I want to bring some positivity into the world today, because I REALLY want to move away from all this awfulness, so let me talk for a little while about MCU!Pepper Potts.
Pepper Potts is a woman whom I have absolutely nothing in common with. She is tall, graceful, and effortlessly feminine; I am a petite punk girl with a lot of tattoos. She enjoys expensive high heels; I spend a lot of time wearing tactical boots. I’m not her, and I don’t aspire to be her, and in the face of women like Natasha Romanoff and Peggy Carter, who are more obviously admirable for someone like me, it’s easy for her to get overlooked.
But I love Pepper Potts. To me, what stands out about her is the way she negotiates a path between love and necessity. She is a character who consistently offers real kindness to those around her, regardless of their flaws, and also while having to overcome her own impatience: to Tony at his most unbearable, to Maya as Maya betrays her, to “Natalie” after the two of them have been put at odds, to Happy when he’s being ridiculous. You get the sense that what she wants to offer to the world, always, is this kindness.
And I don’t think that kindness ever really abates— but it doesn’t prevent her from doing what needs to be done, even when that’s unpleasant.
The obvious scenes of taking-care-of-business are the action-y ones, but I actually want to talk about the scene in IM2 in which Tony, like, washes up in her office on a wave of self-loathing and strawberry failure. Pepper should hate Tony at this point— they’re splitting up, and he’s put her in a situation where she’s trying to run a company that he’s embarrassed into the ground, while getting called a “pinhead” by white men on TV. But what she mostly seems to feel is a profound disappointment— a disappointment in his failure to be a man deserving of her kindness. How could he not know she’s allergic to strawberries? How could he have done what he did at the party? How could he have dumped her in this mess?
That’s what people do: they disappoint Pepper. She offers them the chance to be the best they can, and they buy her giant rabbits. They make dangerous decisions. They betray her. They get her kidnapped. And when that happens, she does what she has to to take care of it. No matter how frightening or uncomfortable it is. (And she isn’t shy about letting people know that it’s frightening or uncomfortable— she just doesn’t let that get in the way of doing whatever it is.)
I think this is why she and Natasha made an interesting combination in IM2, and why I’ve seen them paired several times in fanfic: in a way, they are perfect opposites. Natasha sees the worst in everyone. It’s not that she’s pessimistic; she just knows, realistically, what people are capable of. That’s part of her assessment of them. That’s where her coldness comes from: a mirror companion to Pepper’s warmth, which also comes from assessment. (“I know that you are capable of being better than this.”) Somewhere in my piles of Likes is a post that, through a different lens, comments on this— talking about the scene at the end of IM2 when Pepper and Natasha team up to take control of the situation on the ground. Natasha is all cold steel and immediate violence; Pepper is all polite interrogation. (That post also comments on the way this shows up in Hammer’s dismissal of them: “get these bitches out of here,” more in response to Natasha, and the way he patronizingly calls Pepper “honey.”) Both are effective and valuable tactics, two different parts of getting the job done.
But leaving aside how much I like Pepper&/Natasha in fanwork, I also love a lot of depictions of Tony and Pepper in fanwork. I feel like their relationship is one of very few that is written as wholly mature. Even when fic splits them up (as it often does for obvious fic reasons), they split up because they are two adults whose lives have grown apart, and the intimacy between them is not erased. Too often, women are depicted in fanfiction as incapable of the same degree of intimacy as men, and Pepper is an exception to this— maybe because in canon her capacity for intimacy is so central to who she is. The strength of her warmth— the strength her warmth gives her— is hard to erase.
I said that Pepper wasn’t obviously admirable for someone like me, and that’s because I don’t particularly aspire to be her in terms of her position, her appearance, her relationships. But the truth is that I do admire her particular kind of strength. Too often, I find it hard to balance necessity and kindness, love and necessity. It’s hard to believe that people can be better than they are and accept that they aren’t— to forgive people for failing without letting them get away with it. I aspire to that maybe more than anything. And that’s something I see in Pepper that I really love (something I think all of us celebrate in Steve Rogers, which is maybe all the more reason to celebrate it in Pepper). If I were going to give MCU!Pepper a superhero codename, I don’t know that it would be Rescue. I think that, not in the simple but in the most complex sense, it might be Mercy.