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Published Date: February 18, 2015

Published Date: February 18, 2015

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A Fantasy from a Fantasy: A Review of ABC’s Agent Carter

Female characters on television run the gamut from catty to cardiothoracic surgeon. It is no surprise that audiences influenced by outside agendas and personal value systems long for well-rounded characters that reflect their own constantly evolving society. In tandem and since before World War II, popular media have adored churning out stories of heroes and heroines that fit the gender modus operandi of the time, in literature and on-screen. The collision of literature and screen allows people to mentally and physically live out these fantasy stories, cementing their thematic impact in the hearts and minds of readers, listeners, and viewers.

Last month, ABC premiered a television series entitled Agent Carter, about a woman who fought alongside Captain America during World War II and is fighting to find her way in a post-World War II economy. Peggy Carter is the main character of this show, having made appearances in the Marvel comic book series Captain America. She has been ousted from her prior field duties, forced to serve coffee to the male agents at Strategic Science Reserve and keep her head down while respecting the man’s “right” to his former (and her current) position after the war. As one may suspect, she is well-equipped to serve the Reserve as a field agent, and a talented one at that. The series introduces her as an agent, but does not forget to highlight what the network, media, and audience desire most: a woman who is first pretty, then keen, athletic, witty, kind, empathetic, romantic, emotional; both a staid Englishwoman with a sharp accent and a fair English rose. Any woman (or man) watching likely applauds her dynamism and ABC for giving them a “real woman.” She regularly outsmarts and shows-up her male co-workers, putting them in their proverbial places while achieving success in her missions. Based on the popular criteria of watchers world-wide, where is the problem?

The show is set in 1946 and projects all sorts of slang and modern cultural communication onto the characters living in a world demarcated by gender and not giftedness (it should be noted, a world that looks eerily like the one we reside in today). This oft-repeated complaint of historical accuracy is less about accuracy and more about what ABC is feeding its audience. What are they feeding us, you ask? A strong female main character carrying the business of the world on her shoulders while living up to every cultural standard possible, even the standards that promotors of gender equality set their watches to and live their lives by in the home and workplace.

In an interview for SciFi magazine, the actress who plays agent Peggy Carter, Hayley Atwell, has something to say about this historical link between 1946 and 2015. “We’ve come a long way, but we’ve still got a long way to go. I think it parallels with the frustrations that many modern women have. There are still not equal rights for women in terms of the workplace.”[1]

Have we really come a long way if women still experience pressure to be all things sexy, brilliant, well-mannered, tough, and blasé enough about her own femaleness so that it does not interfere with the daily goings-on in the business world? (e.g. menstruating, needing to change in a room separate from all the men changing in another, hormonal crying, breastfeeding.) Agent Carter’s skills are utilized outside the household not only during the war, but after it. She is the astounding anomaly, a woman trying to keep her job after the boys come marching home. This sentimental portrayal of the “everything woman,” found in an era which struggles to contain her power, is almost criminal for women today fighting her same battle.

This Marvel series pretends that the past is better than we remember. Historical revisionism is a useful tool for scholars. It allows us to return to our view of the past with new findings. These findings aid us twenty-first century schlepps in comprehending the socioeconomic realities echoed throughout the historical corridor. For those of us concerned with gender equality, Agent Carter does something worse.  It portrays a woman carving out her own place in a patriarchal system determined to oppress her, sure, but it encourages a cruel nostalgia that comic book enthusiasts heartily embrace. These enthusiasts celebrate and perpetuate the rewriting of history in order to fantasize about and recreate the female ideal as well as her place in the world as they think it should be operating today. Unluckily for those looking for biblical gender equality, agent Peggy Carter exists as the perfect female archetype for those who would like to reinforce gender stereotypes. Her character embodies the demure, accepting, submissive, sweet, and loyal lady. It also allows her to be “appropriately” counterculture—enough to rock the boat but remain [un]comfortably in her second-class position. Agent Peggy Carter is a complementarian fantasy coated in the bittersweet memories of patriarchs. She is the reckoning of a time when “women knew their place.”

People in 2015 are not quite sure who women are and what feminism is, and so the media offer viewers what they wish to see: the juxtaposition of a fierce female and soft lady, always delighting to please with appearance and talent. This is agent Peggy Carter, and this is her story.

[1] Kathie Huddleston, SciFi Magazine, “Modern Day Hero,” February 2015: pp.34-36, 35.