If you’re reading TV reviews on this site, there’s a good chance you’re already watching Marvel’s Agent Carter. If you’re living in the United States (or anywhere outside of Australia), however, there’s a good chance you’re not watching Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. If that’s the case, you’ll want to fire up your Netflix queue right now and fix that situation.
Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (hereafter Miss Fisher’s) is a period piece like Agent Carter, and it too focuses on the investigations and adventures of a gun-toting woman of action who takes no prisoners … and that’s about where the similarities end. Instead of the dark years of misogyny and strict morals following the end of World War II in America, Phryne (FRY-nee) Fisher’s capers are set in the midst of wild and liberated 1920s in Australia. Where Peggy Carter lives in a run-down boarding house and fakes a job with the phone company to cover her covert operations, Phryne—played with incandescent enthusiasm by Essie Davis—lives in a palatial house, drives a fancy car, and is wealthy enough to throw her money around at pretty much any whim she happens on, though we learn early on that she grew up poor and worked as a field nurse during the First World War, and then a painter’s model in Paris thereafter, before an unexpected inheritance freed her from want.
The show is strongly episodic, jumping almost straight into one murder investigation after another each episode, although the relationships between Phryne and the cast of characters who surround her provide grounding and a welcome through-line. Phryne’s personal and sexual liberation are especially contrasted with her maid and companion, Dorothy or Dot, an innocent and very religious young woman, and with Detective Inspector Jack Robinson, who plays a dashing, but wistful Watson to her Sherlock.
It’s in the person of Jack that one of the most obvious contrasts between Agent Carter and Miss Fisher’s is thrown into high relief. In episode four of Agent Carter, one of Peggy’s colleagues tells her, “You’re a woman. No man will ever consider you an equal.” That’s realistic for the late 1940s in America—a backlash against nascent feminism came with the time.
Phryne Fisher, on the other hand, is part of a time where women’s freedom was much more accepted, and she expects to be respected. She usually gets it, too. Jack Robinson starts out resisting the involvement of an amateur in his investigations, but is quickly won over and regards Phryne as his equal and unofficial yet vital partner. The other men of the series, apart from irredeemable baddies, generally fall in line.
A number of other reviewers have pointed out problems with Agent Carter’s portrayal of gender, while recognizing that the show is going for a dark, heroine-against-the-world realism. Contrasting that with Phryne’s life of wealth, glamor, and privilege, it’d be easy to dismiss Miss Fisher’s as a mere wish fulfillment fantasy. What interests me is that Peggy Carter—so far the first woman to whom Marvel has entrusted her own series or movie—is relegated to such a grim existence, while her male counterparts in the Marvel Universe largely inhabit a world where fantasies are the rule of the day. Steve Rogers’ story is that of the ultimate underdog, the shrimp with a heart of gold who is recognized and given the strength to fight back against all the bullies of the world. Tony Stark (and his father, Howard Stark, who is a frequent wise-cracking and womanizing presence on Agent Carter) is, apart from his serious issues with alcoholism, PTSD, and self-esteem—the epitome of another form of male fantasy—that of the billionaire playboy inventor and a weapons mogul who gets the chance to redeem himself while retaining every bit his rich-boy lifestyle.
Fantasy, as a genre, is about worlds that don’t exist or versions of our own world that are different from what we see around us. But often when women complain about how female characters are treated in fantasy, we’re told that’s just how it was in those days. We’re told to be realistic. Women in the 1940s got pushed out of jobs they’d done well so that the boys returning from war could have jobs in the post-war economy, regardless of how competent and smart and educated they were. Women in medieval or even pseudo-medieval times were kept silent, raped, and used as pawns (look at Game of Thrones). Minorities weren’t important in either of those worlds and were hardly ever seen at least in the records kept by those in power. Examples we raise that go against these narratives are to be considered outliers and shouldn’t be counted.
Agent Carter is a good series and a step forward in that it’s a TV show centered on a female protagonist in a comic-book universe, but its central premise is that even extremely competent women have difficulty surviving in a man’s world. The show spends as much, if not more time, focused on the men surrounding Agent Carter (Howard Stark, Jarvis, Sousa, Anderson, the absent Captain America, etc.) rather than its title character. Isn’t it better to watch a woman who takes the world on her own terms, fights the good fight, demands that the men around her accept and respect her for what she is and has fun doing it, even if that’s a little bit of a historical fantasy?Peggy has only one female friendship, and that a seemingly tentative one, and other women are effectively absent from her work world and exist only as color in her outside life, or as automaton-weapons created by the enemies of the United States. And in the final episode of the first season, the thesis at the end of the episode is that Peggy is ignored and dismissed by people in power even when her efforts lead to something great, and she at least pretends not to mind. The show seems to raise that as an ideal—that she’s better than someone who would want recognition and accolades for herself. What kind of message is that? Isn’t it better to watch a woman who takes the world on her own terms, fights the good fight, demands that the men around her accept and respect her for what she is and has fun doing it, even if that’s a little bit of a historical fantasy?
Phryne Fisher is of her time, but also ahead of her time—she’s more accepting of abortion and homosexuality than the majority of people in her era. She’s a desperately poor girl who was raised up by pure chance, giving her the opportunity to be self-sufficient, go off on adventures, drive a fancy car, wear fancy clothes, dance, have casual sex with beautiful men (and not get judged for it by anyone in the show), and solve crimes for fun. The men in her world respect her. The women in her world dote on her and need her help, and she is able to give it, often free of charge to those in need, and she rescues young women who are in similar situations to her own when she was young, even living out the fantasy of saving her murdered sister via the proxy of adopting an abused young girl of the same name.
Another quick fact of note is that, according to IMDB, seven of Miss Fisher’s nine producers are women. The show has at least four female directors and at least ten of the fifteen writing credits to date have been women. And those are just the names I was fairly confident regarding their gender. Agent Carter, again by IMDB’s listings, has what looks like five female producers out of nineteen, no female directors, and three out of twelve of their writing credits go to women. Little surprise, from those numbers, that the female gaze is inescapable in Miss Fisher’s and largely absent from Agent Carter.
|Miss Fisher’s||7/9 (78%)||4/12 (33%)||10/15 (67%)|
|Agent Carter||5/19 (26%)||0/8 (0%)||3/12 (25%)|
In an interview on NPR’s Monkey See blog, Essie Davis came right out and said what I’ve been trying to get at: “Phryne’s a superhero, really.” Not in the sense that she has special powers or super strength, because she doesn’t (although she is an unerringly good shot with her little gold pistol and pretty damned good at climbing walls and into windows during clandestine investigations). She’s more like Tony Stark than Steve Rogers in that sense, in that it’s typically skill, cleverness, and sheer audacity that get her through. And I’d rather have a dozen of her than a dozen more shows that tell me—perhaps in not quite so many words—to sit down, shut up, and remember that women in the past never got to do anything fun. I’m proud to think of all the things that women in the past suffered through to get to where we are, but sometimes it’s just as good for us to imagine women who bucked those odds, did amazing things, and had a great time doing it, in spite of the world around them.
And if you’re looking for more reasons to watch Miss Fisher’s, Buzzfeed has eighteen good ones.