Penny Dreadful and Agent Carter
January 19, 2015
I suppose I could call this post talking about TV, but I really want to call it talking about women characters, ’cause that’s what I’m going to do. One of these shows is pissing me off, and one of them isn’t. Can you guess which is which? Heh.
By the penultimate episode, our two strong, interesting, active women characters are both lying in bed at the edge of death, being watched over by the men. They aren’t just ill, they’re infected: one with TB (Victorian gothic bingo FTW!), one with some kind of “evil” that I suspect will end in a Rosemary’s Baby situation. Both of them have become, by this episode, mere conduits for the plot in which the men will act. For all their earlier strength, they are in the end damsels in distress. (Like Mina, who is barely worth mentioning, really.)
This is what writers must guard against. You can create the most wonderful, interesting, strong, well-rounded women characters in the world. But if you reduce them to the usual roles in the plot — McGuffins, creatures who are acted upon rather than acting — then you haven’t actually written a strong woman character at all. You can call them powerful and liberated because they sleep around with no consequences. But if that’s all they do? If that’s the only agency they have? No.
I keep flipping the genders on that possession scene. What if it were Dorian Gray lying tied to that bed? Or Mr. Murray, who has peered too long into the darkness? What if the women were set to looking over him, to find a way to save him? What would that story look like?
I would like to keep watching because despite my frustrations I want to see what they do with the mess they’ve made. Also, at least no one has actually said the words “American werewolf in London,” but we’re all thinking it.
Oh my yes. I have some quibbles. There’ve been some real bone-headed plot beats. But I forgive the show, because of what it’s doing and what arc it’s setting up: I propose that the whole premise of the show is to establish that Peggy Carter is Steve Rogers’ equal, and that she is worthy of carrying on his legacy. Moreover, she must learn to believe that she is worthy of carrying on his legacy.
The show is doing a couple of things that I love:
1. In Peggy’s personal life, she’s surrounded by supportive women (“Love the hat!”) who are going through the same things she is — fighting sexism, finding their places in the world. There is a whole world of women here. Peggy may be the only woman at work, but she isn’t alone.
2. In the same way Steve Rogers represented the common soldier — he never claimed to be any different from the soldiers around him, no more deserving of accolades, no less willing to shoulder the same burdens — Peggy Carter represents post-war working women. The radio show that dogs Peggy? It plays the same role here that the USO stage show played in Captain America — the fiction at odds with reality, that they must put behind them. That thing I said above, about Peggy being Steve’s equal? It’s there in that conversation she has with Jarvis (this is massively paraphrased):
Jarvis: Everyone in this line of work needs a support network.
Peggy: Steve didn’t.
Jarvis: It’s my understanding that Captain Rogers had you.
She wasn’t his sidekick. She wasn’t his “girl.” They were partners, full stop. Steve Rogers and Peggy Carter are the same. It doesn’t have anything to do with superpowers, but with the people, and we finally have our heroine who is a hero. I weep for the joy of it.