Thursday, January 8, 2015

Let's Watch Agent Carter: Now is Not the End




Agent Carter! Drama! High adventure! Battle blimps! I am stoked!

So we obviously begin this series with one of S.H.I.E.L.D. founder and super secret karate agent Peggy Carter's most powerful moments: Steve Rogers' heroic sacrifice.

...




Okay, fine, I guess that was a big deal for her, that guy she'd known for like a month getting put on ice. Fridged, even, one might say.

Remind me, because I really, seriously don't remember from the first Cap movie: where is all this "love of her life" stuff coming from? Is that justified? I'm actually asking. That phrase keeps popping up in the official synopsis ("...in the wake of losing the love of her life, Steve Rogers...") and I can't remember if anything in the movie actually justifies it. I know Steve is hung up on her and projects a lot of stuff on her and loves her very much, but I never got the feeling from the movies that Peggy was quite on that level yet. She seemed to like Steve well enough, romantically even, but "love of her life?" I didn't see that.

Anyway...

Agent Carter! Drama! High adventure! Battle blimps! SPOILERS!

Let's watch this mother!



...

Okay, stop. Hang on. I love That Man as much as the next person, I really do. It's a toe-tappingly earwormy song. But maybe it's not the best song to put over your opening montage of your female super-agent-spy-asskicker show? Maybe? When the lyrics are all about how this woman goes weak and helpless when "that man" is around? With the political climate being what it is? Maybe not have the lyrics to That Man playing over that? That's a joke, right?

Right?

Come on! I am sitting here wanting to like you, show! Desperate to like you! Less than two minutes in and it's two strikes! Step the fuck up already! I want to love you like a mere mortal woman loves a superhero, wildly and coyly while suppressing bottomless hidden rage!

So Peggy and her roommate have a conversation that whooshes straight past Not Passing The Bechdel Test and crashes giggling into the brick wall of Are You Kidding Me With This?

Opening credits.

I think I need to watch the whole episode instead of liveblogging my facepalms. The show never made a secret about having sexism as a minor theme (and I really hope they meant minor theme) so maybe it's not fair to pick on all of that. Steve Rogers was important to her, That Man is an appropriate song if you don't listen to the lyrics even a little bit and women sometimes talk about boys. Fine.

FINE.

I'm still on board. I'll keep my side-eye contained and my mind open while I watch the Adventures of Agent Carter! Drama! High adventure! Battle blimps! YEAH!!!

Let's watch.

...

Okay.

I watched it.

Here's something I said in my Legally Blonde deconstruction on the topic of overt and (almost literally) balls-out sexual harassment and open, malicious sexism. I'm assuming quoting yourself is all kinds of gauche, but it fits perfectly, so why write the exact same thing twice?

On the one hand, this is something that happens to women in male-dominated fields every day and it is definitely, without a doubt, something that must be addressed out in the open where it can be rightfully condemned and combated. Let me be absolutely clear about this: I am categorically NOT condemning the movie for choosing to go this route. This happens, it happens every day, and it has. To. Stop. The end. No further discussion necessary.

On the other hand though [...] I like that portrayal of casual sexism too. One of my go-to phrases when explaining this problem is that sexism isn't a knife through the gut, it's death by a thousand cuts. It's the background radiation of our lives, a steady drumbeat of abuse that is only juuuust socially accepted enough to not qualify as criminal abuse. [...] But this is the portrayal of sexual abusers we know: evil, irredeemable, extreme and over-the-top. Again, I want to stress that men like this exist and what happened to Elle happens every day and is revolting. But the portrayal of the Sexist Man as evil can be very destructive, because it ignores and almost excuses the fact that many men who we perceive to be kind, thoughtful, intelligent and nice can also harbor sexist thoughts and opinions. It plays into the idea that many men have that since they are not evil, since they are in fact good people, it is not possible for them to harbor sexist, misogynist attitudes. The two are presented as mutually exclusive, and that's VERY problematic.

This portrayal of sexism being something Evil Men do openly and overtly and with much glee is problematic, and I really really wished this show would be better than that. If you're going to have sexism as a theme (and I still think that was the wrong decision given the genre and the political climate, but if you must) then this is a pretty lazy and hollow way to go. Women don't live in a world of Bad Sexist Men and Good Respectful Men. They live in a world of people where even the ones we like and love most might make us swallow and hurt with a casual remark or an unexamined attitude.

Being sexist doesn't require a hatred of women.

I'm not saying that having a female writer produces nothing but the finest results, obviously not, but it's a good start. Maybe they should have done that. If nothing else, even if the result is stinky poop, at least it would have done something to address the gross gender imbalance in behind-the-scenes roles for women in the industry. (In fairness, the third episode is written by a woman. We'll see how that works out.)

I kind of predicted that the sexism in this show would be both overt and only perpetuated by Very Bad Men or their close compatriot, the cardboard cutout misogynist stereotype. Sexism in this sort of fiction often comes in the form of punches to the gut. Broads is crazy! Skirts be useless! Do some filing, toots! Bum slap! This is not how it works. The punches to the gut do happen, but they are sharp low points, sudden jump scares in the dull noise of background sexism.

Howard Stark's sexism is brought up once (apparently his kid learned a few tricks from him, because he also has his sexual partners thrown out by the help like literal trash.) I don't think the show knows that it touched on the topic of sexism at all in that exchange, because Peggy smiles and apparently finds it charming.

All it does is reinforce the idea that sexism (or any -ism) is perpetuated by bad, evil people. Since you, the viewer, are a good person, and not evil, it is impossible for you to harbor a sexist thought. Dodged that bullet!

So there's that, and the fact that privileged people are always very comfortable with the atrocities of the past. "Oh boy," they think. "It sure was bad back then! Thank god that's over and done with."

This is why 12 Years A Slave (deservedly) wins all the awards and nobody's ever heard of Fruitvale Station.

Let me just say that the plot is fine. Absolutely fine. It's a very decent pseudo-noire spy adventure. The jokes are funny, the dialogue is often clever, the acting is good. And Enver Gjokaj is in it! No show that has Enver Gjokaj in it can get any less than three out of five stars, and that's a fact. But, you know, this is a feminist space, so lets get on with that.

A while ago we went to see Big Hero 6, and I liked it, and one of the comments I made while we were discussing it afterwards is how nice it is that in a team of six, there were two female members. I liked that because while they all fit a certain niche, having two female characters frees them, as characters, of the responsibility of batting for their entire gender. If you have two female characters (preferably more, but two out of six ain't bad if one of them is genderless) you can have the cute, exuberant, ditzy one and the tough, sarcastic tomboyish one. (And honestly I identified most with Wasabi, but let's save that for another time.) You get to show a spectrum, however limited, instead of making one girl responsible for representing all girls.

But Peggy Carter is the only competent woman in her universe, the only female character a modern, marginally emancipated 21st century woman can start relating to. She doesn't get to be a character, she only gets to be female character, and that's hobbling her severely. Because if you go the Overt Evil Sexism route, the only thing that can counter it is something equally bland and problematic: the Strong Independent Woman.

And no, killing off a minor character we've only met for one scene and having her cry for twenty seconds doesn't count. Following it up with a short monologue about how she feels before it's back to business as usual isn't either. Pining over Steve and struggling with his death, and being embarrassed about it, that is character development. It absolutely is. But it's not the kind we need right now. This show and the actress do a fine job of it, but then again so does everyone else.

It's not entirely this show's fault that it got all the feminist hype it did. But it is being made in the cultural climate that Marvel helped create and cemented: men are heroes, women are love interests. They shot themselves in the foot long before this show was even pitched. They built the field, dug a hole, then gave themselves the task of somehow crawling out of it. It's nice that they did that. But given how far they have to climb up to get to even ground, and how much distrust they've built up during the many, many years where the thought of "female superhero movie" wasn't even a thing anyone seemed to consider, they created their own problem: Peggy Carter can't be a character. I personally feel it would have been smarter to just leave out the sexism stuff, and here's why:

I personally see a great distinction between aspirational feminist fiction and naturalistic feminist fiction.

In my personal definition, aspirational fiction depicts the reality we wish were true, the reality we want to live in and strive to bring into the real world. It includes female power fantasies and wish fulfillment and the underlying idea of it is to create fiction that depicts the way the world should be. It often gets the label "empowering", another difficult and nebulous term that's hard to quantify but does work to conjure up certain images. Fictional women like Samantha Carter can be argued to be part of an aspirational school of feminist storytelling: her gender doesn't factor into proceedings much, if at all. We depict these women as being successful and respected in these roles and enjoy seeing them succeed at their task without constant pushback created by gender norms. They mostly live in a world we aspire to one day live in.

Naturalistic fiction (naturalism here being used in the literary sense) by contrast portrays the state of affairs as it is today, right now. It doesn't strive to present hopeful or empowering pictures of the reality we wish was true. Instead we get an examination of the status quo. Naturalistic feminist fiction will strive to depict the struggles of marginalized groups (women especially) as they stand, without bringing the main focus to what should be. Claireece "Precious" Jones is an example of a character who inhabits a piece of naturalistic feminist fiction. Rather than focus on what her life would be like in the world we all hope to inhabit someday, we see her struggle with the reality of the world we live in today.

I'm not saying either one is good or bad, both have inherent problems and both can be done well or not. I'm not getting into that here. I'm just saying they exist. And that Agent Carter tries to straddle the line in injecting a naturalist element into an aspirational universe.

But it's the forties!

But it's the Marvel cinematic universe.

Ableism doesn't seem to exist in this universe. Agent Daniel Sousa is shown to be disabled and have reduced mobility, but he's not shown to get any shit for it at all, he is respected by his boss and colleagues and is deployed in the field. Racism doesn't seem to be a thing so far either. It's really just sexism.

So I think they should have gone with the first option, like they do for all the other entries in the cinematic universe. The botched attempt at naturalism is extremely jarring in a setting as light and aspirational as the Marvel cinematic universe, and superhero fiction in general. Even in the wider, modern Marvel cinematic universe, -isms aren't really a thing. Falcon and War Machine's race, for example, is never brought up as A Thing. Like it or not, Marvel has shown that they're willing and able to do aspirational fiction. Just not for women, apparently.

An aspirational Agent Carter show would have just shown her being proficient as an agent, which is what the show wants to be about anyway. And it would have given her license to be a character instead of a female character. Her femaleness doesn't change the plot in any way, shape or form. (Apart from the scene where she goes all noire dame and seduces someone into furthering the plot over sexy sax, and knocks him out with sleepytime lipstick kisses, because did you think that wouldn't happen?) This could have been a show about a dude agent too as far as plot goes. But more importantly, it doesn't factor into her character either (so far.) Because she is Strong Independent Woman, and she doesn't get license to be weak or doubtful or angry or sad like her male movie counterparts. She is the only woman in the world, and she must be strong and steady and cool at all times. And like I said, two minutes of paint-by-numbers token death and exposition hardly make an emotional impact.

How did she even get her job? It's been a while since I saw The First Avenger, but I'm baffled as to why she even got hired. Every single superior and most of her colleagues are so rabidly, frothingly against her being there, you wonder how she even got in at all. In a setting this stupidly sexist, that doesn't just happen because she has an excellent war record. Plenty of men do too.

So anyway, here's the deal: sexism isn't countered by challenging the culture and admitting that all of us, male and female, grew up in a society that instilled racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic... attitudes in all of us. It's countered by jamming a fork in someone's ribs and threatening their life. That always works out well for marginalized people.

This is just one episode. I will gladly and immediately take it all back if the show goes on to turn all this on its head. Nothing would make me happier than to be wrong about all of this. But while I sort of appreciate Marvel finally giving some screentime to a female character, I'm not sympathetic. They blundered into their own tiger pit and are just scrambling to dig themselves out, and it shows. They were hobbled from the very start. They shot themselves in the foot. Here, let me do that gauche thing again:

I don't think we should set the bar this low. I don't think "having female characters who are active" is a thing we should settle for. Because it's just one measly step above "female characters sitting in the corner," and it's a step Thor 2 couldn't even manage.

I think we deserve better than just "active." I think we deserve to taste the motherfucking rainbow of female characters in all its shiny glory. I want a camera fixed on Wonder Woman so we can see into her wonderful mind. I want Miss Marvel to have a character arc that is as complex as these movies can manage, and they can manage quite a bit don't you know. I want a Catwoman movie that isn't utter asswipe.

What I don't want is for Black Widow to get the participation trophy and see that applauded. I don't want Pepper Potts to be the girlfriend. I don't want Jane to get the At Least She Knows Science accolades. I want a whole stinking lot better than that. Because I deserve better than that. Natalie Portman and Scarlet Johansson and Gwyneth Paltrow and Gal Gadot and Halle Berry deserve better than that. And so do you.


In a world that has Kamala Khan in it, Peggy Carter really seems like a relic. And it's not because it's the forties.


To Be Continued When I Get Around To 
Watching The Next Part!



Also, Jesus Christ, can we have one fucking Marvel plot that doesn't pretend we care deeply about the MacGuffin? Just the goddamn one? There are other storytelling devices, you know. Please and thank you.

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