Forgive me blogosphere for I have sinned. It has been one month since my last entry, and for that I apologise. Except I don’t really. Screw your expectations, I do what I want!
Long story short, I’ve been away because I had the opportunity to earn some money in a paying gig for a month or so. No, this wasn’t a particularly creative endeavour (unless you count my inventive lies told to customers to get them off of our backs), and as a result I have a backlog of half-baked story ideas that need fleshing out. Be prepared for a long, ill-advised rant on the subjects of defunding of the arts, how story-telling is unappreciated and all other related issues later – today I want to talk to you about Agent Carter.
In the grand scheme of things, women have had a pretty raw deal when it comes to comic books and tie-in franchises. Until relatively recently, comics were (in the main) written by men for men and boys. This means plenty of male characters, male story lines, and female characters were mostly there as gratuitous T&A. If I had a dollar for every time I was disappointed by an artistic choice or plotline for one of my favourite super-ladies I would have enough cash to write full time and not feel guilty about it. Seriously…being a Catwoman fan is problematic for me, to say the least.
It has started to get better relatively recently, largely due to the recent avalanche of superhero movies and the realisation that there is just as many (if not more) women fans watching these films as there are men. More women have been proudly reading comics and are involved in the creative process.
However, to this date comic/superhero movies with female leads are few and far between. Since both Marvel and DC’s affiliated studios re-booted their franchises (beginning with Iron Man in 2008 and Batman Begins in 2005, respectively) we have seen no lady leads. Before the reboot we had Catwoman in 2004 and Elektra in 2005 (shudder on both counts). Before that was Supergirl in 1984, Tank Girl in 1995 and…nope that’s the lot. That is every live-action, cinema-released comic-book movie with a lone female lead.
Next year we will see the first female-fronted movie since the re-boots – Wonder Woman. It’s filming right now, and we need to support the hell out of it because if it tanks we won’t get another lady lead for at least the next decade. Catwoman and Elektra were phoned in from the get-go, their scripts both completely trashed to the point where you wonder why they even bothered making them, yet they were held up as the reason that female super-hero movies don’t work. No matter how well-written, directed, acted and produced it is, if Wonder Woman tanks at the box office it won’t bode well. The same can be said for Captain Marvel, which is currently in pre-production. I haven’t even broached the concept of an LGBT superhero movie because, to be frank, that we’re having so much trouble bringing women to the fore is a pretty good indication that a gay lead is still a ways off (but OMG how awesome would a Batwoman movie/TV series be?).
Hollywood have announced that around sixty-four new comic-based movies are in the pipeline for the next few years. Of these there are approximately three women as leads in a non-ensemble situation (Ant Man and Wasp doesn’t count). Three. Go ahead and count, I’ll wait. Black Widow isn’t even on the list, and she is easily one of the most, if not THE most complex and interesting character in the Avengers canon. Yes, I said it. Fight me. There is one school of thought on the Black Widow issue, however, with which I tend to agree – a two-hour movie wouldn’t do her story justice. This is where TV excels.
Green Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, Daredevil and Jessica Jones all have their own shiny new TV series, as does S.H.I.E.L.D. While on the surface this may be because they are considered second-tier characters who are not on the same level as the Avengers or Justice League, the television medium provides far more time to flesh out these characters than a film ever could, particularly for female characters who are juggling with the expectations of their gender and their jobs saving the world. None showcases this better than the series Agent Carter. See, I told you we’d get here eventually.
(One last thing before I talk about Agent Carter in more detail…how awesome would a Black Widow TV show be? She could spend each episode crossing red out of her ledger, like Name Is Earl with more hand grenades and less plaid.)
We first meet Special Agent Margaret “Peggy” Carter of the Strategic Scientific Reserve in the movie Captain America: The First Avenger, where she serves as a love interest to Steve Rogers. Having said this, she’s not the damsel in distress but rather the Ginger Rogers to his Fred Astaire – she can do anything he does but backward and in high heels. She struggles to be the best agent she can when the whole patriarchal world is telling her that she can’t, something the wimpy Steve Rogers can relate to – neither are ‘man enough.’
Anyway, after Steve becomes a ‘Capsicle’ at the end of the film, Peggy appears as an old woman in Captain America: Winter Soldier, Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant Man. She founded S.H.I.E.L.D, had a family, and lived a full life since the events of CA:tFA, and lucky for us we get to see some of it on TV!
Agent Carter begins shortly after the second world war ends. Peggy is working at the New York division of the SSR, but she’s far away from Tommy Lee Jones and anybody in the army who took her seriously. Most of the men she works with think that her time with the army involved keeping Captain America happy, nudge nudge wink wink. The only assignments she gets involve answering phones when everyone is out, filing paperwork, or fetching lunch and coffee orders. While this is intensely frustrating for her, it means that she has plenty of free time when Harold Stark comes and asks her for help when he’s implicated for treason. Harold is the only person still around who believes in Peg and her capabilities, and she’s quite possibly the only woman in his life whom he genuinely respects. His butler, Edwin Jarvis, becomes an invaluable asset as she seeks to clear Stark’s name.
She also finds a friend in Daniel Sousa, SSR agent and war veteran. While Sousa is not the only veteran in their office, he is the only one with a visible injury and as such he’s sidelined almost as much as Peggy is. His limp means he needs to learn to rely on his brains more than his brawn, something which fellow veteran and agent Jack Thompson doesn’t have to deal with. Thompson is Sousa’s antithesis – misogynistic and posturing, with a huge chip on his shoulder, Thompson sees Carter and Sousa as hindrances more than help.
One of the things I adore most about Agent Carter is that examples of sexism, racism and general patriarchal bullshit are writ large, and it’s believable because it’s set in the post-war era. Brave, tough and intelligent Peggy is reduced to answering phones while the boys go out and play (how many offices have a men working reception, or men routinely asked to make tea and coffee for the boss, or where men are expected to maintain the communal spaces? I have never seen a man in an office empty a dishwasher, just putting that out there). They routinely underestimate her and expect her to eventually quit to have a family, something women are still dealing with in 2016. Another example is the radio show “The Captain America Adventure Hour,” where Peggie is portrayed as a high-pitched bimbo who’s constantly being rescued – we’re almost as frustrated by that trope as she is, and it still happens now!
I’ll be honest with you, I watched season one a while ago. I just finished watching season two and it blew me away, so I’m going to focus on that now, okay? Spoiler alert. You have been warned.
Season two begins with the boys in the New York office being fiercely proud of our Peggie for foiling the Russian spies of series one. They even look to her for leadership, although Jack Thompson is in charge. Sousa, meanwhile, has moved to Los Angeles to start a west-cost SSR office. When he calls Thompson for help on a case and asks him to send over a spare agent, Thompson sees it as the perfect opportunity to get Peggy out of his hair. Thus our story re-locates to LA, which also happens to be where Howard Stark and Jarvis are living, because Stark’s latest endeavour is making motion pictures. The main reason I love this season, however, is that it has some seriously awesome women in it.
Let’s start with Mrs Ana Jarvis. Yes, that’s right, we get to meet Mrs Jarvis! All through the first season it was lovely to see a man and a woman working side by side, sharing quick witty banter and British accents without a hint of sexual tension. This is helped by Jarvis mentioning his wife within his first few minutes on screen –
Jarvis: Call me any time before nine.
Peggy: What happens after nine?
Jarvis: My wife and I go to bed.
We finally get to meet Ana in the season two premiere in one of my favourite scenes. Peggie is going to spend her stay in LA with the Jarvises in Howards house, and when she walks in she is greeted by a delighted Ana and a huge hug. When Mr Jarvis goes to leave, Ana calls him back and bestows a long, passionate kiss on him right in front of Peggy. At first the viewer might think that this is Ana ‘staking her claim’ in front of the other woman, but then they break apart, Mr Jarvis blushes and says “she’s an embarrassing creature,” and walks away. Ana’s laugh of “He’s too easy!” makes us realise that she was simply trying to ruffle his feathers, and that she’s completely secure in her relationship. What follows is the beginning of a beautiful friendship –
Ana: What’s that look?
Peggie: I–I don’t know. I suppose I was expecting someone more…
Ana: Like Mr Jarvis in a girdle?
Peggie: (laughing) Precisely.
Ana: From his tales of your heroics I was picturing a circus strong man in a wig.
(Ana giggles. Peggie looks oddly flattered.)
I’ve selected a few ensembles for (Peg to wear to) the racetrack, but I’ve also sewed you this.
(Ana holds out what looks like undergarments)
Peggie: What is it?
Ana: A garter…
(Ana pulls out a very small gun).
…that’s also a holster
Peggie: (gasps) You are fantastic!
We next see Mrs Jarvis in the following episode. Peggy and Jarvis are sparring, and Jarvis manages to pin Peggy after she had flipped him on his back.
Of course, Ana walks in at this very moment. The audience can be forgiven for thinking that the green-eyed monster is about to be unleashed, but instead we’re treated to the following dialogue –
Ana: Good morning you two!
(Ana gives them a sideways look)
Did he catch you with his patented ‘tortoise of fury’?
Peggy: Oh, is that what he’s calling it?
(Jarvis helps Peggy to her feet.)
Jarvis: Ana has been my sparring partner for the last few months. She knows all my strengths and weaknesses.
Ana: He’s never more lethal than when he’s flat on his back.
Throughout the rest of the show, there is absolutely no doubt as to the strength of the Jarvises marriage. Ana makes it clear that she’s worried for her husband’s safety, but at no point is she holding him back. There’s no jealousy there, either. The two present a united front against the world, built on a solid foundation of trust, apple tort and outwitting the Nazi’s. As a result, Ana and Peggy become firm friends as opposed to two women snarling over a man. When you think of it, this sort of friendship is incredibly rare to see in entertainment – it would have been so easy to cast Ana as the jealous harpy who scolds Jarvis and tells him what to do, hissing at poor Peggy to ‘stay away from her man.’ But instead the creators decided to depict an example of a happy and solid relationship – the only one in the show, as it turns out.
The possibility of a different ‘stay away from my man’ situation rears its head in episode two, when we learn that Sousa is in a relationship with a nurse named Violet and plans to propose. Violet gets along with Peggy as soon as they meet, and why wouldn’t she – Peggy’s delightful! It’s not until much, much later that Violet realises that Sousa is still in love with Peggy, and decides to break off their engagement. Rather than sharpening her nails and attacking Peg, or blaming Peggy in any way, she instead lays the fault at Sousa’s feet where it belongs, then steps aside like any self-respecting woman would.
Meanwhile, Peggy is getting on very well with a hunky new character, Dr Jason Wilkes. As a black scientist in the 1940’s, he’s someone else in whom Peggy finds a kindred spirit. Wilkes’ back story of struggle is a painful one – he grew up on an orange grove, then got a job as a janitor to save money to go to college. He got his degree and joined the Navy during World War II, where he became an engineer and worked in weapons propulsion. When the war was over he applied to sixteen different companies for a job, but the evil Isodyne Energy were the only ones that offered him the chance to work in a lab. It is later revealed that he wasn’t hired for his mind, but because his loyalty was guaranteed to the only company willing to take him on.
Jason flirts with Peggy when they first meet, but it’s not until she rescues him from a kidnapping and yells at a racist shopkeeper on his behalf that the two properly click. This leads to some interesting tension between her, Wilkes and Sousa, and fortunately the show manages to not lay it on too thick. Neither man blames Peggy for their predicament, and neither tries to overtly compete for her or make her choose – they just get on with the damn job and hope that the mess sorts itself out. They even talk to each other about it toward the end, because after you’ve saved the world with a guy everything else seems kind of petty by comparison.
The character I really want to talk about, though, is Whitney Frost. Goddess help me, I love a well-written villainess! She’s a fantastic, comic-book-style example of what happens when you muzzle a person’s intellect and creativity. She’s introduced as a Hollywood actress and the wife of Calvin Chadwick, the head of Isodyne Energy who also happens to be running for Senator. It becomes quickly apparent, however, that Whitney is the brains of the outfit. She’s very involved with the research that Isodyne is conducting, particularly involving the Zero Matter particle.
A few episodes in we are treated to a glimpse into her childhood. Obviously highly intelligent, young Whitney -then called Agnes Cully- is interested in science and engineering. She’s not interested in being a pretty girl who smiles at people to put them at ease. Given that her mother is “doing what she has to” by sleeping with a married man in order to keep a roof over their heads, she knows form a young age how the world sees women. Her mother tells her flat out that she’d never get to be a scientist, so she’d better learn to smile at the right people and charm her way to a stable existence. She grows up and gets a job as a Hollywood actress, makes some contacts with the mob and manages to charm Calvin Chadwick. She understands the implications of the Zero Matter particle far better than her husband does, and will do anything to keep studying it. Unfortunately, when her plans start to unravel thanks to her husband’s wandering penis, she’s exposed to Dark Matter. It possesses her, and she becomes obsessed with opening a rift to another dimension and finding more, which would bring about the end of the world.
Whitney Frost’s lust for power is heightened by the Dark Matter, but you’ve got to admire a female antagonist who isn’t a femme fatal, or seeking revenge, or a scorned lover, but who is power hungry and willing to do anything to achieve her goals, including shooting Ana Jarvis!
She’s a mad scientist who has the same issues with the world around her that Peggy does, but she goes about overcoming them in an entirely different way. Whitney Frost is a genius all on her own, Dark Matter just pushes her over the edge. She becomes so ruthless that even the mob are afraid of her, and she even manages to take over a shadowy board who secretly control the country – and they have a strict ‘old crotchety white dude’s only’ policy.
Simply put, Agent Carter is unapologetically, bombastically feminist. Every time I thought they were about to let me down they completely switched the situation on me. The script is well-written, and it’s brought to life by some sensational acting, particularly Hally Atwell and James D’Arcy. They manage to avoid the worst clichés, and we’ll worn tropes are re-imagined and changed around to surprise the viewer. Throw in two more sensational women -Rose Roberts and Dotti Underwood, who I would go into in more depth if this thing wasn’t already overlong – and you have a show that hits all the right marks.
However, even though it does so many things so well, it still hasn’t been confirmed for a third season. So, get the word out people! Watch it, share it, spread the love around, buy the DVDs and merchandise, because if we don’t support more badass women it might be a while before we get another chance like this. Shows like Supergirl and Jessica Jones are also only in their infancy, but if these three can make it we might see more in the future.