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