-off from her younger sister, and on the day of the coronation, the viewer gets to see Elsa as she is grown-up. While her appearance consists of a dress similar in style to Anna’s, her neckline is much higher, the dress has long sleeves, and she wears a cape and gloves that covers her up even further. Her hair differs from her sister as well. Although for the ball, they both wear their hair up in buns, the viewer knows that Anna typically wears it in braids, therefore, Elsa’s typical hairstyle is seen as a bun. This appearance (shown in the right of the image below) serves to show the audience how uptight and closed off Elsa is. The other characters within the film certainly see her this way and chastise her for it. Evidently, her demeanor and certainly her appearance contribute to this persona that everyone around her judges her by. These traits may seem inconsequential, but they are also important when compared to her transformation on the mountain.

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When Elsa runs off from her kingdom, and builds her own home in the mountains, a song of empowerment transforms her appearance. In one tilt of the camera angle, rising from the floor to her head, Elsa looks drastically Screen shot 2014-04-24 at 3.28.25 PMdifferent. Her dress becomes a much lighter blue that shimmers and skims off her shoulders, and while it is still full length, it is certainly form fitting and a slit in the right leg of the gown goes most of the way up her thigh. Because of the slit in her dress, we can also November 1st, 2013 @ 20:49:52see that she is wearing heels—great for walking on ice and snow. Additionally, Elsa’s hair changes from her bun to a flowing, loose braid that drapes over one shoulder. This change from her covered-up style of dress to a more sexy, revealing one is meant to signal her change in demeanor. At the beginning of the film Elsa is viewed as uptight, unapproachable and scary by those around her, largely in part because of the way that she presents herself. The style change dictates that she is not longer uptight, but that she is free and confident—she literally lets her hair down. Unfortunately, Elsa’s new look does not just reveal a new personality, but it reveals her body. Her style is very sexy for a Disney movie—even her walk changes, as she now struts along with her hips visibly swaying from side to side. Because her newfound confidence appears in tandem with her new sexy look, it is as though she becomes more confident because her appearance has changed, not because she herself has developed. Another problem with this change is that it conveys to the audience that while she appears fully covered she is almost bitchy, until she reveals herself more, and that is seen as gaining confidence. This, along with the male-gaze shot that captures the transformation, is a problematic message to be giving to the young viewers of the film, that confidence is produced by the way that you look—particularly, wearing revealing clothing.

Another image of the female body becomes apparent when observed in contrast with the male characters of the film. For this I will focus on Kristoff because he is more prominently featured and embodies specific male body image traits of masculinity. The sheer size of Kristoff, with huge broad shoulders and a narrow waist, is comparable to the way that Anna is portrayed. This can be seen in the image below in which Kristoff is twice the breadth of Hans, a male character who is already much larger than Anna.  In one scene where he covers Anna mouth to get her to stop talking—an issue all in itself—his hand comes in direct contrast with her face. His hand is the size of her head! Not only is this unrealistic, but it places Anna in a very submissive position. The action of physically making her stop talking has power implications, but so too does the size of Kristoff in relation to Anna. His dominating size in comparison to Anna’s frail body makes him more prominent. Other male characters within the film do not dominate the space as much because they are not seen as main characters. Kristoff on the other hand is displayed as a more dominating character than the main heroine because of his unrealistic physical stature.

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Ultimately, the body images within Frozen are typical of any film. Women are placed into tropic categories (sexy, bitchy, dumb and/or innocent) through their bodily portrayal, and their significance is further threatened by the large and unrealistic difference in stature when compared to male characters.

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Tarzan (G)

The first image of the female body that the audience sees in the film is Tarzan’s mother carrying her baby boy to safety from their wrecked ship. Important to notice in this seemingly harmless image is the role that is already mapped out for female characters throughout the film. Tarzan’s parents are White and the audience can recognize that they are British aristocrats because that is the group of individuals that would have had the capital and status to make such a journey near Africa. His biological mother is already established by her status as a White, aristocratic and attractive looking young women within seconds of her first appearance in the film. The next thing it is important to notice about her is the stance she holds in comparison to her husband. As the couple attempts to find shelter on land from the rough storm, she clutches to her baby protectively, while her husband in turn guides her forward with his arm wrapped around her. The implication of their bodily position is that the young woman is expected to care for the child while her husband acts as protector of both of them. Not only does this image present the woman as mother rather than individual, but it also poses her as the protected. With the man in the role of leadership and power (guiding her to safety), the woman is placed in a more submissive role as caretaker for the baby. This structure of motherhood is reiterated throughout the film. The family portrait that is smashed in the tree house holds a picture with the same mother and protector structured image.

parents             Additionally, Kala and Jane perpetuate this idea of motherhood presented at the introduction to the film. Not only does Kala immediately take on the role of adoptive mother when she finds Tarzan—assuming the same coddling stance as his deceased mother—but the way she treats him is distinctly different than her mate, Kerchak. Kala’s reaction to finding the baby boy might be described as a motherly instinct; she scoops him into her arms and protects him from the leopard, Sabor, without question. This decidedly feminine function is a result of what Lita Hollingworth would describe in her article Social Devices for Impelling Women to Bear and Rear Children to be a result of social control within art and public opinion. This film ultimately portrays a widely held view that motherhood is a product of natural instinct despite the lack of scientific evidence for such a phenomenon. Hollingworth’s category of art also applies to the Disney film industry, which, in this case, depicts how women should react to children: automatically caring, protective and nurturing. Jane shows evidence of this same motherhood trop, when she shows an affinity for the baby monkeys in the jungle. As a women, it is her expected role to care for the young, regardless of what species they are.

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On a different subject, but related, both Kala and Jane are aggressive in very specific instances. Kala for example is not violent in the face of danger unless her child is at risk. When Sabor tries to take Tarzan from her after she discovers him in the tree house, she bears her teeth, growling as a sign of defense and intimidation. She does so to protect Tarzan, and, as a mother figure, this is an acceptable form of aggression for a woman. Throughout the rest of the film it is either Kerchak or Tarzan that defends the family. Jane’s instances of violence occur in two places. Towards the end of the film, Jane actually fights back against a group of bad guys carting off Kala in cage. Again, we see a woman protecting a member of the (adopted) family. When Jane fights off the two bad guys, her actions are acceptable because she is protecting her family, but more than that, she is saving another female character. Aside from Kala saving Tarzan as a baby, we do not see a woman protecting a man in any scene. A male is the protector in every scene accept the one I have just mentioned but even in this case, Tarzan appears to help her free Kala. Jane’s other form of aggression occurs when she first meets Tarzan. Because he has not been socialized in the human world, Tarzan does not understand the concept of propriety or personal boundaries. He is so fascinated by Jane that he touches her chest to feel her heart beat, and tries to look up her dress to discover what is underneath it. The problem here is that a man is examining Jane’s body unwelcomingly—sexual assault in any other context—and so she slaps him in the face the first time, and then kicks him when he lifts up her skirt. These small instances of violence are justified because her virtue as a woman is endangered. Female aggression is allowed in instances to protect children, other females, or female virtue.

Jane’s appearance, from the way that she dresses to the way that she wears her hair, changes as she builds her relationship with Tarazan. When the audience first meets Jane, she wears a yellow gown, with long sleeves and a high collar, white, dainty gloves, heels and a sun umbrella. Through the forest!! This is actually what she chooses to wear to wander around the African jungle, and let me tell you, that does not seem practical. One thing that does seem practical is that she wears her hair wrapped up in a bun, so that it does not bother her in the humid jungle weather. From this original look, Jane’s appearance changes as she spends time with Tarzan. Soon she leaves her gown behind for an outfit more appropriate for the climate. While she may not be dressed and accessorized in an absurdly feminine way any longer—as I said, she wore white gloves and carried a sun umbrella through the jungle—her clothes become much more revealing. The progression of outfits becomes more scarce as the film goes along, and, in addition, her hairstyle goes from a bun, to half up, to completely loose around her shoulders. As you can see below, this continues to the end where her clothing is nothing but a crop top and a mini skirt. This change in appearance is interesting because she goes from one stereotype of women to another. In the beginning, she is certainly femininely attired, yet sheltered and innocent. By the end, she is feminine in a different way, in fact she is down-right sexy looking and dressed in a very revealing way for a G rated film. Her hairstyle adds to this suggested change, as long hair is a sign of feminine attractiveness. She is the Madonna, then the Whore.

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The last critical analysis of Tarzan that I will observe is the character of Terk. Terk is named on IMDB as the female sidekick to Tarzan. But despite the fact that Rosie O’Donnell voices her, Terk does not come across as a female character. Ultimately, the majority of the audience will view Terk as a buddy of Tarzan’s and while ‘buddy’ has a masculine connotation, the female character of Terk is often overlooked. The film almost hides the fact that there is another prominent female character within the film because Terk is placed in with the group of male buddies of Tarzan’s and gendered as such.

Tarzan depicts traditional roles of motherhood and childcare roles in addition to the very regulated use of the female body in relation to violence. These elements, along with Jane’s Madonna/Whore transformation and the hidden female character of Terk all serve to control and minimize the female body, from its regulated uses to its prominence in the jungle world ruled by male figures.

 

Iron Man 3 (PG-13)

For our first PG13 movie, I wanted to continue my focus on super-hero movies so I picked Iron Man 3, which features a different sort of super hero and a shorter list of supporting roles. It was also the fifth highest grossing movie of all time. Let’s not forget that, like Pixar, Marvel–the company which produced Iron Man 3, is owned by Disney. That doesn’t mean anything is inherently wrong with the movie itself, but Disney does advertise itself as company for children. So despite this movie being rated for 13 years and up, you can bet as much money as you want that much younger children will be playing with Iron Man action figures. So the plot of the story goes like this: Tony Stark, aka. Iron Man, loses his main Iron Man suit and must take down a terrorist organization which has figured out a way to make themselves be able to heat up to something like 3000 degrees Celsius(!) without damaging themselves because they are able to instantly regenerate. The main super-villain could even breathe fire! I’m going to analyze how this movie constructs gender roles by analyzing both the characters and the action (mainly fighting) in the movie–a slightly different approach than I did with The Incredibles. 

What I suppose is interesting in this movie is not the character’s bodies. Although Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark is in very good physical shape, his body is not outside the realm of natural body growth. Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts is not hypersexualized–even when wearing nothing but a sports bra and pants the film doesn’t pan the body looking for cleavage or distinctly outlined figure. Pepper shows some real physical strength and saves Tony multiple times. However, Pepper’s physical dominance is always qualified either with acquiring a super power or wearing an Iron Man suit–so it is not “normal” Pepper who is able to defend her husband or kill a bad guy. Tony’s is not. Tony has both the mental and physical power to evade and conquer his enemies without qualifications–even when not wearing a suit–and is put in a position of dominance over Pepper in their domestic relationship. Tony consistently overrides her decisions and reigns the household as patriarch even though Pepper is the only one who actually works. 

Now you may say, (SPOILERS) “Now, Patrick! Tony gave up all his Iron Man stuff because he realized how it was taking away from his marriage! His first priority was always his wife! He was just distracted!” Okay, Okay. While it’s fine to say that he realized how he was wrong for obsessing over his Iron Man suits, he concludes that he is still Iron Man. He still concludes that he is awesome for having done what he did. He doesn’t do much moral backtracking. He knows that he needs to give up his suits for psychological reasons–he was having anxiety attacks because of them. He blames this ill state of mind on why his marriage wasn’t working, not that he ignored his wife as his partner.

Another issue that I had with this movie was that, of the supporting and cameo roles, very few were women and of them many, if not all (I’m not counting Pepper as supporting–although her role is substantially smaller than Tony’s) of them died in fights with men. These women were unable to stand their ground in any situation in which they were fighting men even if they had the clear physical advantage. One woman who had acquired the heat/regeneration superpower was confronting Tony and he managed to both kill her and escape mainly unscratched and unfazed. These actions reinforce messages that men are inherently physically and mentally superior to women.

I want to go back to the idea of how children consume this movie. It’s highly conceivable that many children under 13 went to see this movie either at the movie theater, on tv, or on dvd and were influenced into buying some sort of toy which is related to it. If you do a quick Google image search of “Tony Stark Toys” and then “Pepper Potts Toys” you get very contrasting images. Tony’s toys are all in aggressive stances while Pepper’s toys are equally aggressive, yet sexualized in a way that you don’t see in the movie. The movie shows how she can wear a non-sexualized Iron Man suit just as easily as Tony Can, but her suit as portrayed by the toys is inherently a sexy female suit which emphasizes her breasts and butt. This goes back to what I was talking about with Helen Parr in The Incredibles–when men are in charge of making women powerful, they also hypersexualize them. Same stuff.

Patrick Gallagher Landes