Being the girlfriend of a superhero is not always the greatest position for a woman. She is frequently cast in the role of a damsel needing to be rescued, or worse, a victim who exists primarily so she can die and motivate the hero. Yikes. Fortunately, with more nuanced portrayals, this does not need to be the case. She can be a fully-fleshed character in her own right, with purposes beyond supporting and inspiring the protagonist. In rare cases, she even gets to take on the protagonist role herself.
So it is with the film/TV version of Peggy Carter, one-time love interest of Captain America. It’s interesting to examine how her character was afforded the opportunity to be more than a damsel in distress. Her origins in the comic books hint at some promising possibilities, as someone with fighter training who was involved with the French resistance. Still, since most of Captain America’s story occurs after his revival, decades after World War II, Peggy is mostly a distant, under-developed figure of his past.
In the 2011 Captain America film her character, portrayed by Hayley Atwell, was reinvented as a British member of the SSR (the fictitious Strategic Scientific Reserve), a tough and highly capable part of the team responsible for Steve Roger’s transformation into a super-soldier. Yes, she is clearly his designated potential girlfriend, but she has plenty to do on her own. There were a few exceptions that made me roll my eyes a little, most of all the contrived moment when another random woman yanks Steve into a kiss and Peggy becomes disproportionately furious with him, even though they’re not really a couple yet. Overall, however, I was pleased with her portrayal. She was my favorite of all the women introduced as love interests in the Marvel cinematic universe.
With Steve reawakening seventy years after WWII, it looked like Peggy wouldn’t have much chance to be a part of the story anymore. She’s made a few cameos, aged to match the passage of time. What else could be done? Well, with a few hints here and there about her work in the SSR and eventual founding of S.H.I.E.L.D., it became pretty clear that those post-WWII years had the potential for plenty of fascinating storylines, and they could focus on Peggy rather than any male heroes, super or otherwise. Atwell starred in a short titled “Agent Carter” hinting at that potential, and the powers that be recognized that potential well enough to order a TV series.
Agent Carter had eight episodes in its first season and ten in its second; a third season hasn’t yet been confirmed. But what it’s already done is considerable. Peggy has no superpowers, but she is perfectly compelling on her own – a formidable fighter, highly resourceful, able to think fast on her feet, and doggedly determined to do her best in the face of 1940s sexism.
Romance does play a part, though it’s not the primary focus. In the first season Peggy, believing Steve to be dead, must grieve him and move on with her life. Once this is done, she’s given not one but two romantic interests in the second season. But there’s so much more for her to deal with. Finding her place in a male-dominated sphere, gaining the trust of her colleagues, forging friendships while having to keep her identity as a spy secret, forging alliances, solving mysteries, and uncovering conspiracies.
Thought Peggy is the strong center of the show, a number of elements bolster the show’s entertainment value. The comic book elements are strong, with Howard Stark providing a number of over-the-top inventions with pseudo-sciencey names like “nitramene.” There are secret agents and scary explosions and good old-fashioned fisticuffs. It’s set in a version of the 1940s with all the fashion, music and aesthetic of that era. (Unfortunately there hasn’t been much to address the racism of the time, and even when one of Peggy’s possible love interests is a black man, there’s barely a passing acknowledgement that their relationship would be almost universally considered taboo.)
Thankfully, Agent Carter does not fall prey to the all-too-common trope of denigrating “ordinary” women to show how amazing and different and “not like them” the heroine is. Her friend Angie from season one is an aspiring actress working as a waitress, and she doesn’t need any tremendous skills to be a support, a confidante and a likable character in her own right. And both seasons contain female villains who adroitly use the fact that they are women to accomplish their aims rather than being impaired by it. Both of them are quite terrifying.
Also nice is the partnership between Peggy and Stark’s butler Jarvis, a platonic relationship that is all too rare between men and women in movies or television. Jarvis is wildly devoted to his wife (a great character in her own right) and there’s never an inkling of romance between him and Peggy. They have a fantastic dynamic entirely devoid of romantic tension. It’s funny, endearing and arguably one of the best parts of the show.
Let’s hope for more seasons, and more shows giving well-developed female characters the kind of focus they deserve. They’ve certainly earned it.