When I first heard rumblings about the ABC show Agent Carter, I told myself I wasn’t going to watch it. From the limited previews I’d seen, the show seemed too violent for my tastes and I figured that this show would be another case of media over-masculinizing a female character to make her “strong.” But after the first two episodes aired, I started seeing gif sets and screen shots on tumblr that indicated that maybe my assumptions about the show was wrong.
So I gave it a chance.
And it turned out I was soooo wrong. Agent Carter is not the perfect show and it’s not without issues (most notably the complete lack of POC in the show), but in terms of female representation and “strong female characters,” this show is doing a lot of things right.
Probably my favorite character in the show is Angie Martinelli. She’s a waitress at a diner that Peggy Carter frequents and she’s the character who ties Peggy to the “normal” world—the world without super soldiers and spies. From the moment she opens her mouth, Angie is fun and she’s witty and she’s friendly. She reaches out to Peggy, who (as far as Angie knows) is just another working woman, and they become friends.
And it’s beautiful.
In so many shows, women are pitted against each other. They have to compete for the much-vaunted male attention. They’re not allowed to be friends, not allowed to be supportive of each other, because…well, I don’t know why. Maybe because it’d hurt the male protagonists feelings to have someone not prioritize him all the time? Who knows. But in Agent Carter, Angie and Peggy are allowed to be friends. When Angie gets harassed by entitled men at the diner, Peggy comes to her defense. When Peggy has had an awful day at work, she’s able to go to Angie for sympathy. They support each other. Their relationship isn’t defined by some man that they have in common—if anything, their relationship is cemented because of men in general and their need to stand together against a sexist society.
Peggy doesn’t bring out the old tropes that we all know—and hate—so well. She doesn’t try to buddy up to the boys because she’s “not like other girls.” She doesn’t eschew traditionally feminine things. She doesn’t dumb herself down or butch herself up to get men’s attention or respect. Instead, she makes friends with Angie and the girls she lives with and genuinely cares about them. She embraces feminine interests because she knows her enemies will underestimate her because of them. When Peggy pushes Angie away to protect her in episode two, Angie gets annoyed but she also forgives Peggy when she apologizes and extends a hand of friendship by the end of the episode. Both of these women are treated as people instead of side-characters for men to flirt with.
Non-romantic Male-Female Relationships
The relationship between Jarvis and Peggy is also a breath of fresh air because Jarvis isn’t romantically interested in Peggy at all. He’s married—and happily prioritizes his relationship with his wife over anything that Howard Stark or Peggy need from him—and fills the role of a plucky sidekick (and reliable friend) quite well. Jarvis is different from the chauvinistic men that Peggy works with and different from Agent Sousa, the one co-worker of Peggy’s who isn’t a sexist pig. With Peggy and Sousa, there’s an element of romantic tension in their relationship, though not one that’s been developed at all, but Jarvis and Peggy don’t have any of that tension.
Their relationship is also fun because it subverts so much of the male-female co-worker relationships we’ve seen in the MCU. With Iron Man, we’ve got Tony and Pepper Pots (who, admittedly, do become romantic interests for each other). Tony was out playing the superhero, and Pepper stayed behind to do the low-key (and highly necessarily) desk work. In The Winter Soldier, Captain America and Black Widow work together as equals for most of the film. At times, Black Widow is even able to step in and save Steve Rogers (eg when they’re being tracked down in the mall) because she’s used to working stealthily and he’s not. In both cases, the women are allowed to shine in their respective ways and I don’t think anyone could argue that they’re not valuable characters in their movies, but they’re not the main characters either. The movie isn’t about them, it’s about Tony or Steve.
In Agent Carter, though, the show is about Peggy. It’s about her struggles at work, it’s about her trying to clear Howard Stark’s name, it’s about her trying to move on from Steve and WWII and build a life for herself. Her problems are front and center, not a male characters. She’s the title character. She doesn’t play second-fiddle to Jarvis and she proves over and over again that she’s more competent than the men she works with. She’s the hero in this show, and it’s nice to see Marvel developing a show around a woman and allowing her to shine.
It’s Not About Steve
When I told my husband about this show, his first question was, “So is it about her getting over Captain America?” and I was so happy to be able to say, “No.” Because while Peggy’s pain at having lost Steve Rogers is certainly a motivating factor for her actions—particularly when it comes to protecting people she cares about—the show is not about Peggy “getting over” Steve or learning to love again or any number of overdone plots for female characters.
At the end of the day, Steve barely factors into the show. There are references to Captain America here and there—my favorite being the radio show that served as a bookend for episode two—but Peggy is treated as a person who exists outside of Captain America. In the first Captain America movie, where we first meet Peggy Carter, she is largely there to be the romantic interest for Steve Rogers and Haley Atwell does a wonderful job in that role, but in Agent Carter, she gets to be so much more. She’s not someone’s love interest. She’s her own person, with hopes and dreams and strengths and witnesses and delightfully dry British wit. She’s out to prove herself to her boss and she’s out to clear Howard Stark’s name—because he’s a friend, an old war buddy and not because they’re romantic partners.
Now, I don’t mean to sound like I think any female character with a romance plotline isn’t being a “strong female character” because I don’t think that at all. Love and romance is an important part of many people’s lives and we shouldn’t shame women for taking an interest in their own love lives and the loves lives of their friends, but it seems to me that having a female character without any sort of romantic plot or subplot is pretty rare. This is part of having diverse representation. We can have women with romantic plotlines and women without romantic plotline, just like we have plenty of male characters with and without romantic plotlines. Peggy isn’t defined by her relationship to Steve. She defines herself.
And that’s something we need more of.