Friday, July 19, 2024

Peggy Carter Takes on The Patriarchy

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They say the worst thing a piece of media can possible be is “okay.” Some stuff is so good that it affects you deeply, maybe even to the point that it becomes part of you in a way. Some stuff is so horrible that it generates all the drinking games and memes and it’s just fun. But things that are “okay” tend to just be forgotten. You can enjoy the experience, but you very soon move on.

The first season of Agent Carter is “okay”. I liked it, I was engaged, but I don’t think that in twenty years, I’ll still be feeling about it like I feel from reading Sophie’s World when I was a kid.

It doesn’t seem entirely fair to say this, though; this is a solid show, and it tries to be about something. Hell, it succeeds in being about something, even if it succeeded in a quite anvilicious way. What I mean is, obviously the major theme is the systematic and unrelenting sexism Peggy Carter has do deal with on a daily basis. But the times that the scripts outright state this is what’s going on, when it’s already being very well shown, are a little annoying. I’ve been shown for eight episodes that Peggy can get away with shit because she’s underestimated and often invisible; I don’t need to be told. It’s good writing, but it’s hardly the most subtle.


But this trope is also the one that’s played around with in my favourite part of the show; the antagonists, Leviathan.

Full disclosure: I adore secret societies and conspiracy theories and what not. You could have probably guessed this from my fangirl reaction to Hydra last week. There’s something about them that just makes a very satisfying antagonist for me.

That being said, Leviathan does fall into the trap that a lot of super villains do: their plan makes no sense. Or, at least, I am confused. What is the timeline here? Like, how long has Dr. Ivchenko been with them? Was he already when he had that flashback with the field surgery? It seemed like he had been doing good there. And then we’re all hyped up with “Leviathan is coming” and they send two guys. Four, I guess, if you count James Frain and his buddy, but I’m not clear if they were Leviathan people or victims of Dr. proto-Kilgrave.

But I think we can all agree: Dottie is everything. She’s a super soldier who has literally weaponized femininity. All the anvilicious points that Peggy makes are expressed by her in a far more subtle way. And it’s not even sexy “femme fatale” qualities that she’s weaponized, it’s the image of the ditzy girl. It makes people completely disregard her. It makes her more invisible even that Peggy and her air of confident competence. I also rather adore how she highlights just how much gender is a performance. Dottie displays ever hyperfeminine quality while actually possessing none.

In a way, that was what the freaky training flashback montage was about. This Unsullied-esque regimen was supposed to strip these children of all the things that usually are coded as “feminine”. Compassion, sentimentality, creativity. Sharing your bread with someone in the morning then snapping her neck in the afternoon is not what most people would consider especially “girly.”

And yeah, the whole thing is fucking terrifying. Thinking how fucked up this woman must be, that she still handcuffs herself to the bed, keeps you from being able to actually hate her. Another sign of a good antagonist.

Peggy of course, has hyper feminine qualities of her own, like those long red fingernails that I doubt are practical in combat situations. But her femininity is almost subversive, given the hyper masculine environment she’s in.

The character of Thompson is the one that really touches on all those themes of toxic masculinity. He’s a rather unabashed sexist, but he’s almost, like, a sexist with a heart of gold. He had that moment of extreme emotional vulnerability, which actually was quite touching. But then he took credit for what was clearly Peggy’s victory at the end, so I really don’t know what to think of it. Her certainly learned to respect her, but I guess just because you’re less sexist it doesn’t mean that you’re less of an asshole.

Sousa is the counterpoint to Thompson, I suppose, as highlighted in the sequence where they interrogate a homeless man. He’s a nice guy (no trademark) who respects Peggy enough from the beginning that he believes she’s capable of treason. Which is an odd sentence, but also a true one. Sometimes his early efforts to defend Peggy vear into protective paternalism, but he does quiet it when she asks him too, so I will let it go.

Miss Fry, the proprietor of the Griffith Hotel where Peggy lives, also displays a kind of protective paternalism. If that is the right term… I don’t know. In any case, Miss Fry has taken it upon herself to police the vaginas of all the grown-ass women who live under her roof. Why they tolerate this, I have no clue. The most obvious, and “fun,” answer is that they appreciate that the no-man rule keeps them safe from sexual assault. Yay.

But then she slutshames a woman in public and outright states that she’s there to “protect the honour of young women” who can’t judge for themselves because, like, all women are lustful? So, yeah, my sympathy is very limited.

But fortunately, she doesn’t wreck the Griffith. The Griffith is a positive place, full of positive interactions between women. They support each other in the pressure of being a working woman in a sexist world as much as they support each other in trading tips for sneaking food upstairs. Nothing shows this better than the persona Dottie took on there: she was nice. And everyone was nice to her.

And I guess this is a good place to discuss the part of the show that seems to be the most notorious in fandom circles: the relationship between Peggy and Angie, and the concept of queerbaiting.

If you’re not familiar with the concept of queerbaiting, it’s basically when the writers of a show “tease” or intentionally hint at a homosexual relationship between two characters, without any intention of following through on it, to bait a certain demographic of viewers. The question is, of course, “does this qualify as queer baiting?” Were they intending to to make this relationship something other than platonic.

Well, I must say, even with my hetero-goggles, which are thick and tight, I kinda think they were.

If this was a heterosexual pair, there would be no question; this is more or less a cliché love story. The girl-next-door falls in love with the superhero and offers her emotional support, the superhero keeps her emotional distance, you know, because the superhero is angsty and doesn’t want to put the love interest in danger. Because another love interest was stuffed in the fridge in the first episode, maybe.

And there are those moments when it’s hardly subtle. Like when Peggy finally does seek emotional support and “Someone to Watch Over Me” is playing in the background. Or how they’re always talking about how “look that guy likes you!” Methinks the ladies do protest too much.

I’m not going to lie, queerbaiting is damn annoying to those of us who want to see more representation in mainstream media, especially since you just know that the people who do it totally think it is representation. It is not.

What else did I like? Well, Stark Prime was more enjoyable than his jerk-face son. It probably helped that he wasn’t the protagonist. And there was no question here that his actions are, indeed, dickish. Again, unlike Tony and the way his behaviour is always rewarded by the narrative. I didn’t exactly like Stark Prime, but watching wasn’t physically painful. So that was nice.

This is certainly a show I would recommend. It won’t change your life, but it’s not insulting to your intelligence and it’s an enjoyable eight hours. What more can one ask for these days?

The Avengers is coming on Thursday.

All images courtesy of Marvel and ABC

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