Anyone who follows this blog knows I’ve been a Peggy Carter fan from the moment Captain America: The First Avenger was released. So, be prepared, this post is going to be a bit of social commentary combined with fangirl glee.
Captain America was one of my favorite Avenger movies from the Marvel Universe collection. I’ve written about my love for Steve Rogers before, and why I think we need more heroes like him. I adored Peggy Carter in that film, and was sorry to realize that we’d probably never see Hayley Atwell in that role again. Once Rogers wakes in modern-day New York, after being in the deep freeze all those years, the following movies are all about Captain America in the contemporary world. But the funny thing is, fandom loved Peggy Carter, too. She got a 15 minute short film as a DVD extra in the Blu-Ray version of Iron Man 3, and we got a glimpse of what her life was like post WW2, an agent who was treated more like a file clerk and grieving for Steve’s loss. The agent who took it upon herself to get the job done where other agents had failed. The fans, myself included, loved it! Then she appeared in Captain America 2:The Winter Soldier, both in newsreels about her role in S.H.I.E.L.D. and then later, Steve visits her in a nursing home, in one of the most painfully poignant reunion scenes I can recall in a movie. My father lost the ability to put anything new into long-term memory toward the end of his life. I could completely identify with Steve having a conversation with Peggy, who was lucid and clear one moment, only to turn for a second and have to watch Peggy re-discover that he was alive all over again in the next. Oh, my heart!
Even then, Marvel wasn’t done with this character. The fandom reaction to the One-Shot Agent Carter film was so positive, rumors began to circulate that they were considering a series. I can tell you, I was both excited and nervous. I loved this character and I sincerely hoped they wouldn’t get her wrong. Now that might sound odd, considering that Marvel put her on the screen for me to fall in love with in the first place, but I’ve seen it happen before. Take a great actress in a terrific movie role and try to build a weekly television series around her, and before you know it, the character isn’t even recognizable anymore. Even my boyfriend fell into the habit of muttering, “Please don’t let them screw this up…” every time a promo came on.
Marvel is a wonder for tie-ins and story-arcs across their universe, but in many ways, Agent Carter is fresh ground for them. They have some facts they need to retain, and they can seed the series with nods toward future events (like they did with an appearance by a younger Anton Vanko, who goes on to create the arc reactor with Howard Stark), but they aren’t tied into comic-book events the way the Avengers are. In many ways, it’s like what they did with the reboot of the Star Trek franchise–since the new movies follow an alternative timeline, the writers aren’t locked into re-telling old stories, but can play around in this brave new world of their own making.
I was encouraged that the showrunners were on track for getting things right when I read that the same writers for Captain America, Markus and McFeely, wrote the pilot and the first episode. I was reassured when I read this interview with Atwell in which she is quoted as saying the show “feels like a small triumph for women on television.”
But it all boiled down to the premiere. Would it live up to my expectations?
I’ve never been moved to live-Tweet during a program before, but I joined the legions of others on Twitter that made #AgentCarter trend on Tuesday evening. The show had everything I wanted: a strong female lead who doesn’t take the crap she’s handed out by her co-workers lying down, who is fiercely independent, but it’s because she is the most competent person she knows–and that people she cares about tend to wind up dead. She just also happens to dress fabulously, too. I’ll be honest, half of my fascination with Peggy Carter is the juxtaposition of her kick-ass toughness with her ‘ladylike’ appearance. (Not to mention I simply adore 1940s style clothing)
I found the scene between her and Agent Daniel Sousa interesting. At one point, Sousa demands an apology to Carter from co-workers that had speculated on how many men Carter had ‘known’ during the war. Sousa is far more sympathetic to Carter than most of the field agents, perhaps in part because he is a disabled war veteran who also is discriminated against. When Carter first speaks to Sousa about the incident, he assumes she’s going to thank him for sticking up for her, but instead she lets him know in no uncertain terms that Sousa isn’t doing her any favors by making such a distinction–and that she doesn’t need his intervention on her behalf. It’s interesting because it sets the tone for Carter as a character–no sooner does she give Sousa a mild set-down, she softens it with an acknowledgment of their commonalities, and then sharply takes on one of her co-workers who sticks her with his filing–thus proving her point that she doesn’t need a man to stand up for her. While I was thinking that she should be giving encouragement to anyone who sides with equality in the workplace, I am reminded that this is 1946. A male customer can slap a waitress on the ass and she has no recourse. The customer is always right, especially if he is a man. Carter has learned when and where to take up for herself because she can’t count on having a man step in on her behalf. This is Peggy Carter: independent. Not used to asking for, or receiving help. Not a bitch, as some would probably label her. She’s just not a whiner.
This doesn’t mean that she can’t be hurt. She can feel pain. She can cry. Her hands shook as she tried to deactivate a deadly bomb, and she reached for the whiskey as soon as it was done. If she’s hard on the people in her life, it’s because the bad guys don’t show any mercy, and she doesn’t want anyone else to die simply because they know her. She curses when she hits her head. She likes nice things. She isn’t above using her sexuality to meet her goals, but she’s more than a beautiful woman. She’s not afraid to play the ‘female’ card, however. And why not? Sometimes it’s the best card in a woman’s hand, especially when the rest of the deck is stacked against her. She’s tough, and smart, and sexy, and she gets the job done. Better still, she has to learn to ask for help. To accept that she ‘cannot carry the weight of the world on her shoulders alone.” I know a lot of women who struggle with this concept. I am one of them.
Ultimately, that’s what makes Peggy Carter the heroine I can admire. She gets things done through grit, courage, and ingenuity. She thinks fast on her feet and meets new developments with aplomb. She didn’t take a super serum. She didn’t gain special abilities through a lab accident. She gets by on guts, brains, and training. And yes, this is a comic-book universe, but she is closer to any one of us than the average superhero. She could be the cashier at Wal-Mart, or your dental hygienist, or the data entry person for a large company. She is us.
Besides, who among us hasn’t felt like we weren’t appreciated by our bosses? Who hasn’t longed for a secret identity or mission that sets us apart from the other people we meet in our daily lives? The appeal of this basic scenario is HUGE, at least it is for me. Which is why I squealed like a fangirl when one of my friends told me Hayley Atwell tweeted an “Agent Carter Starter Kit”, letting fans know what color nail polish, lipstick, and perfume Carter wears. Because let me tell you, if I can paint my nails with OPI’s Cinnamon Sweet and spritz on a little Besame’s 1940’s perfume, and walk out the door asking myself, “What Would Peggy Do?” then there is nothing I can’t face during my day.
That’s what fictional heroes are for. To make everyday heroes out of all of us.