May 13, 2013

Avenging ‘Making’ For All: Challenging Iron Man

Category: Equity
woman with coat sitting on subway writing in notebook

With Iron Man 3 raking in millions and marking the official start of summer blockbusters, it is thrilling to recognize that moviegoers are largely staring at a screen enraptured with Hollywood’s most successful maker.

As such, I have good news and bad news for the maker movement.

First the good news: to state the obvious, the movie’s hero, Tony Stark, has an uncannily familiar special power – he’s a tinkerer.

Without diving into the plot too deeply, it is fair to say that the reason Tony Stark can save the world is because he’s a really good maker. He assembles products that better the world around him and inspire young people. And based on his kinship with a young, precocious boy in the film, Stark is clearly a role model for tinkerers around the world.

Further, Tony Stark depicts how making and geeking out are part of who he is. Making keeps him up at night and, even when fancy robots are recharging or classily blown up, Stark’s perpetually tinkering, exploring, and making awesome things based on his own restless intellect.

Through Iron Man 3, Hollywood is helping further the message that it’s cool and sexy to make.

So that’s the good news. Educators should be embracing this aspect of the Iron Man franchise.

Iron Man’s Representation Problem

And then there’s the bad news. The bad news isn’t something new or something overly surprising. But it’s still bad news and we should probably – as a field – think about how we address it: the bad news is that Iron Man does a really good job of excluding the vast majority of viewers. Let me state some of the facts:

Tony Stark is white.
Tony Stark is male.
Tony Stark is incredibly rich.
Tony Stark is heterosexual.

So while this film embraces making as a pathway for saving the world, it does so in limited ways. A somewhat critical look at the film makes it hard to see how more diverse audiences can interpret messages to make and innovate when otherwise marginalized characters are…well, marginalized. What implicit messages are found when Tony Stark is not only the sole successful maker in the series, but the film also problematizes others? Women in the film are conniving, inconsistent, and clumsy. The only black man in the film relies on Stark’s technological savvy to save him. Ben Kingsley, as the Mandarin, is some sort of ethnic “Other” that is both menacing and a drunken floozy.

The problematic politics of representation in films (and games and books etc.) are nothing new. Really, is anyone surprised that Tony Stark is white? However, if we’re going to launch making into classrooms, afterschool programs, and fund educational initiatives based on premises of making, the issue of this disparity is key. I’m sure I am not alone in seeing a not very distant connection between the kinds of making depicted in Iron Man and the kinds depicted by Caine’s Arcade in “real life.”

The Other Tony Stark and the Other Kind of Making

Last month, Wu Tang Clan member Ghostface Killah released his album Twelve Reasons to Die. It’s the rapper’s 10th album and tells the story of one of his many aliases: Tony Stark. For Ghostface Killah, the Marvel comic book hero has played an important role in his childhood and in his own music; Ghostface’s first solo album, all the way back in 1996, was called Ironman. And while I appreciate the way Iron Man has made an impact on someone like Ghostface Killah, I think his new album is a particular example of the power of fan culture and fan fiction. Over the 12 songs on his new album, Stark’s narrative is vastly rewritten and is interwoven with traditional Mafioso storylines.

In a very different way, Ghostface Killah is just as adept a maker as his childhood hero. He assembles, creates, and empowers.

My colleague Cindy O’Donnell-Allen helped me kick off this post when she sent me a text after leaving the theater last week: “Remember: Ironman as maker.” In work with the Colorado State University Writing Project, Cindy and I are considering who and what may be left out of today’s maker movement. In addition to getting more diversity within these spaces, we are also interested in ways making can incorporate writing as a disposition of making. As Ghostface helps remind all of us, writing is making. And just as a screwdriver can be the secret weapon for someone like Tony Stark’s process of making, so too can a pen and paper for Ghostface’s.

Banner image credit: Susan NYC