What I didn't expect was unremitting feminist propaganda, very self-consciously built into the show at every level, from the premise up: Stuck holding down a desk job at the SSR after her hour of glory in World War II, Agent Carter follows the adventures of Peggy Carter as she attempts to save the world...right under the noses of her misogynistic boss, her chauvinistic co-workers, and a world rampant with casual sexism!
Now I may not be a feminist, but I don't live under a stone. I live in the same world you do, and that means I'm constantly brushing up against feminist ideology. From The Empire Strikes Back to Edge of Tomorrow, for example, the movies I like usually include it to some degree. I'm used to it. I expect it. I make allowances for it.
But Agent Carter was something else: a show that was fundamentally about nothing but feminism versus sexism, and how evil the latter is, and how all-pervasive it supposedly was in the 40s. With little or no character arc for its leading lady, a plot with the substance of Kleenex, and episodes that consisted of little more than a tiresome series of men being either evil or irresponsible buffoons, Agent Carter demonized the world of the past to such an absurd degree that it rendered itself incapable of even making an intelligent case for feminism. If you reduce your opponents to straw men, then you will not be able to defend your own position very well, hmm?
Small examples abound in the series. Men constantly patronise leading lady Peggy Carter by calling her "darling", assuming that she gained her rank during the War by sleeping with officers, or telling her that "you're so much better at that sort of thing [filing papers, a stereotypical secretarial job] than I am." Peggy successfully manipulates her boss into giving her a sick day by delicately hinting she's on her period, the mere mention of which causes widespread alarm and disgust in the office. And in the radio show based on the in-universe adventures of Captain America, "Nurse Carver", the Peggy Carter character, having been demoted from strong and tough special agent to stereotypically feminine nurse, spends the whole time screaming for Captain America while being menaced by Nazis.
And then there are the bigger things. I'll take one that irritated me most. One of Peggy's coworkers, the attractive and sensitive Daniel Sousa, permanently on crutches after a war wound, is actually nice to her. Literally: the only guy in the office who doesn't see her as less than the carpet beneath his oxfords. Sousa constantly shows her friendship and takes her seriously as an agent. Could it be? Are the producers actually permitting a male character to exist who isn't a sexist jerk?
Eventually, (first-season spoilers!) the SSR come to suspect that Peggy has turned her coat and has betrayed them. They lock her in a small room and interrogate her aggressively--and it's Daniel Sousa who leads the interrogation. The reason? Sexism: his previous regard for her wasn't a real respect for her as a person, but idolisation based on a maddona-whore complex. Soon convinced that she must be a traitor and is sleeping with the enemy, Sousa viciously attacks her instead, earning himself a scorching pscyhoanalytical tirade from the self-righteous Peggy. "To you I’m [...] the girl on the pedestal, transformed into some daft whore."
ME (trying to be helpful): You know, this has been done before. Shakespeare already made this point back in the 1500s, in Much Ado About Nothing. And A Winter's Tale. And Othello. And then there was the Tale of Gereint and Enid in The Mabinogion from the 1300s. And then--
AGENT CARTER PRODUCER #1: Did someone hear something? Something about white male Christian authors writing plays and books on this problem of idealism and unrealistic expectations for the last seven hundred years?
AGENT CARTER PRODUCER #2: It can't be true! We know that feminism and respect for women was born fully-fledged for the very first time in 1996! We know that in the 1940s all you were allowed to do was answer phones; certainly we have no examples of women back then doing skilled craftsmanship or important academic work, being elected to Parliament, or leading thousands of Resistance troops!
AGENT CARTER PRODUCER #1: Oh, well then. I guess it must just have been a loud wind.
|Seriously! We've talking about this for years.|
Wait, maybe I'd better explain something.
I'm not a feminist.
No, I actually mean that.
There are many reasons why this is so, but here's the main one: Scripture teaches that the relationship between man and wife is a picture of Christ and the Church. Christ is the Head of the Church. And as the Church submits to Christ, so a woman should submit to her own husband.
Because every married relationship is a picture of Christ, and because feminism tells us that men and women are functionally equal even within marriage, so that the Bride should not consider herself obliged to submit to the Head, I believe that therefore, feminism is at root and by definition dedicated to telling a lie about Christ and the Church. It symbolically raises humanity to equality with God.
Another reason I'm not a feminist is the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. Within the Trinity, all the members are equal in a sense: all of them are equally God, equal in glory and blessedness. This is the ontological equality of the Trinity. But at the same time, the members of the Trinity are not functionally, or economically equal (to use the technical term). Scripture teaches this when it tells us that Christ did not see equality with God as something to be grasped, but humbled himself to death, even to death on the Cross. In the same way, a human man and wife, or a human father and child, or a human elder and parishioner, or a human magistrate and subject, or a human employer and employee, are all ontologically equal (holding equal status and worth as human beings), but are economically or functionally inequal.
(Requisite disclaimer: Of course, none of this means women have less worth than a man, or must submit to a misbehaving or abusive head. The Trinitarian argument affirms the ontological equality of women, and the spousal argument affirms a woman's binding authority over her children, since she represents the authoritative Body of Christ. Finally, the doctrine of the Fall of Man teaches us that no earthly authority is perfect, and the doctrine of interposition tells us that lesser authorities have the right and duty to resist tyrannical greater authorities.)
If Agent Carter had wanted to make a real defence of feminism, it should have forgotten about the strawmen and tried engaging with a real argument. Or the least it could have done was try to reflect historical reality, as did a biography I just finished reading aloud with my sisters.
Nancy Wake by Russell Braddon
Nancy Wake was a feminist.
She was also a WWII special agent.
She was definitely a gorgeous, feminine woman.
She faced baddies and sexism and defeated both with gunfire, judo, and jawdropping charm, smarts, and luck.
And the best part?
She was real.
When Nancy Wake died in 2011, the most-decorated servicewoman of WWII (with three Croix de Guerres, a Resistance Medal, a George Medal, an Order of Australia, and a Medal of Freedom), it was amazing to see her all over the news around the world. Her story has been told many times, but my favourite so far is the biography by Russell Braddon. When we were invited to an Australia Day fancy dress party recently, I suggested one of my sisters should dress up in 1940s attire to honour her. Then, because neither of my sisters knew who I was talking about, I sat them down and we read Braddon's biography aloud together.
Nancy Wake grew up in Australia, but soon set off travelling the globe as a reporter. In Paris, her path crossed with the wealthy Marseilles industrialist Henri Fiocca. After a whirlwind romance, they married, and in 1939 Nancy found herself living in the lap of luxury with an adored husband, two spoiled dogs, and limitless supplies of champagne and caviare in Marseilles.
It lasted a few short months before the Nazis invaded. France capitulated after a few months and after a brief stint driving an ambulance on the frontlines while her husband fought in the ranks, Nancy returned to Marseilles to get used to life under the collaborationist Vichy government. Before long, she began to help interned Allied officers to escape across the Pyrenees to France...work which involved her more and more deeply in the French Resistance. Her husband, still running his business, financed her to the tune of millions. The Gestapo called her the White Mouse and put her at the top of their "Most Wanted" list with five million francs on her head.
Finally Marseilles became too hot to handle her, and Nancy was forced to flee across the Pyrenees to England, while the Gestapo captured her husband. There she spent some months training for the Special Operations Executive, and parachuted back into France a few months before D-Day. She wore high heels on the drop. Working in the Auvergne, she was soon the commanding officer of over 7,000 Resistance fighters. After leading them through several pitched battles and too many skirmishes to count, and killing enormous quantities of Nazis (one with her bare hands), she wrapped up her wartime career by liberating Vichy itself.
Braddon's book was written in 1956, just a decade after the setting of Agent Carter, but it tells the story with unabashed, pro-feminist glee throughout. Nancy Wake outwitted would-be seducers and killers. She manipulated a Gestapo officer's sense of chivalry to get him to carry her suitcase for her--then at the psychological moment, hinted that it was full of black-market pork, so that he was obliged to get it safely through customs for her rather than risk being caught carrying it. In training to become an SOE agent, she refused to get out of bed at 5am for physical training, simply claiming to be ill--and got away with it.
One thing that impressed me about Nancy Wake's feminism was that this was a feminism that rolled up its sleeves and did the work, accepting the consequences, rather than throwing a tantrum and insisting the world remake itself to suit her. I was fascinated to note what Wake had to forego in order to do all the amazing things she did. Leading 7,000 Resistance fighters was no cakewalk. Once she cycled 200 kilometers inside 3 days and returned to her men a physical wreck. She learned to walk with a constant slouch to try to disguise her curvaceous figure. She learned the filthiest language of the Marseilles fish-markets, and employed it plenteously to keep her men in line. When peace finally came, she wore a hat and a dress for the first time in months to meet some of her colleagues for drinks at a hotel. At first, they failed to recognise her. In many ways, she bought her power and influence at the cost of her identity.
Interestingly, her men still never forgot she was a woman. Her bodyguard of Spanish refugees from Franco's regime were aggressively protective and gallant, whether blasting her way through a Gestapo checkpoint or stopping at a restaurant to order her a meal. On such occasions, they would sweep the whole building, interrogate the owner, and then stand around her bristling with guns and belligerent chivalry while she ate.
I suppose they all had madonna-whore complexes.
Although Wake told Braddon not to make the story too gritty--"My war was full of laughter," she insisted--there's plenty of darkness peeping around the edges: death, torture, and rapes perpetrated by both sides. There's language, there are off-colour songs, and if you dig into other biographies, it isn't much of a surprise to learn that one close associate and friend of Wake's was flamboyantly homosexual and that Wake herself, after a turbulent upbringing with an emotionally distant and very religious mother, ran away from home and abandoned her faith. So this is not a clean, tidy, homeschool-girl kind of story.
| "I don't see why we women should just wave our men a proud goodbye and then knit them balaclavas."|
And it's a story that licks Agent Carter hollow. If you haven't already, I highly recommend reading Russell Braddon's biography of Nancy Wake.
Find Nancy Wake at Amazon or The Book Depository.
Here is a shorter and more colourful biography of her life. Warning: language.