Agent Carter’s ‘Feminism’ Is More About Making Money Than Gender Equality

Feminist, sexist, conservative, liberal—Marvel will give us any kind of superhero our heart desires as long as it makes them rich.

Sady Doyle January 13, 2015

(Marvel Studios)

On Tues­day evening, one thing was blow­ing up my entire Twit­ter feed: Agent Carter. It enchant­ed all my friends and crit­ics I respect­ed, and was hailed as a fem­i­nist rev­o­lu­tion for the Mar­vel world. Peo­ple were ask­ing me, explic­it­ly, to review it; I had to watch it.

A win for Agent Carter is a win for an increasing consolidated media landscape, one in which a very few, very rich businessmen—almost all white, almost all men—claim a monopoly on our visual storytelling mediums, in order to tell the whole world one or two big stories that they personally control.

The show itself? Not bad. Very smart, actu­al­ly: It com­bines the cur­rent vogue for female empow­er­ment via pseu­do-his­tor­i­cal fic­tion (Out­lander, Game of Thrones, Mad Men) with a smart cus­tomer-reten­tion strat­e­gy (fill­ing the con­sumer demand for a female-dri­ven Mar­vel project) with a built-in audi­ence from a hot prop­er­ty (Cap­tain Amer­i­ca). It also man­ages to com­port itself in a man­ner that is not obvi­ous­ly a cash grab, and to address — not to say pan­der to” — fem­i­nist concerns.

And yet some­thing nagged at me through­out the time I watched it — a sense that the show’s decent treat­ment of gen­der issues is less an earnest state­ment of the show run­ners’ per­son­al val­ues than a can­ny PR move on the behalf of pop-cul­ture jug­ger­naut Dis­ney, own­er of Mar­vel and, increas­ing­ly, just about every­thing else in the U.S. and glob­al media land­scape these days.

But first, the show itself: It’s 1946. World War II is over. Cap­tain Amer­i­ca is miss­ing, pre­sumed dead. Agent Peg­gy Carter (Hay­ley Atwell) is leav­ing the world of super­heroics, and return­ing to work for the Strate­gic Sci­en­tif­ic Reserve, where she is treat­ed poor­ly. This coin­cides with women being pushed out of the work­force — which they had suc­cess­ful­ly claimed while the men were away at war — to give jobs to return­ing GIs. The par­al­lel is duly not­ed, ear­ly in the pilot; a bit of fem­i­nist his­to­ry is learned by all. Also, there are fab­u­lous vin­tage out­fits. Atwell looks splen­did in them, and she can act, as well.

Soon, as the laws of com­ic book nar­ra­tive dic­tate, a shad­owy con­spir­a­cy of supervil­lains begins steal­ing super­weapons. To retrieve them, Agent Carter must go under­cov­er and/​or above her sex­ist boss­es’ heads. This requires a dou­ble life and a side­kick. (The side­kick is Jarvis, a British but­ler who was the even­tu­al inspi­ra­tion for the British-accent­ed com­put­er named JARVIS which runs Tony Stark’s man­sion. This com­put­er will be a cen­tral char­ac­ter in the next Avengers film. I can prac­ti­cal­ly hear the prod­uct-inte­gra­tion guys moan­ing with plea­sure as I type this sentence.)

It also requires a lot of scenes in which Carter punch­es the heck out of guys whose names we don’t know. Basi­cal­ly, it requires Agent Carter to become a super­hero. And not just a super­hero, but a fem­i­nist super­hero! For we are giv­en to under­stand that punch­ing empow­ers Peg­gy great­ly, and pos­si­bly empow­ers all womankind.

In one scene, a Cap­tain Amer­i­ca radio ser­i­al (yes, now even com­ic-book adap­ta­tions are set in a uni­verse that con­tains com­ic-book adap­ta­tions) plays as the punch­es go down, con­trast­ing the help­less, heav­i­ly fic­tion­al­ized Miss Carv­er,” (that is, she’s the fic­tion­al­ized ver­sion of the fic­tion­al woman who is the real” woman in the fic­tion we’re watch­ing where peo­ple con­sume this fic­tion… oh, fuck it, she’s the one on the radio) beg­ging for Cap­tain Amer­i­ca to res­cue her with the real” Miss Carter, who’s kick­ing ass on her own and can kill you with a fork.

It’s heavy-hand­ed — and, in a re-telling, per­haps slight­ly con­fus­ing — but effec­tive. The mes­sage here is, Yes, com­ic book adap­ta­tions often reduce women to damsels in dis­tress, but that’s over now. Look at Agent Carter.”

I can see why it’s worked for fem­i­nists and friends of mine. All of the social jus­tice-ori­ent­ed reviews of this show that I’ve seen have been pos­i­tive­ly glow­ing. It might have worked for me, too, in dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances. But I was keen­ly aware, at the time, that I wasn’t just watch­ing a fem­i­nist super­hero show — I was watch­ing a Mar­vel Comics prop­er­ty brand­ed as fem­i­nist.”

Agent Carter’s fem­i­nist pol­i­tics remind me of a trick con­sumer-goods peo­ple learned a long time ago: Take the same dis­pos­able razor, man­u­fac­ture it in pink plas­tic instead of blue, and a fam­i­ly will buy it twice, because one of them is for women.” Mar­vel has long been resis­tant to cast­ing women in any roles oth­er than love inter­est”; we won’t see a female-led super­hero movie until 2017 (Cap­tain Mar­vel), near­ly ten years after Iron Man kicked off the fran­chise. Even now, they’re test­ing the waters in the less expen­sive realm of TV before com­mit­ting to a big launch. Things change a lot over the course of a decade, and now, there’s vocal con­sumer demand for more women in Mar­vel movies.

But that’s what this is: a strat­e­gy to retain consumers. 

Demands for female rep­re­sen­ta­tion are impor­tant, and I have made them about Mar­vel. But mas­sive media cor­po­ra­tions like Mar­vel (owned by Dis­ney) have no real stake in the val­ues of their media pro­duc­tions — they can’t afford to. Men and women, lib­er­als and con­ser­v­a­tives, all buy movie tick­ets, and it’s in Mar­vel’s best inter­est to make prod­ucts that all those peo­ple will want to buy. And judg­ing from the upcom­ing Mar­vel line­up, that’s the cal­cu­la­tion the com­pa­ny is making.

Some, like the Iron Man fran­chise, will be male-ori­ent­ed and overt­ly sex­ist, and some small minor­i­ty, like Agent Carter, will be tar­get­ed to the female demo­graph­ic and the ever-grow­ing fem­i­nism” trend — so pop­u­lar among millennials!

Heck, Mar­vel already does this with polit­i­cal par­ties: Iron Man 2 is about a bil­lion­aire CEO who fights nobly to keep the gov­ern­ment and the lib­er­al agen­da” from restrict­ing his busi­ness prac­tices, and Cap­tain Amer­i­ca 2 is about a work­ing-class vet­er­an with PTSD who fights nobly against gov­ern­ment sur­veil­lance, civil­ian pro­fil­ing and drone war­fare. These two fran­chis­es are so clear­ly tar­get­ed to Repub­li­cans and Democ­rats, respec­tive­ly, that they might as well run against each oth­er in 2016; why should Mar­vel start pick­ing sides now? 

And as goes Mar­vel, so goes the industry.

As Mark Har­ris writes in a sober­ing analy­sis of the movie indus­try at Grant­land, com­ic-book movies have essen­tial­ly deter­mined the agen­da for the entire film indus­try, and will do so for at least the rest of the decade. This cul­tur­al shift is more or less entire­ly due the suc­cess of Marvel’s Avengers fran­chise. All movies are try­ing to be Mar­vel movies. Mar­vel movies are try­ing to be tele­vi­sion. And Mar­vel is mak­ing tele­vi­sion (Agent Carter, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) to fill in the gaps between movies.

Har­ris counts 32 com­ic book movies com­ing up in the next five years. Many will be con­tin­u­a­tions and expan­sions of the Mar­vel Cin­e­mat­ic Uni­verse. Some will be from D.C. Comics, which is explic­it­ly bas­ing its fran­chise roll-out — movies about a sin­gle super­hero (Man of Steel, 2013), then a super­hero cross-over (Super­man vs. Bat­man, 2016) then movies about super­heroes intro­duced in the cross-over (Won­der Woman, 2017; Aqua­man, 2018 ), and then on into unre­lent­ing, orgias­tic super­hero-on-super­hero action (Jus­tice League, 2017, 2019, who knows how many or when after that) — on Marvel’s. They’ve also got their gen­der pat­tern­ing down: Boys, boys, more boys, and then a lone Won­der Woman break­ing up the monotony. 

Sony and Fox bought two of the most famous Mar­vel prop­er­ties ear­ly on (Spi­der­man and the X‑Men, respec­tive­ly), which pre­vents Dis­ney from re-boot­ing them. But don’t wor­ry: We’ll be get­ting Spi­der­man and X‑Men movies, too. Lots.

In fact, Marvel’s strat­e­gy of adapt­ing prop­er­ties with built-in audi­ences, then stretch­ing the sto­ry out over dozens of prod­ucts, has been so prof­itable that any major pro­duc­tion is now expect­ed to be split up and sequelized, and prefer­ably to be an adap­ta­tion. When you add in the Star Trek/​Star Wars/​Divergent/​etc. Mar­vel-esque adap­ta­tions and reboots we’ll be get­ting, that’s 70 fran­chise films in the next five years.

Giv­en Marvel’s influ­ence, yes, it’s good that Agent Carter has fem­i­nist ambi­tions, a strong female lead, even some under­stand­ing of women’s his­to­ry. And that should be the stan­dard for all Mar­vel movies, because, like it or not, they’re one of the most pow­er­ful cul­tur­al forces in the world. This is what the rep­re­sen­ta­tion” part of fem­i­nist analy­sis is good at demand­ing: If these enter­tain­ments are going to be ubiq­ui­tous, they had bet­ter not be harmful.

But let us not con­fuse a cor­po­ra­tion adjust­ing its mar­ket­ing strat­e­gy with fem­i­nism.” Let us not assume Mar­vel wish­es to do any­thing but acquire a new rev­enue stream, and let us not, dear Lord, com­mit the sin of grat­i­tude for the bare minimum.

Because fem­i­nist ambi­tions or not, a win for Agent Carter is a win for an increas­ing con­sol­i­dat­ed media land­scape, one in which a very few, very rich busi­ness­men — almost all white, almost all men — claim a monop­oly on our visu­al sto­ry­telling medi­ums, in order to tell the whole world one or two big sto­ries that they per­son­al­ly control.

What gets squeezed out, when every movie is a Mar­vel movie, when every show is a Mar­vel show? It’s orig­i­nal sto­ries. It’s cre­ators who can set their own terms and speak in their own voic­es. (Mar­vel talks a big game about hir­ing quirky inde­pen­dent direc­tors with vision, but they cut cult direc­tor Edgar Wright from his Ant-Man adap­ta­tion weeks before the movie start­ed film­ing, after he had been work­ing on the movie for eight years; any indi­vid­ual artist is a cog in the larg­er Mar­vel machine, and can be replaced instant­ly if they don’t toe the com­pa­ny line.) It’s mar­gin­al­ized peo­ple telling their sto­ries, with­out hav­ing to squeeze their points in around the edges of the Walt Dis­ney Company’s sev­en-year pre-con­struct­ed bil­lion-dol­lar mer­chan­dise-inte­grat­ed plotline.

The prob­lem isn’t that Mar­vel has cre­at­ed a fem­i­nist show — it’s that, soon­er or lat­er, the only way to see a fem­i­nist show, or movie, might be to suck it up and watch some­thing from Mar­vel, or some­thing try­ing to be as much like Mar­vel as possible.

To get a sense of what the Walt Dis­ney Com­pa­ny is after, through its Mar­vel sub­sidiary, take a look at how much of enter­tain­ment it already runs: If you look at the past year’s top-gross­ing movies in the US, four out of ten were made by either Dis­ney or Dis­ney-as-Mar­vel. If you look at the top-sell­ing albums of 2014, two out of the top five were Mar­vel or Dis­ney sound­tracks: Guardians of the Galaxy is num­ber five, and the Frozen sound­track was #1 for most of the year until it was knocked into sec­ond place by Tay­lor Swift.

Fac­tor in Disney’s record labels (includ­ing Hol­ly­wood Records, which focus­es on adult” music and owns pieces of pow­er­house acts like Miley Cyrus and Sele­na Gomez) and they’ve got a sub­stan­tial chunk of the music indus­try. Turn on the TV? If you land on any ver­sion of ABC, A&E, or ESPN, you land on Dis­ney, and it might just be show­ing you Agent Carter or Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Books? Disney’s got them, rang­ing from children’s to YA. And then, of course, there are the comics.

Oh, and speak­ing of read­ing: Dis­ney owns Grant­land, too. You know, the place that pub­lished the great argu­ment against com­ic-book movies.

Just like Mar­vel can give you Cap­tain Amer­i­ca for the blue states and Iron Man for the red, or Thor for dudes and Agent Carter for ladies, it doesn’t mat­ter if you like com­ic book movies or hate them: All Dis­ney wants is your eyes. While you’re read­ing and rec­om­mend­ing the arti­cle about how Mar­vel ruined film, the web­site host­ing the piece is col­lect­ing Dis­ney-brand traf­fic that it can use to get mon­ey for Dis­ney that it can use to make—whoops—more Mar­vel films.

Dis­ney doesn’t have a stake in the polit­i­cal issues, but it does have a stake in fund­ing the sto­ries that return the most prof­its. If it can sneak­i­ly glean fund­ing from the dis­si­dents — whether by con­fid­ing in them about the evils of fran­chis­es or by cater­ing to their resent­ment of sex­ism in comics — so much the better.

And then there are the cloth­ing lines, the toys, the theme parks, the make­up lines, the bridal appar­el. The Walt Dis­ney Com­pa­ny doesn’t aim to be pop­u­lar. It aims to be inescapable. There should not be a moment of your life, from cra­dle to wed­ding night to par­ent­hood to grave, that you do not spend watch­ing, lis­ten­ing to, read­ing, wear­ing, or vis­it­ing some­thing that does not prof­it Disney.

Every enter­tain­ment expe­ri­ence should fund this one com­pa­ny, which will then use your mon­ey to make prod­ucts you can’t help but buy. And once Star Wars comes out (yep: that’s Dis­ney, too), it will be damn near impos­si­ble to avoid giv­ing them that cash.

Such a company’s oper­a­tions can­not be com­pat­i­ble with fem­i­nist goals. I don’t care if Dis­ney is run by the ghost of Audre Lorde her­self: The accu­mu­la­tion of dis­pro­por­tion­ate pow­er (or total pow­er) in the hands of an exor­bi­tant­ly priv­i­leged few, who are not elect­ed by the peo­ple, and who can set the agen­da for a whole cul­ture, is exact­ly what pop­ulist, egal­i­tar­i­an, left-wing move­ments oppose. Dis­ney mak­ing fem­i­nist” enter­tain­ments is a step toward Dis­ney own­ing fem­i­nist enter­tain­ment, and there­by being able to set the terms for it.

This should scare you. Peg­gy Carter can kill a guy with a fork, and that’s empow­er­ing,” but Dis­ney is real pow­er; mas­sive pow­er, which may be thor­ough­ly impos­si­ble to resist.

Or, to put it in com­ic-book-movie terms: Fem­i­nism is an immense­ly pow­er­ful weapon, cre­at­ed by great heroes who knew how to use it wise­ly, which has fall­en into the hands of a pow­er­ful inter­na­tion­al con­spir­a­cy of supervil­lains. We need to get it back, before they deploy it to achieve total world dom­i­na­tion. Quick­ly, super-friends! To the tiny the­aters show­ing inde­pen­dent­ly fund­ed doc­u­men­taries! Before it’s too late! 

Sady Doyle is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer. She is the author of Train­wreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beat­down. You can fol­low her on Twit­ter at @sadydoyle.
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