Monday, September 28, 2015

Agent Carter and Feminism

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This came to me last week while I was writing my review of the Agent Carter season 1 finale, but I decided it was too much of a tangent to include in the review.  Instead, I’m publishing it this week as a follow up to Agent Carter season 1.

Do you remember last year when the Internet was exploding over the question of Agent Carter and feminism?  Some called it a “triumph” for feminism; some called it a “failure” for feminism.  Respectfully, I disagree with both sides.

First off, Agent Carter was not a failure in any way.  Agent Carter did everything it set out to do:  expand on the history of the MCU, tell a compelling story, and create an incredibly beautiful and accurate depiction of New York City right after World War II.  As a very character-driven series, it did not have as many action sequences as we would expect from Marvel, but it more than made up for that with its scenery and milieu.  Simply put, this series created New York City post-World War II.

And that is why Agent Carter was not a “triumph for feminism” and never pretended to be.  After all, feminism at the time of World War II and feminism today are two completely different things, and an attempt at depicting modern-day feminism against the backdrop of post-World War II America would have been laughable and flown in the face of all logic, to say nothing of destroying the carefully-crafted setting of the series.

But instead of just taking my word for it, let’s take a look at the history of feminism and where Agent Carter fits into it.  Considering that this isn’t exactly a scholarly journal article, most of this information will just be coming from Wikipedia and my recollections of my high school U.S. History class.

Feminism is divided into three “waves.”  First-wave feminism began in the 1800s and concluded around the 1920s with the passage of the 19th Amendment.  It focused primarily on political inequality, specifically campaigning for equal voting rights for women.  They also campaigned for marital rights, access to higher education, and some workplace reforms.  However, those issues were not the primary focus up until 1920, when the 19th Amendment gave American women the right to vote.

Second-wave feminism stretched from the 1960s to the 1980s.  The primary focus for second-wave feminism was on societal inequality, such as equal opportunities in employment.  Additional issues tackles included marital rape, unequal pay for men and women performing the same jobs, and employment discrimination.  During second-wave feminism, “reproductive rights” began to come to the forefront, as well.  Many of these issues came to the fore as a direct result of the gains achieved by first-wave feminism as well as the changes to society necessitated by World War II.

Third-wave feminism is the movement which people today most associate with “feminism.”  This version of feminism focuses on issues of “reproductive rights,” as well as anything which can be seen as oppressing women and other minority groups.  Some third-wave feminists focus their activism on minority women and homosexuals.

If it seems like I’m oversimplifying feminism, it’s because I really am.  But what’s important for this discussion is the first two waves of feminism, as Agent Carter takes place in the period between when first-wave feminism secured equal rights for women under the law and when second-wave feminism began campaigning for equal social and economic rights.

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Feminism following World War II (second-wave feminism) was focused more on the issues which Peggy Carter and her friends faced in the series:  being ignored in favor of men in the workplace.  GIs returning from war received preferential treatment in hiring, regularly displacing the women who had worked all of those traditionally male-dominated jobs while the men were off to war.  In the season premiere, “Now is Not the End” (1x01), Peggy’s roommate Colleen describes having to train returned GIs to use the equipment at the factory where she works, knowing full well that those same GIs are taking jobs away from herself and her female coworkers.  Peggy faces the same uphill battle against the stereotype of women as ill-suited to certain traditionally male jobs, such as police work, espionage, and the like.  Instead of being placed into potentially life-threatening situations where she can use her skills most effectively—what she wants to be doing—Peggy is relegated to secretarial work, which is safer and more commonly performed by women.

However, Peggy—and many women of the times—felt liberated by the amount of freedom they had during the war.  During the war, women were encouraged to work outside the home in traditionally-male jobs, earning a living for their families and contributing to the war effort.  During the war, Peggy served alongside the men of the S.S.R., doing many of the same tasks that the men performed, including fighting on the frontlines.  These feelings of empowerment during the war actually helped to fuel the second-wave feminism which fought for women to receive those same freedoms—and more—that they had enjoyed during the war.  In Agent Carter season 1, they show the beginnings of this movement.

Long story short, feminism at the time of Agent Carter was not focused on the same issues on which contemporary feminism focuses.  And if Agent Carter had dealt with those issues, it just wouldn’t have made any sense.  Peggy’s and her contemporaries’ focus was on the opportunities and freedoms they had lost after the war, not our contemporary issues.

I’m glad that Marvel understood its contemporary setting when creating Agent Carter.  If a contemporary-set series (Jessica Jones and Marvel’s Most Wanted are both upcoming series with female leads, and Daisy is as much the lead on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. as Coulson) tackles contemporary issues, that’s fine.  But a period series needs to stick to the issues of its own period.

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As a side note, the other complaint I saw about Agent Carter and feminism had to do with the portrayal of men throughout the show.  Simply put, those complaints do not understand the series or our contemporary world.  At the beginning of the season the male members of the S.S.R. each fit into a stereotype; by the fifth episode those stereotypes started to crack at the seams as those stereotypes fell apart.  Thompson was no longer the dumb jock war hero, Sousa was no longer the love-struck cripple, and Dooley was no longer the hard-ass boss who treated Peggy like a daughter to protect.  The stereotypes were only used as a means to subvert the stereotype and deepen the characters.

Oh, and the chauvinistic patron at the Automat really wasn’t out of line with the way some men actually behave, even today.  My wife used to wait tables (in the last 12 years, not the 1940s), and she had multiple patrons who were just like that and worse—one old man even groped her thigh to get her attention.  That’s a matter of some men just being jerks, not an exaggerated negative portrayal of a male stereotype.

What did you think of Agent Carter’s handling of feminism and feminist issues?  Did you want to see a focus on different issues?  Do you want to see Marvel tackle modern feminism?  Let me know in the comments!

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