Agent Carter, a television series based on Captain America: The First Avenger character Peggy Carter, was canceled by ABC in May after two seasons on the air. Almost immediately fans reacted, trending the hashtag #saveagentcarter and starting a petition to revive the series on Netflix, which received over 100,000 signatures in nine days. While devoted fans rallying behind a beloved show is not an uncommon occurrence in today’s age, the passion behind Agent Carter is notable less for its enthusiasm for the show itself but for the importance of what it represents in current media.
“Agent Carter is one of [the] only solely female-based shows on the air of the superhero variety,” one petitioner wrote. “By cutting Agent Carter, ABC is only adding to the stigma that women cannot act a lead role and be powerful by themselves that is often preached by media standards.”
Given that we live in a superhero-saturated market and yet are still waiting for a woman-led film, Agent Carter at least represented a step in the right direction.
The team behind Agent Carter seems acutely aware of the show’s importance on this front, with actress Hayley Atwell recently claiming Marvel was working hard to revive the show and that she would even work weekends to help make it happen. Marvel has significant incentive to continue the show, not only because of Peggy Carter’s important role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe but also to help mitigate some bad press its recently received for its lack of merchandise featuring female characters. Furthermore, the canceling of Agent Carter comes at a time of increasing awareness about not only the gender pay gap in Hollywood but the dearth of female roles in general, a point commented on recently by Captain America himself.
Outside of the very important role Agent Carter has played in promoting female protagonists, particularly in the male-dominated superhero genre, it has also helped highlight the forgotten role of women agents in World War II. War time has always led to a relaxing of gender roles, and WWII arguably challenged norms more than any other as women entered the workforce in large numbers and were trained as switchboard operators and mechanics by the newly formed Women’s Army Corp (WAC). Yet while we have happily embraced the image of Rosie the Riveter or the code breakers of Bletchley Park, we still often scoff at depictions of women in the field as unrealistic or ahistorical.
These women, however, did exist and played a large role in overseas operations. And while Agent Carter takes place in a world of super soldiers, Norse gods, and alien invasions, it depicts the work of real-life women through its portrayal of Peggy Carter. In the show’s second season, a young Peggy is shown being recruited into the Special Operations Executives (SOE), a British organization often referred to as Churchill’s Secret Army or the Baker Street Irregulars. The SOE actively recruited women with dual language skills to act as secret agents in Nazi-occupied areas. The SOE believed women were better able to blend in than men and could transport both documents and explosives without raising as much suspicion. Female agents received training in firearms, silent killing, and parachuting and were tasked with operations ranging from couriering secret messages to sabotaging and derailing trains. It was dangerous work and many agents were killed before the end of the war. Those who survived were often forgotten and left unacknowledged for decades.
Agent Carter embraces this legacy of SOE agents whole-heartedly while also exploring both its systematic erasure in the post war years and the overt sexism women faced when they returned. Set a year after V-Day, it shows Peggy working for the fictional Strategic Scientific Reserve (SSR), where she is relegated to answering phones, filing, and taking the lunch orders. She is repeatedly excluded from briefings and, as the sole woman in the SSR, told she is only there because she was “Captain America’s girlfriend.” Not only is she undervalued at work, her own wartime contributions are shown as being concealed from public memory through her depiction in an in-universe radio serial called “The Captain America Adventure Program,” where she has been recast as a helpless nurse whose sole purpose seems to be being captured and rescued by Captain America.
The intensity of fans’ feelings regarding the cancellation and potential revival of Agent Carter stems from its importance as a reminder of women’s role in history and the challenges they have faced as much as for the contemporary relevance of its positive depiction of a strong woman hero. In the words of Peggy Carter herself, when faced with yet another instance of her contributions being overlooked and credit for her work given to another, “I know my value. Anyone else’s opinion doesn’t really matter.” In a world that continues to undervalue women and their contribution, let us hope we can all take inspiration from Agent Carter’s stance.