There's no denying the fact that the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the mega-franchise powerhouse that's currently dominating the landscape of mainstream cinema, has something of a gender imbalance going on. By the time that universe reaches its tenth anniversary, Marvel Studios will have released twenty feature films, only one of which will have had a female lead.
With that in mind, the hype for Marvel's recently-launched period spy drama Agent Carter is understandable. The show takes a superhero's obligatory love interest and puts her at the center of her own story: fighting her own battles, kicking ass, taking names, and doing all of this - to use series lead Hayley Atwell's words - "backwards and in high heels." It's the ideal recipe for positive press and that's something that Agent Carter has been getting in spades, with HitFix praising the show for its "fully-formed" female characters weeks before the pilot even aired.
The Agent Carter premiere toed the line obediently, presenting a gallery of silly sexist men who underestimate the awesome Peggy Carter even as she goes behind their backs to solve crimes much faster than they can. In one scene, Peggy uses her feminine wiles to con her way into an arms dealer's office, where she confronts him about his nefarious dealings but keeps him off-guard with her sultry appearance. It's a fun scene - and it was also a fun scene when the pilot episode of Dark Angel did it 15 years ago.
As a feminist, I don't find Agent Carter's 'yay-go-women' moments (of which there are many) particularly stirring or interesting for the simple reason that they are preaching to the choir. It's the "Girl Power!" spirit of 1990s pop-feminism, and in a TV landscape that includes complex, fallible characters like Claire Underwood, Piper Chapman, Sarah Manning and the women on shows like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, Peggy Carter's bland, ball-busting "We Can Do It!" peppiness feels like something from another time - and not just because of the show's setting.
It's a common problem that female characters - particularly in male-dominated genres - are obliged to be Strong Female Characters who carry a standard for their entire gender, while male characters get to just be characters. Peggy Carter doesn't get to have personality flaws like Thor's arrogance or Peter Quill's dumb brashness, because she's too busy trying to prove that women are just as good as men. The closest she comes to being flawed is crying over pictures of Steve Rogers and going through the five thousandth iteration of the "It's dangerous to get too close to me," superhero story arc.
Agent Carter isn't entirely at fault for this outcome. The show is surrounded by a hubbub of articles buzzing about Marvel's first female lead and proclaiming that she is going to "stomp on the patriarchy." It's no wonder that the writers feel compelled to make Peggy totally awesome all the time when this is the way people are writing about her:
"What’s a girl to do when her boyfriend Captain America disappears for the rest of the century – and it’s only 1946? Well, if like Peggy Carter you’re an independent woman in a male-dominated post-war world, you take up spying and detective work and let those silly overgrown boys underestimate you at their peril." - The National
"As the first movie or TV series from Marvel Studios with a female lead, you can bet they will be watching it's success - or lack thereof - closely in weighing the possibility of giving the green light to other projects with women warriors." - Movie Pilot
"The everyday misogyny she faces both in the office and outside can be painful to watch — particularly seeing how little things have changed today — but watching the way Peggy handles it is an inspiration." - TV Guide
"It shouldn’t be remarkable in this day and age, but sadly, we still don’t see many female-driven shows that really dig into every facet of what it means to be a woman, both personally and professionally." - Variety
"[Agent Carter] is the first major project set within the Marvel Cinematic Universe to be headlined by a female character, and while that fact is slightly distressing to fans who've been clamoring for a Black Widow feature film, it's still a triumph in and of itself." - TV.com
While this response is obviously well-intentioned, the fervent focus on Peggy Carter's gender (ABC's tagline for the show is "Sometimes the best man for the job…. is a woman") could be considered its own form of sexism, and could ultimately be damaging to the show's quality. It brings to mind the much-researched sociological phenomenon of stereotype threat, where people from marginalized social groups experience anxiety from having their gender or race emphasized and ultimately perform worse in tests because of it.
For sake of comparison, let's look at Bryan Fuller's comedic fantasy series Dead Like Me, which was about a teenager called George who is killed by a falling toilet seat and becomes a grim reaper. There was little fuss made of the fact that George was a girl, and this meant that she was allowed to be lazy and whiny and selfish just as frequently as she displayed strength or compassion. When Dead Like Me was (tragically) cancelled after just two seasons, no one took it as an omen from the TV gods that shows with female protagonists are doomed to fail because of women's natural inferiority.
The problem with setting Agent Carter up as the show which will prove to Marvel that female characters are bankable is the logical extension that, if it fails, it will somehow prove that female characters are not bankable.
This forced defensive stance has already had a negative effect on the show's writing. The "feminist" moments of Agent Carter's premiere were little more subtle and nuanced than the sexist radio plays that the audience is encouraged to laugh at. An abusive customer smacks Angie (Lyndsy Fonseca) on the bottom and Peggy calmly threatens to stab him with a fork. Peggy pretends to be serving coffee for the male agents and they casually blab top-secret details in front of her because they underestimate women. Peggy is able to con a bad guy using nothing more than lipstick and a low-cut dress, because men are sexist and dumb. This is Saturday morning cartoon feminism.
The desperate need to have Peggy constantly battling sexist adversity also has the rather ironic side effect of creating an overwhelmingly male cast. There was only one female supporting cast member who made it to the end of last night's debut, and the rest of the premiere was about Peggy battling her sexist male colleagues; having low-grade sexual tension with her sympathetic male colleague; and working for a guy (Howard Stark) who assigns another guy (Jarvis) to help Peggy track down a ring of baddies, all of whom are men.
Ostensibly there's nothing wrong with calling a show with a female lead some kind of triumph for feminism, until you reflect back on just how low a bar that sets. It's effectively handing Agent Carter a big gold participation award, instead of waiting for something worthy of applause.
Agent Carter returns next Tuesday with “Time & Tide” @8pm on ABC.