Women of Speculative Fiction: Peggy Carter

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.

 

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6 thoughts on “Women of Speculative Fiction: Peggy Carter

  1. What I also love about this show is it’s homage to the pulp magazines and radio shows of the 40s. You don’t need to see the Captain America movies to appreciate this show and it’s made this DC girl a huge fan. It also introduced me to the song, “Pistol Packing Mamas” by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters.

  2. Excellent write up on Peggy Carter.

    Interestingly enough, I wonder if there isn’t more to that scene with Steve and the woman than most of us think? I didn’t like that scene either, because it was so cliched and expected, but they were showing it yesterday, and I wonder if Peggy wasn’t upset at Steve’s professionalism. We’ve heard this guy speak impassionately about how he wants to serve his country, and how he wants a chance, and then she finds him kissing some random woman in a hallway. Of course, we know that Steve is clueless about women and social situations in general that he just walks right into these situations and smashes his face like a brick wall, but to Peggy it might seem like he’s slacking off. 🙂 And then there’s the latter half of her line about soldiers, “just like all the rest”. Hence, that implies to me that some of the soldiers aren’t taking their roles seriously, outside of the battlefield. Peggy is all business; that kind of slacking would tick her off. He’s talked about serving his country, he’s talked about just wanting someone to give him a chance, and she finds him kissing some woman randomly at the first chance like any other yahoo. It looks bad. 🙂 Maybe it’s just me wanting there to be more to that scene than simple jealousy, but I think that Peggy was upset at Steve’s lack of professionalism, during that scene. We’ve seen further evidence of this earlier in the film, with Hodge not taking things seriously. As much as I like him, Bucky also has shades of this personality type. Who’s willing to bet he took both of those women home? (I know, he wasn’t deployed at the time, but still. It shows off his basic personality.) Or maybe I’m giving the Marvel guys too much credit.

    I really hope ‘Agent Carter’ gets picked up by Netflix, or some other online service. I really wanted to see SHIELD growing into its own, with Peggy becoming the driving force behind SHIELD (with Colonel Phillips no longer a factor, and Howard torn between the agency and his business). I also wanted to see the corruption setting in, with Peggy compromising her morals (by taking in German Hydra scientists, based on ‘Operation: Paperclip’…) to satisfy some government bureaucrat or ruling, and the consequences that ultimately has down the line. I was watching ‘Ant-Man’ yesterday, and that scene at the beginning is really interesting. Here are Peggy and Howard standing right next to their worst enemy, and they don’t even notice. In fact, he’s almost their equal in authority! (He certainly seems to have a lot of power to throw around for himself, even if he’s not the main guy…) A Hydra operative has risen to a top position in SHIELD. When you consider all of the things that Peggy has sacrificed to reach that point, that thought is horrifying. There is so much to do, and so much left that could be done with the series! Some Network just has to step in, and take a chance. Alexander Pierce was a scumbag, but to quote him, “all you need is the courage to take it.” 🙂

    Very good writing blog. I absolutely loved your entry on Padme Amidala, and I especially love this one as well! 🙂 Keep them going.

    Maybe one on Aeryn Sun, somewhere down the line? (I don’t know if you’ve watched ‘Farscape’ or not.)

    • I would also like to imagine there was something more sophisticated in that scene than just petty jealousy. I guess that’s what fan fiction is for. 😉 Really disappointed that they canceled Agent Carter; it would indeed be wonderful if some other network picked it up. There’s so much more story to tell, and all we really got was her gaining the SSR’s respect and the resolution of a romantic subplot. Which was fine; I liked it, but what about the founding of SHIELD?

      Thanks for reading and commenting! I’m not familiar with Farscape, but maybe I’ll give it a look. I’ll probably write a few more entries before finishing up this series in December. It’s been a fun year.

      • Thanks for responding. And so quickly too! 😀 Yeah, it seems to me that sometimes Marvel takes on too much, with all its movies and TV shows, but hopefully they’ll make some room for more Agent Carter. Hopefully, the show isn’t permanently dead.

        I’m not familiar with Farscape…

        Oh man, it’s one of the best sci-fi shows ever! I’ve often said it’s one of the top 5 sci-fi shows I’ve ever seen (right up there with any Star Trek, or Babylon 5…). Strong female characters, strong alien characters (some of whom look…rather ‘unique’…), and then there’s John Crichton, a hero who’s manly and brave, and intelligent, without being a macho idiot. And a hell of a handsome guy, too. 😉 Ben Browder was the man, back in his day. He’s gotten a little older and pudgier since then, but he was something to behold back then. 😛 And then there’s the epic storytelling, some of which spans seasons in its entire narrative. Not to mention, Scorpius. 🙂 Some people know Wayne Pygram as the made up young Admiral Tarkin in ‘Revenge of the Sith’ (he was wearing heavy makeup to make his face look like Peter Cushin’s…), but before that he played one of the most dynamic, and layered villains to ever appear in a television show. I’ve often said that Scorpius is one of the top 5 best villains I’ve ever seen. The list goes like this: #1 is Palpatine, followed by The X-Files’ delightful ‘Cigarette Smoking Man’, then Vader, The Joker…and Scorpius. 😀 What works so well is that he comes out of nowhere, near the end of the first season. And what he goes on to become, one of the most complicated villains ever on a series…it’s breathtaking to see the journey that John and he go on, almost together at some times. There are also some great female villains, especially as we start getting away from the more ‘human-like’ Peacekeepers and seeing the other species that inhabit the galaxy. The only thing is that some of the storylines weren’t resolved, since the show was canceled after season 4. So they rushed to resolve them in the miniseries, as they finished off the main storyline.

        I wish it were still going on today, in some form, but they did do a season 5 in the form of the comics, a few years after the show. 🙂 I just haven’t gotten around to reading it yet, since I’m not a huge comics person.

        If you want to talk about a female character who doesn’t use violence to solve problems, but struggles to resist those urges, you talk about Zhaan the alien priestess. She can fight and kill if necessary, but she’s also a woman seeking peace and enlightenment. So that definitely comes into conflict with itself, a lot of the time. 🙂 I highly recommend you check it out!

      • It does sound cool, and I know my husband was enjoying it until they took it off of Netflix. I’m all for complex villains and a wide-ranging variety of female characters!

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