I am a feminist. If you’ve read more than reviews by me, this shouldn’t be any kind of surprise. I wear it, not on my sleeve, but across my chest, really, because to me, it feels natural that it be one of the first things you see. I was raised to be this way by another feminist, my mom. And her own mother, while she never embraced the term, was a bit of a “bad girl” who refused to follow the prescribed path for women of her generation. Both of them taught me, as much example as by anything that they said, that allowing my choices to be limited by my genitalia was simply not acceptable—largely because both of them have lived lives where, to varying extents, certain choices were made very difficult by the fact that they were women. They wanted better for me, and taught me that I should insist on it, for me and every woman who comes after me. That having choices was both my birthright and something I would spend my life fighting for. So here I sit, taking time from that life, writing reviews through that lens and analyzing the way the narratives we consume affect us. What they tell us about the nature of people, how we should live, what ideas are or are not important to us, where we are going next. All with at least one eye on gender. Which is why I jumped at the chance to review Agent Carter. From the first, it has struck me as important because of the way it not only puts a female hero center, but actively discusses how gender affects her. I will always love Buffy the Vampire Slayer for giving a woman that central role, and Joss Whedon’s feminism is, to me, indisputable. But his show addressed gender almost from a position of “what does it matter?” which, when there have been so few women in that role, is an important point to make. But the truth is that right or wrong, it often still does matter, and Agent Carter, while it is set in the 1940’s, has done an amazing job of showing exactly how much it can matter, even when you are dealing with an otherwise normal woman who is just as fearless as the supernaturally charged vampire-slayer. Last week’s episode “Smoke and Mirrors,” brought that point home while at the same time complicating it. The structure of the episode is based around the good guys discovering the pervasive reach of the bad guys while the bad guys work to frustrate them from learning more. As Carter, Jarvis, and Sousa develop enough of a case around the Council of Nine to get a warrant so the SSR can raid the Arena Club, Whitney Frost discovers her new-found power (via Zero Matter) and uses it to plug the leak that Carter and company exploited to get their information. But the meat of the episode is actually the flashbacks through “Smoke and Mirrors” which illuminated the pasts of the two women who define the two sides of the conflict this season is built on. And those pasts are very different. Shot to create a sort of gauzy, slightly over-exposed quality, those flashbacks remind us, as if Peggy’s posh accent could ever let us forget, that our heroine is a girl who could have had almost everything a girl could want out of life. Her family is quite comfortable, and Peggy was once on a very traditional path for a woman of her time: doing important but under-valued work for her country as she prepares to marry a man who can keep her in the same manner (or a touch better than) that she was brought up in. Agnes Cully, on the other hand, is obviously not only from the other side of the pond but the tracks. Ostensibly growing up in a fairly nice home for the poor environs of 1920’s Oklahoma, that childhood is precariously dependent on her mother’s relationship with a man to whom she is not married. While Agnes’ own father is not commented on, it is clear we are dealing with a situation in which a woman has no other resources than her body to offer in the marketplace, and no conception that an unmarried woman with a child might hope for more. The irony is that, early on, Agnes had so much more to give the world than Peggy did. While Carter is definitely a force to be reckoned with, despite her position in the SSR, we have seen little of her talents in the scientific fields on the show. And based on what we see in the flashbacks, even those came later in life. Agnes, though, at a very young age, showed an affinity for science and engineering that goes so far beyond genius that it “defies categorization.” And yet, despite the fact that both women are hemmed in by their gender, there is an important difference between the two of them. For Carter, the gender bonds which restrain her are the silken ones usually associated with a life of economic privilege. It’s not that she doesn’t have choices: a woman in her strata of society would not need to rely on a relationship with a man (either through marriage or the less respectable kind that Agnes’s mother has with “Uncle Bud”). She could conceivably live a solitary but free life if she wished it. It is not a matter of survival that pushes her into an engagement with a man who doesn’t seem to know her at all and for whom she seems to only have a modicum of affection herself. Her interaction with the other girl codebreakers makes it clear that Peggy isn’t following her heart so much as walking the expected path: wartime career, marriage, retirement into a lifetime of domesticity. For Cully, however, even that path seems inaccessible. She tries to go to college to refine her talents, but the University of Oklahoma is not ready for a woman in 1928, not even one of her obvious abilities. The war is still almost a decade away when we see her outside the movie theatre, so there are few jobs that would allow a woman to support herself, let alone one that would use her strengths. And as the daughter of a fallen woman, she obviously does not have the social network that might lead to a comfortable marriage. So while Carter is given the opportunity to join the SOE—one that we already know perfectly fits the Peggy we’ve seen to a T—she is also blessed with the ability to turn such an opportunity down with little material sacrifice. For Agnes, however, any opportunity must be taken, even one that can and will obscure her real talent (since her acting does not really seem striking—despite the fact that it works effectively enough against her fool of a husband). Hence, and almost oxymoronically from our point of view, she must resort to modeling and acting to allow her to live comfortably enough to do the science at which she so excels. The irony of that cannot be lost on either Hayley Atwell or Wynn Everett. The way “Smoke and Mirrors” teases out not just the effects of gender on the lives of these women but how the intersection of gender and class mediate or exacerbate those effects is, let’s face it, surprising in what is basically superhero-story. We don’t expect more than a superficial critique of such social issues in properties like this, but that is what has made Agent Carter such a joy. It manages to give us this at the same time that it weaves tales that are very much of its genre and filled with characters with such chemistry that you can practically hear the actors underneath them: “Man, I love my job.” And in this case, what all that has now led to is a fascinating portrait of these two women who will continue to face off. Not only has the glimpse at Agnes Cully given us a grudging respect for Whitney Frost, but by putting Cully and Carter in close juxtaposition, it has made us realize that, however much we love Peggy Carter, much of what she became is the result of the luck of being born into the class she was: one that even allowed her to walk out of her engagement and into the SOE probably with very little social stigma—she had the luxury of fulfilling her brother’s dream for her. In the end, the picture painted of these women leaves us wondering just what has been lost in our own reality: how many Peggy Carters chose the path of least resistance, and how many Agnes Cullys we have lost to the need for simple survival. It’s a haunting question. Share this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYou must be logged in to post a comment.