Agent Carter Adds Superhero TV’s Newest Trope

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For one, the somber, immediate-post-WWII-New-York-values tones have been replaced by a lighter, sunnier, Californian color that suits the show’s inevitable slide into the fifties.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.

I’m a new character! And I’m white!

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.

TV’s newest trope casts a long shadow.
TV’s newest trope casts a long shadow.

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.

Look, sweetheart! We started a trend!
Look, sweetheart! We started a trend!

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?)

Love Interest Of Color: now with more agency!
I’m just gonna pretend that this is the chick rescuing the dude so the dynamics aren’t so creepy.

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.

We’re working on our relevance. And our chemistry.
We’re working on our relevance. And our chemistry.

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.

We get horizontal. For diversity!
We get horizontal. For diversity!

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.

I’m a new character! And I’m white!

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.

See those figures in the background? People of color. Yep. Diversity.
See those figures in the background? People of color. Yep. Diversity.

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.

At least the new bad guy is also white. … wait—

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.

40 thoughts on “Agent Carter Adds Superhero TV’s Newest Trope

  1. I didn’t see that PoC as love interest trope. Nice catch.
    I was hoping Carter could start moving past the token PoC trope, where Wilkes is completely isolated in all white environments, but I did enjoy his depiction. It remains to be seen if the creators will remember WoC exist, too. I suppose I first must be content with just getting any kind of representation on the show.

    Oh, and hello out there, it would be really nice to see some Latinos and well rounded Asians in more of these. Its okay to think outside the binary of black and white.

    For people who are supposed to be imaginative, the show creators show a distinct lack of imagination when it comes to creating characters.

    1. Excellent analysis of the new “POC as token love interest” trope.
      Trope name suggestion: SHLOC.

      SH for SuperHero or heroine. Could also stand for Star High school for
      teen series with magic, paranormal, alien, etc special powers.

      LOC = love interest Of Color. OC could also be Other Culture for religious, caste, customs, etc. Even if the love interest is “coded” as outsider (Spock standing in for biracial character).

      End result the POC is marginalized in some way, and the lead is more mainstream (default norm of white, hetero, etc.

      Pronounce the trope name like schlock (Yiddish for shoddy, not well made media.)


    2. That is one thing I noticed about Agent Carter that I didn’t care for: The ALL WHITE UNIVERSE. I mean Blacks and Asians and Hispanics were not INVISIBLE people back then, (WE EXISTED) —-even though they/we were treated as such. So now Agent Carter is trying to get hip on the diversity tip with this Wilkes character. I ask one thing: PLEASE DO NOT EMASCULATE THE BLACK MAN! Let him have some dignity.

      1. Well, he’s already been damseled, so Peggy can save him. One way to avoid that trope will be to have him save himself.

    3. The really interesting viewing is simply to birdwatch American media in general play out their racism as a study in intersectionality.

      Then we can be thoroughly entertained and fully appreciate their never ending fight against the portrayal of black men as sexually desirable. An alluring black woman is a given trope in modern mainstream entertainment media especially sci/fi.

      Another given is that she naturally finds her love interest in a man of another race.

      Any black man is, of course, a sideliner. Older, fat, defective, conveniently married off, or unsuited for some other perfectly innocent reason.

      Current entertainment media is directed by racial sexists who crave black women and fear black men.

      Oh well, I suppose it’s a step forward from all black men being crooks or pimps and all black women being maids or prostitutes.

      Still, I look forward to the time when TV allows black men and women to have relationships with one another aside from slapstick sitcoms. I would love to see black people as whole PEOPLE, not just props.

  2. Nice catch on the new trope. I wish I had noticed it like you did. I also appreciate your recommendations.

    I find the most interesting parts of Agent Carter to be her relationships and dynamics with other female characters. So I think that it would be wicked if they introduced more diverse female characters to play off of.

    I feel that part of why Peggy doesn’t seem to defend other women is in part because she interacts with other women mainly in isolated environments, except for Angie of course. I think that we would see more of her backing up other female characters if the interactions took place like the diner scene in season 1 and the bakery in the second episode of season 2 with Wilkes.

    I also question where the shows allegiance should lie? Is it in being correct to the time period or should it be more associated with modern time? Either way though the show has a lot of room to show more diversity particularly in relation with Peggy’s most important relationships, which are with other women.

    1. I totally agree with all of this except the part where you seem to suggest that a lack of diversity would be correct to the time period. A lack of diversity *in media depictions* would be correct to the time period, but if you look in actual history, people of color were everywhere at this time, doing everything. Even women of color. 🙂

  3. I did start noticing that new trope, its also in sleepy hollow (abbie & crane arent together but friends ), there is also teen wolf with the character derek falling for a us marshall (black woman) & scott & kira ( asian)

    1. I would argue that Sleepy Hollow didn’t follow the trope as Abby has family and others in her life that are also POC and the show has explored her family’s past as POC in the town. Part of the trope is that the LOC exists alone in their color.

      1. I tend to agree with Jackmerius regarding Ichabod and Abby because they always danced around the issue of their obvious chemistry yet latent attraction for each other. Now, that Katrina is gone, and Luke is gone and Betsy Ross is gone maybe these two will truly unite on a romantic level. But, it’s too bad they tinkered with the show’s synergy and in my view, they waited to long to capitalize on the Ichy/Abby chemistry and the show in on a downward trajectory.

        I never saw Abby as Ichabod’s LOC. Just potential.

    2. Since Scott is poc himself, it’s not exactly the same. This is one of the things I love(d — I stopped watching at the beginning of season four) about Teen Wolf: the hero’s poc-ness, and then his relationship with another poc.

  4. Good post, but I have one minor quibble. Flash seems to have a more diverse universe beyond the Wests. They have Cisco as a major character, plus Linda (though she was a SHLOC for a bit). I think the bad guys have been diverse, too.

    1. True, there’s definitely a bit more going on with The Flash, especially now that they’re exploring the West family’s issues. I’m hoping that Wally West will have a more diverse group of friends who will get names and lines in the show. We’ll see.

  5. I missed Agent Carter on Tuesday, so I am not qualified to comment but now I will be sure to catch the show in light of your article, but if they have this new Black male character playing Dudesel in Distress to Peggy Carter like they did Finn in Star Wars, I’m dropping the show!

    1. Well, the jury is still out on the dudesel in distress role for Wilkes. He *did* get his ass kicked by a white woman, which bodes ill. But he also has Science Skillz, so he might end up sciencing himself out of trouble. And I disagree about Finn being a Dudesel. Finn doesn’t fit squarely into any given trope, but he definitely was equal partners with both Poe and Rey in the various escapes and rescues they were all involved in. No, he wasn’t the outright hero, but Star Wars has roles for many non-protags to behave heroically (Han, Leia, Lando, Qui-gon, Amidala, Obi-Wan, etc.) and he was definitely one of those. He initiated the rescue/escape with Poe from the new Death Star, and then initiated the rescue/escape with Rey from Jakku. That he needed their help makes no difference: they needed his help, too.

      1. I had this same discussion with a friend of mine who really does think Finn spent far too much time fulfilling the sterotype of the “black coward”. I disagreed and tried to explain the concept of the Everyman, character that the viewer is meant to closely identify with, but she wasn’t having it.

        I stand by my words though. I don’t think Finn was a stereotype or that he was any more dudeselled than Rey was damselled, and it’s only my personal prejudices that wish Finn got to be a badass and save everybody, all the time, and wished the movie was all about him. But that’s just my inner fan girl talking.

      2. I can see both sides. Finn is giving a very practical argument against getting involved in a war he never volunteered to join in the first place. And Lando was very practical about saving his own people instead of trying in vain to save Han. But I don’t like that the “practical” people in both trilogies (so far) are the black men.

        But as far as Finn being dudeselled goes, I really don’t see it.

  6. I saw Star Wars: the Force Awakens and in my view, Finn (while completely likable) was dudselled to the core. Interesting that you mention Rey and Poe, who in comparison to Finn, were portrayed in a more heroic light.

    True, neither of those two wings of your newfangled Star Wars Trinity were ex-stormtroopers, but that makes my point. Finn, with his background would have seemingly been savvier in the combat arena. Instead, he was depicted as a bit bumbling. IDK, how this always hunts back to FN-2187. LOL. Maybe he’s the new metric for being DUDESELLED in 2016?

    Back to Wilkes. Ouch he got his rear kicked by a white chick? Well, Peggy Carter has kicked white male butt, too but somehow it just ain’t the same when a viewer sees the first Black guy come on seen and he’s a physical wussy. Love that he has the smarts but why can’t he be both kick@ss on the science beat and in the streets?

  7. P.S.
    What happened to Wilkes courtesy of the white chick is up for interpretation. Some could argue that Wilkes was operating at a disadvantage, not because he was “DUDSELLED” per se, but because he was trying to save the world from an WMD, which he was holding in his hands, so Wilkes would have had to have been a human octopus to fight her off or as fast as The Flash to drop kick her.

  8. I don’t watch the Marvel shows, but I disagree on the DC ones. One thing Berlanti does well is diversity. Diggle has had scenes with his brother and his sister-in-law, both POC. He also has a biracial daughter. His wife’s former boss was another POC.

    Supergirl stars two Black men and even though they have not interacted yet, I’m not holding that against the producers. Jame’s love interest is part Lebanese. The show hasn’t been on a season, so we don’t know what is coming.

    Linda Park was Barry’s love interest, but she is also developing a friendship with Iris and will eventually be her sister-in-law. Iris is getting a boss that is African-American and as others have mentioned her father, mother, and brother have been on the show as have numerous hero and villain POC.

  9. What I find so interesting about this burgeoning romance between Dr. Jason Wilkes and Agent Peggy Carter is the fact that U.S. anti-miscegenation laws were the rule of law back in 1947—so this flirtation between them really smacks of “the forbidden fruit,” because it was downright ILLEGAL back then.

    Peggy and Jason could only “date” on the down low, (even in California) and they could never marry until after October 1, 1948, when the state of California Supreme Court decided Perez v. Sharp, also known as Perez v. Lippold and Perez v. Moroney, in which the high court held by a 4-3 majority that the state’s ban on interracial marriage violated the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

    If Peggy and Jason ever wished to marry outside of California, they’d have to wait all the way until June 12, 1967, when the landmark civil rights case Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1, reversed *Pace v. Alabama, made it possible for blacks and whites to legally marry across the land, citing a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

    Note:* Plaintiff, Tony Pace, an African-American man, and Mary Cox, a white woman, were residents of the state of Alabama, who had been arrested in 1881 because their sexual relationship violated the state’s anti-miscegenation statute. They were charged with living together “in a state of adultery or fornication” and both sentenced to two years imprisonment in the state penitentiary in 1882. Because “miscegenation,” that is marriage, cohabitation and sexual relations between whites and “negroes,” was prohibited by Alabama’s anti-miscegenation statute (Ala. code 4189), it would have been illegal for the couple to marry in Alabama. Interracial marital sex was deemed a felony, whereas extramarital sex (“adultery or fornication”) was only a misdemeanor. Because of the criminalization of interracial relationships, they were penalized more severely for their extramarital relationship than a white or a black couple would have been.

      1. Great Map, Claire Light…..I hail from Michigan and as one can see interracial marriage/cohabitating//fornication went greenlight way, way back in 1884. States’ Rights!
        Detroit, and other parts of Michigan were Underground Railroad stops.

  10. The author realized that The Flash has more than one black character and brought up the show anyway. Why? Joe is arguably a bigger role than Iris and now they’ve added Wally. And there is a Latino main character and an Asian recurring character. The Flash doesn’t fit.

    Daredevil had two non-white main characters although one ended up dying. It doesn’t fit the criteria either.

    Jessica Jones had more than Luke Cage. Did the author forget Malcolm, the black neighbor of Jessica’s who played a vital role in the first season? This show shouldn’t be included either. So that leaves about two to three to complain about. Not a big deal.

    1. Darn it. Forget about Hank/Martian Manhunter on Supergirl. He takes the form of a black man and thus is played by a black actor. So take this show off the list as well.

      1. Supergirl is so bland. So, you’re saying if a show has more than one Black or Latino or Asian character it somehow doesn’t fit the formula? Beg to differ. Seeing diversity is still the exception not the rule in TV land and Hollywood cinema.

    2. I think the Flash still fits due to the trend of these types of characters having a PoC love interest regardless of the rest of the cast demographics. [UPDATE: I heard that the Flash is now with a white chick as a love interest— so maybe it doesn’t fit for that reason alone. (I stopped watching The Flash after two episodes.)]

      I noticed this trend/trope (whatever you want to call it) on the now cancelled Under the Dome series when Barbie threw over white Julia for the Black woman. The rest of the cast featured a sprinkling of Asians and Blacks and one significantly overweight white female, so there was some diversity but all of those cast members eventually got killed off. Still, the diverse castmembers usually “redshirts,” anyway.

    3. You’re missing the point, which is that the characters of color aren’t embedded in communities of color, the way people of color are IRL. In these shows, even if there is more than one of them, POC are isolated in predominantly or exclusively white communities. The Wests have very little to do with Cisco on Flash. On Daredevil Claire never meets Ben; they aren’t part of the same circle or community. I don’t remember if Luke Cage ever met Malcolm on Jessica Jones but they did not socialize or hang out. So no, having more than one POC character does not exempt a show. The white characters are very naturally surrounded by communities of their own ethnicities, but the poc characters aren’t. Get it now?

      1. There is nothing to “get.” Typically Blacks and other PoCs are treated as tokens and mascot. Next………….

    1. Sigh. What does having ONE other series regular of color have to do with anything? The point is that the character of color must be embedded in a community of color, not just a speck floating in a sea of whiteness. Flash does better than others, by showing both the West family as a whole and Cisco’s family (once, in one episode.) But we’re not really seeing them as being embedded in communities of color. Cisco hangs out exclusively with the Star Labs crew, and doesn’t seem to have any non-work friends. Iris only hangs out with Barry and her dad and previously Eddie Thawne — not even with her mostly white co-workers. *This* is what I’m talking about, not about the overall incidence of poc in the show.

    1. You think Wilkes is a reason for the ratings slide because …?

      1. I also think that period TV shows are just not that popular eg.g. Mob City, Public Morals, etc.

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