I had a chance this past weekend to sit down and get caught up on the first four episodes of season two Agent Carter, and as with the first season, the writers are exploring some very intriguing themes. Where the first season focused on the question of what it was like for a (white) woman to try and make it in a (white) man’s world, the second season has begun to tackle the question of what it’s like to try and make it in a socially-prescribed woman’s world.
Thus far, this new theme is centered on the character of Whitney Frost, who has quickly emerged as Peggy’s primary foil for this season (although Dottie Underwood is still, delightfully, somewhere in the mix). Whitney is an extraordinary villain. She is what you get when you take a brilliant woman and value her only for her looks. As we’ve seen through flashbacks and present-day sequences, Whitney’s struggles are born of the difficulties that come from being forced into the socially constructed world of what womanhood is supposed to be: feminine, fragile, domestic, demure. From childhood, she’s had it drilled into her head that she needs to smile (at men), to be nice (to men), to not waste her time on the ridiculous idea of getting an education (which is reserved for men). She’s got a brain the size of a planet, but all anyone has ever cared about is her pretty face. And that has worn away at her soul. The weight of society’s unfair expectations, of the burden of enforced conformity, has destroyed her, and by developing her in this way she has emerged as a deeply sympathetic villain. She’s mad as hell, and she isn’t going to take it anymore. She will no longer be denied—not by her husband, or by the shadowy group of men who control him, or even by society itself. And while it’s clear that she’s going to do an incredible amount of damage by the time this story ends, it’s going to be the kind of damage that you can’t help but admire, I think.
While the show is continuing to bat a thousand in the (white) feminist department, it’s still on shaky ground when it comes to the representation of minority characters. The major problem with season one Agent Carter was that there were almost no people of color in the cast, and the ones that appeared here and there mostly wound up dead pretty damn fast. This season they’ve added a major character of color—scientist Jason Wilkes—and have included more background PoCs, which is slight progress. There’s something of a snag with the Wilkes character, however. Wilkes is an extremely interesting character, whose courageous pursuit of a scientific career during this era is as worthy of exploration as Whitney Frost’s inability to pursue such a career for herself. Indeed, Wilkes and Frost make much better foils for one another than than Peggy and Frost do. And yet, by episode two Jason Wilkes had been exposed to a dangerous substance that caused him to slip into an incorporeal state. And that state is currently worsening at an accelerated rate. At this point, it’s unclear how his story line will be resolved, and the entire thing makes me incredibly nervous.
Though I suspect that the creators’ intentions are good, the reality is that Marvel television shows don’t have the greatest track record with their characters of color. There’s a tendency to dehumanize and/or ghost them (Akela Amador, Mike Petersen, Raina, Agent 33, Jiaying, Antoine Triplett, Ben Urich, Reva Conners, Oscar Clemmons, to name a few off the top of my head). When taken together, this tendency constitutes a pattern of representation that is deeply unsettling. Too often in the MCU, characters of color are metaphorically stripped of their humanity, often before being stripped of their lives. On Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., for example, Mike Petersen was forced into a surgical process that turned him into a cybernetic killing machine against his will and then disappeared from the narrative, while Raina—another character of color on the show—was exposed to terrigen mists that altered her physiology into that of a strange creature before being killed off. Now we have Jason Wilkes, who has literally been turned invisible. This may have been intended as a hat tip to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, but it’s a very tricky proposition nonetheless, and honestly it feels like a dodge—with a cultural marker (Ellison’s Invisible Man) standing in for a fully-fleshed-out attempt to address the topic of racism that has yet to be forthcoming.
Regardless of what the creators think they’re doing, the only way this story line can avoid being grossly racist is if Jason Wilkes is saved, and I mean fully saved—brought completely back to himself and put in a position to win the girl. (Because if matters weren’t bad enough, Wilkes is also in a kind of love triangle with two white characters—Peggy and Agent Daniel Sousa—which is always a very dangerous place for a black man to be narratively speaking.) If Jason Wilkes dies tragically to resolve the “love triangle” in Sousa’s favor that will be the death knell for this show as far as I’m concerned. Such a resolution would be unoriginal; it would under-serve the characters; and it would tell you everything you need to know about the creators’ commitment to diversity.
I want to keep loving this show. I really, really do. Despite the lingering problematic aspects (where the hell are the women of color? working as maids and selling movie tickets? seriously?), despite these problems Agent Carter is exploring some very interesting concepts and growing the world of the MCU in innovative ways. But if they kill off Jason Wilkes—if they don’t play against this toxic trope that they’re currently working within—I will be fucking done.
People of color are not expendable. They do not exist to push the story arcs of white characters forward. Agent Carter can be better than this. I hope it will be.