Throwback Sexism in “Agent Carter”


So I'm a bit behind on Agent Carter, I've only seen the first three episodes so far, but I'm liking it more than I expected to, given how little Peggy thrilled me in the first Captain America movie. Not because she was an obstacle to slash (which female characters often get unfairly demonized for), since I wasn't even shipping Steve and Bucky back then; I just thought her depiction read like a straight guy who didn't "get it" writing what he thought a "strong female character" was supposed to be, and she came off as erratic and disproportionately violent in her responses.

(Kneeing a guy in the balls for making an inappropriate pass at her? Shooting at Steve because another woman was kissing him, when they weren't even an item? What the fuck? Would we read any of that as rational and appropriate behavior — as "strong" behavior — from a male character? I think not.)

Fortunately, whoever's writing Agent Carter writes a much better Peggy, and suddenly the actress, Hayley Atwell, has chemistry with everyone. Jarvis? For god's sake, man, you're married! Howard Stark? Go for it, gurl, he can show you a good time. The waitress at Peggy's favorite diner? Oh my god, will you two just kiss already. (Excellent femmeslash fic here.)

Which makes the show's overt, unsubtle 50s-era sexism read like pendulum-overswing in the other direction. Suddenly the women are top-notch — and the men are the caricatures? Or is that, objectively, just what things were like back then?

I had a similar reaction to Joanna Russ's feminist sci-fi from the 1970s, because the attitudes it reflects, the words that come out of the mouths of her male characters (of the "women should be barefoot and pregnant" variety), are almost impossible to take seriously these days. No one believes that anymore! Or if they do, they know better than to say it out loud and in public. It's the sort of thing that crusty politicians let slip occasionally and promptly get pilloried for. Writing men who say those things does not seem like an honest engagement with sexism, because that's not where the problem lies.


For people of my generation and later, it's hard to realize just how much progress we've made, if only in making it socially unacceptable to be a vocal, raging chauvinist. That not so long ago, those ideas wouldn't have been the atavistic opinion of a socially-unacceptable fringe, they would have been common wisdom. And I am staunchly in favor of realistic depictions of the past — that you don't get to whitewash over historical attitudes that are uncomfortable-making now. You don't get to give your protagonist a pass and make them the lone enlightened progressive in a sea of racists and misogynists. Certainly, they can learn and change, but they still ought to be a product of the time and place they're rooted in.

(Sleepy Hollow lost me on that one, for being unable to give Crane a single dated and now politically-incorrect opinion. What, he even gets the modern preferred terminology right? Not even possible. Dude should be tossing around your granddaddy's "savages" and "imbeciles," "inverts" and "negroes" — or worse — factually, without a clue that those words are now considered derogatory.)

And I appreciate that Agent Carter recognizes that chauvinism isn't incompatible with competence and intelligence in other arenas. Peggy's casually sexist coworkers at the FBI didn't get where they are by being idiots, so they're good at their job — if not particularly cognizant that she is also good at their job.


I don't know, guys. Because (a) it would be disingenuous and unrealistic not to include the ambient sexism of the 50s, and (b) from a plotting perspective, anything that generates organic obstacles for the protagonist can only be a good thing. But I've got two problems with the over-the-top (or so it feels) sexism:

1) They're alienating a good chunk of their audience. I'm trying really hard to phrase this in a way that doesn't read as ~But what about the MENS~! because that's not the point I'm trying to make. My point is, the men who are most likely to be uncomfortable with the sexism in Agent Carter are the ones who recognize, on some level, that they're still part of the problem, because they're identifying more with the casually chauvinist dudes than with the women who suffer under them. But making them uncomfortable isn't going to change their minds — it's just going to make them stop watching. And one, Agent Carter doesn't have enough friends that it can afford to lose those people, and two, if they're not watching then they're never going to be exposed to the content that could change their minds.

2) Setting up that overt, historical sexism as the boogeyman generates the false impression that the problem has been solved. Modern guys can look at it and go, "Well I would never do/say that," and then rest on their laurels, complacent in the belief that they're enlightened and un-sexist. It's similar to the way I was taught about racism in school — that slavery was a thing that happened, but now it's gone, and the Civil Rights Movement was a thing that happened, and it achieved its goals, the end. The kind of racism we saw in the history textbooks was so far removed from anything I'd seen in real life that it was a frankly embarrassing number of years before I realized how very, very far from dead racism was. Propping up historical forms of racism and sexism as the enemy to be combated disguises the real, current problems we face, and generates a dangerous complacency in the people who need to have their eyes opened to it the most.


I have a friend, my brofriend, who in some ways typifies the problems that arise when trying to talk feminism & related issues with straight dudes who don't quite get it. But unlike a lot of guys, he realizes that there's something he's not getting, and he wants to understand it, because he's a ridiculously smart guy but also smart enough to know that he's not always going to be right about everything. So he's willing — eager, even — to hear alternate points of view… and then eager to challenge them, because debating is his hobby and he doesn't accept anything uncritically, so you'd better have your ducks lined up before engaging him. He's a marvelous crucible for refining your arguments in, stripping away the logical fallacies, overstatements, and rhetorical grandstanding, and if there is a kernal of merit to your argument, you and he will find it eventually — and he's not embarrassed to readjust his worldview in light of it. I've successfully changed his mind before, and I go forth into the future better-equipped to change more minds, but he can be pretty exhausting.

That's not the problem. The problem is that he's stopped having this conversation with women, i.e., the people who are more appropriate than me to school him on feminism.

"I've tried," he said. "It only ever ends with them getting angry. And I'm sorry, but as a heterosexual male, I am not willing to do something that's going to jeopardize my odds with women."

So he backs down, with women, even if he hasn't been convinced.

Brofriend, you unintentionally-sexist twit, I thought. Not giving women the space to deploy their arguments is just about the opposite of respecting them.

Or other times, he said, when he realizes he's made some verbal misstep with a lady friend and — because her good opinion is important to him — tries to press to figure out where he went wrong, she backs down.

And I thought, Fuck, of course she does. Not just because it's level odds on whether she's got the motivation and stamina to put herself through that discussion, again, but because these are heterosexual women, and society insists that men won't want girls who are too contrarian, and she doesn't want to ruin her chances of getting laid either.

Heterosexuals, man. It's a wonder they get anything done.


I'm not sure where I was going with that story. Just that it's important to continue to reach out and engage with people who aren't on the team yet. That it's important not to get angry with someone who's arguing in good faith but just doesn't get it yet, because getting angry, making conversations about feminism an unpleasant experience, means they're going to do their level best to avoid ever having or thinking about that conversation again.

And for guys, that it's important to have this conversation with other guys. Not necessarily because they'll give it more credence coming out of your mouth than a woman's, but if they've been burned trying to talk feminist issues with women before, and are leery of poking that tiger. You're in a unique position to initiate this discussion without making anyone feel like they're on the defensive, or like you're attacking them personally.

Because it's not a waste of time talking to dudes who don't get it. Not-getting-it now doesn't mean they're too stupid to get it ever. And these guys who want to argue because they think you're wrong and they're right? They are exactly the guys who will go to bat for feminism in the future if you can talk them round to your side. That the next time they hear something casually sexist, something that they know is provably incorrect, they won't be able to keep their damn mouth shut if they try.


Perhaps feminism is something you have to take on faith for a while. The stumbling block, as I see it, is that most guys don't think there's a problem — or have misconstrued what the problem is — and confirmation bias ensures that they'll never notice evidence to the contrary. So all it takes is being willing to entertain the possibility that sexism might exist, and in short order, reality will provide them with all the evidence they need.


And as always, if you vehemently disagree with anything I've said, all I ask is that you flame me politely. I live to learn.

2 thoughts on “Throwback Sexism in “Agent Carter”

  1. “Heterosexuals, man. It’s a wonder they get anything done.”

    Hah! Good point, now that you mention it. Talking across gender lines while negotiating sexual tension is no small task.

    Haven’t seen the show, but the rest of your points seem sound to me.

  2. Talking across gender lines while negotiating sexual tension is no small task.

    inorite? I have sympathy for the brofriend, to be sure. The reason he can’t have that conversation with women is the same reason that I can have it with him, whom I’m probably never going to shag, but didn’t have it with my ex-boyfriend, who didn’t understand sexism and didn’t want to hear about it. Maybe I could have made the world a better place by trying to make him listen… or maybe I just wouldn’t have gotten laid.

    Anyway, Agent Carter is pretty good. A fun 1940s era spy romp, even though it’s likely drawing ire from the NOT ALL MEN! camp.

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