Well, it’s official. Agent Carter has been canceled by ABC.
I think this comes as no surprise to most viewers. The writing has been on the wall for some time now, with Hayley Atwell landing a lead in another ABC pilot and ratings for season two consistently tanking. It’s not the ending anyone would have predicted, however, when the project was first greenlit. Marvel fans had responded with delight to the Agent Carter one-shot and clamored for more Peggy. Yet while the show was a critical darling throughout its two seasons, the audience that had been panting for the series didn’t come out to watch it. For though Agent Carter did indeed take up some very interesting subject matter,(1) it also had a fatal flaw: It was a show set in an almost perfectly whitewashed world.
Before Agent Carter aired, it was touted as the next great feminist thing. When it came out, however, some fans immediately noticed the near-total lack of characters of color and raised a red flag. A feminist show with no diverse representation is not really feminist, they argued. Other fans struck back at those critics, asserting that diverse representation would come given time and patience. In the wake of these debates, a #DiversifyAgentCarter campaign was launched, and it gained a lot of momentum during the hiatus between seasons one and two, even getting attention from the series’ showrunners—which seemed like a good sign.
Then came season two with it’s token black character, Jason Wilkes, who was presented as a new love interest for Peggy. Needless to say, while a lot of us were excited by the inclusion of Wilkes and hoped he would get a good story arc, it wasn’t the sweeping diversification we were hoping for. As the Nerds of Color eloquently pointed out, what most of us were really hoping for were women of color who would enrich the show’s feminist narrative. When Wilkes was rendered incorporeal (and occasionally invisible) by a freak accident in the second episode, a lot of us started to have serious concerns. And those concerns were not resolved in a positive manner. The writers didn’t kill Wilkes off, but they demeaned his character—by having him act in a highly out of character manner, I might add—in order to ensure that Peggy would end up with the show’s white love interest, Daniel Sousa.(2)
To be honest, I wasn’t really sad to see the cancellation of Agent Carter. Somewhat intriguing cliffhanger aside, it’s hard for me to see what more the show has to offer.(3) The creators appear to have no intention of tackling the issues of representation that have plagued the show since its start, and their handling of the feminist topics the show has addressed have gotten progressively sloppier from season one, which didn’t have all that powerful of an ending to be honest, to season two, which went for an extremely clichéd conclusion that I found extremely unsatisfying. But only one of those problems is really a deal breaker, and that’s the show’s lack of diversity.
Media creators seem to have a hard time understanding this, but manufactured whiteness doesn’t sell. Here’s a list of films: Gods of Egypt, Pan, Aloha, The Lone Ranger, Exodus, The Last Airbender. Can you guess what each of these films had in common? They all had whitewashed characters, and they all bombed at the box office. Manufactured whiteness just isn’t on most people’s wish list anymore. In a world of progressively better tolerance and awareness, more and more people are choosing not to support media that continues to engage in the mistakes of the past. For Agent Carter, a television show that started off on shaky ground due to the very sexism it was attempting to address, building a coalition of diverse fans through the representation of diverse characters was integral to the show’s success. The failure to do so was a death sentence.
Still, there might be hope for Peggy Carter yet. Upon news of the cancellation, fans began to circulate a petition asking Netflix to pick up the series. It currently has more than 50,000 signatures. A move to Netflix might open the show up to better representational possibilities, but based on Agent Carter’s general tone I suspect that salvation’s a long shot. In its adaptations, Netflix has consistently sought out the grittier areas of the Marvel universe for its streaming service, and the recent rumors surrounding which properties they will be adapting next (which include Blade, Moon Knight, and Ghost Rider) suggest that they will not be changing that direction any time soon. Nevertheless, I do wish Agent Carter luck. But more than that, I hope that the producers and networks observing this show’s fate will learn from its mistakes and do better.
1) As io9’s James Whitbrook has noted, Agent Carter’s exploration of post-war sexism in the workplace in season one and Hollywood sexism in season two were both very interesting and very unlike what other television programs have been doing, and it’s a shame to see that potential lost. “We Knew Her Value: Why Peggy Carter Will Be Dearly Missed,” io9 (May 18, 2016). ⇧
2) There really ought to be a trope for that. I checked the subtropes for “Love Triangle” and couldn’t find anything that really applied, but “Black Suitor, White Suitor”—where something inevitably happens to the black suitor (he dies/proves himself unworthy/etc.) so that the (white) woman can choose the white suitor without the implication of racism—is totally a thing that needs to not be a thing anymore. ⇧
3) Look, we all know that Michael Carter isn’t actually dead and that Agent Thompson was either shot by him or by someone looking for him. (I, personally, favor the latter hypothesis.) And while this might make for an interesting development in Peggy’s personal arc—and possibly for the creation of S.H.I.E.L.D. as well—it isn’t exactly geared toward a diversification of the story. ⇧