For this week’s media Monday, I thought I’d write about Marvel’s newest limited television series, Agent Carter. I know I talked about the Marvel Cinematic Universe a couple weeks ago but hey, thought I’d focus in a little more on Marvel’s latest production.
The setting of the show is post World War II New York City, with Agent Peggy Carter working for the Strategic Scientific Reserve and struggling to be noticed as an actual agent rather than the secretary her coworkers seem to think of her as. The eight episodes in this season follow a single overarching plot of Carter being asked by Howard Stark to work as a double agent and clear his name from accusations of treason.
I do love a few things about the show, most importantly being how the episodes follow an overarching plot and come out to be more like a long movie than a television show. I also love many of Peggy’s outfits (oh how I wish I could pull off and/or afford that wardrobe).
There is, of course, a lot to critique about the show – from the cast being almost completely white to an underdeveloped Peggy Carter to the writing focusing too much on the 1940s sexism and not at all on the racism of the time. H. Shaw-Williams wrote an article for ScreenRant about how the first (and possibly only?) season of Agent Carter should not be praised as a feminist triumph, articulating the phenomenon of stereotype threat and wrote that:
It’s a common problem that female characters – particularly in male-dominated genres – are obliged to be Strong Female Characters who carry a standard for their entire gender, while male characters get to just be characters. Peggy Carter doesn’t get to have personality flaws like Thor’s arrogance or Peter Quill’s dumb brashness, because she’s too busy trying to prove that women are just as good as men. The closest she comes to being flawed is crying over pictures of Steve Rogers and going through the five thousandth iteration of the “It’s dangerous to get too close to me,” superhero story arc.
And Peggy Carter is just that in her own show – a seemingly flawless character with almost no back story and the feminist messages of the show are more standard issue and simple 1990’s White Feminism than anything else. On one hand, it’s great that Marvel is (very) slowly starting to branch out from it’s usual lead demographic of attractive white men. But as Shaw-Williams points out, having a female lead is a rather low bar for something being praised as a triumph for feminism, one in which Agent Carter barely meets.
The show being hailed as a feminist triumph that it fails to live up to is not the only problem – the complete lack of diversity within the show is appalling, especially since it is set in New York City. Not only are most of the characters white, but many are white men. Ube Empress makes a ton of really great points regarding the incredible erasure and white washing of the time period done by the writers and producers of Agent Carter. Ube Empress makes the point that people of color existed during that time in a multitude of different careers, from actors to health professionals to lawyers and having people of color within the show would have been historically accurate. (With that note, we can have Captain America be an actual man made superhero but people of color can’t really exist in some capacity that same universe?! This seems to be a growing problem within sci-fi and fantasy – like Lord of the Rings, Frozen, etc. I mean, there were people of color in a variety of roles during that time, allowing for historical accuracy to actually be a thing with representation but still. If gamma radiation can turn Bruce Banner into the Hulk, I think we can handle more diversity in the characters and story lines without having to have historical accuracy.)
One of the great points that Ube Empress brings up is that:
It’s hard to understand why the writers didn’t think to include a single thing that indicated how race was playing a role in society at that time. Just imagine all of the POC who contributed to the war effort, only to return home to and be subjected to terrible wages, racial slurs, discrimination, hate crimes, and little to no government or legal protection. Imagine how that tension would influence the world around Peggy: the city, the thing she sees on TV and in newspapers, the conversations she overhears, the people she interacts with. Talking, thinking about, and/or seeing race would be unavoidable.
Ultimately, I want to like Agent Carter a hell of a lot more than I actually do because the show had incredible potential to be amazing but fell really short of an already low bar. And it’s important to keep critiquing and analyzing things that come out – blindly praising a production because it barely meets a few criteria won’t fix the rampant under representation, complete lack of diversity, and overall problematic nature of mainstream media.
2 thoughts on “Media Monday: Agent Carter”
I’m catching up on my reader feed so I just saw this now, and thank you for quoting me! I’m feeling a little bashful now; sometimes I forget people actually read what I write.
And I agree with everything you said. In terms of Marvel, AC is a step in the right direction. But in terms of “Is it a feminist triumph?”, you’re right; it really doesn’t stack up against other shows and movies that have taken bigger steps. I think it’s fine to praise it for what it is and what it DID get right, but it’s also true that viewing AC as the height of feminist TV really sets the bar too low and closes the door on progress.
And I really wish people realized that media critics exist not because we hate the media we’re critiquing, but because we believe that pointing out to problematic aspects to the (often white male) writers helps to improve the field for everyone.
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