Strong Female Characters

Strong Female Characters: Peggy Carter

For those of you that don’t know, Agent Peggy Carter is another character from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Originally introduced as Captain America’s love interest in, well, Captain America, the character proved so popular that Marvel went on to develop her own TV series (and prove that original titles are not their strong point) called Agent Carter. The plot of both the film and the TV show is largely the same: special agent Peggy Carter must stop those dastardly Nazis/Communists from unleashing whatever superpower-related horrors they’ve cooked up, only in the movie she gets a musclebound Chris Evans to help her out. The film was a smash hit, and the TV show has received high praise from the critics – most of it surrounding its portrayal of a woman trying to carve out a career in a highly male-dominated industry in post-WW2 America. Peggy herself is one of Marvel’s many ‘Strong Female Characters’, and is frequently held up as a paragon of Marvel’s feminist credentials.

But does she measure up to the hype? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!

NOTE: Just so we’re clear, I’ll be focussing on the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s interpretation of the character. I know that her character is a lot more detailed in the comics, but as much as I’d like to read them I simply don’t have time.

 

  1. Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?

When talking about Peggy Carter, it’s very easy to draw comparisons with one of Marvel’s most recognisable female characters: Black Widow. In this respect, they’re very similar: both are special government agents who signed up for highly secretive, highly dangerous work. Both are clearly accustomed to having their lives revolve around the missions that they are sent on, and ultimately both of them take their orders from someone else.

The real difference between the two of them is the way that their gender (and their respective time periods) affects their work. Black Widow doesn’t always have an easy time at S.H.I.E.L.D., but her competency as an agent – and her loyalty to the organisation – are never seriously questioned. Peggy’s, on the other hand, is. In both the film and the TV series her superiors doubt that she is capable of doing her job because of her gender, and assume that her loyalties can be easily swayed if somebody gets her to fall in love with them. As a consequence of this she has to work twice as hard to prove her competence and – particularly in the TV show – has to go behind her bosses’ backs if she wants to conduct an investigation on her own. Peggy’s reaction to the sexism she has to deal with makes her a much more proactive character, so she passes this round.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

  1. Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?

We don’t really get to see a lot of Peggy’s hobbies. As with Black Widow, her life as a special agent seems to consume a lot of her time, and she’s always portrayed as a very career-focused person. Her goals and beliefs are another story, and are really fleshed out in Agent Carter. Much more time is spent establishing the fact that Peggy desperately wants to be treated as a competent agent, assigned her own cases and to have her opinions heard and respected by the other members of her team. This is what drives her through the plot – and it also factors into her beliefs. We can infer simply from her choice of career that Peggy believes in democracy, freedom etc., but one of the things she really believes in is herself, as summarised in the most inspirational gif ever:

YOU'RE GODDAMN RIGHT SHE DOES. There's something in my eye. (image: giphy.com)
YOU’RE GODDAMN RIGHT SHE DOES. There’s something in my eye. (image: giphy.com)

You could bounce rocks off Peggy’s self-confidence. She knows that she is bloody good at what she does – regardless of what anyone else may think, say or do – so much so that she doesn’t need other people to tell her she did a good job. She firmly believes that what she’s doing is right, and that’s a compelling trait in any character.

SCORE SO FAR: 2

 

  1. Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?

For the most part, Peggy is a reasonably consistent character. She’s intelligent, resourceful, determined to prove herself, keeps calm in a crisis and knows how to take care of herself. It’s also established that she’s a highly skilled agent: she knows her way around a number of different weapons and is fully capable of bludgeoning grown men into a pulp if they cross her. The only time her character really falters is in this scene from Captain America:

 

For background: Peggy and Steve aren’t actually involved at this point, and when she sees him kissing another woman she completely loses it. When she fired that gun at him she had no idea what would happen: she had no way of knowing if the shield could stop the bullets, or if the bullets would ricochet off and hurt someone else, or if everything would all turn out fine. In short, she risked the lives of everyone in that lab – which included irreplacably intelligent scientists as well as her superpowered boyfriend – just to prove a point. This is played for laughs, but it goes against everything we know about her character and is actually a terrible call for a woman who’s trying to prove that her womanly emotions don’t affect her capacity to do her job. I’ll give her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 2.5

 

  1. Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?

A highly trained special agent, both determined and resourceful, must use everything she has in order to for her skills to be acknowledged.

SCORE SO FAR: 3.5

 

  1. Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?

Most of the time Peggy is pretty focused on her missions, whether that’s chasing down Nazis in Captain America or chasing down Communists in her TV show. In Captain America, she’s very firmly in the role of love interest, so it does affect her decisions (particularly in the scene that shall not be named). In Agent Carter, it gets a lot more interesting.

In the TV show it’s very well-established that Peggy has absolutely no interest in pursuing a relationship with anybody after losing Steve. She’s still grieving – as are most of the people who knew him – and as a result, throws herself into her work. There’s a lot of pressure on her to settle down and start a family, particularly with the return of so many GIs from Europe (who then kicked all the women out of their jobs, FYI). She certainly isn’t short of offers, but she turns them all down because she just doesn’t feel ready for another relationship. At the same time, when she discovers that Howard Stark effectively tricked her into stealing the last sample of Steve’s blood – which would allow him to recreate the supersoldier formula – she completely freaks out, cuts off all contact with him and refuses to hand over the sample. Her love life is still affecting her decisions and emotions at the same time as she is trying to resist it.

I should employ Tom Hiddleston to express all my feelings. (image: giphy.com)
I should employ Tom Hiddleston to express all my feelings. (image: giphy.com)

Unlike many other characters I’ve looked at on this blog, it isn’t a current love interest that affects Peggy’s decisions. She’s still grieving for Steve after their brief romance, and it’s hinted in her cameo in The Winter Soldier that she still held a torch for him even though she does eventually move on. However, her grief is realistic, it has a minimal effect on the rest of her decisions, and it’s handled with a level of sensitivity and tact that you don’t always see in media with so many explosions. I’ll give her half a point – mainly because of that scene in Captain America – but the way her love life is handled in Agent Carter definitely redeems her.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

  1. Does she develop over the course of the story?

We don’t see Peggy develop at all in Captain America – she’s pretty much only there to blow stuff up. Once again, in Agent Carter it’s a different story. Over the course of the first series we see her gradually come to terms with her grief for Steve and eventually start to move on. We also see some non-romantic development too. When her roommate is killed, Peggy initially decides to resist forming friendships in case they are targeted by her enemies. She soon comes to realise that she can’t cut herself off from emotional support, and starts opening up to her friends a little more. That’s some solid development in more than one area of her life, so I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Peggy doesn’t really have much of a weakness at all. The things that hold her back are either completely understandable – such as her grief after listening to her boyfriend sacrifice himself – or entirely external, such as the sexism of her colleagues. Of course, she makes mistakes, but these are often treated very favourably by the script and aren’t always the result of her own flaws. Her shooting at Steve’s shield is played for laughs and used to illustrate how ‘feisty’ she is. When she’s fooled by the Russian double agent, she’s the first one on her team to realise what’s happened and must convince them all of the truth. She just doesn’t have a serious character flaw that she has to work against, so I simply can’t give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

  1. Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?

In Captain America, Peggy doesn’t get much of an opportunity to influence the plot. As with Black Widow, she’s kicking ass and taking names, but she does so on somebody else’s orders and (usually) as part of a much larger task force. She has her moments – like when she helps Steve sneak into enemy territory – but much of the film’s focus is on Captain Beefcake.

Not that I object to that... (image: justjared.com)
Not that I object to that… (image: justjared.com)

In Agent Carter, Peggy is the plot. The show focuses entirely on her efforts to uncover a secret Communist plot (as well as to prove herself to her colleagues and to move on from Steve). She drives the plot forward at every turn, whether she’s working out her next move or punching out a bad guy. She does get manipulated more than once – both by the Communist agents and by Howard Stark, who has not been entirely truthful with her – but this doesn’t detract from her agency as a character. I’ll be generous and give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 6

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

How Peggy relates to gender stereotypes really depends on what piece of media you’re looking at. As I think I’ve already established, her character gets a lot more time and attention from the screenwriters in Agent Carter than it does in Captain America. Regardless, there are a few universal similarities in the way they treat her character.

In terms of personality, Peggy pretty much disregards all established gender stereotypes about women. She’s brave, she’s resourceful, she’s intelligent, she’s capable of grinding grown men into paste, she isn’t fussy, she knows her way around weapons – I could go on. The point is that none of these traits are things you would ordinarily associate with women, and she possesses them all without sacrificing her femininity. Often she actively uses this against her many sexist opponents – much like Black Widow, she lets them underestimate her and strikes when their guard is down.

DO IT FOR FEMINISM (image: tumblr.com)
DO IT FOR FEMINISM (image: tumblr.com)

Unfortunately, the way that her femininity is portrayed can be kind of problematic. What makes Peggy feminine are her looks and her emotions. She’s always well-dressed and well-groomed, with immaculate red lipstick and nails, even though we have absolutely no indication that she actually enjoys this kind of stuff. She loses control both when her relationship with Steve goes badly, and when someone brings it up in the TV show. She’s also relegated to a support role more than once, where she has to persuade a male character to act on her behalf: both Captain America and Agent Carter end with Peggy sobbing into a radio, trying to convince a man not to crash-land his plane. This means that even though she’s not doing improbably sexy gymnastics in every fight scene like Black Widow, despite all her skills as an agent she’s often treated as a potential love interest more than a character. This criticism applies much more to Captain America than it does to Agent Carter, but it’s certainly present in the TV show – albeit more in the way that other characters treat her.

Much like Buffy, Peggy comes up against a lot of characters that I like to call ‘straw sexists’. Essentially, these are characters that are written into the story to spout a bunch of sexist nonsense so we can all watch Peggy proving them wrong. They exist just so she can knock them down, and it’s extremely entertaining to watch her do it. However, this isn’t only something that can be said about her smacking people in the face with heavy objects – it also applies to much of her character, too.

Peggy exists to knock down gender stereotypes. She’s a brave, capable, resourceful woman carving out a path for herself in a man’s world, but she has no flaws and has no real development outside of the main plotline. She’s held up as a paragon of almost every virtue – she kicks butt, but she has feelings too, but they don’t affect her too much and by the way, did I mention she’s also really pretty? – and this in itself is problematic. The writers have put her on a pedestal as the perfect woman, and even though this particular pedestal involves smacking dudes over the head with blunt objects, it’s still nothing new in the way that women are treated in fiction.

SCORE SO FAR: 6.5

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

For a character that spends a substantial amount of her screen time with men, Peggy does have a lot of relationships with other female characters – most of which are from Agent Carter. She’s friends with her roommate, Colleen, but must hide her real job from her and eventually kinda-sorta gets her killed. She initially pushes away the waitress, Angie, as a result of this – but then becomes friends with her. She has to pretend to be a respectable young woman for her landlady, Miriam, while simultaneously despising her and keeping the true nature of her work a secret. And of course, she’s completely fooled by – and must defeat – the Soviet double agent, who poses as a harmless girl. These are a wide range of relationships with a wide range of different characters, so she passes this round.

FINAL SCORE: 7.5/10

 

Agent Carter is a brave, resourceful agent who is an active player in her own story and develops over the course of the narrative, but she still hasn’t passed my test. Ultimately, what really let her down – aside from the rather half-hearted way the script treats her character in Captain America – is the fact that the writers so clearly built her up to be a stereotype-smashing character. In denying her a real weakness, they’re stopping her from becoming a properly fleshed-out character.

For me, this really exemplifies the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s problems with writing women. I’m sure the writers have only the best of intentions, but it seems like when they write their female characters they aren’t trying to make them anything other than ‘strong’. In writing these perfect women – who have no flaws, can handle anything that’s thrown at them and can keep up with the endless parade of superheroes we see every summer – they aren’t actually developing their characters properly. They aren’t even writing real women, for that matter.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is often praised for its characterisation – most of which is actually from the original comics, and doesn’t always make it into the films. Marvel’s many male characters can be anything they like: Tony Stark is arrogant, Captain America is self-sacrificing, Bruce Banner is a broiling mess of rage and guilt. But Marvel’s female characters are all cast in the same mould. They’re rarely cocky, or standoffish, or exuberant: ‘strong’ is all they will ever be. All that praise doesn’t really apply to the female characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In trying to prove that they can write women, the writers are showing us that they can only write one type of woman – and she’s so perfect that she’s not so different from many of the Disney Princesses.

Next week, I’ll be looking at The Lego Movie. Wyldstyle, I’m coming for you.

 

 

And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.