Let me start by saying that I’ve had a blast watching Agent Carter. There are many reasons why the show is fun and important and awesome and all those good things. Others (including the amazing Rachel Edidin) have already done a great job outlining the good stuff; there are some good critiques out there too, like this rundown of how Agent Carter could have done better with its gender politics.
With that in mind, I’m going to focus on one small moment in the last episode that really turned my stomach.
Fair warning: spoilers ahead.
For those unfamiliar with Marvel’s Agent Carter, here’s a very short, rather irreverent summary. Agent Peggy Carter was a key player during WWII and helped Captain America save the world and was devastated when he presumably died. After the war, Carter joined the Strategic Scientific Reserve (SSR) as its only female agent. The guys in the office treat her like a glorified secretary, so it takes them an awfully long time to notice that she is totally kick-ass and is saving the world behind their backs and whatnot.
Now, recap done, let’s talk about my disappointment. Toward the end of the last episode, “Valediction” (read a summary of the full episode here if you like) Carter’s immediate colleagues recognize her actions and strengths, at long last. She gets a full standing ovation as she returns to the office, having triumphed over the enemies of America pretty much single-handed. Yes! Finally! Acceptance and support!
And then, a not-unexpected letdown: a bigwig U.S. Senator shows up and commends Agent Jack Thompson for saving New York City. Thompson pauses for a split second to swallow guilt-induced indigestion, and then smoothly takes all the credit. Boo! Hiss! Well, ain’t that just the way of things. Boys will be boys, I guess.
Now, the worst of it isn’t that Thompson takes the credit. Yep, we all expected that anyway. The worst part is that Carter lets him. Agent Daniel Sousa, Carter’s somewhat-supporter and wannabe-sweetheart, is all ready to get his undies in a bunch and stand up for Carter. Then Carter TELLS HIM NOT TO.
“Daniel,” Carter says, “It really doesn’t bother me… I don’t need a congressional honor, I don’t need Agent Thompson’s approval or the President’s. I know my value. Anyone else’s opinion doesn’t really matter.”
And then she goes to her desk and looks at some files, and Agent Sousa awkwardly asks her out on a date.
Stop. Seriously. In my wife’s words, “What the hell kind of message is that?”
So, yes, knowing your own value and having confidence in yourself is really important. Carter’s had that since the beginning, and we all know that. Other people can think what they like about you and that shouldn’t change how you feel about yourself. That’s the positive side of the message.
But, and this is a big BUT, it is equally important to demand recognition of your work, especially as a female in a male-dominated space. I spoke with a female friend of mine, Jumana Al Hashal, who has worked in the tech industry for over a decade. What she’s noticed is that some women are more reticent to speak up about their work. “Somehow, some [women] think somebody, somewhere will notice their brilliance, unlike their male counterparts who are more assertive.” In meetings, she says, some women tend to speak more hesitantly, with a sort of questioning, such as “is this okay with you?” whereas even junior male employees will speak more firmly.
Consider: during WWII, women on both sides of the Atlantic were called upon to take up jobs that had formerly been the province of men (“Rosie the Riveter”, for instance). After the war, when the men returned to take up their positions again, what happened to all of those trained women? Many left their positions and never went back, as with the highly skilled code-breaking positions at Bletchley Park (where, according to a quick line of dialogue in episode 5, Agent Carter also worked). Some, such as Betty Vine-Stevens, went on to work at the Pentagon for a time. How would today’s society and technology have been different if many of those women had been retained?
Why am I making a big deal out of a seemingly small moment? Because those small moments add up. When Carter declines to stand up for herself—which is out of character for her, as she certainly argued for herself earlier in the series—it sends a message. There could be some other reason that she doesn’t want credit for saving the day, but that’s not explained at all. Why did she give up on proving herself to her superiors?
Fans of the Marvel universe likely know that Carter winds up as a key player in S.H.I.E.L.D.; is this because the system eventually recognized her for the incredible agent that she is? Agent Carter’s path to S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t fully fleshed out (although producer Michele Fazekas indicated this season is setting the stage for that), but Carter’s lackluster response to being ignored doesn’t give me much hope that she is the agent of her own promotion. What this said to me was, “Ladies, just work hard, stay the course, and have faith in yourself, and eventually, you’ll be rewarded.” Honestly, I don’t buy it.
The women in business and tech whom I’ve spoken with have had to hold on to their accomplishments in a very conscious manner. Regardless of gender, one needs to advocate for oneself, but the way someone is positioned in society affects how that happens—or how it doesn’t. Belinda Luscombe reports on Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who references a 2003 experiment which found that changing an entrepreneur’s name from female to male made her more likable. Says Luscombe, “It accounts for why women are less eager than men to trumpet their management triumphs or put themselves forward for leadership positions. Because women are supposed to be nurturing and peacemaking, not aggressive.”
Now, let’s loop back to Agent Jack Thompson for a moment, because it’s not just Carter who loses when Thompson takes credit for her work. At the beginning of the series, Thompson was perhaps the worst of the sexist, coffee-demanding guys. He argued against bringing Carter on the critical mission to Belarus, and Carter was able to pull strings with her former (male) war buddies from the 107th Regiment so that he and the Chief had to send her on the mission. During said mission, Carter both proves her camaraderie with the 107th and saves Thompson’s life when he becomes frozen in action, probably from PTSD. Afterward, Thompson has a heart-to-heart with Carter. “Everybody thinks I’m this guy that I never was,” he says, “and every day it gets harder and harder to live with.”
And you know what? When they return to the SSR office, Thompson gives Carter some credit.
When I was conversing with my good friend about this episode, she suddenly exploded about this issue. “I was impressed that the writers allowed Thompson to shift his views of Agent Carter over the course of the season—to start seeing her as more than just a pretty dame,” she said. “So at the very end when he takes all the credit for a successful mission, he is returned to his pre-revelation Neanderthal ways. Now the message strikes both ways: ladylike women should stay modest and manly men should never admit to changing their views.”
The thing is, this is a small moment in an otherwise groundbreaking series, and no creative endeavor is perfect. Were the creators going for irony? Likely. Historical accuracy? Sure, giving a man credit for a woman’s actions is not too farfetched for the era.
However, did the Agent Carter writers miss a great opportunity to send an empowering message to both their female and male audience members? Yes, they most certainly did.