Explosions, gripping fight scenes, sexist playboy arrogance, and close-ups of Robert Downey Jr.'s face overlaid with computer graphics—these were all things I expect when walking into an Iron Man movie. What I don't expect are convenient and overused Hollywood tropes about Muslim women.
Hollywood movies often orientalize or objectify Muslim women characters as marginalized props – creating scenes with women shrouded 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 usually 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 favorite Muslim character in the television program Doctor Who—a fantastic woman who uses her wit and intelligence to help the Doctor solve an essential problem and then promptly dies at the hands of an alien monster).
Actor Faran Tahir had to challenge 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."
In Iron Man 3, Muslim women own about 20 seconds of screen time, during which they are nothing more than a convenient plot element.
Iron Man 3 picks up where The Avengers movie left off. The United States is vulnerable and now faces a new terrorist threat: The Mandarin. The military responds by deploying "War Machine" — an Iron-Man-like-mechanical suit worn by the character Colonel Rhodes. We soon learn, though, that he has been re-branded. 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. 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 a female terrorist who uses the anonymity of the veil to blend in with the other women.
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.
Then of course, there's the elephant in the room:
This scene does nothing more than support tired stereotypes of Muslim women. And if it was supposed to be ironic, making fun of American military intelligence and the current media construction of these stereotypes, it still failed miserably.
Downplaying strong female characters and relying on Muslim women stereotypes is problematic not only because it helps perpetuate negative attitudes and incorrect assumptions, but also because it alienates portions of the fan base. 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.