PeggySous got married: Marvel’s Agent Carter and a cautionary tale about loving television and forgetting history

Originally posted to Medium on 30 March 2016. 

With the announcement last week that ABC had cancelled Agent Carter, the series that began as a one-shot, then continued for two seasons as mid-break coverage for Agents of Shield and the only Marvel property that combined humour, colour, and dedicated women leads, disappeared.

This time last year, fans were celebrating a surprise late-stage renewal, and in the lead-up to the summer release of Avengers: Age of Ultron and the fall release of Jessica Jones (also women-led but unlike Agent Carter, hyper-violent—only adults were watching), the cast and crew also toured the convention circuit, to great effect. Fans were delighted by Hayley Atwell and Lyndsy Fonseca’s engagement with the relationship between their Peggy Carter and Angie Martinelli, by the outpouring of excitement surrounding a woman hero from fans of all ages, and by promising discussions centred on #diversifyAgentCarter. (Among other things, Atwell tweeted, “Diversity in season 2 was brought up today. And not even by me! Which is a first…”)

Atwell tweeted a child’s drawing: “I am so happy to see you it is awesome!!! I love agent carter so so so so so much!!”

Observing this, participating in this, I felt possibility. I had written to a network for the first time! In the all too common ways in which we forget history, I felt like this was the Big Chance: if viewers were to show that Agent Carter was successful, if we were to demonstrate the intensity of our commitment to superhero stories that did not shy away from exposing sexism in its most insidious forms and were willing to openly discuss diversity needs, then we would turn the tide. “We” would show “Marvel” that women sold, and then we would get our shows!

remember reading a Star Trek magazine when I was eleven or twelve. It was a special issue, “the women of Star Trek.” It had Kate Mulgrew, Jeri Ryan, and Roxann Dawson on the cover, and inside, it profiled almost every actress who had ever held more than a bit part in the Trekkie universe. I read it cover-to-cover dozens of times and one argument stuck with me, at first because as a child I believed it, and later, because I could not.

My magazine argued that the three decades between Star Trek’s premiere in 1966 and Star Trek: Voyager’s premiere in 1995 were necessary to make the franchise “ready” for a woman captain to lead a series of her own — That from the original series to The Next Generation to Deep Space Nine to Voyager, with all of the films in-between, it was necessary to gradually, tentatively, slowly approach overt, sustained women leadership, beginning with Christopher Pike’s first officer (who was initially conceived as a woman, but on whom Roddenberry was forced to compromise, instead using an alien — Spock — to demonstrate that “Otherness”) through the “hard” (Denise Crosby, Michelle Forbes) and “soft” (Marina Sirtis, Gates Mcfadden) tertiary women of TNG and the seconds-in-command (Nana Visitor, Terry Farrell) of DS9, and ending at last with Mulgrew’s captaincy on Voyager.

I use the word “ending” intentionally, because rather than an ascendancy — women established in their rightful place — Mulgrew and her colleagues, through no fault of their own, stood at the top of a wheel on a downward turn. Post-Voyager, from Enterprise onward, Star Trek has relied more and more on women in their underwear than women in the captain’s chair. One step forward, two steps back.

Or, as Andrea Mandell recently wrote at USA Today,

“The outlook on female-centric films is depressingly cyclical, says Oscar winner Geena Davis, a women’s activist who has watched waves of discussion on the topic since Thelma & Louise debuted 25 years ago. “As time wore on, I realized — so every few years a movie comes out starring women and does great and is a big hit. And it’s announced that ‘This changes everything,’” she says, only to revert back.

This absence of history, this cyclical erasure followed by reconstruction from first principles, lather, rinse, repeat, has dogged the heels of women activists for ages, just one of the weapons in the backlash arsenal. (Susan Faludi first published her investigative book Backlash, investigating anti-feminist reactions to women’s liberation in Britain and the United States, in 1991; it remains painfully relevant.)

As one example, recall that Playboy once claimed, “A couple of generations ago, this was a man’s world, and a nice young woman without a husband had a difficult time making her own way. Nothing could be further from the truth in 1953.” That is, by 1953, liberated women were so out of control that men had lost any semblance of power and it was basically a matriarchy. Does that sound like any 1953 you’ve ever heard of?

To borrow a phrase from Baudelaire (or The Usual Suspects, if you prefer), anti-feminists’ greatest trick has repeatedly been to convince girls and women that they are starting from zero, for when girls and women embrace this no-history platform, they expose their wonderful passion and energy to capture—to a vampirish society that will suck them dry. At its worst, the no-history platform encourages a toxic sense of superiority (no other woman has accomplished what I’m about to, I will be the first, I won’t be like my mother), fosters a brutal isolation (there are no other women experiencing what I experience, I am alone), and ensures that women always shoulder the blame for the experiences of systemic oppression (I didn’t try hard enough, I didn’t “lean in,” I brought this on myself). Consider Caitlin Moran’s spurious claims in How to Be a Woman:

“Even the most ardent historian, male or female — citing Amazons and tribal matriarchies and Cleopatra — can’t conceal that women have basically done fuck all for the last 100,000 years. Come on — let’s admit it. Let’s stop exhaustingly pretending that there is a parallel history of women being victorious and creative, on an equal with men, that’s just been comprehensively covered up by The Man. There isn’t. Our empires, armies, cities, artworks, philosophers, philanthropists, inventors, scientists, astronauts, explorers, politicians and icons could all fit, comfortably into one of the private karaoke booths in SingStar. We have no Mozart; no Einstein; no Galileo; no Ghandi. No Beatles, no Churchill, no Hawking, no Columbus. It just didn’t happen.

Nearly everything so far has been the creation of men — and a liberal, right-on denial of it makes everything more awkward and difficult in the long run. Pretending that women have had a pop at all this before but ultimately didn’t do as well as the men, that the experiment of female liberation has already happened but floundered gives strength to the belief that women simply aren’t as good as men, full stop. That things should just carry on as they are — with the world shaped around, and honouring, the priorities, needs, whims, and successes of men. Women are over, without having even begun. When the truth is that we haven’t even begun at all. Of course we haven’t. We’ll know it when we have.”

Moran doesn’t mean to feed anti-feminist mythology; it’s just that she stands at the top of the wheel. When you first name the problem, you feel invincible, but opening your eyes is not the same as the gritty, slogging work of liberation, and kicking your sisters to the curb — “women have basically done fuck-all for the past 100,000 years” — will never again feel quite as good as it might the first time, when you felt like a kid ditching their parents’ house for a basement suite you adored, but which was in reality a draughty wreck.

Agent Carter’s first season was brilliant television. It was funny, sweet, exciting, well-plotted, perfectly cast, and superbly acted. The costumes were stunning (flashy hats, tuxes and ball gowns, shoes and handbags, wigs and other disguises), the colours vibrant (bright reds, deep blues, forests, oceans, underground compounds), and the fight scenes well choreographed. It was visually pleasing.

Too, it managed simultaneously to stand alone in the Marvel Cinematic Universe/MCU (again, it was the only Marvel property to place women at the forefront and prioritize colour and humour over greyness and grit) and to integrate itself into broader plotlines for interested fans. By the season finale, the show had so earned audiences’ attention that a gadget that would have been silly anywhere else — a failed prototype vest designed to self-heat, but which exploded if it got too hot — became the focal point of the poignant death of Chief Dooley (Shea Whigham). (Dooley himself, thanks to skillful writing and to Whigham’s performance, succeeded as a boss whose curmudgeonly, sexist behaviour was complicated, but never excused, by his loneliness and war trauma.)

It also balanced these heavier cultural elements of post-war America with scenes that were uniquely and unashamedly comical, due in equal part to scripts that enjoyed humour and actors skilled in physical comedy. For viewers eagerly chowing down on the Marvel menu, it was a relief to laugh at Peggy impersonating a dairy inspector, or Jarvis (James D’Arcy) chasing a recalcitrant flamingo, when other MCU offerings featured, in no particular order a villain who decapitates a man with a car door; a woman who stabs herself repeatedly with scissors; a (gay) man who murders his family and saws off his own limbs; a child who kills his abusive father, then disposes of the body (again, the saw!); a (lesbian) woman whose head is crushed on a table corner; an (Asian) man who stabs himself in the face with hedge-trimmers; and a man — supposedly a hero and soon to get his own Netflix series — who kills a dozen man with his bare hands, then falls to the ground bathed in their blood, and who soon stabs another man repeatedly in the eye with a shard of glass and yet another with a kitchen knife. (Frank Castle is a fascist, but that’s an essay for another day.)

On top of all this, what Agent Carter most astutely captured, to me, was the insidiousness of sexism and the strength of will required to survive its unending barrage. Sexism in Agent Carter was not cartoonish and splashy one-offs in “very special episodes”, but small and evil and constant — as it is. It was Peggy being told to change into tactical gear in the public washroom downstairs, instead of the locker room; it was Agent Thompson (Chad Michael Murray) saying, “Guess you’re used to serving under a captain, huh?” and tricking fellow agent Daniel Sousa (Enver Gjokaj) into walking in on Peggy while she changed; it was Peggy being spoken over while her male coworkers stole her ideas and took credit for her work.

Near the end of the first season, when Dooley, Thompson, and Sousa interrogate her, she says:

“You think you know me, but I’ve never been more than what each of you has created. To you, I’m the stray kitten, left on your doorstep to be protected. The secretary turned damsel in distress. The girl on the pedestal, transformed into some daft whore.”

This was the climax of the personal and political struggle she had carried for the entire season: the driving home that even the “nice” men of the office (and the superb Gjokaj’s Sousa is a “nice” man—compelling, kind, and also a twit) perceive women as objects indistinguishable from one another (when another agent is killed, Dooley calls his wife while Thompson calls his girlfriend) and are at best irritated when individual women don’t respond the way they expected or desired. The lesson? That even well-meaning, good men — never mind the bad ones — perform sexism and benefit from it, because that is the way structures of power operate.

Agent Carter’s second season maintained its main cast and crew, including writers and executive producers Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas, but also made some major alterations, including moving the action from New York to Los Angeles, eliminating fan favourite Lindsy Fonseca’s Angie Martinelli, and allowing the groundwork laid with the previous season’s antagonists, Dottie Underwood (Bridget Regan) and the mind-controlling Dr. Ivchenko, to dangle. Too, one outcome of #diversifyAgentCarter (and/or long-term series planning) was the introduction of Dr. Jason Wilkes (Reggie Austin), with some even speculating that he might have been Peggy’s future husband, and while Austin was super and the group dynamic effective, that’s still a lot of pressure to put on one person.

(A brief diversion: Marc N. Kleinhenz at ScreenRantdiscusses the season’s integration of the “Dark Universe” as a set-up for the upcoming film Doctor Strange, suggesting to me that at least some of these alterations were Marvel arm-twisting to bolster the rest of its roster at the expense of the show. Remember: a child who was ten years old when Iron Man came out is now is now eighteen, with Marvel occupying pride of place throughout their entire childhood, and in that same time, the MCU has hosted thirteen blockbuster films, five one-shots, and four multi-season television series, with more yet to come. That Disney owns our souls — and that this is painful to recognize because we have built deeply emotional and personal identities around the contents of these franchises, and are thus likely to experience structural critique as personal critique, never mind the relationship between fandom and canon — is another discussion altogether.)

Back to Agent Carter: some episodes into the second season, which I watched religiously, I at last put my finger on what bothered me, the core tonal shift: the women had gone.

In the first season, Peggy might have been surrounded by dudes at work, but everywhere else, it was girl city: she mourned the murder of her roommate, Colleen, developed a close friendship with Angie (just gals being pals… #cartinelli), even moving in with her at the end of the season, and lived at The Griffith, the all-women boarding housing where Dottie was first revealed as a Black Widow and undercover Soviet spy. An entire episode was even dedicated to consulting with Howard Stark’s (Dominic Cooper) numerous ex-girlfriends.

But in the second season, those relationships were severed. Secretary-turned-agent Rose (Lesley Boone) got a brief arc and the opportunity to punch a bad guy in the face, but was otherwise reduced to blushing at Stark’s flirtations and putting up with Aloysius Samberly’s (Matt Braunger) come-ons. Violet (Sarah Bolger), Sousa’s physiotherapist and briefly his fiancée, didn’t get a last name or a story beyond Sousa’s, while the fantastic Dottie (exactly the kind of character that, if male, would have been a series regular by then; see also Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Spike) turned up for a single episode that, although otherwise grand, served to remind everyone that only Bad Girls were attracted to other girls. Jarvis’s wife Ana, who had escaped the Holocaust, wore pretty dresses and wished her husband would pay more attention to her, not unlike the season’s villain, Whitney Frost, who was villainous only in that she was a woman who wanted her due. Whitney’s desire to do her scientific research and be accordingly appreciated literally drove her insane.

With this flattening, the progress earlier episodes made in exposing the machinery of systemic sexism and toxic masculinity—that could have been expanded to better address the way these impact and compound racism and other systemic oppression—stalled. With the exception of Jason, all new characters were white, and with the exception of Whitney and Violet, they were men. I would have loved, too, to spend more time with Ana, with even a passing reference to her faith and her survival of the Second World War, something only hinted at in past episodes. There were still undeniably strong moments — for instance, when Thompson, who had latched onto a crooked mentor in his desperation for the approval of powerful men, realizes that he misses the peers he has alienated, or when Whitney, who had only ever wanted to study, realizes that her husband has betrayed her — but there are also some painful missed opportunities.

For instance, while the first season captured the constancy of everyday sexism, Peggy’s second-season confrontations with racism while befriending Jason were comparatively clunky, as though racism didn’t exist in England, or the American army hadn’t been segregated when she served in it. Further, given her truth-bomb in the in the previous season — “I’ve never been more than what each of you has created” — a more plausible way to complicate her relationship with Sousa might have been to explore why Peggy saved New York City, but Sousa got a promotion and a bureau of his own in California. While in the first season, Sousa rather awkwardly saw himself and Peggy as relatively aligned, him as a disabled man and her as a woman (no, no one explained intersectionality to him), what happens when power elevates him, but not her? We didn’t get to find out. In an interview withEntertainment Weekly, Atwell commented (and her degree of irony is unclear),

“they [could] embark on a fabulous love affair, but then they realize they’re really bad at domestic chores and that they can’t compromise on who washes the dishes and they decide to go their separate ways. That’s a possibility, too. I like to think that this is the start to a beautiful relationship.”

I cannot see Sousa as a man willing to wash the dishes, nor Peggy as a woman willing to accept that.

The cancellation of Agent Carter reminds me of Cagney and Lacey. This award-winning series about two women cops ran from 1981 to 1988 — but not without struggle. As detailed in Faludi’s Backlash, Barbara Corday and Barbara Avedon shopped their pilot around for six years before CBS picked it up for a made-for-TV movie. The movie was successful and the network launched a series, aired two episodes, then cancelled the show, brought it back, cancelled it, brought it back, and cancelled it again — and this back-and-forth doesn’t include the episode, ultimately cancelled anyway, where executives barred Gloria Steinem from guest-starring. Despite a popular and critically-acclaimed run (fans wrote thousands of support letters), showrunners battled regularly with executives over the latter’s insistence that Cagney and Lacey were “‘too tough’”; that women cops were not marriage material; that Cagney was too promiscuous and insufficiently “‘vulnerable’”; and that Cagney could not be permitted even to contemplate an abortion, years after Roe v. Wade. Ultimately, though, as Faludi writes,

“the show’s staff tried to save the show by disavowing its own politics. For public consumption, they began denying that the show had any feminist content — even though the show regularly took feminist positions on employment discrimination, sexual harassment, domestic violence, women’s health, and prostitution. Cagney and Lacey producer April Smith assured the press that the show’s crew had ‘no desire to turn it into a women’s lib vehicle.’ On a talk show, the show’s co-star, Sharon Gless, asserted that [it] was not a feminist show because that label was too ‘limiting’” (187).

For the global minority that followed the most recent Canadian election, a metaphor: they NDP’d it: in an effort to appeal to “everyone,” they bunched toward the centre, thereby alienating their base toward the left and continuing to fail to impress those toward the right who didn’t like them anyway.

As for Agent Carter, the show transitioned from a show where women were front and centre, where men were shown as both the agents of sexism and the victims of their own toxic masculinity, where women conversed and interacted with each other, and where by the end of the season, Peggy had moved into a love-nest with her best friend (as I said, just gals being pals… #cartinelli), to a show where Peggy had only enlisted out of guilt after her brother, who recommended her without consulting her, was killed in action, where Jarvis concealed Ana’s infertility from her, where Peggy rarely spoketo Whitney, Ana, or Dottie, and where Angie’s sole appearance was a musical dream sequence in which she exhorted Peggy to hurry up and choose a man, as though that decision were integral to a plot where the antagonist had a dimension-altering nuclear weapon.

Rather than a continuation, the second season seemed more like a do-over — Agent Carter, but more heterosexual and less critical of male power; a feminism that sells, not a feminism that serves. As Tumblr user infinitypeggys says,

i’m just gonna say it and be done with it: peggysous and daniel sousa’s toxic masculinity/paternalistic sexism killed agent carter.

we lost one of the best, most three dimensional heroines in the superhero genre because of a forced love triangle and a stupid musical number.

Sousa tries too hard to be A Man™, and while this is a perfectly plausible character arc, the plot rewards him instead of critiquing him as it had in the first season, all while Jason is shunted to the side, as though Peggy could never have chosen a black man — if she had to choose a man at all. Indeed, Peggy and Sousa’s season-closing kiss begins with Sousa giving her a dressing-down:

SOUSA: Look, I… got to say something to you about what happened at the rift.

PEGGY: Oh, there’s no need to thank me.

SOUSA: Uh, actually, I was gonna say you messed up. Big.

PEGGY: Sorry, what?

SOUSA: As your supervisor —

PEGGY: You’re not my supervisor.

SOUSA: As a supervisor, I feel obligated to tell you your actions were ill-advised and reckless.

He’s not her supervisor, but he claims the right to reprimand and control her as Chief Sousa—as a man with power. Their conversation also mirrors the first episode, “Now is Not the End,” where Sousa had challenged another agent for making snide remarks to Peggy:

PEGGY: Agent Sousa, about what you just did —

SOUSA: Ah, don’t worry about it —

PEGGY: I wish you hadn’t.

SOUSA: You’re an agent. They treat you like a secretary. I just wanted —

PEGGY: And I’m grateful. I’m also more than capable of handling whatever these adolescents throw at me.

If we accept this narrative framing, then we accept that Sousa interfering in Peggy’s affairs — attempting to take control of her life and be thanked for it, as is his habit — is comparable to Peggy saving his life when he lost control of an operation.

And so we lost Agent Carter—and viewers do feel the loss. As runs the slogan of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, “if she can see it, she can be it,” but with Agent Carter in the bin with Marvel’s Most Wanted, a would-be Bobbi Morse/Mockingbird series; with Marvel titan Kevin Feige promising a (yes, one) LGBT character in the next decade (he seems to have missed the memo) and hedging on a stand-alone Black Widow film since Natasha is so good at supporting the men; and with both Captain Marvel and Black Panther pushed back to make room for Marvel’s sixth crack at Spider-Man since the early 2000s, one wonders when our time will come — or if Marvel’s lease on our attention will have expired by then.

If we do not see ourselves at all, if we are always beginning and never progressing, how can we be at all?

Sowhat should I do? I should tell the folks at ABC what Agent Carter means to me, that they ought to save it. Many people are doing so, with petitions racking up signatures. But ABC only offers 350 characters or a 30-second voicemail. Not a lot of room to say “I love it, please renew it, but also, please let me help you: fix your poor treatment, if any, of people of colour; your queer-baiting; your queer-coding of villains, but not heroes; and your oppressive emphasis on in-your-face heterosexuality.” I have already run out of characters, and Mr. ABC Studios will say, “Welp. They don’t like it. Turns out girly TV is a bust.” Which is, of course, assuming that Mr. ABC Studios pays attention at all. Let’s remember what Avedon and Corday had to go through, for example, or what it’s like to be a woman working in film and television in the United States when an assistant-director feels entitled to dry-hump you on set. We know what Agent Carter’s problems are, sure, but I am fairly confident they are not behind its cancellation. Do the men in charge, throwing up obstacle after obstacle, care at all? What might the creative team have gone through, trying to give viewers what they wanted, trying to #diversifyAgentCarter?

So is it my fault, in part, that it faltered? Did I say the wrong thing, or not enough things, or too few times, or too quietly? Did I go with the Internet crowd, our rumblings of discontent, and turn my back on Agent Carter, although I bought it on iTunes and watched it every week, tweeting along faithfully? And if I now support it, if Netflix or some other network picks it up, and season three goes further back instead of forward — Well, won’t I have egg on my face then?

And all the while, other rubbish television carries on its merry way. Agent Carter had its issues, because all television does, but it was denied the opportunity to fix them—the glass ceiling writ large on the small screen; meanwhile, the CW’s Supernatural queues up an eleventh season as easy as breathing, or as another Marvel/ABC example, Agents of Shield knocks off another renewal no problem, despite making a tradition of killing a major black character every mid-season finale, and still we have to stand back and watch Agent Carter and Marvel’s Most Wanted bite the dust, and see CBS’s Nancy Drew reboot — featuring Persian actress Sarah Shahi — get canned for testing “too female.” Agent Carter, true to the way we treat women, was So Good that the only natural follow-up was being Too Bad.

Nobody likes a popular woman.

But suppose, too, I am willing to take the risk — that I believe in Agent Carter and in the women working on it, and in our capacity not only for survival, but also our betterment. When I do that, then, I must do it for everyone. There is no shame in liking problematic media, but it remains a terrible thing to agitate for your own representation, then tell someone else to wait their turn. A show cannot be all things to all people, but for heaven’s sake — we can try.

So where is the cautionary tale in all this? Love all you want, and don’t let anyone stop you, but a show, a network, Marvel Studios — these things can’t love you back. Continue to agitate, though, for what you need, for what is just — if she can see it, she can be it — and remember that we are not without history. Agent Carter carries its own unique set of circumstances, but when it comes to women on television, we have been here before.

If we remember that, and each other, maybe it can finally be different next time. Our eyes will be open and we will put our shoulder to the wheel. The long slog. One step forward, and another, and another. (As Steve Rogers said in The Winter Soldier,Well, I guess I just like to know who I’m fighting.”)

And yes, it does matter. Agent Carter was denied the chances offered to lesser shows to grow under the supervision of a talented creative team doing, I truly believe, their best, and at the same time, with its cancellation, viewers were punished for their reasonable and righteous disappointment in its shortcomings. Many of the show’s cast and crew, including Atwell, Butters, and Fazekas, have already lined up new projects, and given how talented the lot of them are, anyone who hasn’t is likely to in short order. I miss Agent Carter, and I’m saddened by what happened to it, but I certainly don’t begrudge any fresh opportunities coming the way of its team. If a third season materializes, I will be right there in line, hoping for the best.

Kleinhenz, back at ScreenRant, attributes the cancellation of Agent Carter to two primary obstacles: one, reduced viewership due to lack of integration with the MCU, and two, ABC cleaning house after the firing of Paul Lee. The latter is valuable insight into something fan letters and hashtags are hard-pressed to impact, but the former — well, I must disagree. Integration with the MCU (including setting up the Dark Universe for Doctor Strange and the Roxxon Corporation for Daredevil) crushed the life out of Agent Carter, itself already weakened by existing within an industry that favours maleness and/or whiteness above all else, and despite how far we think we might have come from seeing Cagney as the anti-wife, networks still see the need to shoehorn leading women into heterosexual relationships. To get those viragoes under control.

How could Peggy have a life of her own while carrying the weight of all these goddamned men?

And as she would say, crikey o’reilly. Isn’t this a damn shame.

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