Diversity in Agent Carter

I had to wait until Agent Carter was over to fully articulate my feelings about this season. Of course, I’m a week late because my blog posts come out ten hours before the show comes on—something that is pretty frustrating when I have things to say.

I really liked this season of Agent Carter, which I frequently tweeted my feelings about in the Hamilton-inspired hashtag #andpeggy. The season continued the themes from the first season, while also setting a different tone—largely dependent on the bright and colorful Los Angeles rather than the dark and mysterious New York. We got some cool new characters while also getting more development of the old ones. There were many more roles for women in this season than in the last; not only was our main villain a woman, but we got to see more of Dottie Rostro (as fellow Jane the Virgin fan Connie brilliantly refers to the 1940s Black Widow), and more development of Rose. This show is all about championing feminism while being set in the decidedly anti-feminist time of the 1940s. This season carried on the themes of Peggy striving to be respected and taken seriously as a woman in a world and organization that would rather she just answer the phones and take the lunch orders.

This was a fine theme in season 1, but for season 2 I wished they had gone further; rather than truly build upon issues of oppression and marginalization in the time period, Agent Carter has mainly been another television show about white feminism, even if it has given us great sci-fi and fun connections to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Agent Carter is hella white. This has been a critique of the show—and of the MCU as a whole (not to mention all of Hollywood)—since its inception. Many people have been fans of the show, but there have been many fans of color who have felt invisibilized due to there being absolutely no people of color in the first season of the show (unless you count that one episode with the Howling Commandos, of which there were two, one of whose actor was switched from Captain America: The First Avenger—yeah, we noticed). And so hearing the call that we wanted MORE DIVERSITY, Agent Carter delivered…with one black character and even more white women. 

This is a part of the problem: when we speak about diversity, Hollywood and other media outlets define it as anyone who isn’t a straight white man. And while getting representation from people who aren’t in that demographic is important, it’s also important to note which demographics tend to get the first opportunities if they aren’t straight white men: other white people, most often white women. Within the #OscarsSoWhite conversation, some celebrities have admitted that Hollywood does need more representation, but have then turned around and applauded them for hiring more women.  This, however, is disingenuous. If there are not people of color being hired or casted, but “there are women,” it just means that they are white. Often in the conversation of diversity, women of color are forgotten. People think that it is either/or—black tends to mean black men and women tends to mean white women.

And so Agent Carter added one person of color, Dr. Jason Wilkes, a black scientist who works for Isodine Energy and has a crush on Peggy. Before the season came out Wilkes was promoted as being a new love interest for Peggy, supposedly creating a love triangle with the two of them and Agent Daniel Sousa, who we all knew and loved from the first season. While this was an interesting and exciting endeavor in theory, in execution it was disappointing. Yes, the season as a whole was great and I really hope they renew the show, the treatment of Dr. Wilkes was a glaring misstep.

One of the issues I had with the treatment of Wilkes was the treatment of racism in the show. As is the norm in most shows set in the past, 1940s Los Angeles is still looked upon with fond nostalgia; we get palm trees, sun, and glamorous Hollywood. We only get one scene in the entire season with overt racism, which Peggy just won’t stand for. I tweeted about this scene after it happened, but the problem with it is that while it allows Peggy to be the ally it does nothing to develop Wilkes’ character or illustrate the true institutional as well as interpersonal racism that he and many other black people faced regularly at the time. We get one scene (in the same episode) where there are black people in the background, but after that they no longer exist in Hollywood; like honestly, we know segregation was a thing but streets weren’t segregated. At the very least we could have had some other background characters. What’s more is that all the other characters in the show seem to have no problem with Wilkes—I’m supposed to believe that Jack Thompson is not a raging racist? Or that Jarvis or Howard or even Sousa aren’t even a little prejudiced? I can believe that Peggy is someone who is against marginalization and oppression of any kind, but not everyone in the ‘40s was like that, and it does a disservice to the show to paint it as otherwise.

Another issue was Wilkes’ storyline. While he is a brilliant scientist, and gets to showcase some of those skills most often with Howard Stark and the ridiculously annoying Dr. Samberly, Wilkes’ true character development is him going from damsel in distress, to an accomplice with the villain, to blowing himself up to save everyone else. Luckily, we find in the finale that his blowing up actually saved him from the zero matter and that he is okay, but by that point he has been clearly pushed to the background of the story and is no longer a viable love interest. Honestly, this whole “love triangle” with Peggy, Wilkes, and Sousa was poorly done. Not only did we already know she was going to pick Sousa (the musical number asking her to choose was ridiculously unnecessary to me, especially given the actual hostage situation she was in), but even when Sousa was busy with his fiancé, it was clear it would happen. Peggy and Wilkes kissed a couple of times but it mostly felt like Wilkes had a crush and Peggy was willing to go along with it while Sousa was otherwise occupied. While the writers tried to make some kind of conflict happen between Wilkes and Sousa, they ultimately failed as they had Wilkes attack Peggy and Sousa protect her, had Wilkes be virtually intangible for the majority of the season while Sousa was always solidly there. It was frustrating to watch every week as a recently-introduced and pre-hyped character pretty much fell flat, especially the only one of color in the entire show.

Now I know Agent Carter is in jeopardy of being cancelled, but if it is renewed for a 3rd season, I do have some wishes for the future. This story is important because it leads into the founding of SHIELD and I would love to see both how it comes about, especially knowing that Hydra was growing within SHIELD from the beginning. So here are some of the things I would like to see if the show keeps going:

1.     Women of color! I think this would be great for the show’s representation of race in general, but I also think it would be a great way to explore Peggy’s privilege (shout out intersectionality). Also, notice that I say women and not woman; a part of representation is having more than just a token character and so it would be great to see different women of color (even of more than one race!) either being instrumental in helping Peggy with a case or something else important to the show.

2.     More people of color in general! This is extremely important, especially as the show steadily approaches the ‘50s and the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. Again, we need to get rid of the white American nostalgia and understand that while it was segregated, it doesn’t mean POC didn’t exist in America.

3.     Maybe first POC (WOC!) in the SSR? This would be a great way, again, to explore Peggy’s own privilege and even solidify her as a great ally, as she could potentially be the person to take this person on/allow them to help her with an important case. It would fit with her reputation of fighting for the marginalized—herself included—and would be interesting to see her fighting with her white male superiors for someone other than herself.

4.     More honest depiction of atmosphere in the time period – rather than romanticizing the past. PLEASE.