Why I Cringed During the Agent Carter Finale

Agent Carter Banner, Marvel

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?”

Agent Carter Advocates for Herself. Source: Hulu.com. ABC Studios/Marvel Television. Original air date: 2/3/2015.
In episode 5, “The Iron Ceiling,” Agent Carter (Hayley Atwell) argues that she is the most qualified agent to be sent on a mission to Belarus.

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?

In episode 3, "Time and Tide," Agent Carter is determined to get the credit for independently locating stolen items. Source: Hulu.com. ABC / Marvel Studios. Original air date: 1/13/2015.
In episode 3, “Time and Tide,” Agent Carter (Hayley Atwell) is determined to get the credit for independently locating stolen items.

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.”

In episode 5, "The Iron Ceiling," Agent Jack Thompson (Chad Michael Murray) gives credit to Agent Carter (Hayley Atwell) for her work in Belarus. Source: Hulu.com. ABC / Marvel Studios. Original air date: 2/3/2015.
In episode 5, “The Iron Ceiling,” Agent Jack Thompson (Chad Michael Murray) gives credit to Agent Carter (Hayley Atwell) for her work in Belarus.

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.

Amanda Vail

Amanda Vail

Amanda is a staff writer for WWAC. She is also a developmental editor and copywriter in less-than-sunny Seattle. She likes to poke her nose into things, mainly manga, graphic novels, sci-fi & fantasy books, and art galleries. Then she writes about them. She also drinks a lot of coffee. Tweet her @amandamvail.

4 thoughts on “Why I Cringed During the Agent Carter Finale

  1. I felt the same way at first, but then I rethought a bit. As you mention, a lot of the guys got shafted, too (although none as much as Peggy, obviously). And, sadly, the show is pretty accurate when it comes to depicting the realities for working women in Peggy’s time.

    But I also agree that if you know the Marvel Universe, you can see why she couldn’t really become a big-time celebrity at this point…or she likely wouldn’t be able to go on to help found a super-secret organization, as we know she does (one of the down sides of doing a retro show!). Finally, given Carter’s relationship to Stark, maybe she and the agency have agreed that she might be more effective if she stays low key.

    That said, I’m glad you took this opportunity to write about the larger real-life issue of lack of recognition women too often face. One of the things I like about the show is that it just might give some guys out there empathy for what it’s liked to be overlooked because of your gender.

    I’m hoping, also, that the shared lack of recognition leads the chauvinist dudes at SSR a better attitude about working with a woman next season. One of my peeves is that we rarely get to see women and men working productively together (in fictional worlds) without being romantically involved. At least this show already has Carter working with Stark (without sleeping with him! Hooray!) and Jarvis, and the fact that she’s a woman is barely an issue for them.

    This portrayal of a good non-sexual work relationship is one of my favorite things about the show, right up there with the fact that it also shows women talking to each other about something other than men. What I’m really hoping for in the next season is that Carter has even more good relationships with other women—another thing I would love to see more on screen in general.

    1. Christy, thanks for your extensive comment! I also really value the portrayal of good non-sexual working relationships. It’s so refreshing!

      The points that you and Francesco (above) make are good ones. I definitely see the advantage of having Peggy remain a low-level character for now and building upon that in future seasons and story arcs. I was also not surprised that Thompson took the credit, and was as mad at him as Sousa (darn you, Jack!).

      What I’m actually arguing for, and failed to make clear enough in the article, is that I want Peggy to have objected, even a little, to Thompson taking the credit. It’s that specific moment when she says she’s okay with it that I don’t like. She could choose not to argue it, but I wish she would have acknowledged that it sucks instead of smoothing it over. I wanted to hear “Yes, Thompson’s a wanker, and I don’t like it either, but let’s fight this battle another time” (or something like that but much more eloquent and Carter-esque).

      For me, the letdown (and potential damage to today’s women and men watching the show) is not in the story’s adherence to the social mores of the time, but in the way that adherence is messaged in that exact moment in the show. I think what it says is “this is okay,” when it’s really not.

      I’ve read some good arguments that what Carter really wanted all along was the acknowledgement of her immediate team members, not the acknowledgement of the world in general, and therefore her statement to Sousa is in line with her character. I can totally see where folks are coming from with that, although I still think differently for the reasons listed in the article.

      (As a side note, and this is another discussion entirely, I think that fiction chooses to break historical accuracy in many ways, like much of the technology exhibited in the Marvel Universe, and so I don’t buy that they can’t break it in ways that would be empowering to minority groups.)

  2. Great article! I had a similar reaction—though I think Thompson would have taken the credit if Carter had been a man as well. I do think she should have allowed Sousa to speak up on her behalf, but hopefully this will somehow play out next season and Thompson will get his comeuppance.

  3. Didn’t everybody get angry when Jck took all the credit? Didn’t everybody jump on the couch red in face or just stared at the screen while Peggy stopped Sousa from saying anything? I think that’s the message. They needed Peggy to stay a low level character for just another bit, no one knows who she really is and what she is capable of, so a visit to the White House wouldn’t have been exactly the best for the series. And then, no one went out of their character. Jack is, even with some degree of improvement, a narrow minded male trapped in early 1900 stereotypes and Peggy just acted as Steve would have, feeling proud of the job done rather than seeking public recognition. Is it fair? No, and Sousa tries to he the voice of our times. But they live in the 40s, and including an anachronism just to make it politically correct doesn’t make it a great show.

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