Punching out sexism with Agent Carter
I think I’m in love. I’ve started watching Agent Carter, and so far it’s amazing.
Agent Carter is a short television series about Secret Agent Peggy Carter, filling in the mid-season break in Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on ABC. We first met Peggy in 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger when she played a supporting role to Captain America himself. Agent Carter puts Peggy unapologetically front and center.
The show is, as Comic Book Resources says, “a superhero show about the postwar erasure of women from American culture” — and it is this erasure, as well as some high-powered bad guys, that Peggy fights in every episode.
Having gone to work in many military and civilian fields during World War II, millions of American women found themselves fired, facing the extremely narrow career options of “wife” and “mother” when male G.I.s returned from the front. When Agent Carter opens, it’s 1946, the year after the war ended. Peggy hasn’t been fired, but she has been significantly demoted from accomplished and respected field agent to under-appreciated secretary. Determined not to let herself get sidelined, Peggy takes a spy gig behind her employer’s back and has to stay one step ahead of her colleagues lest they find her out.
(Spoiler alert for the paragraphs below!)
The show would be impressive enough just for having that as its premise, but it also beautifully portrays its title character as a complete human being. In a single scene, Peggy is shown as being both powerful and vulnerable: She throws the man who killed her roommate out of a window, and then cries about her roommate’s death.
She manages to have fun with her job, even though it’s soul-crushingly frustrating. She makes friends. She fights sexism constantly, whether by standing up for herself and other women, or by twisting sexism to her advantage, such as when she pretends to be a vapid bombshell so that she can infiltrate a nightclub to recover a stolen superbomb. Peggy is smart, confident, resourceful, athletic, and strategic — and she has killer taste in hats.
But the true excellence of this show was especially obvious when compared to the Dove deodorant commercial that aired during it. As if I needed another reason to love this show, it also put contemporary sexist media in the spotlight.
Dove apparently now makes spray-on deodorant, and the women promoting it in the commercial are giggly buffoons. Their reactions to the deodorant are as follows: “You spray it on?” “How does that work?” “OMG, can I keep it??”
The commercial would have been irritating on its own, but in contrast with Agent Carter, it was completely demeaning and insulting. Agent Carter treats women like people — not just Peggy, but every woman in the show, from her ill-fated roommate to her prickly landlady to the diner waitress she befriends. The Dove commercial treats women like simpletons who have trouble understanding how hygiene products work.
Oh, Dove. I understand that you’re trying to teach us about your new deodorant, but I just watched a gorgeous, intelligent, badass woman outsmart all of her colleagues, use sexism to her advantage to steal a superbomb from bad guys, and then diffuse said superbomb with cleaning products she happened to already have in her kitchen. If she had been portrayed like the women in your commercial, that bomb would have gone off while she wondered whether she was holding it the right way up.
You’re doing great with this show, Marvel. Please, please keep it up. And please let me borrow some of Peggy’s sweet 1940s outfits while you’re at it.
Sasha Albert holds a Master’s degree in Gender and Sexuality from the University of Amsterdam, and works in public health research in the Boston area.