Friday, February 5, 2016

Agent Carter, Nancy Wake, and Why I'm Not a Feminist

When I sat down to watch Marvel's Agent Carter series several months ago, I was looking forward to some light cheesy fun. Like everyone else, I'd been sucked in by the premise: ladylike, yet sassy British spy fights crime in the aftermath of WWII, while wearing an endless array of gorgeous '40s fashion--what's not to like?

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 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."
But then, nor is it a feminist fantasy that delights in bashing misogynistic strawmen. What it is, is a true story, a tale of incredible daring, excitement, and humour, about the 1940s as they really were.

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.


Hanna said...

I had never heard of Nancy Wake before today, but she sounds fascinating. Thanks for the review!

Unknown said...

I'm so glad someone is saying this! I stopped watching Agent Carter for the same reasons you listed. The show was filled with such ham-fisted feminist pandering that I, as a woman in my 20s, felt insulted at being the intended audience. It was like a caricature of the 1940s by someone trying to create an artificially inflated sense of progress. I can't help thinking what a shame it is that the show turned out like it did. Even if they kept sexism as a theme in the show, just making the sexism she experiences more realistic for the time period would have offered more opportunities for character development and depth. It had a chance to be such a great show!

Suzannah said...

Hanna, she was fascinating :)

Allison, I agree! As noted, I'm very much not a feminist, but I failed to see how such overinflated propaganda could possibly do the cause of feminism any favours. I was sad, because I wanted to like it.

Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

I guess I should have known Agent Carter sounded too good to be true. I've heard a lot of people raving about it, and even saying it wasn't really as feminist as all that because Peggy was a feminine character. Now I've got to wonder, does that just mean everyone accepts as historical truth the way sexism is portrayed in the show? Good grief, movies made in the 1940s treated female characters with more respect than you've described here.

Grrr. There's nothing that irritates me more than historians, particularly, trying to tease out feminism from between the lines of their subject. Last year I read We Band of Angels, a book about the military nurses captured by the Japanese at the fall of the Philippines in WWII (a fascinating, though heartbreaking story of real, courageous women) but was frequently irked by the author's attempts to interpret everything through a feminist lens—for instance, trying to explain the efforts of male officers to preserve the nurses from capture as merely an attempt to stoke their own egos, rather than (heaven forbid) an honest desire to protect them from harm!

I guess what's particularly irking is the double standard—e.g., while non-feminists can still be entertained by and even admire the exploits of someone like Nancy Wake in performing an unusual job, feminists have little or no respect for women who don't choose some sort of non-traditional career path.

Suzannah said...

Elisabeth, I was sad as well--Agent Carter could have been much better. No, it really is that feminist; even though the hair and costumes are pretty. The best I can say for it is that some of the male characters do have slight character arcs and wind up being less horrible people; but they do so by becoming more feminist. So... :/

St. Reeves said...

I knew there was a reason I stayed away. I loathe self-described feminists as they continually dismiss the actual contributions of women throughout history in favor of progressivist revisionism. Worse, if you pull out actual historical examples, they invariably reply that such women were "the exception," and every other woman on the face of the earth was some sort of desaturated automaton cringing under the twin tyrannies of father and husband.

Clearly, all women were infantilized broodmares until we sprung, fully formed as Feminists, from the brow of Gloria Steinem in the 60's.

Anyway, I'd been wanting to check it out (if only for the costumes and jewelry) but I don't care to have propaganda shoveled down my gullet. Takes all the joy out of entertainment. Thanks for the head's up!

Joseph J said...

Nice review. Very passionate. You put your finger on the crux of the matter with the distinction between ontological and economical equality. It’s quite simple really, when you think about it that way. I had also never thought about the functional inequalities within the Trinity, except vaguely and confusedly. If Jesus was equal, how come he was always submitting to the authority of God the Father? Was he just play-acting to teach us a lesson? But no, it is the very nature of the Trinity, and therefore of all creation, which reflects the Trinitarian relationships. All creation is hierarchical, and no one is demeaned by it. How can anyone lower on the scale of the functional hierarchy feel offended when his status is just a reflection of the nature of God Himself? It also explains why such fundamental aspects of human identity have been under attack recently - it is the closest the devil can get to attacking God.

Feminism-pushing remains strong in Hollywood these days. I don’t mind some instances, e.g. some people complained about the recent Star Wars being too feminist, but I actually found the main character Rey to be thoroughly admirable. If that's feminism, I'll take it. But I have developed a pet peeve about violent female characters. Maybe it’s because I'm a Catholic and I grew up with the personality of the Blessed Mother always before me, and the virtues one usually associates with her are modesty, chastity, meekness, humility, gentleness, and compassion, expressed primarily through the uniquely feminine role of motherhood. Or maybe its because many of the Christian women I know and admire in my life (family, friends, girlfriend) also exhibit these characteristics to a high degree (even if some of them take kick-boxing). But so many Hollywood ‘strong woman’ characters are vulgar, selfish, excessively violent, and eroticized. They just seems like such an insult to the femininity I know and cherish so deeply.

It seems to me that men are able to engage in violence with less erosion to their identity than women. That’s why I think that men should take up violent or dangerous work by default. But in dire situations woman may take up the roles with great credit. I mean, if you believe, as I do, that Joan of Arc was called by God to don pants and sword and lead the armies of France, then clearly fighting is sometimes the right thing for woman to do (although she apparently did not actually engage in combat herself, except for the one or more occasions when she reportedly attacked prostitutes who were soliciting her soldiers). But as you pointed out with regards to Wake, such fighting usually or always entails a sacrifice of some aspects of feminine identity. Maybe this is why I get annoyed by the glamorization of female fighters – there is often no sense of this sacrifice. In fact, I think the eroticization has to do with an attempt to cover up this negative reality by over-compensation. Although I respect them very greatly for what they do, the reality is that most female soldiers, police officers, firefighters etcetera that I have seen have not been enhanced in their attractiveness because the realities of the job simply do not cater to it, sorry Hollywood. Feminism is ultimately incapable of appreciating women for what they are because it values the exercise of raw power over virtue.

Suzannah said...

St Reeves - No problem :). I haven't found all self-described feminists to be that radical; but I definitely agree that there's a problem with feminist history ignoring the actual accomplishments of women in order to preserve their narrative of patriarchal oppression.

Joseph, I'm glad you enjoyed the post :). I can't agree more about women in combat. Feminism has been telling women you can have it all - but because men and women have such different roles and the feminine virtues are such a different thing to the masculine virtues, you actually cannot have them all; just as a crystal winegalss cannot cultivate the virtues of a sledgehammer, and remain a crystal windeglass.

Mary Ronan Drew said...

What a thoughtful post. Thank you.

Christina Baehr said...

I'd recommend Foyle's War as a far more intelligent series about the period, especially the first few seasons, with three dimensional characters of both sexes. Samantha Stewart could have easily slipped into a feminist stereotype, but instead she's a wonderful character - plucky, hopeful, vulnerable, morally black and white, and actually speaks with an era-correct accent! Historically, it almost never sounds a false note, which is so, so rare in television.

Jessie Urgo said...

I appreciate your comments on Agent Carter and feminism. I, too, am not a feminist--for pretty much the same reasons you explained. I agree that it is necessary and admirable for us to support women around the world, for example, in human trafficking situations, but I disagree with feminism's assumptions about women's roles. Some people assume that feminism is the only way to stand up for the rights and dignity of women around the world, many of whom are honestly in horrible situations. But "feminism" is not the only answer.

The Nancy Wake biography sounds really interesting.

Suzannah said...

Glad you enjoyed it, Mary!

Christina, yes, you've often recommended Foyle's War to me; unfortunately I haven't had the time to watch it yet! Maybe sometime in the future!

JU, I hope you do read the Nancy Wake biography. It's a good one.

Hamlette (Rachel) said...

Oh, that's it! The final straw. I'm going to have to start following your blog. (I already follow 77 blogs. I routinely fall a week or two behind on reading them. I have become pretty reluctant to start following more, but sometimes I must.)

You have exactly pinpointed why I disliked Agent Carter and gave up on it after 3 episodes. Only you said it much more betterer than I ever managed to. From now on when people ask how come I haven't watched the whole series when I'm a devoted MFU fan and never miss an ep of Agents of SHIELD, I will point them to this post of yours. Thank you.

Also, off to add the Nancy Wake bio to my Amazon wishlist. Thanks!

Hamlette (Rachel) said...

ooooooops! I meant MCU, not MFU. Been spending more time with my head in the Man from Uncle universe than Marvel's lately...

Suzannah said...

Hamlette, I'm glad you liked this post :). I'm afraid I don't get to keep up with many blogs these days, so I know what you mean!

I think you'll really enjoy the Nancy Wake biography. It is exactly what AGENT CARTER should have been.


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