Thursday, March 26, 2015

How To Patronize Women The Marvel Way - An Agent Carter Review

So Agent Carter wrapped up its short 8 episode run today and I've gone from being pleasantly surprised with the first two episode to gradually being worn down by the countless cliches and Mary Sue tropes. It is a show that wears its feminism on its sleeve, but ironically, the best way I can think to describe it is "patronizing."

Now, please pardon the irony for a moment and allow me to deconstruct the word "patronizing." From the root "pater" meaning "father," to patronize means to treat kindly from a position of superiority. It refers to how fathers raise children to be obedient, how white colonists claimed "Manifest Destiny" as justification for destroying indigenous cultures, and of course, how husbands traditionally dominated their wives. The problem with patronage is that it creates a relationship whereby the one who is patronized is dependent upon the one who is patronizing them for undeserved praise, thereby inhibits personal growth.

The producers of Agent Carter are patronizing their lead character and, by extension, patronizing the audience and the very lofty subject that they are trying to promote, the empowerment of women. By focusing on Peggy Carter's gender, they are not properly establishing her character or developing her supporting cast as anything other than spotlights to illuminate her from every possible angle.

So I'd like to outline how this show fails at the basic elements of storytelling thereby undermining its premise. In short, this is why Agent Carter should not be hailed as a positive example of female writing, but should instead be condemned as yet another misguided attempt at female empowerment.

The most basic element of storytelling is motivation. A character needs motivation to act which creates drama. Lasting comic book characters always have strong motivation (usually involving the death of a loved one). So, what motivates Peggy Carter? Based on the bookend sequences in the first and last episodes, we are led to believe that Peggy's motivation in this series has been the death of Steve Rogers. Yet this motivation does not sufficiently explain her character nor is it properly established in the context of Captain America: The First Avenger.

With every hero, you need to establish where they gained their unique abilities. We know that Captain America can fight a battalion because he has the super-soldier serum. Thor, even without his powers, was trained by the warriors of Asgard and fought in many battles. However, Peggy Carter has the incredible ability to take down four fellow agents in an open room with no weapons while they are prepared for her and twice her size. However, at no point in the series are we given any indication that Peggy Carter has had any special background that would give her supernatural fighting skills. As the story deliberately points out, a woman in that time period would not likely have many opportunities to be trained in combat and would likely be discouraged from trying. So why is Peggy different?

Does it have something to do with her home life? We'd never know. They never make a single mention of Peggy's family. Was she an orphan? There is a lot of room to explain her abilities, but without any clues, it just seems like a huge oversight.

Speaking of oversights, why is Peggy such a patriotic American? She has a distinctly posh British accent, but when we first meet her, she is serving with the US military. I had always assumed this was some sort of Allied troop exchange, but why wouldn't Peggy help out in the reconstruction of Britain? Why go to America to be a secretary for the SSR?

The character of Peggy Carter is hopelessly thin. She is attractive and assertive, always knowing when to throw an insult or a fist, but the writing makes this very easy and convenient for her. Her challenges are annoying and, perhaps frightening, but they are never a serious threat to her.

In the finale of the series, Peggy Carter fights a Russian super agent, a precursor to Black Widow. When we were introduced to her true nature, a very dangerous assassin was holding a gun at her from point blank range and, without distraction, the agent killed him while unarmed. In short, she has a supernatural fighting ability. Yet Agent Carter doesn't need to do anything clever to defeat her when a well-timed kick will do.

So much of Peggy Carter's strength comes not from how she handles her problems or the decisions she makes, but rather from the lead actress's natural charisma, the overly generous writing, and their deliberate "straw man" approach to male characterization. Some misogyny is perfectly justified, particularly in a historical piece with a female protagonist. It would be conspicuous if there weren't a few awful males around, but Agent Carter goes overboard in depicting a black-and-white divided society where the heroine seems to be the only one dissatisfied with their role in life.

Chief Dooley is positively laughable as the gruff commander who acts sort of like a father figure, usually keeping Carter down but occasionally standing up for her. It's hard to identify whether it is his gravely voice or bad makeup, but he makes the show feel cheap and corny like a bad Funny-Or-Die video. He is so easily won over by the phoney Russian defector that it is impossible to have any respect for him. And when none of the other agents question his obviously bizarre behavior, we lose any remaining respect for them. Even worse, the writers try to tack on a backstory with his estranged wife and children right before he makes a heroic self-sacrifice, but its far too little and too late.
The second-in-command is Jack Thompson who is a brash, blonde idiot who thinks he's the hero just because he looks the part. When sent on a mission with Carter, he cries as he admits that he won his medal for firing on people who were surrendering. Later in the episode, we see him freeze in battle and cower in the corner. Repeatedly, he is shown to be ignorant, judgmental, and cowardly, but he is rewarded for it. He is supposed to stand for the different standards placed on men and women. It's a very childishly cynical depiction which suggests that if you look the part, life is handed to you on a silver platter.

Perhaps the most "emotional" scene in the entire season was the death of Agent Ray Krezminski. This is a character who the story deliberately goes out of its way to make us think is a big, dumb, hateful, misogynist pig... so when he dies, we could not possibly have less reason to care. Yet in the very next scene, we see the entire department in silence mourning his death and Peggy even joins in. The entire setup completely falls flat to such a degree that it is hard to understand why the writers expected us to feel anything but glee regarding his death. When I watched this scene, I was positively dumbstruck because I couldn't understand if the show actually expected me to mourn the death of a character that they had tried so hard to show had no redeeming qualities.

Even the three likeable male characters are straight-jacketed by their gender. Agent Sousa has an injury that left him in crutches and is consequently dismissed as half a man. This causes him to be more respectful to others who are dismissed by society including women and the homeless. For all of his positive qualities, he does little to contribute to Peggy's cause and a lot to hinder her.

Howard Stark plays the "amusing" womanizer, which feels really stale when Dominic Cooper does it. He's really no Robert Downey Jr. so we can't enjoy his performance in the same way. His womanizing is a weakness that leads to his downfall. The plot of the entire series is based around his irresponsible womanizing leading to his weapons falling into the wrong hands. Peggy admonishes him as a war profiteer and the series ends with Stark destroying his weaponry, but it doesn't really make sense. If you go back to Iron Man (which is the beginning of the Marvel cinematic universe), we know that Howard continued to irresponsibly produce weapons until his death (presumably of liver failure or STDs). This means that his character development was entirely false.

Perhaps the most likeable male character is Jarvis. With absolutely no fighting abilities and a frequent need to be rescued, he actually follows the traditional role of the damsel-in-distress (without the romantic overtones). Yet where the damsel is usually pure, Jarvis is shown to be complicit in the corruption of his boss, Mr. Stark, which earns him the ire of our heroine. Even before she knows this, Peggy and Jarvis visit Stark's ex-girlfriends who verbally and physically abuse Jarvis because of Howard's treatment of them. Peggy does not make the slightest effort to protect Jarvis, suggesting that she believes he deserves it. Yet Jarvis did absolutely nothing to deserve this treatment. We can only assume that Peggy is indulging in misandric schadenfreude. Because of what men in general do, Jarvis deserves to be the outlet of female frustration through physical violence. This further perpetuates the notion that female violence against men is acceptable due to the presumed ability of men to defend themselves.

Marvel has been getting a lot of credit lately for "empowering women" but I don't believe it for a second. Whether you are talking about Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow or DeConnick's Captain Marvel, female protagonists still lack a strong motivation and sense of self. They may have better representation and they may be treated with more respect, but they lack the depth that makes a character truly endure and resonate with audiences. To do that, you have to take risks with your character.

It's not easy to write an empowering female lead, particularly when you are concerned about media scrutiny. However, the biggest difference between male leads and female leads isn't gender; it's that male leads never had the burden of being representations of their gender. They simply had the burden of succeeding in a competitive creative market. That kept their focus where it needed to be: on entertaining their audience.

We should continue to strive toward writing strong female characters, but this should happen as a natural extension of the creative process. When it is such a blunt and deliberate goal, the result is a misshapen blob of political talking points without any humanity behind it. It insults the idea that women are in fact strong enough and smart enough and self-aware enough to accept a female protagonist who has tangible flaws and weaknesses. It insults their intellect to ask them to accept that Peggy beat the Russian superspy with nothing more than a well-timed kick.


Tony Laplume said...

Have you read G. Willow Wilson's Ms. Marvel?

Sydney MacLean said...

I read the first issue and maybe the second before my Marvel Unlimited subscription ran out. It was better than I expected, but I still feel like its gaining praise more for contributing diversity than actually being a strong title with a strong character.

That said, it isn't easy to create any enduring character. You need to fit on just the right formula of a unique yet identifiable protagonist and a status quo that is both comforting yet unstable. I liked the elements of dealing with her conservative mother, but I felt like it lacked balance between her social life and her superhero life. It also didn't feel like she was trying to establish a unique world for her with her own unique supporting cast and villains, but rather just creating a character to exist in the pre-existing Marvel world. A lot of titles do this, but it always makes it feel like a Mary Sue.