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.
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.”