Too often much lauded plans for media progress fail to meet high expectations. This year’s film award season fell short, despite numerous excellent films starring women and people of colour. Still no Black Widow film is planned for the big screen; Wonder Woman seems to be nothing but rumours. The progress we have is to be celebrated. Kamala Khan, a teenage Muslim Pakistani American, is now Ms. Marvel. Legend of Korra came as far as portraying a bisexual character in a same sex relationship children’s as TV has ever come.
Now, Agent Carter, the new television show about the adventures of Captain America’s female spy Peggy Carter in 1940s America, carries the heavy weight of liberal watchers’ expectations. Many are excited and hopeful as the show deals with Agent Carter’s difficulties as a single woman in the post-war era, as she deals with sexist and aggressive agents in the work place and navigates the many experiences of women in that time. However, some are still critical of the show’s avoidance of certain issues and cutting out of canonical material from the original Marvel universe that would have engaged the show with America’s racial prejudices and divisions.
The show has been applauded, already, for its honest portrayal of female struggles in the professional world and realistic portrayal of the men that surround Agent Carter but falters when it comes to grappling with race and, some critics claim, anything more complicated than beating sexists with a stick or, rather, a stapler (no, really). The show has excellent feminist credentials as it doesn’t just new rehash the Xena and Buffy inheritance of “women can kick butt too”, but works well an inversion of an old sexist story-telling trick: to make a man a hero you have to kill off his female love interest. In Agent Carter, it is the male love interest who has ‘died’ and for whom the hero grieves. Peggy grieves for Captain America the way male action heroes do, using him as an inspiration and motivation for her current action-ing and bad-guy-beating-up. Peggy interacts with other women in her life and, while heavy handed at times, it’s clear the show intended to deal with their struggles too, not just Peggy’s. Why then, does the show struggle so much with other politics?
The show’s only person of colour in a speaking role – so far – was killed off pretty quickly and also happened to be a bad guy. Not a great start for a programme supposedly set in 1940s and 50s America, a time whose racial prejudice is perhaps most cartoonishly etched on the American mind. It isn’t as if anyone would argue that it wasn’t a racist time and it seems strange for the all-white cast of characters to pretend that part of America doesn’t exist.
It becomes even more implausible that the show’s creators have denied any future story lines grappling with race issues when the Peggy Carter of the comic books was romantically involved with Howling Commando Gabe Jones – significant because Gabe Jones was depicted in the comics as an African American serving in an integrated unit, far before the united states’ military was racially integrated. The comics, written in a 1970s of increased racial divisions and ghettoization, seem braver and more willing to depict an interracial romance and the stigmatisation the pair suffered because of it than the TV show of 2014.
When then, should we still support Agent Carter? Going beyond whether or not something problematic can be enjoyable, should it still be supported even when it falls short of the mark?
Agent Carter isn’t a huge show, or a massive ratings draw, but it’s a brave little soul and it seems to be enjoying reasonable success. But no one can be complacent about it being renewed. An Agent Carter that doesn’t exist can’t grow or change and if it’s not being aired there’s not even a chance for the writing time to change their minds and include Gabe Jones as a character. The show still improves some aspects of diversity on television and can hopefully prove that all kinds of genre shows can survive with female leads. The liberal viewers from which Agent Carter draws its viewing base may waver over whether or not to support a creative endeavour that fails to address the lack of racial diversity on American and worldwide television screens, but supporting it is important. Fans have been persistant in holding the show to account and it will hopefully be the case that they will be heard and listened to. No one can be held to account on a show that doesn’t exist.
If you can watch Agent Carter legally, do it. If you can’t, tell your friends. There’s no diversity on a cancelled television show.
[Bethany Garry – @brgbethany]