Comics

Heroines Against Misogyny: Why Agent Carter (2013) Matters

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Warning: Contains Spoilers.

Cards on the table: I went into Marvel’s latest One-Shot, Agent Carter, expecting to love it. Hayley Atwell back as the smart, courageous Peggy Carter from Captain America: The First Avenger? But now with her own 15 minute special? Sign me up!

What I didn’t expect was to find not only a great story with a female lead but one that proves that the superhero genre can tackle social and historical issues with finesse.

When we meet Peggy one year after Captain America she’s living a familiar story: an intelligent, brave woman does her part during World War II but afterward is relegated to a glorified secretary. She endures her boss’s pet names and “assurances” that the men can handle all the “rough stuff.” No need to worry her pretty little head. But hey, darlin’, mind finishing up those files while the boys and I head to the bar?

Peggy isn’t limited by any character faults of her own, but by men’s perceptions of her gender. She’s so far mired in the patriarchal muck she can’t even see the glass ceiling, let alone break it.

This isn’t a new story. This is what millions of women and other disenfranchised groups lived and continue to live. And in the last decade we’ve seen pop culture tackle this story more and more. After all, shows like AMC’s Mad Men make the workplace dynamics of this period a staple plot line. But unlike Mad Men, Agent Carter doesn’t walk a thin line between condemning and glorifying mid-century American misogyny (wink wink, nudge nudge, isn’t it terrible? Don’t you wish you were — I mean, loathe — Don Draper?). Agent Carter outright attacks every aspect of it and makes sure the viewer knows it.

It’s clear from the outset that Peggy’s boss, Agent Flynn, doesn’t respect her. From his patronizing shoulder touch to the accusation that she only has the job because she once kissed Captain America, we know he thinks he’s better than Peggy. Heck, the thugs she fights are more respectful of her than Flynn, who turns into the real villain of the piece not through an evil scheme but his own narrow-minded ideas about women.

But Peggy doesn’t have to deal with this forever. Like a feminist fairy tale, a beeping red phone unexpectedly gives our heroine a chance and she takes it, conquering all who stand in her way. Through determination, smarts, and skill, she triumphs over forces of evil and eventually becomes queen of the realm. She even sticks it to her disbelieving boss, leaving him behind with a smart comment and confident stride.

Howard Stark: Fairy Godmother

Howard Stark: Fairy Godmother

But for all its strengths, Agent Carter isn’t a perfect story. It ultimately takes a fairy godmother — here Howard Stark — to pluck Peggy out of her squalor and place her on the S.H.I.E.L.D. throne. I can’t help but think it would be nice if Peggy did this on her own, too: had the idea and approached Howard instead of vice versa.

I would also like to see the possible upcoming Peggy Carter show include something that both Captain America and Agent Carter lack: other women. Lots of them, from diverse backgrounds and with diverse stories. And while I enjoy a Natalie Dormer cameo as much as the next gal, this time let’s make sure the women do more than randomly kiss heroes to create romantic tension.

Despite these setbacks, Agent Carter brings something new and exciting to the genre. Not only is it about an awesome woman overcoming anything in her way, it proves that superhero stories can be used to deal with the tough stuff of our history.

You might be wondering why superhero comic books and films should bother with these stories. Why should they be expected to tackle these issues head on or deal with these moments in history?

Easy: because it’s important.

How many times has someone argued that mid-century America really wasn’t “so bad” for women and people of color? For men and women who felt obligated to adhere to certain gender roles? For anyone who naturally fell outside of society’s approved “lines”? How often do we hear someone wistfully yearn for a bygone era they don’t even properly understand?

Films like Agent Carter confront these narratives. Furthermore, by placing these issues within a fantasy context, we give ourselves new ways of looking at them and may even reveal important truths about ourselves.

Peggy Carter

For me, Agent Carter brought up a lot of emotions. As the credits rolled I thought: where other women — real women — wasted away in this system, Peggy topples it. And it’s sad to me, a twenty-first century woman looking back, that this is just a fantasy story. I left Agent Carter mourning for the women who didn’t defeat super villains and run international intelligence organizations. I mourned for the women relegated to making coffee and fetching slippers when they knew they could be so much more if given the chance.

With all this in mind, the second time I watched Agent Carter I invited my mom to view it with me. She was a young woman in the 1970s, in what we think of as the heyday of Women’s Lib. Of course it wasn’t that simple; history never is.

At the end of the short she looked at me and said: “I know how trapped Peggy felt. I would have given anything for a beeping red phone.”

And that’s why stories like Agent Carter are important. Maybe Agent Carter will be catharsis for those who lived it; maybe not. But it sure as hell teaches today’s girls and women that they don’t have to take disparaging remarks and patronizing bosses. Even more important, it shows them that they aren’t bit players in someone else’s story. They are the heroes of their own superhero tale and they don’t have to be afraid to show it.

Writer, knitter, firebrand. Likes superheroes, cats, and changing the world.

2 Comments

  1. velshtein

    September 27, 2013 at 12:30 PM

    Beautiful article. This bit made me tear up:

    ” I mourned for the women relegated to making coffee and fetching slippers when they knew they could be so much more if given the chance.”

    This is completely heartbreaking because of all the potential lost throughout all of human history, thanks to a system that pretty much crippled half of the population. Like just the IDEA of how much human advancement could have changed in so many areas (science, politics, socially) if the women who would have been scientists/politicians had been able to fucking participate/contribute, just as much as their male peers, is crushing.

    • Kelly

      September 27, 2013 at 1:23 PM

      Yes, yes, YES. This is so well put. Just imagine where we’d be today if all these disenfranchised groups had been given a chance. Just a chance! People conveniently forget how many were held back and laud this period as some kind of glorious heyday. NO, the heyday COULD be right now.

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