Sexism as Setting: A Quick Look at Agent Carter

Sexism as Setting: A Quick Look at Agent Carter

Agent Carter, the new Marvel series, is a spinoff of the Captain America franchise starring Chris Evans. It also seems to be a prequel to Agents of Shield and The Avengers with the teased inception of Hydra. I tuned in last week for the first two episodes, and I have to say I love it. Not only is it upbeat and quirky like the opening acts of Captain America: The First Avenger, it’s also very clever in its premise. We’re getting a period twist on the espionage thriller with a touch of diesel punk tech mixed in. What’s most impressive about this show is not how the creators have found a way to point out the blatant sexism of the late forties, but how they use it as one of the most important elements of the story.

The Goal: Isolation of the Protagonist

Television and film writers often go a long way to isolate their heroes. There are often complex and contrived plots written into the opening act of espionage and action movies to cause them to go it alone. MI6 is taken down. Mark Wahlberg is framed for murder. Bruce Willis is unknown to the hostage-takers. With the full cooperation of the US government, Agent Carter doesn’t seem that exceptional. It’s necessary to set the protagonist apart by making her a lone wolf.

To launch into a grand conspiracy straight out of the gate in Agent Carter would be a mistake. We all know it’s coming thanks to Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Still, we need to be eased into the web of intrigue that is Hydra, not thrust into it with no established sense of normalcy. If the evil Nazi organization has infiltrated the government, we need to see clues delicately woven in before the big reveal in order for it to seem plausible. We need to meet and like characters before becoming upset that they turned out to be traitors. Hydra should be a season finale climax, not the inciting incident.

The Solution: Historically Accurate Sexism

The creators of Agent Carter have found the perfect excuse to split Peggy off from the pack without pulling the pin on the Hydra grenade. We got a taste of this in Captain America: The First Avenger. With Steve as the main character, though, we only saw a touch of it, and its purpose in that context was to show how swell of a guy he was for not caring about her gender. In Agent Carter, sexism is front and center to Peggy’s plot and her character, and it serves as the perfect device to make Peggy Carter go it alone.

Despite her prior knowledge of the subject of their first investigation (Howard Stark, father of Tony Stark), the men make jokes and tell her to stay home and file paperwork. She has to go behind their backs to do the job they’re failing at. She’s working the case in secret because Peggy Carter didn’t get to become Agent Carter by sitting back and letting the men do the work. Indeed, Agent Carter is treated like an over-qualified secretary by her male peers, a fact that we are reminded of every time we meet a new official who assumes she is just that.

The Outcome: Nerd-Girl Empathy

Plot purpose aside, Agent Carter throwing 1940s shade at the patriarchy kind of feels like retribution for every female who has ever been accused of being a fake nerd girl or had someone try to mansplain game mechanics to them in a card shop. This is our first female-lead Marvel property, (we don’t count Electra. You can’t make us!) and with it a lot of sympathy for being treated like the maid in a man’s world. While it would be nice to one day have superhero movies where gender isn’t an issue and where Black Widow doesn’t have to be the only character on the poster contorting to display her butt and breasts in one shot, this is a start.

Marvel, which has been impressing the hell out of me this year by diversifying their representation, is making a nod to the female fans (who are numerous and tired of being quizzed on our right to be nerds ever time we enter a comic store). We see you. We hear you. This show is for everyone, but it feels extra triumphant for the female fans. The other agents may not let Agent Carter play with the boys, but she’s still going to play in spite of them.

Conclusion

It’s hard to judge a show based on two episodes. A lot of great shows have rough starts (like Parks and Recreation. I advise skipping season one.) Sometimes a decent show jumps the shark and becomes laughable. That said, I’m going to keep tuning in for the foreseeable future. Agent Carter has a lot going for it: explosions, stapler fights, silly radio plays, historical references, retro glowing future tech, Enver Gjokaj, disguises, overly-polite English people, and primitive text-messaging to start. If you haven’t tuned in, you’d better hurry and catch up so you won’t have to wait for the DVD.