WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!
Agent Carter is a spy action-thriller TV show set in the 1940’s. Its protagonist, unlike so many other Marvel and DC Comics productions, is female. This alone makes the Agent Carter worth a precursory glance. Undoubtedly, when Marvel executives got together, they envisioned the qualities Agent Carter embodies to be a major selling point of the show.
Agent Carter does highlight some issues central to feminism. The show is, relatively speaking at least, bold in that depictions of sexism are frequent, overt, and jarring. Agent Carter is sexually harassed on a frequent basis. There are also multiple sexist microaggressions in every episode. For it to be a feminist show Agent Carter needs to take a stand against these injustices and for the most part Peggy Carter does recognize the misogyny for exactly what it is and does not tolerate it. It is impossible to watch Agent Carter and not be disgusted by her coworkers. The show attempts to show the side of misogyny that we don’t talk about in society today. Awesome. We need more shows that do this.
Agent Carter’s empowered feminism is also central to the plot of season 1. Very early on, Peggy Carter discovers an important revelation in a case of the utmost interest to national security. Knowing that her coworkers and superiors are relatively incompetent and will absolutely take the case away from her if she gives them the chance, she decides to fly it solo. The majority of the season becomes her unraveling the puzzle and hiding those findings from her agency. This creates tension and drama as her agency is also trying to solve the same puzzle. Agent Carter though do to her superior spycraft is always a step ahead and ends up solving the mystery before the agency.
How the show chooses to wrap up the first season though is my biggest criticism. In the final episode as everything comes to a resolution, an important political figure comes to congratulate the agency on their impeccable work, almost all of which was because of Agent Carter. Despite many of the agents knowing that Agent Carter did almost all of the work, one of her male coworkers greets the political figure and proceeds to take all of the credit. This is important as the leader of the agency just recently passed away, leading to a power vacuum waiting to be filled. Agent Carter’s male ally on the show then asks her why she doesn’t do anything. She responds that she doesn’t need the praise and thanks, that she “knows my value” and that “anybody else’s opinion” doesn’t really matter.
This statement undermines all of the feminism displayed in season one and is a huge disappointment. I want to first add that I agree, female empowerment is important and that women should not allow men to dictate their self-worth. The thing is though, Peggy Carter already had that at the beginning of the show. If she did not believe in herself, she would never have undertaken the covert operation in the first place. This makes her statement at the end extremely empty and a prime example of “feel-good feminism.” In the end, despite all of Peggy Carter’s hard work, she willingly accepts her position of unimportance at the agency.
Feminism that does not shake but in fact reinforces the social hierarchy and the cronyism and sexism that leads to male dominance is the most dangerous form of feminism. If Peggy Carter had received the adulation and praise, she likely would have risen through the ranks and gained enough power to effect some real change in the agency. She could have brought in women who were more qualified than her male coworkers. She could have given them a chance they would never have had without a woman in a leadership position. She could also have gotten paid what she deserved. Yet she turns all of this down because she “already feels good about herself”. Peggy Carter is the protagonist of a super-hero themed production company; she is supposed to be a role model to women. The only lesson she ends up teaching women though is how to do all of the work, get none of the credit, maintain the existing oppressive social hierarchy, and feel good about it at the same time.
If I had done my research, I really should have seen this disappointingly faux-feminist ending coming. Turns out, the show’s creators and writers: Christopher Markus, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Stephen McFeely are you guessed it, all men – and White men at that. Additionally, of the show’s 10 executive producers, only one is female. The show’s 10 directors you ask? ALL MEN. When will Hollywood learn that you cannot create a tv show or a movie about oppression with only the privileged in the leadership roles behind the scenes? The fundamental lack of understanding of what the real struggles and issues are tends to always rears its ugly head.
I could also go into the show’s lack of diversity and whitewashing of history but I’ll leave that for another day.
For a show that tries to paint itself as feminist, Agent Carter is in the end, as far from it as you can get. If you’re looking for a superhero show that doesn’t undermine its own feminist message, I suggest that you check out Jessica Jones instead.