Marvel’s Agent Carter had its season premiere Tuesday night with a double episode, and all sorts of things are new.
For one, the somber, immediate-post-WWII-New-York-values tones have been replaced by a lighter, sunnier, Californian color that suits the show’s inevitable slide into the fifties. For another, Agent Daniel Sousa’s childish crush on Peggy Carter seems to have deepened into a reciprocal — if ambiguous — relationship. (On this, more later.)
And thirdly, the tables that at the end of the first season turned towards respect and reward for Peggy and her underdog corps, seemed to have gone a bit too far in that direction. In fact, Peggy’s stunning competence seems — a year later — to be causing discomfort and resentment both in her new Chief, Jack Thompson, and in her potential love interest Sousa, who (mild spoilers from here on out) is now a Chief in his own right.
But the biggest change is a new love interest for Carter — which seems to indicate that a love triangle might be building — and the fact that this new love interest is also the show’s answer to last year’s fan agitation for greater racial diversity in the show.
Yes, the show’s producers have heard and responded, even if they didn’t quite get it. What I and other fans love about Agent Carter is its empowerment of all the women characters, especially during a historical era when an attempt was being made to shove women back into the kitchen. What I and (at least some of the) other fans wanted in racial diversity was primarily empowered women of color characters, to match the theme and tone of the rest of the show.
Instead, we’re getting Jason Wilkes, an African American native Californian and genius physicist, who meets and helps Peggy in L.A. with her latest case. While I’m thrilled that we’re seeing such an interesting character of color in the show, I’m disturbed by two things.
The first is the hint that Wilkes might become a dudesel in distress to offset Peggy’s increasing metaphorical muscularity. Just as a male character’s toughness does not need to be enhanced by the weakness of his female love interest, I don’t think anybody wants to see Peggy Carter’s stature increased by her proximity to incompetent men. With Wilkes (SPOILER!) now off in some science fictional purgatory awaiting rescue, Agent Carter is sitting on its first razor’s edge, about to fall off either into narrative complexity or easy solutions.
The second issue is a broader one. Wilkes seems to have Agent Carter falling in line with the newest token diversity trope of the action genre. Whereas action films used to isolate a single character of color in a field of whiteness as the hero’s sidekick, nowadays superhero tv shows seem to be isolating characters of color in all-white casts — as the hero’s love interest.
It’s a thing. While Arrow has the traditional sidekick in Diggle, The Flash jumps on the new bandwagon with Iris West (although, she’s not entirely isolated, since her father is also there. They have no black friends or community, tho’.) Supergirl has her Jimmy Olsen. Daredevil has his Claire. Jessica Jones has Luke Cage (although he’s getting his own show and his dead wife was also black, so maybe he won’t be as isolated in the future as he was in the whitey white white Jessica Jones.)
It’s such a thing, I want to give it a name. Superhero love interest of color? SLIOC? Or SHLIOC? (What do you think? Are the Nerds of Color ready to name a new trope?)
Needless to say, it’s no better — although certainly no worse — than the more traditional sidekick of color, since our current crop of tv superhero shows are giving the love interests plenty of skills and agency. But it leaves us back at square two: with a single character of color in an all-white field, completely disconnected from any family or community or context, and fighting racism — or not — without any of the support that real people of color have, and need to succeed in the real world. It’s a profoundly white vision of how people of color move through life, fostered by workplace tokenism and a lack of curiosity and imagination about the lives of Others.
It’s disappointing in more traditional storylines, but it’s doubly disappointing in female fore-fronting shows like Agent Carter and Jessica Jones, both otherwise good productions with awesome track records in female empowerment stories. In fact, it’s triply disappointing, when the show is truly groundbreaking and genuinely good on the gender front, as both Carter and Jones are, that it allows itself such utter laziness when it comes to race.
For some reason, I’m more disappointed in Agent Carter, however. There’s a deliberate claustrophobia to Jessica Jones, which makes the constraining of its world feel natural and right. Agent Carter, on the other hand, is deliberately expansive and worldly — beyond even what is justified by its budget — and, being set in the historical era that it is, has a rich history of new achievement on the part of all kinds of marginalized people to draw from.
By the way, I understand why a show attempting to break ground with gender norms would be particularly bad at breaking racial tropes: they don’t want their white female heroes to look bad. And comparing the marginalization of white women to the marginalization of women of color, in any era, will make any story… complex, to say the least. But fiction is something its makers can control, and no oppression olympics have to be played out. Why can’t Peggy be equal partners with a variety of female guest characters?
And more importantly, if heroes like Carter and Jones aren’t riding for all women, how can they truly be heroes? In fact, Carter has already failed at something Jones does well: defending women. Despite a single scene backing her waitress friend against an obnoxious customer, Agent Carter is not going up against the forces of sexism in her work at the SSR on behalf of anyone but herself, so her achievement ranks a little self-absorbed. Peggy Carter won’t ever be a great hero until she fights for women other than Peggy Carter, and does it on a regular basis.
But, to get back to the love triangle: not to be too hasty to condemn, this possible love triangle between Peggy, Sousa, and Wilkes has great potential on a lot of fronts, if they play their cards right. First, as I pointed out earlier, there’s an ambiguity to Peggy and Daniel’s relationship that hints that it might have gotten more overt at one point, and gotten shut down by one or the other of them. Those hints combined with Chief Thompson’s resentment could reveal that the trouble with Daniel is that, now that Peggy’s down from her pedestal with him, her great intelligence and skill make him feel lessened, and he’s having trouble feeling romantically towards a woman who threatens his masculinity. I would love to see the show explore this dynamic, one that is a signature of so many women’s experience.
Secondly, instead of isolating Wilkes in an all-white world (which would be terribly easy to do, especially in this era, where a person like Wilkes would be likely to be isolated in the workplace), the show could use Wilkes as an opening into his own community, his own world. There were some hints of this already in the first two episodes of this season, where Wilkes talked about his background, then took Peggy to a black nightclub. Too bad none of the African American extras popped into the foreground for even a moment during that scene. Wilkes remains the only black character on the show.
In fact, perhaps Wilkes could introduce the show, and us, to some amazing, kickass, female characters of color. Or maybe they wouldn’t even have to go through Wilkes to introduce some. Either way.
And finally, now that we have Wilkes and are setting up a love triangle, I’d really love to see the inevitable tension between Sousa and Wilkes have a racial component to it, on both sides.
It would be too easy to make the show’s “good” characters all the way, anachronistically good, in that they don’t have any real sexist or racist impulses. It would be easy, but it wouldn’t be very good.
And so far, Agent Carter’s a good show. So far. That could change at any moment.