Last night’s Agent Carter was refreshing. I watched it immediately after scrolling through @femscriptintros, the twitter feed that’s cataloguing the depressing, though not surprising, ways that women are introduced in scripts, always in reference to their physical and sexual value, and I was feeling disheartened about the state of women in Hollywood. Afraid that things would never really change. And then I watched an hour of television dominated by four different interesting and complicated women and I felt a lot better. Let’s break it down by character:
- Peggy Carter’s physical strength is never in doubt. The fact that she’s a “Strong Female Character” in the Buffy Summers, can-kick-your-butt-in-heels, tough-upper lip sense is baked into the premise of the show, and while Peggy has never been written or portrayed as an emotionless automaton (after all, a broken heart and deep recesses of compassion are what have fueled her for 2 seasons now) she isn’t the type to show signs of weakness or to break down. This week’s episode, however, put her in physical peril, and thanks to the comfort of a Marvel Cinematic Universe that has already assured us that Peggy lives be very, very old, I was able to enjoy the opportunity to see her in a position where she had to rely entirely on her friends and not just on herself, without having to worry that the rebar through her side would have a lasting impact.
What’s more, “The Atomic Job” allows Peggy to shine as a leader. While Sousa may technically be her boss, he increasingly defers to her suggestions and follows her orders. She pushes him to bring Rose into the field, leaves him to help Jarvis defuse the bombs while she heads off to take out Whitney Frost. She may not be in charge of the SSR, but she has an unspoken authority thanks to her track record and the respect she has amassed from the people who surround her.
- Rose has been the public face of the SSR’s secret offices for two seasons now, and while her ebullience has always been a pleasure to watch, it’s nice to see the show add a little depth to it. It was fun to see another woman out in the field for the SSR, especially because the show did such an excellent job of demonstrating why Rose deserved to be there. As Peggy points out she’s trustworthy, and she’s passed through all of the same training as everyone else; just because she’s a woman doesn’t mean she’s not just as capable. Like Peggy, she gets the chance to toss a few men around, but she also uses more specific skills to her advantage, whether that means baking favors out of Dr. Samberly (not something we’re ever likely to see Peggy do) or talking him down so he can complete a difficult task (precisely the sort of talent someone might pick up when they spend their day answering phones). Her strengths are not just a carbon copy of Peggy’s, but distinct, individual, and she earns her place in the field.
- After last season presented such a fun big bad in Dottie, the assassin hiding behind a country bumpkin routine, Whitney Frost’s nuclear physicist hiding within a movie star could have seemed like a repeat. Their motivations, though, are so different that Whitney doesn’t feel recycled. Where Dottie took pleasure in the game of trying to outsmart Peggy, Whitney is just hungry for power. We got a glimpse into her childhood in last week’s episode, where she learned the dangers that come with relying on other people to get by, as well as the power behind submission and accommodation, of smiling to make men happy; it gave context to the way she uses her newfound power. At first it was hard to understand why a woman who makes a living off of her face (playing roles that were surely defined with words about her beauty) would keep killing, allowing the splintering crack of zero matter to keep growing along her forehead, but it’s clear now that Whitney’s career was a means to an end. She doesn’t need to have a pretty face if she can find the power it brought her elsewhere, and she’s willing to take out anyone, be they enemy, minion or her own husband, if it means being the one in control.
- And then there’s Violet. Violet could have been a thankless role, an obstacle rising up between Peggy and Sousa to keep them apart a bit longer, but she’s written to be more than that. Like Peggy, she is very much career minded. She’s the one that comes home late from work to find dinner cold on the table and her partner asleep on the couch, and she’s the one with the expertise to patch Peggy up when she’s been impaled. She loves Sousa, but she’s not willing to turn a blind eye when she sees first hand how he feels about Peggy–the moment they’re alone she confronts him about his feelings, and about his decision to lie to her. But she also doesn’t hold her fiancé’s feelings against Peggy. They are, after all, new friends, and when Peggy’s bleeding on her couch she takes care of her, makes sure she’ll heal, even offers her a place to stay until she does. There’s no malice between them, or even awkwardness. The show isn’t gearing up for a love triangle or a cat fight–there’s mutual respect here, evident in the immediate friendship that blossomed between them, and in the genuine way Peggy congratulated Sousa on his engagement.
What is perhaps most interesting about the way “The Atomic Job” treats its women is the way that the male characters all orbit around them. Sousa, Dr. Wilkes and Mr. Jarvis defer to Peggy as always, and to Violet as she directs them in how to save Peggy. Rose handles Dr. Samberly like a producer on UnREAL, carefully and expertly. And on the other side, Whitney controls her husband with fear of what she can do, and the mob boss Joseph Manfredi with her good looks and negotiation skills. The women are running the show.
In moving across the country for its second season Agent Carter lost the setting of the women’s only boarding house that served as Peggy’s home last year (and Angie! I miss Angie!). The boarding house provided a backdrop of nothing but women that stood in contrast to the entirely male SSR offices, and it was home to some lovely scenes of women living amongst other women. But in its second season, as the show has stepped back from some of the overt sexism that defined much of the story last year, Agent Carter has fleshed out the women in the foreground (we even met Mr. Jarvis’ wife, Ana, a few weeks ago), and it’s made for a richer world, one in which Peggy no longer stands alone. Ever so slowly, as in the world we live in now, things are starting to change on Agent Carter.