Why Peggy Carter resonates with so many women today

Value2Anyone who knows me even slightly knows I am a HUGE fan of Peggy Carter. Captain America: The First Avenger is one of my favorite movies, in part because I adored Peggy Carter in it. (I also might have a thing for the time period, seeing as I wrote The Boys of Summer 🙂 ) I’ve written about why I think Steve Rogers is the kind of hero we need, and I’ve written a little about my adventures in cosplaying Carter. I’m obsessed in the way only a fangirl can be. If you search this website for references to Peggy Carter, you’ll see what I mean.

Ever since Captain America:TFA came out, I’ve been toying with the idea of writing what would happen to characters like these after the war. After their brilliant, adrenaline-driven careers were no longer necessary, and they had to meld into suburban America. I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a series under the pen name Madison Dean, a kind of X-Files meets Ward and June Cleaver. I thought it would be fun, and I was enjoying the research for it. Then Agent Carter came out, and I realized that I’m going to have to change much of how I envisioned my original characters in order to prevent it from feeling derivative.

Besame 1940 PerfumeYou know what? I don’t care. Because I enjoyed Agent Carter as a television show so much, it doesn’t bother me that it might have shot down my brilliant idea for a romantic adventure series. I enjoyed it so much, it even knocked Queen Elsa off the throne for my current fangirl obsession. (Lord knows, I’ve posted a lot about Frozen, too! You should do a site search on that one if you want to read them all…)

Yesterday, I got a text from a friend off at Emerald City Comic Con, saying she had a surprise for me. Now, I’ve been running on fumes this last week, dealing with an injured horse needing round-the-clock treatment in an effort to save his eye. So when I got her text, it piqued my curiosity but I’d forgotten where she’d gone this weekend. Then she sent me a photo of my surprise: an autograph from Hayley Atwell! Those high-pitched dolphin squeals of glee you heard around the world yesterday? Yeah, that was me.

I showed the image to the BF last night at dinner, and he said he’d been looking for some sort of Agent Carter-related thing to get me ever since the series came out, but he’d had trouble finding anything he liked. Which gave me the warm fuzzies, you know? We watched Agent Carter together each week when it was on–it was our one Must See Live television show, and I believe he looked forward to it almost as much as me (given the amount of teasing I got, I’m sure of it!). The fact that he’s been looking for something Carter-related as a gift shows he *gets* me.

Besame Red VelvetWhich got me thinking this morning, why Peggy Carter? Why not Black Widow, or Wonder Woman, or Kate Beckett, or Brenda Leigh Johnson, or any of a number of excellent female characters over the years? What is it about Peggy that strikes such a chord? Why did Twitter explode with live tweeting during Agent Carter? It’s not just because Hayley Atwell is adorable (have you seen the pictures she posts of her sleeping almost anywhere on almost anything? The one of her in the suitcase is my favorite) but because Peggy Carter herself really struck a cord with a lot of viewers.

For a heroine, she’s super-feminine in a way that is disarming. She’s not in a catsuit. She doesn’t look like she could break your nose with her elbow, despite the fact she can. She is under-appreciated at work, and her male superiors dismiss her abilities while at the same time take advantage of them. I love the fact that she anticipates the mission’s needs and has the information ready to provide before her bosses can even ask for it. I confess, I was disconcerted by the scene where she takes a male co-worker to task for standing up for her–I thought she should have rewarded him for being progressive, after all! But I realized that she dressed him down for intervening because no one should have to intervene on her behalf. To have a man back her in that scenario meant that her presence and usefulness was only allowed if validated by a male co-worker. It was an interesting distinction to make, and one far more subtle than the average comic-book show.

Cinnamon Sweet resizedBut she can ditch the feminine look to get dirty in the trenches. She can knock back Scotch with the best of her male companions, the ones who know her true value and don’t question what she brings to the team. Her hand shakes when she diffuses a bomb. She’s known heartbreak, and personal loss. She’s made mistakes, ones that have gotten people killed, and she’s suffered the guilt, as well as the consequences of her actions. She eats out at restaurants a lot, because seriously, when does she have time to cook? She curses when she hits her head. She is tempted by the luxury of staying a night in Howard Stark’s townhouse, so far removed from a life sharing flats with other women. She is wonderfully realized as a character. She is human. And she is a damn sight closer to most of us than the average role model we see on screen.

One of the best moments in the series is depicted on the mug above: Peggy states clearly that she doesn’t need outside validation to know her worth. She doesn’t expect it. She’s learned to live without it. She’s learned that the only person she mustn’t disappoint is herself. Praise from others is nice, but she doesn’t need it to know she’s done her best.

Forites shoes 1That is a wonderful, amazing, empowering mindset. Seriously, it is everything we could ever hope for in a role model. No, we’re not going to be able to take out bad guys with a mean right hook, but we can look smashing while we go about our business, do our jobs to the very best of our abilities, and we can hold our heads–and our standards–high when the rest of the world would put us down. Without whining.

I sincerely hope Marvel and ABC decide to renew the series for another season. It was by far the best thing I’ve seen on television in years. We need more female characters like this in television, movies, and books. And she’s inspired me to create some of my own.

A friend, knowing my obsession, linked me to this wonderful, amazing essay on Agent Carter and the power of friendship. Do check it out. You won’t be sorry. 🙂

 

Captain America: Uncool, Unappreciated, and Absolutely Necessary

Captain America Shield_flickrI went to see Captain America: The Winter Soldier again. I had been to see it during its opening week, clutching the BF’s knee as we went through one dizzying action-packed scene after another. I was practically breathless by the end of the film, and really felt that one viewing was insufficient for me to assimilate everything that was tossed at me in 136 minutes it took to air the movie. In fact, if I have any complaints about the film, it is that we raced headlong from one explosive scene to another. I could have used a few more scenes of dialog, simply to catch my breath between collisions and attacks. The solid rush of stimulation diminished the impact of the actions sequences after a bit, reducing their overall tension by turning them into one sustained crush.

There will be spoilers here. Just warning you now. If you haven’t seen the movie and you don’t want to be spoiled by my thoughts here, hit the back button now. This is just my personal reaction to the movie and why I think we need ‘real’ heroes–unequivocal good guys.

The Boys of Summer400x600I’ll be the first to admit that of all the precursors to the first Avengers movie, Captain America was my favorite. Anyone who knows me knows I have a thing for stories set in WW2 (hence The Boys of Summer) and that I adore Peggy Carter. Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed the first Iron Man movie as well–watching Tony Stark go through the process of redeeming and recreating himself was truly delightful. Robert Downey, Jr. IS Iron Man. 🙂

But my heart belongs to Captain Steve Rogers.

Recently, however, I discovered that this wasn’t a cool thing to admit. Steve Rogers is boring, according to some people. He is too straight-laced. He’s corny. He’s *gasp* old-fashioned. Most of my friends prefer Tony Stark’s in-your-face, completely unapologetic caustic brilliance or Loki’s smiling cruelty, which somehow makes you ready to make excuses for him even as he slides a knife between your ribs. I can see the appeal of both of these characters; I enjoy them myself. Mind you, the character of Steve Rogers was created at a time when the country needed an avatar for American victory over the Axis Powers seeking world domination. Some of that hokey patriotism is present in the current incarnation as well.

But you know what? I think we need more Steve Rogers in this world. Let me tell you why.

He’s a good guy. No, I don’t mean in the sense of being a superhero. He was a good guy before he ever gained super powers. In fact, that was the whole point of the Super Soldier serum experiment back in the 1940s: it took whatever personal characteristics you had and accentuated them as well as giving you physical strength and rapid healing. That was why Red Skull became a villain when he partook of the serum. It increased his thirst for power and all the dark, evil thoughts inside him until nothing would satisfy but the creation of a world order with himself as leader. Steve Rogers *had* to be a decent guy before undergoing the testing in order not to become a monster afterward.

We already knew that he wasn’t a quitter, based on how he never gave up in a fight, even when he was being beaten to a pulp. That he wanted to do his part for his country, even though ‘killing Nazis’ was not his motivation. No, he knew that sometimes you have to stand and fight because it’s the right thing to do. We knew he had courage, as evidenced as being the only soldier who threw himself on the dummy grenade when told that everyone was in danger. We knew that he wasn’t an unthinking dolt when he managed to get the flag off the flagpole (thus earning himself a ride back to camp) when it was apparent that brute strength alone wasn’t going to get the job done. The first movie did a marvelous job of showing us why Steve Rogers became Captain America.

What I don’t get is why this somehow makes him contemptible in the eyes of many movie-goers today. Why standing up for what you believe in and being a decent guy makes you boring and predictable and less likeable than the Lokis of the entertainment world. Steve Rogers, I love you. Let me count the ways…

The banter with Natasha throughout The Winter Soldier was brilliant because she was the perfect counterpoint to him. Jaded, ruthless, cynical: Black Widow is about as far as you can get from Captain America and still be on the same team. I liked how what he offered was the one thing she probably seldom got from men: the offer of friendship and trust. I liked too, how even though Steve is told that he can’t trust anyone, this film was ultimately about surrounding yourself with people you could trust. I don’t think the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. television program has pulled off the same complex issues with the same finesse or success. While I care about Cap, and Falcon, and Black Widow, and Fury, and Hill, I cannot say the same for the AoS team. I feel more for poor, tortured Bucky than I do for Agent Ward, who presumably has been conditioned to be a similar type of assassin. One storyline works for me and the other doesn’t. I think the difference lies in the nature of Steve Rogers himself.

Locket and CompactThe scene in the nursing home with Peggy Carter was especially poignant for me. Toward the end of his life, my father lost the ability to put anything into long-term memory. I’ve lost count of the conversations we had where he was completely lucid and articulate one moment and the next we were repeating the conversation from the very beginning again. Steve went to visit Peggy, knowing that the woman he’d fallen in love with was lost to him. And you can tell from that scene that it wasn’t the first time he’d visited Peggy. No, he’d been there before–the look of pain and loss on his face when Peggy exclaimed again over his reappearance from the dead made it obvious that he’d had this same conversation with her before. And yet he came back. He didn’t have to. But he did it because he loved her.

Or what about that speech he made over the S.H.I.E.L.D. intercom, announcing to everyone the truth about his fugitive status and what Hydra had planned for the world? Yes, it was a cheesy speech. But it was every bit as moving as the St. Crispin’s Day speech by Henry the 5th. It’s the kind of speech that makes you say, “Yes, I will follow this man into the gates of Hell.” It motivated people to stand up for what they believed in, to take sides in this war on personal freedoms (and you’d better be paying attention–the Patriot Act and the elimination of Net Neutrality make the machinations of Hydra’s algorithms to eliminate potential trouble-makers based on their internet history not so far-fetched after all). You know who the biggest heroes in this film were? Agent 13 (who is Sharon Carter, Peggy Carter’s great-niece) for questioning her superiors as to why Captain America was being treated like a criminal and the guy at the control panel who refused to launch the codes that would activate the Insight program. That, my friends, is what Superheroes do for us–they inspire us to be everyday heroes ourselves.

“I’m following Cap’s orders.” We do things like this because we believe in that hero. In order to inspire that kind of put-your-life-on-the-line action, our hero has to be someone worthy of emulating to that degree.

Then, too, there is Steve’s determination not to give up on his friend, Bucky. We know the Bucky that was is no more. The Winter Soldier is no more Bucky, Steve’s lifelong friend, than the rabid dog at the end of the film is Ol’ Yeller. Does that make Steve stupid when he tries to get through to Bucky? Perhaps. There was that moment in Ol’ Yeller in which the heroic dog that he was hesitates for a split second before the madness of rabies closes in on his brain again. Steve’s need to get through to Bucky is about likely to succeed. But it is that same determination that sees him placing the last chip into the control panel that will change the targeting system for the Insight ships, despite being shot multiple times. We watch him take bullet after bullet and still drag himself up to that control panel because replacing that chip will save millions of lives.

You know what? That man, the man that would visit the love of his life in the nursing home even though they are out of sync with each other by 70 years, and the man who would stick by his friend even though, through torture and experimentation, that friend has become a monster–that is the man I’d want at my back. That is the man I can admire enough to refuse to do something that is wrong–even if there is a gun pointed at my head He’s a bona fide hero here, and frankly, I think we need more of them in our lives.

I’ve been talking with several of my friends about this lately. About the dearth of admirable heroes in television and in the movies. How producers sneer at the ‘square jawed hero’ and instead introduce characters that they believe are more accessible because they might as well be our boss or our next-door neighbor. We’re supposed to relate to their dilemmas because we recognize them as people we know. Well, you know what? I am routinely disappointed in the people I know. I need something better than that if I’m going to be encouraged to stick to my beliefs, to stand up for civil rights being eroded or denied, to keep trying to be a better person. I’m sick of dystopian fiction and programs that make the future look so bleak we might as well curl up and die before tomorrow comes. I don’t know about you, but I need a hero that I can believe in. Someone who will give me the courage of my convictions and help me get through the bad days.

Fellow author Jamie Fessenden and I were discussing this on Facebook the other day, and I quote him here:

I do miss the hopeful science fiction (and comic hero) stories of the 50s, despite the elements of propaganda. I’m with Sarah in being tired of dystopian fiction. Some of it is really good (I love The Hunger Games), but I would really like to see a more optimistic portrayal of the future now and then. Especially for teenagers. I don’t think we accomplish much by telling the next generation it’s all hopeless, so we might as well just give up and accept that. There’s a thin line between propaganda and giving people something to strive for.

Another one of my friends also agreed with me, stating why she loved Doctor Who so much. She quoted to me what Steven Moffat once said about The Doctor, and I’ll share it here:

When they made this particular hero, they didn’t give him a gun, they gave him a screwdriver to fix things.They didn’t give him a tank or a warship or an x-wing fighter, they gave him a call box from which you can call for help. And they didn’t give him a superpower or pointy ears or a heat ray, they gave him an extra heart. They gave him two hearts. And that’s an extraordinary thing; there will never come a time when we don’t need a hero like the Doctor.

He’s right, you know. Likewise, there will never be a time when the world doesn’t need a Steve Rogers. Even though we may not be smart enough to know it. Even though it may not be the cool thing to admit.