Happy International Women’s Day! What better to celebrate than by discussing awesome female characters?
It’s been a week since Agent Carter wrapped Season 2. While Agent Carter’s second season garnered both applause and criticism from fans, there were certain discrepancies in the fandom reactions that I found a little surprising.
Namely, reactions to Peggy’s origin story in 2×04 “Smoke and Mirrors,” Ana Jarvis’s fate and character reactions to it in 2×08-09, “The Edge of Mystery” and “A Little Song and Dance”, and the general love triangles seen throughout this season in the form of Jason/Peggy/Sousa and Peggy/Sousa/Violet. A lot of the negative reactions had to do with how… not-so-feminist the writing choices were perceived to be, for a show that claims to be so.
I gave this some immense thought, and I think there is an alternative way at looking at these plot choices that does fall in line with the feminist aims of the show. Namely, the fact that these all come down to a question of choice for the characters.
Choice is the key word here. Because the conversation about feminism should always be about choice, making sure all women and men of all types can choose the lives they want and have access to the resources that would make it possible with enough work.
The following contains spoilers for Agent Carter Season 2
The flashback to Peggy’s past seems to have generally been interpreted as thus: a meeker Peggy briefly conforming to a traditional women’s role, right down to a wet blanket fiancé (sorry Fred, but it’s true), only for her brother Michael’s recommending her for spy work to be the thing that sets her free. Some fans felt this new backstory makes Peggy out to be a weaker character.
On one hand, I can see where this is coming from. The idea that Peggy was once willing to stunt herself is sad and hard to watch knowing how strong she really is. It also could have been intriguing and more encouraging to the idea of sisterhood if Peggy had had help from another woman, or had a strong female role model, instead of or along with a brother’s support.
That said, I don’t think her backstory was actually demeaning to her, or antifeminist. For me personally, it helps that Michael reminds me of my own brother, so I found his support sweet and realistic. Objectively, had Peggy always been the badass she is now, that would have worked fine for the plot and for her.
But the thing with a lot of Marvel heroes is they start out as rather unlikely: The skinny, sickly boy who becomes a super soldier; the Russian assassin who becomes a force for good, the scientist who thought his alter ego’s only purpose was destruction. Given the choice to change, they take it and become heroes.
Peggy, when we see her in the flashback, has been made to feel she has no choice and has to follow this one set lifepath, just as Steve, Natasha, Bruce, and many other heroes did. But then her brother, the one who has believed in her since she was a little girl, shows her she still has a choice. He may have recommended her, but Peggy’s own merits as an exceptional code breaker at Bletchley Park would have truly earned her the invitation to join SOE. And even if she sometimes wishes she could blame it on Michael, as we see in the dream sequence in 2×09, she knows that her choice, and all that followed, was down to her. And she has since supported those who also bravely deal with adversity and limited choices, and fought to make sure as many people have freedom as possible.
This is mirrored in 2×04 in the origin story of Agnes Cully/Whitney Frost. As this article discusses in greater detail, Agnes, a brilliant young mind, had even less choices than Peggy because Agnes grew up 1) impoverished and 2) in a very unsupportive environment. Peggy’s tomboyishness may have been poo-pooed by her mother, but that’s nothing compared with Agnes’s mother and her cruel boyfriend putting her down for not being “pleasant.” It uncomfortably reminds us how class plays a part in limiting choices as well, not just gender or race (though they often intersect in various ways).
But, I’ll add, once Agnes grew up into starlet Whitney, with enough influence to secretly run a scientific facility and erase her politician husband’s mistakes, and then was transformed by zero matter into a powerful super villain, she has a lot more power by the time we reach the season’s climax. But while she tells Jason, “I simply want to change things for people like us. People that have been ignored, held back,” in 2×07 (“Monsters”), we don’t really see her using her power, either as a star or a villain, to better anyone. Does she ever create a scholarship to give girls the opportunities she never had? No. Does she have a single qualm about trading Ana Jarvis or Jason Wilkes underprivileged lives for her own gain? No. Even though she has more choices, she never extends those choices to others.
I think this shows for both women that, even when you have fewer choices, the choices you do make mean all that much more for who you are, and why I think Peggy’s origin is still powerful, even if it isn’t what fans suspected.
Trigger Warning: Discussion of infertility, miscarriage, and the Holocaust.
No, a woman should not be defined by her ability to have children. It is not the worst thing in the world to be unable to do so, and it is something Ana and Jarvis can (and will) live with. Which is why a lot of fans were vexed that this was taken so seriously in the show, seriously enough that Jarvis was reckless and tried to kill someone in cold blood, and that Peggy backed off on her criticism of Jarvis’s actions when he revealed it.
But here’s the thing.
It wasn’t the infertility itself that was the problem. If the doctor had simply discovered, in the process of saving her life, that she’d never had the ability to get pregnant, it might have been sad for them if that was their plan, but it wouldn’t have been quite as big of a deal.
The problem is how Ana Jarvis became infertile.
First of all, I think the show made it clear that it could have been worse by having her fate so precarious. We were all afraid, alongside Jarvis and Peggy, that she would die. And when she didn’t, it seemed like everything could go back to normal for those two. No permanent consequences, just some bills and hours spent worrying.
But then the consequences are revealed.
Jarvis had promised Ana that his work with Peggy wouldn’t affect them. But it did, in a way that not only hurt Ana, but resurfaced everything she had escaped in the past. Remember, Ana Jarvis had had her choices restricted before. As a Jew in Nazi-occupied Hungary, her rights were curtailed one by one, and without Jarvis and Howard’s intervention, she would have gone to a concentration camp, where she could have easily undergone the infamous sterilization experiments on top of starvation, degradation, and death. Jarvis risked everything to get her away from all that, to get her to America, where she could live the life she wanted with someone she loved.
And now, because of an act of violence, she’s had her choice of what to do with her life, with her body, taken away again. And this time there’s no escaping it.
And so any feminist watching this show should, I think, respect the gravity of this situation. Isn’t a big part of feminism about giving women the ability to choose if, when, and how they want to have a family? So, while the ability to have children does not define Ana as a character, the act of violence done against Ana and its consequences should be taken seriously, and should make Jarvis’s anger and Peggy’s guilt believable. It’s not the same as a loss of life, but it is still a loss, and an unnecessary one. While Whitney may not have meant to do this specifically to Ana, consider Peggy’s line to her here:
This was not an accident. Again, Whitney, who knows what it’s like to be powerless, took power away from another woman just to get away with what she was doing. She had no qualms nearly killing her, so I doubt she would care about other lasting affects on her.
I’m not saying Jarvis was right to act so recklessly and keep this from her. In fact, the show demonstrates that had Jarvis talked to Ana about it earlier, put the choice of what to do in her hands, she would have dissuaded Jarvis from nearly getting himself and Peggy killed, which would be worse for her than dealing with the truth itself. But in the end, she was able to choose to hear the truth. Ana can no longer choose to have children, but as of the final episode she has chosen to move forward with her husband, still bright, still hopeful. Neither she nor the show will let it define her.
Trigger warning over.
Ah, yes. Now we come to probably one of the most contested points about this season.
After the whole thing with Twilight and Hunger Games and “Team Boy 1” vs “Team Boy 2,” people have grown tired of the overused love triangle plot device for a number of legitimate reasons. And thus, as not one but two love triangles took up focus on Agent Carter Season 2, a show which in the previous season hadn’t entertained a lot of romance (outside of Jarvis lovingly mentioning his wife and discussion of Howard’s many, many affairs), a number of fans got annoyed, frustrated, and so on, that the show was doing this. They even had a musical number about one of them. (And yes, of course I’m going to include it here. How could I not?)
(Ah, my theater nerd heart!)
A number of fans who weren’t “OMG, musical number!”(*cough, cough*) were more like “Dude, Peggy doesn’t need a man!” (which was also part of my reaction, though perhaps without the exclamation point).
Conflicted, I had to sit down and think: why did Agent Carter choose to do this? Does it really work for Peggy’s character? For the show?
Well, first, let me refer you to this article here, which offers up an alternate perspective to common thoughts on the matter.
Expanding on this, I get the sense that people may have reacted more to the fact that the show was doing a love triangle than how they were doing the love triangle. I got a similar sense with some reactions to Disney/Pixar’s Brave, in which they called Pixar unoriginal for doing a “princess story” without really paying attention to how they twisted the princess story to make it into something different. Remember: tropes are not bad. Good writers can use common conventions in new ways that make you think deeper.
In Agent Carter‘s case, here are four additional ways Agent Carter deviated, in both Jason/Peggy/Daniel and Peggy/Daniel/Violet, from the annoying love triangle norm:
- Neither of the romantic rivals are a “bad boy/girl.”(Which is why I thank the writers for never pushing Peggy x Thompson.)
- None of the rivals are taken out by something random, robbing the decider of a need to choose. (Basically no one died or was revealed to be evil. They came darn close with Jason, but no cigar!)
- None of them actually physically cheat or make inappropriate moves. (Unless you count Jason kissing Peggy after he finally became solid, but I’m willing to cut him some slack for the rush of endorphins over getting a body back.)
- The rivals actually like and respect each other. They’re never really rivals at all.(When Daniel asks Jason in the last episode why he threatened Peggy and not Daniel to get info from the other, he replies it’s because he knew Daniel would crack – because Jason himself would have, for Peggy.)
So, this isn’t quite the same tired love triangle we’re used to. To me, Agent Carter actually handled the love triangle in a mature way that didn’t demean anyone involved. No manipulations, no cheating, just a simple conflict of loving more than one person at the same time, and trying not to hurt anyone. The way the writers set up the triangle, to me, valued Peggy’s choice above all. And even in the case of the Peggy/Daniel/Violet, it was Violet who broke it off with Sousa, for valid reasons.
But of course the other question still remains unanswered – why have one at all? Why make it seem like Peggy needs to get with a guy, when last season she was perfectly happy prioritizing friendship?
Well, that’s just it… that was last season.
And last season, Peggy Carter was in a romantic relationship… with Steve Rogers.
In the same way you can grieve someone who is still alive, you can still be in a relationship with someone who has died (or, is thought to be dead but is actually frozen). And Peggy was struggling with how to go on without Steve and without her wartime position for all of Season 1. The fostering of friendship, opening up again to Jarvis, Angie, Sousa, and, to some degree, Thompson, was hugely important for her growth, to help her move on.
When she dumped the sample of Steve’s blood off the bridge, that was her way of starting to let go – keeping his memory with her, but now knowing her place in the world without him. According to cast interviews, the love triangle seems to be the next step of that process of moving on. She comes to LA a little lighter than last season, now that she has the trust of her fellow agents and the emotional capacity to really build relationships.
If the writers had pushed a love triangle in Season 1, which some were afraid they would with Sousa and Thompson, I would have called foul too. I would have said Peggy didn’t need to be pushed into another relationship so soon. And with the show just trying to find an audience and define itself, setting up Peggy would indeed have reaffirmed the stereotype that women characters can’t remain single.
But last season Peggy flew solo, and proved her worth to the SSR and to audiences. She proved she values friendships over a shallow romance. We KNOW she doesn’t need a man. I think the writers do, too, or Season 1 wouldn’t have unfolded as it did. But that doesn’t mean she can’t choose to be intimate with someone, now that time has passed, Sousa has matured a bit, and Jason has reminded her she can be loved that way. And the musical number emphasizes that it really is up to her.
I would, in fact, really like to analyze the whole musical number here, but I’ll leave that for another post. This one’s getting a bit long.
All in all, I’m not going to say audiences had no reason to be disappointed or concerned about this relationship. Not only is Peggy supposed to have a level head in the field, which as we saw a number of times in the season, fond feelings can sometimes mess with, but heterosexual relationships have unfortunately developed a connotation with assuming gender roles. And sometimes putting a character, or even a real person, into that kind of relationship causes them to, unconsciously, assume those roles. Hayley Atwell even jokingly acknowledged this in a post-finale interview. We balk at the idea of Peggy putting herself in that position.
But, remember Fred? The ill-fated fiance?
Peggy’s already been-there, done-that with the timid woman thing. So I have confidence that she could easily leave Sousa if she decided he was holding her back from what she needed to do, however hard it would be. But, as a fellow agent at the SSR who knows what she’s capable of, I don’t think he would.
However you feel about this, I will defend that the writers had Peggy’s character and independence in mind when embarking on this journey for her. She is someone who is capable of intimacy and love, who deserves to have it in return, and deserves to have another shot at doing so, if she so chooses. And she is now in a place where she can. I think that’s a positive thing for her character, and it doesn’t make her weak, or less feminist. And we know if it didn’t work out with Sousa, she could keep standing and fighting for what’s right.
Peggy’s struggle over the past two seasons focused on being true to herself, both in public and in private, in missions and in personal life, acknowledging the dangers of her life while realizing that there are people around her willing to take those risks, and being honest with them. And the resolution of the love triangle is just another one of those struggles – whether to shut out her feelings for fear of getting people hurt (physically and emotionally) , or acknowledge the part of herself that cares deeply for this person she doesn’t want to lose again. And I value a show that values Peggy’s choices, and that values her whole self.