When the Agent Carter miniseries was announced, many fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe were skeptical. The resolution of Peggy Carter’s story is already known; she ages, marries a man who Steve had freed from Hydra on his last mission, and eventually develops Alzheimer’s (as seen in Captain America: Winter Soldier). Many insisted her arc as a heroine was completed in the first Captain America movie, and, as there are no more superheroes until the mid-2000s in the MCU, it doesn’t make sense for the romantic lead of a movie that was much about the lack of consummation to be the focus of a television show, even if it is a finite miniseries.
After the debut of Agent Carter on January 6, many are biting their tongues. This 1940s period piece draws on much of the zeitgeist of current popular television shows: the un-idealized bygone era of Mad Men; the mystery and complexity of American Horror Story; the fight scenes of modern superhero media like Arrow and Agents of SHIELD; even the embracing of a tough and flawed female lead, a la the Hunger Games series.
The story is also one of inequality. Peggy is an incredibly capable and strong SSR agent. She has proven herself time and again, in both film and within the show, but is constantly belittled because of how she looks, how she dresses, and the mere fact that she is a woman.
Peggy Carter, and more specifically the show Agent Carter, is a sly analogy for the state of women today, especially women in geek culture. The show reflects pop media buzz topics, like Gamergate, Fake Geek Girl memes, and the sexual harassment of creators, through the lens of a time that seems archaic. However, the topics, the misogyny and inequality that Peggy deals with, is anything but archaic. These are things that modern women deal with on a daily basis: the street harassment, the catcalling, the sexualization, the dehumanizing, the diminishing, and the belittling.
Peggy Carter is the modern woman, capable and strong, but forced into a world that will not accept her for who she is and will not listen to her speaking out against the men who put her down. Agent Daniel Sousa represents the white knight concept, implying that women need protection, as well as the “not all men” movement—he is well-intentioned and sweet, certainly, but his help is unwarranted, unasked for, and, in a way, works against Peggy trying to prove herself capable. Agent Jack Thompson is every troll who feels the need to comment negatively on the most trivial of things; the guy who uses “gay” as an insult and tells women to “go make him a sandwich.” Chief Roger Dooley is media itself, unwittingly enforcing an image of what women are “supposed” to be by not question how women are treated—he’s the Big Bang Theory episode that implies that a woman (even a geeky woman) has literally never set foot in a comic shop before.
There’s a beauty in how perfectly the analogies align, but it’s also a show that can be consumed at face value. It shows a world that falls between the suffragette first wave feminism and the burgeoning second wave feminism of embracing the strength of the “fairer sex.” Peggy represents the inner strength of women, and female geeks, as she strives to be the best she can be, to be strong without a man, and to defy male expectation and the male gaze.
Peggy weaponizes her sex, a trope that is not necessarily the best in female led media, but it also belies a deeper strength, that she will do what others won’t (or can’t) to accomplish a job. Peggy isn’t happy about being ogled or kissed, but she uses that to her advantage, and does so on her specific terms.
Her knowledge and capability aren’t her only powers. Peggy also represents physical strength. She is the next step for Rosie the Riveter, she can do a man’s job just as well, and often times better, because she is a woman. And part of that job is fighting.
The combat in the show is blunt and forceful, and there’s something beautiful about that. Peggy is a woman of skill, but her best skills are mental; her combat is rough and hard. This sort of brutal female fighter is rarely seen, but harkens to the superlative action of Gina Carano in Haywire. This force, combined with Hayley Atwell’s masterful acting, creates something we haven’t seen much of in film or television: an eloquent bruiser. Peggy Carter has it all—brains, brawn, beauty—and yet still manages to have flaws and feel like a real and realistic woman.
One of the most amazing things about Agent Carter is the fact that the show not only embraces, but also supports women presenting themselves how they want to be seen. Hayley Atwell pointed fans to Besame Cosmetics, among others, on Twitter as the place to get Peggy Carter’s already iconic look. With their 1946 Red Velvet lipstick (a nod to the year Agent Carter is set), and a 1940s collection, this (unintentional?) synergy embraces the female aspect of the show so fantastically and openly. Fans have already reviewed the 1946 lipstick with resounding positivity, saying it provides women of all ages with a way to channel the strength and ferocity of Peggy Carter.