‘Agent Carter’ and the Perils of Manufactured Whiteness in Media

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.

agentcarter_tarabutters
Tara Butters, one of Agent Carter’s showrunners favorited many tweets in the #DiversifyAgentCarter tag —including one of mine.

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.

Notes
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.

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2 thoughts on “‘Agent Carter’ and the Perils of Manufactured Whiteness in Media

  1. While I agree with most of this (especially the way the love triangle was handled, as I really LIKED Wilkes, darn it – and this is coming from someone who liked Sousa, too! It could have become genuinely complicated and interesting and they dropped the ball)…I gotta say, what? No love for the female antagonist from that season??

    Yeah, the resolution was a little “meh” (and am I the only person who figures the awkward resolutions to several plots going on that season might have been because they weren’t sure if they’d get renewed, and rushed them instead of letting them play out naturally?) but dear god, throughout the season Ms Frost was consistently the most interesting thing about the show. She got FANTASTIC development and serious exploration of the dichotomies between her and Peggy – Peggy, who was encouraged by one or two of the right people at the right times to buck sexism and grew into herself, fighting it from the inside instead of giving up, while Ms. Frost was overtly forced to do the opposite and kowtow to it until she snapped; turning Peggy into a hero, while Frost was pushed to villainy. Peggy, whose biggest temptation was to settle down, vs Ms Frost, a science-minded woman in an incredibly sexist culture whose biggest, inevitably irresistible temptation, was to bring the same patriarchal structure that sought to control or diminish her, to its very knees. Peggy, whose value was seen, if only occasionally; vs. Ms Frost, whose value was constantly ignored in favor of her “pretty face”…and knowing how a number of female scientists and engineers from the wartime and postwar period – Hedy Lamarr being particularly notable here (I wonder if she was part of the inspiration), but there’s others too, such as Rosalind Franklin – had their achievements ignored, underappreciated, or outright attributed to/stolen by men? Dear god does this resonate with me. Even today, girls are frequently discouraged in countless ways from entering STEM fields (and I myself can look back and see countless ways it happened to me, specifically), let alone during the ’40s and ’50s.

    The female antagonist – brilliant, ambitious, and goddamn sick of the patriarchy pushing her around and treating her like garbage – becoming a true and genuine threat and yet somehow being quite sympathetic because you see every *inch* of what pushed her there? That was the single best ongoing thing about the series in season 2, or possibly either season (which considering how much weaker season 2 was compared to season 1, is saying something). She was complex, sympathetic, but also wonderfully ruthless. Frightening in part BECAUSE you could see the anger, practically feel it, simmering underneath and you could understand where it came from, why this brilliant woman would be tempted to simply wrest control from the insipid, condescending men around her, why she would give in to that temptation. And it wasn’t even her only motivation, either! She was also far too curious for her own good, when it came to the exotic, earth-shatteringly weird physics of Zero Matter, which given her younger self’s characterization as being incredibly STEM-minded, actually seems in-character.

    She had *multiple* motivations going on at once, and multiple points of pressure on her psyche that drove her actions and all made sense, and you kind of halfway rooted for her to win, even though it’d be completely disastrous if she had. You just don’t GET female antagonists like that very often, at least not in film and television, so it was really nice, even if so many other things otherwise weakened the season. (And the fact that the mob boss guy actually seemed to legitimately fall for her for her brilliance and personality, while her idiot, selfish husband got was coming to him? Icing on the cake, even as I can acknowledge that she had the worst, most tragic possible ending for her. Her fixation on Zero Matter is sort of analogous to a Deal With The Devil though – she was trying to harness forces beyond mortal control – so it’s hardly surprising it ends up destroying her and the only surprise is it didn’t completely kill her. I suspect similar things might have happened with any male character who tried to harness it, either)

    For all its other flaws, I think the antagonist, Ms Frost, was the redeeming factor of the season, the thing that made it most worth watching. I have to remind myself that since it got canceled, people would want to figure out “what did they do wrong?”, not so much “what did it do right?”, but I feel like she deserves a shout out, you know? Because I would adore seeing more such nuanced, atypical female characters in our media. And because if you have a female hero, it’s actually somewhat nice to see the biggest threat she has to face down is another woman whose struggles and life path and even goals have parallels to her own – you get that all the freaking time with male characters (Star Wars with Luke and Vader, X-Men with Xavier and Magneto, Sherlock Holmes with Moriarty, etc), so why not women, too? I mean, you get it sometimes, in comics especially (we could name another “Frost”, heh), but in filmed media it’s so much less common, it feels. And film and television is much more widely-experienced than comics these days.

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  2. Also, it just occurred to me:

    “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.”

    You know, if you can list at least two other examples where this has happened in something, in any medium, you (or any of your readers, if they have an account there) can always go to the Trope Launch Pad on TV Tropes, and do a write up, and it might get launched as an article. It needs five votes in its favor and preferably none or few in its opposition, and then you can just Launch it (the “hats”, or votes in its favor, can include one from the person who did the original write-up, too, so you really only need to convince four other Tropers). I believe the minimum number of examples to count it as a trope (an identifiable pattern, in other words, of this specific thing happening in media) is three, though the more examples listed, the better, obviously, as the then the fact that it’s “tropable” becomes more and more obvious.

    Bonus factor in doing this: if there’s any subversions of it (i.e. the black suitor actually wins and nothing happens to them), or inversions (it’s the white suitor that has something bad happen to them, and then the black suitor wins), you’d get people adding them too. Why is this a bonus? Because then we’re all a little less depressed about the media we consume, and get to here about cool stuff that bucks the trend.

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