In my earliest childhood, as far as I can recall, female heroes were not entirely unknown in action-adventure television. There was Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman and Lindsay Wagner’s Jaime Sommers, the Bionic Woman. I ate up those shows in all their cheesy glory, though then I couldn’t have told why. I also adored Charlie’s Angels, though I can see now the show was pretty terrible. That they were presented in a jiggly fanservice light meant nothing to me at the time. They kicked butt. That was all I cared about.
Then I moved into adolescence, and my badass action heroines went away. It was the 1980s, and unless I wanted the realism of Cagney and Lacey, I was out of luck. Thankfully, the ’90s saw a resurgence, with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Xena Warrior Princess paving the way for what we have now: heroines everywhere, from Supergirl to the tattooed Jane Doe, from the inhuman Daisy Johnson and unstoppable Bobbi Morse to the insightful undead Liv Moore. I love them all, but one stands proudly as my favorite: the capable and classy Agent Peggy Carter, as played by the capable and classy Hayley Atwell. As 2016’s all too brief season of Agent Carter draws to a close, the time is ripe for me to highlight five things I love about Peggy, the character.
In Captain America: the First Avenger, she’s never a distressed damsel.
This fact alone sets her apart from the legions of superheroes’ love interests whose basic purpose is three-fold: put the superpowered man “in touch with his humanity,” get kidnapped by the bad guy, and get rescued. I’m hard pressed to think of another superhero movie, aside from the first Avengers film and Pixar’s The Incredibles, that doesn’t adhere to this love-interest formula. The Spider-Man movies are notorious for it, and of course, with Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, we’ve seen the return of Lois Lane, who, no matter how talented and independent different writers try to make her, will always exist chiefly to be saved by Superman. Even when the heroes’ love interests have skills or even powers of their own, somehow they always manage to end up in need of rescue.
Not Peggy Carter. After seeing the first Captain America film, I felt a thrill at the realization that I’d just sat through two hours of superhero action, and in all that time, Peggy never once fell into Red Skull’s clutches. Rather, she maintained her strength in the thick of the action, taking out her share of Nazis with high-powered weaponry that she knows how to use. It should come as no surprise that fans saw this character’s potential to be the hero of her own story and pushed the creators to “do more” with her. After all, try to imagine Lois Lane or Mary Jane Watson (as depicted in the movies, not in the comics) getting a TV show in which she’s the one to take down villains. Tough, isn’t it?
She’s smart as well as tough.
Peggy can use a gun and can hold her own in hand-to-hand combat. I always watch with an ear-to-ear grin when she uses her speed and strength to take down fearsome opponents. But I love her most when she’s chasing down the answers to crucial questions and using her role-playing abilities (it’s always a treat to hear her talk with an American accent) to sneak into forbidden spaces. When she’s in a tight spot, she’s as likely to think her way as to punch her way out of it. I’m rather surprised that Peggy hasn’t been criticized for being a “Mary Sue,” like Rey in Star Wars VII. But as with Rey and with Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa, I love her for it.
She gets along with other women.
True, she faces off with evil women, but she’s also quick to befriend smart, decent women like Angie the aspiring actress in Season 1 and Jarvis’ wife Ana in Season 2. The friendship chemistry with Angie was such that quite a few fans haven’t gotten over their disappointment at Angie’s failure to return for Season 2. Interaction with Peggy gives Angie the chance to be a hero as well as an actress. Similarly, in Season 2’s two-part opening, Ana makes her contribution, and in the most recent episode, Peggy is instrumental in giving short, plump, bespectacled secretary Rose a chance to be part of the action; she turns out to be as adept at role-playing and butt-kicking as Peggy herself. It’s telling that when Peggy learns that her colleague Sousa, who pined for her throughout Season 1, has a serious relationship with a new girlfriend, she approaches this young woman not with catty jealousy, but with honest overtures of friendship. More female-buddyships, less catfighting — just what I like to see.
Her most important relationship with a man is a friendship, not a romance.
In the second season, we’ve seen a little romance come into Peggy’s life, but the love interest is not her central focus. The man she can count on, the man who has her back on those few occasions when she does need rescuing, and the man with whom she shares the most screen time is the happily married Jarvis. He’s a fun character, taking on a variety of challenges to his sophisticated dignity, and he gets his own opportunities to be awesome, proving that male characters need not be weak or dull in stories that center around female heroes.
With Peggy around, I can enjoy the villainesses.
In an earlier blog post I mentioned that the pleasure I take in watching or reading about the wicked antics of a villainess depends entirely on what the heroine is doing. If a story juxtaposes an evil woman who kicks butt with a good woman who gets kidnapped (leaving the responsibility of defeating the evil woman to the male hero), I know that story is not for me. The stories I love best show powerful and resourceful women on both sides of the moral spectrum, and that’s just what we see on Agent Carter. Peggy’s heroic presence helps me appreciate the dark complexity of characters like Dottie Underwood, a Russian spy hardened by a brutal upbringing (a Black Widow who, unlike Natasha Romanoff, has never had her conscience awakened), and Whitney Frost, a scientific genius who is sick of being valued only for her beauty. They’re the kind of interesting villains who are heroes in their own minds, and I can enjoy watching them, knowing they won’t eventually be “put in their places” by some righteous male hero. Peggy and Rose (what a delightful surprise Rose turns out to be!) are there to show us that women need not crush their moral compasses underfoot in order to be powerful.