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Agent Carter: Sexism, Historical Accuracy, and Badass Female Characters

Agent-Carter

A couple of weeks ago, I fell in love with Peggy Carter.

Full disclosure: I haven’t seen the first Captain America. So when I finally tuned into Agent Carter, I didn’t know much about what to expect, beyond the fact that everyone loves Peggy and she’s appeared briefly in some movies I’ve seen. It didn’t take long for me to realize that she’s a fantastic character. Smart, self-assured, resourceful, glamorous, kind, no-nonsense, talented, and completely badass — what’s not to love?

I then spent many hours watching her prove how awesome she is — and watching her get beat down, again and again, because she also happens to be a woman. Agent Carter deals heavily with post-war era sexism, and although at first I thought that was a good thing, the show made me wonder. Is there such a thing as too much realism? And what is the right balance between that and romanticizing the past?

Agent Carter presents us with many elements of the post-war New York aesthetic that people idealize — the fashion, the hair, the red lipstick, the Captain America radio show, the diner, the Broadway Name in Lights, big parties and penthouses and all of that. Add in an incredibly badass female protagonist who epitomizes that style, and it would have been easy for the show to idealize that world itself as well, presenting Peggy Carter as a woman who breaks stereotypes and demands respect.

But instead, the show pairs that aesthetic with harsh, repeated reminders of the sexism of the era. And it’s not just “Peggy used to be a respected agent and now everyone makes her do paperwork and fetch the lunch order, so she’ll be a badass agent in secret and prove everyone wrong as a result.” It is that, but it goes beyond that as well.

Yes, some people respect her — Howard Stark, Jarvis, basically anyone who knew her in the order. But most other male characters don’t merely dismiss her until she proves herself, or forget her until she makes them remember. They actively work to shove her back into “her place.” She has to fight for every little opportunity, every scrap of respect, despite being far better qualified than any of her co-workers, and even then, they don’t budge much, and they don’t budge forever.

The worst scene, for me, was when Chad Michael Murray’s Agent Thompson tells Peggy that she’s deluding herself, and that no man will ever consider her an equal, because she’s a woman, and that’s just how it is. The moment is like a punch in the gut, and I wonder — is this sort of “woman fighting historical sexism” story badass, or just demoralizing?

On the one hand, this is clearly a critique of this kind of sexism, since of course Peggy is the best of them all, and the SSR miss so many things because they can’t imagine women as capable, of good or of evil. But it’s so blunt, so blind, so relentless, that it’s painful to watch. Of course, it would be worse to present the late 1940s as some utopia where women were super stylish and could kick butt and be respected, but unlike what I’ve heard from other viewers, Peggy’s spirit in the face of this discrimination didn’t inspire me or make me feel power or awesome. It made me feel small, and it made me hurt for Peggy beyond what I necessarily wanted for a fun, badass spy show.

It all brings me to a question more relevant, perhaps, for fantasy stories — to what extent is presenting misogyny, and female characters fighting against it, a feminist act, and to what extent is it just too disheartening? Is it in fact more feminist to create a feminist world for these awesome protagonists, where they’re never trodden down in this way? Is it enjoyable viewing to watch a realistic portrayal of this, where the heroine doesn’t necessarily triumph and prove them all wrong in the end, and does “enjoyable” matter in these things?

I’m not sure. But I do think that once a show picks an angle, it should stick with it. Most of Agent Carter was painfully realistic in this regard, so the final scene, when Peggy walks into the SSR office and everyone applauds her, felt jarring in comparison. It seemed to put the story into that neat and simplistic narrative mentioned above, where sexist dismissal can be overturned simply by working hard enough to prove yourself, and where the ignored Peggy Carter is literally applauded like it’s the end of Return of the King for her now-recognized awesomeness. She didn’t completely get her due, but even that scene felt out of place, after the bleakness that came before. An attempt to give the season a feeling of closure, without really fitting with the season itself.

“I know my value,” Peggy Carter says. “Anyone else’s opinion doesn’t really matter.” It’s a powerful statement, and a necessary one, but it’s also somewhat confused in context, considering her recent standing ovation. In the end, the show seemed to want both the “Peggy is an inspiring badass who shuts down misogyny” angle and the “no matter how awesome she is, Peggy can’t stop everyone around her from being sexism, and that’s really depressing” angle. And no matter how inspiring it tried to be, that depressing element really stuck with me, making the otherwise really fun show dark in a way that felt a little too real.

So forgive me for putting in my order for Peggy Carter’s exact shade of red lipstick. But also excuse me for not wanting to be her, not one little bit.

Rhiannon

Rhiannon Thomas is the author of A WICKED THING and KINGDOM OF ASHES. She lives in York, England.

11 thoughts on “Agent Carter: Sexism, Historical Accuracy, and Badass Female Characters

  1. The sexism is hard to handle on this show. Almost all the male characters on the show (except Jarvis and maybe Howard) are jerks to Peggy, but this show is still amazing. I honestly hope neither Chad Michael Murray’s character or Souza is Peggy’s future husband because honestly she can do a lot better than either of them.

    1. I more or less agree with you. Though I don’t think Souza is that bad, I’m OK with him as a potential husband, if the choice is between the guys on the show who could realistically be her husband… I like Souza as a character, and I like Enver Djokaj. But it’s just not the most interesting or chemistry-filled relationship – there’s clear interest from his side, but on hers, not so much, it’s more that he’s better than the rest at work.

      I’d certainly prefer him to Thompson, though. I don’t get that ship at all. It seems that people these days tend to mistake people not getting along (or not getting along and then starting to be OK with each other) as sexual tension. Sometimes people just don’t get along. And when he stopped being such a jerk and confided in her, I saw it simply as him learning better and starting to respect her, not “OMG this must be romance now!” So he’s not such a jerk as he seemed – so what? I don’t see chemistry between them, and I don’t see what would attract her to him. Is it just because he’s a conventionally masculine character who’s moderately good-looking and in her vicinity?

      Anyway, I’m not particularly hung up on who’s Peggy’s husband. She’ll marry someone eventually, but I’d much rather see her single, working and exploring (or not exploring) various romantic possibilities. Does marriage have to be the be-all and end-all. “they live happily ever after” thing anyway?

      Peggy has far more interesting relationships and better chemistry with people she’s definitely not going to marry, and where either there’s no sexual tension whatsoever (Peggy/Jarvis – they are adorable, but shippin them romantically makes even less sense than shipping Buffy and Giles) or I do see subtle/repressed UST, but I don’t see it ever materializing into an actual romantic relationship, for lots of reasons, and even if it did, it would probably be a massive disaster of dysfunction (Peggy/Howard).

      So, I’m glad that they are bringing in a new character to be Peggy’s love interest in season 2, and he seems interesting (certainly more than Souza and especially Thompson), both because of the casting and the character description. (I don’t know if you’ve read the articles and the info so far so I’ll stop at that.) Although I doubt that he will be the husband, considering the comics character whose name he bears, even though they seem to have changed his characterization and everything else about him to make him her love interest.

  2. I dont think that history accurancy is a problem is this show. For me It could have been much more sexist to pretend that misogyny didn’t exist. The show said ” in this period women have to prove to the world because the world was a dick” ( and still is). But one interesting thing about that is in one the conversation that Peggy and Howard in which Howard said that the world discriminated for everything ” your religion, you class, your color, your gender”. So Peggy is not the only one who had this problem.And other interesting thing is that Peggy herself suffered for sexism when she infravalored Dottie.
    And she is not only respected by Jarvis and Howard but also by her co-workers in the war ( I dont remember the name of this group) and.by Angie ( that respect her before know she was a badass).
    P.D: Sorry for my english and I am not a english speaker ( or writer)

  3. I understand your point, and sometimes I agree with it – in a world where superheroes exist is it really necessary for the portrayal of 1940s sexism to be so realistic? But then I also think, if the SSR was a bed of roses, where would her motivation to co-found SHIELD come from?

    1. I always upset when fantasy and sci-fi are anti-feminist. I am like “come on! You have dragon and flying cars why dont you made a equal world?” But with captain america they took a realistic settling as WWII (they had captain punch hitler) so I think it is “fine” to have peggy suffer sexism but I dont see why they have to be sexist in the avenger movies because it not deal with realistic world problems.
      And thanks for the name of the commando

  4. I liked the show and enjoyed seeing Peggy Carter defeat the bad guys. I didn’t have a problem with Agent Carter. I am looking forward to season two.

  5. I don’t mind historical accuracy in such cases. To simply ignore post-war sexism seems disrespectful of all the women who had to suffer through it and all their struggles. Pretending in never happened so that we can live in our bubble and be happy doesn’t seem like the right thing to do. Unfortunately, this creates some dissonance. A viewer’s natural reaction to a character like Peggy should be “Yay! I love her! I want to be her!” but in Peggy’s case, it’s obviously not nice to be her at all. Well, that is what fantasy is for. Now, a fantasy book/show based on 50s New York aesthetic, but without the sexism – wouldn’t that be fun?

    As for fantasy, I don’t think it is more or less feminist to write a story where there is no gender inequality vs. one where the heroines need to fight against misogyny. It’s fantasy, and all possible narratives are valuable, as long as the characters are well written. I love tales where gender is completely irrelevant and the plot can focus on other conflicts, but it is also important to see stories where women need to fight for their rights. And it is no less important to see stories where men are downtrodden and need to fight for equality. It’s fantasy after all, why should every possible culture that we imagine lead to women being oppressed? This reminds me, when I was 11, I came across a sci fi novel by Robert Merle (I’m not sure if it was ever translated in English and under what title; the title in my language literary translates as “Well Guarded Men” and I believe the French original is “Les hommes protégés”) which opened my eyes to gender issues I hadn’t notices before. In the book a deadly virus affects only post-puberty men and kills almost everyone, leaving women in charge. The few survivors are valued for their reproductive abilities and treated kindly, but have no power on their own. The protagonist is one of the surviving adult men, and we see how he feels uncomfortable when he is sexualized by women in power. He keeps noticing things like how in car commercials there is a pretty boy leaning on the car and smiling because women are the target buyers. It’s quite interesting to see stories like that because casual, everyday sexism against women is so commonplace we often don’t notice it. But when genders are inverted, it’s immediately obvious when something is off, and such a perspective flip can make readers more aware of sexism the next time they encounter it.

    1. “all possible narratives are valuable” I like that.

      I’m joining the chorus of ‘it’s a worthwhile story to tell’. Thing is, Peggy isn’t the traditional superhero–she’s not a power fantasy. She never was (movie-verse, at least) and she doesn’t need to be. She’s a woman who is being shaped by the forces opposing her, and only coming out stronger for it. I think that’s important to show, especially for woman and girls who have/will face similarly oppressive situations in real life, if only the ‘you’re a mother you can’t work in this high-paying, corporate job’ variety, which is still rampant in comparatively less oppressive cultures (let’s face it–there are some places in the world where woman face Peggy’s exact problems, or worse).

      Hopefully we meet a horde of Super heroines who don’t have to deal with sexism the way Peggy does.

  6. Peggy Carter was an awful example of the boring “Strong Female Character” trope you mentioned before in the Captain America movie, even Hayley Atwell admitted that she didn’t particularly enjoy playing her. So it is pretty damn incredible and impressive how this one show turned things around. Now everyone, including Hayley Atwell, loves the character, because she finally IS a real character and a damn good one.

    1. This show has been such a pleasant surprise for me. I really didn’t expect much from it based on the trailer, which made it seem like the show was all about her “kicking ass” and throwing punchlines all the time. I expected it to be quite stereotypical.

      Well, she does kick ass, and she does throw an occasional punchline, but it’s a lot more than that. And it’s largely because of the recreation of the 1940s setting, and the combination of the deliberately stylized look and feel of the 1940s – or rather the movies of that time, with the visuals, fashion, music (including new songs that sound like something you could hear in the 1940s), snappy dialogue, mannerisms and the way the characters talk – with the historical realism of sexism and other prejudices rampant in that period. It’s that realism that foregrounds the show. I wouldn’t be interested in a fantasy 1940s super Peggy who has success all the way and respect from all the male colleagues. The show is very entertaining and has a lot of humor (which is refreshing in the current ‘dark and gritty’ trend), but then suddenly it changes tone and hits you with moments of darkness, people suffering from real psychological traumas, emotionally complicated relationships. Peggy may be super-capable, but she’s not perfect, which is good to see – she is stubborn, tends to refuse help and sometimes underestimate people (Jarvis) or be a bit judgmental (OK, we all know Howard is a manwhore, but could one conversation between Peggy and Jarvis happen without a reference to his sex life?). Though I’d love to see the show explore flaws and fallibility more in the second season to make her more rounded as a character. They needed to establish how capable and great she is in order to contrast this with her treatment by the system, but it wouldn’t be interesting to see the same every season.

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