Okay, so they don’t all have to be smart, beautiful, talented and noble-hearted women from the 40s/50s, but Peggy Carter is definitely one of the best-written characters I have ever seen in the action/adventure genre and the traits that make her so wonderful should be studied closely so that, in a world where it’s surprisingly hard to find three-dimensional and not over-sexualized female characters (especially on screen), we can finally have good role models to inspire us when writing.
Now, I’m not saying that Agent Carter is the best show in the history of television; it’s obviously flawed (especially when it comes to PoC representation). I’m also not claiming that I’m completely knowledgeable when it comes to the history of TV shows or that I’ve carefully analyzed every single female character ever created. But there are some things about their leading character that , in my opinion, make Carter an excellent role model for all our potential characters – and not just the female ones.
Peggy Carter is epic, but also realistic.
Watching Agent Carter is ridiculously fun. Carter is incredibly intelligent, and watching her deal with the unjust limitations society imposes on her as a single, employed woman, and still manage to succeed in her endeavors is a thrilling experience. There’s a scene where she jumps onto a moving car to escape an exploding building, and many scenes where she mercilessly beats up multiple men at a time.
And while the show is centered around her (current) mission to clear Howard Stark’s name, it doesn’t shy away from the reality of what it was like to be a woman in her position. It’s real, without becoming The Tale Of Women’s Suffering After The Second World War… and like I mentioned in my post Writing diversity without propagating oppression, it’s important to educate people about the reality of prejudice in people’s daily lives, without basing a character’s identity solely on their suffering. They are more than that. And Agent Carter remains action/adventure without becoming a historical drama.
But think of all the people who, not necessarily out of any fault of their own, were ignorant about what it meant (and still means) to work in a male-dominated workplace and live in a male-dominated society as a woman, and are slowly learning to identify injustice and seek out ways to fight against it.
Because while Carter takes no nonsense from the men and women that mock and oppress her, the way she retaliates is wonderfully wise. She uses her wit and intelligence to best them, and at times even remains silent when she knows there’s no point in arguing – but at no point does she ever look weak. She is fierce, and undeterred by anything people say or do against her, and often finds very subtle ways to educate those around her without necessarily insulting them (though she does insult them sometimes, and it’s epic).
Also, while she fights with just as much efficiency as other heroes, her style is very different from the overly-sexualized choreography we’ve become so used to seeing in action heroines.
She fights practically, like a soldier… not any differently than anyone else would. And it’s beautiful to watch, because it’s believable and in my opinion, much more engaging than a bunch of well-practiced fancy moves.
Peggy Carter is tough, but still human.
Some of my favorite scenes in the show so far have been emotional ones, in which Haley Atwell does an amazing job acting. There have been two instances so far (if I remember correctly) in which we have seen Carter cry, and they have been for very good reasons. I’m normally very critical of scenes where female characters cry, because sometimes it’s in situations where the writers, had it been a male character, would probably just have him look extra moody. Conversely, there are writers who are afraid to make their female characters cry at all, when any normal human being would, because they’re afraid to make her look weak.
Carter isn’t weak. And while she cries in the first episode, it’s done so well that your respect for her actually grows as you watch her. She’s capable of putting her emotions to a side when it’s necessary, but she’s not some emotionally-impaired robotic soldier. She’s three-dimensional and shows that being a person with emotions and being a strong female character are not mutually exclusive.
Peggy Carter defies gender roles, but not stereotypically.
I’m happy that we’re slowly starting to see more characters that aren’t either your classic damsel in distress, or your tough tomboy who is against all things that are ‘girly’. Not that there shouldn’t be some characters with characteristics of these tropes, but it’s a relief to finally find characters who are able to be ‘girly’ and strong at the same time.
Carter fights like a soldier, but is also fashionable for her time and isn’t afraid to wear heels or makeup when it’s practical and when she feels like it. Fiction is so full of heroines that refuse to ‘look pretty’ because they believe it makes them less tough, and it really makes many girls think that it’s somehow contradicting to be intelligent and strong while still wanting to paint one’s nails. It’s great to see a character that isn’t afraid to express herself in a multi-faceted way, and who is still taken seriously by all those around her.
Now, I hate commenting on celebrities’ bodies, but I think that it’s also worth mentioning that Haley Atwell’s body shape is different than most we see in heroines onscreen nowadays. I love that they aren’t making an attempt to change her, or dress her in the typical skin-tight jumpsuit; she is beautiful as she is and again reminds us that fictional women can and should be realistic instead of adhering to the typical stereotypes of what a leading female character looks like.
Peggy Carter is not at the mercy of the male characters, but neither is she separate from them.
Agent Carter has many male caracters, many of which are blatantly misogynistic and rude, but there are also characters that you sympathize with and come to like. They are realistic men, and products of their time – as they get to know Peggy better, they start to respect her and realize how mistaken their perceptions were. Peggy genuinely respects many of them, and their relationships are very genuine.
In this way, the show avoids demonizing anyone. Everyone, be they good or bad, is well developed as a character and has understandable motivations. At no point is the show Peggy Carter vs. Men in general (though the moments we have are pure awesomeness and a part of me would really enjoy a title like that), and that makes the story profound and entertaining without being a vengeful us vs them sort of show.
Neither is Carter “not like other women”. The other women in the show are just as strong and well developed as she is, though not necessarily in the same ways.
Everyone, regardless of gender, can identify with someone.
Peggy Carter represents us.
It was only after watching the pilot that I realized how sorely I have felt lack of representation on screen. I recently watched “Belle” (you should watch it, too, if you haven’t already; it’s perfect) and there’s a scene where her uncle asks her about something she’s reading
“Do you find yourself in such writing?”
“I don’t know that I find myself anywhere.”
And it got me thinking about my childhood. How many times did I have to create strong female characters in order to insert myself into a story? As children (and as adults too, sometimes – let’s be honest), we naturally want to find ourselves in the stories we read or watch. How many young boys dress up as Superman or Batman? But as girls, the action/adventure genre has always been hard to find ourselves in. We either had to create our own characters, or settle for an underdeveloped, often oversexualized side character. We were hardly ever the heroes.
(I should mention that this is why I’m super excited about the All-female Ghostbusters reboot)
Of course, that’s not to say that there aren’t well-written action heroines. There are, but they’re much less common in mainstream media, and most of us have to make an effort to find them.
But I see myself in Peggy Carter. And finally, I get to feel like those kids that dressed up as superheroes. I want to be like her, because she’s awesome.
Please, write more characters like Peggy Carter.