Monday, January 19, 2015

Agent Carter: Victimhood and Humility

[First of a series on female characters, feminism, and all that jazz. Haven't got it all worked out yet, but expect posts on The Phantom of the Opera, The New World, and more.]

When it comes to period drama, it's best to go British. Happily, despite the fact that Agent Carter is produced in America, it features the very British Hayley Atwell in the title role of Peggy Carter, which is nearly the same thing.
Taking up a few years after Captain America: The First Avenger left off, the first episode of Agent Carter finds Peggy (a luminous Atwell) struggling to readjust to civilian life. By what was surely some catastrophic bureaucratic error on high, Peg has been confined to an office job, serving coffee and pushing paper for a bunch of sexists. This has left her pretty depressed, feeling not only inadequate, but sorrowful, flashing back to her last moments talking to Steve Rogers. Thankfully, this morose introspection is interrupted when she's enlisted by Howard Stark (father of Tony, played by a delightfully mischievous Dominic Cooper) to help clear his name. Stark has been accused of selling weapons to the enemy - when, in fact, some super-sinister organization is behind it all.

After hesitating about five seconds, Peggy joins forces with Stark's butler and becomes a double agent.

Like anyone else, I enjoyed the gunfights and intrigue (I especially noted the sumptuous visual palette - much superior to the more pedestrian Agents of SHIELD), but it's Atwell's performance that really impressed me. In an early scene, we're watching her sidelined as the males belittle her accomplishments, but while all of this is touting big messages about Women's Rights, Peggy's reaction is shocking. She's simply not bothered by it.

What?

What? 

This is not the way Mopes should behave!

Surely, there must be a few nudge-nudge-wink-wink comments to modern audiences. Like "Maybe some day it'll be different" or "Just because I'm a woman doesn't mean my opinion should be ignored!" Yet, nothing.

She's obviously the most capable person in the room (brief suspension of disbelief here: unrealistic that idiots like these would be promoted this far), but she's aware of that, and her confidence stems from her own talents, not their approval. She doesn't need their good opinion - she is not a product of an age fixated with victimization. Victimology has become such an all-encompassing mindset that I'm surprised when a person doesn't succumb to it. As Jeffrey Goldberg notes"guilt and resentment are the gold and silver of our realm."



I love actresses that can pull it off: demanding respect because of their abilities, not their disabilities. Unfortunately, showrunners often feel the need to overcompensate for a strong woman by turning all the surrounding men into jerks (Carter's co-workers), sympathetic pushovers (crippled feminist co-worker), or bumbling idiots (Stark's butler). In a format which is best suited to ensemble pieces, creating a world where no one but the enemy is as remotely competent as Peggy knocks the balance askew.

But there are hints that this may change (though I've only seen the first two episodes). One important hint is Stark's butler, Edwin Jarvis. He's played by the versatile James D'Arcy (Jarvis is the forerunner to J.A.R.V.I.S. from the Iron Man movies, voiced by D'Arcy's Master and Commander co-star, Paul Bettany).

Jarvis has, so far, provided the moral of the story moment - breaking away from his foppish Jeeves act to offer earnest advice. For instance, Peggy may have proved beyond doubt that she's no shallow Bond girl, but she's in danger of slipping to the opposite extreme by being more like Bond, a loner. She defends her isolationism by saying: "If I allow people to get close to me, I'm putting them in danger." Jarvis's reply is a winsome appeal to...could it be?...not exactly complementarianism, but at least a broader community.
So your solution is to remove yourself from the world you wish to protect? Where's the sense in that? There is not a man or woman, no matter how fit he or she may be, who is capable of carrying the entire world on their shoulders....Captain Rogers relied heavily on you, for courage, strategy, and moral guidance. You were his support. Your desire to help others is noble, but I doubt you will find much success unless you allow others to help you.
Is he merely peddling sentimental notions of friendship? Let's work together and it'll be okay? Solidarity? Kum Ba Yah? The phrase "man or woman" indicates he's talking about the sexes. Man was not made to be alone, but neither was woman. Intrinsic in this notion is the humility to recognize our own shortcomings. Feminism isn't a unique theme in a TV show, nor is individualism - but humility? Bring it on. I need a new 1940s fix.

Next post in the series: The Phantom of the Opera - Grace and Truth.

Longish

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