Thursday, April 23, 2015

When Ur Fave Is Problematic: Chris Evans, Jeremy Renner, and Fandom Responses to Mistakes

Welp, it finally happened. Chris Evans put his foot in it.

In an interview with Digital Spy, Chris Evans and Jeremy Renner were asked what they thought of Scarlett Johansson's character, Natasha Romanoff, being paired up with Bruce Banner in spite of fan preferences that she be paired with Steve Rogers or Clint Barton (or both!) instead. Renner said that Natasha was a slut. Evans cracked up laughing and said that she was a complete whore. And a large swath of fans on Tumblr and Twitter (and elsewhere, I imagine) got very upset. Another swatch of fans got very upset with those who were upset, admonishing them to calm down and take a joke. It wasn't long before a decided portion of responses were more about other people's responses than they were about the original incident.

Interestingly, most of those who were upset were upset about Evans rather than Renner. A fan darling, particularly in the MCU fandom, Chris Evans is typically perceived as the ideal white frat boy with a heart of gold—the one good dude in a sea of dudebros. Very few people seemed to be surprised by Renner’s comments, but almost everyone was shocked and dismayed by Evans’.

These fandom outcries are pretty common, and they follow a standard pattern. An actor or performer makes statements about social justice issues that are intelligent and thoughtful, thereby putting them on fandom’s radar. If such statements continue the person comes to be idolized by the fandom. Eventually, however, they wind up saying or doing something that is ill-considered, insensitive, or inappropriate. Certain members of the fandom reel with shock, certain other members of the fandom tell everyone to take a joke, and the conversation about the original issue gives way to a conversation about the problematic attitude of the fandom.

And frankly, I don’t know how to avoid enacting that pattern here and now with my own response. Perhaps, I cannot. Perhaps, I should not.

So, let’s take it from the top, shall we?

First of all, and let there be no mistake: Chris Evans and Jeremy Renner’s response to the question they were asked was ill-considered, insensitive, and inappropriate (1). What could have been an opportunity to call out—or at the very least point out—the sexism inherent in the media approach to the MCU franchise in general and the Black Widow character in particular, became a pile on. It probably was not intended to be, but that's what it was. When faced with a chance to do something positive, these men instead did something negative. They made light of an ugly stereotype about women that is fundamentally grounded in a double standard that normalizes misogyny and male supremacy: men who play the field are studs; women who play the field are skanks (2).

It’s a disgusting, oppressive, and boring trope, and the people who were disappointed to see it perpetuated by some of their favorite actors were not wrong to be disappointed or to want to have a discussion about it. Yes, it was just a joke. But it wasn't a very good joke. And it's worth having a civilized conversation about a) why it wasn't a very good joke and b) why it is so easy for people to tell these sorts of not-very-good jokes without really thinking about it.

Which brings us to our second point: telling people to shut up and take a joke when they are upset about something is an inadequate and unhelpful response to such a conversation. Everyone has the right to dislike a joke—to think it was discriminatory or stigmatizing, to think that it was inconsiderate, to think that it was just not funny—and they have the right to express their dissatisfaction. You don’t have to agree with them, but you can’t really tell them to shut up and get over it either.

The thing about problematic performers, productions, actions, and statements is that everyone’s line in the sand lies along on a slightly different axis. We’re all pretty much agreed that if you can’t like problematic things then you can’t like anything at all. We’re less clear on the idea that different people are going to have different ideas about what is too problematic to be acceptable.

This gets us to our third, and final, point. We’ve reeled with disappointment, we’ve been told to learn to take a joke, and now we’re simmering with resentment at the fans who attempted to silence us or otherwise remained silent themselves. But the thing is that, for some people, the sexism demonstrated by Evans and Renner was simply not problematic enough. It didn’t cross their line. That doesn’t mean that they weren’t aware of, and/or frustrated by, it. It simply means that it didn’t cross their individual line. And just as telling people who are upset to take a joke is neither appropriate nor productive, telling people who decide that they are going to like something in spite of its problematic nature that they are wrong to do so is neither appropriate nor productive.

Now, certainly, there’s a value in critiquing the ways in which fandom falls short of its claims to fairness and equality—just as there is a value in critiquing the actions of people who fall short of social ideals. But the line between critique and shaming can get awfully thin in situations like this. When these spurts of outrage ripple through the fandom—as they inevitability do (I remember how disappointed fandom was when Anthony Mackie said that Selma failed not because of racism but because of America’s racism conversation fatigue; how let down we were when Scarlett Johansson accepted the title role in the upcoming live-action Ghost in the Shell remake)—I cannot help but be struck by the notion that, intentional or not, fan responses often run the risk of translating into a metaphorical public whipping.

For better or worse, we now have the technological tools to enact a call out culture that, in my opinion, is fatally based on the patently false notion that your fave (and you yourself) will never be problematic, and therefore will never need an empathetic critical response, and therefore will never need to moderate your own responses to other people's verbal mishaps. And this misapprehension is particularly dangerous in an era of online shaming, self-righteous harassment campaigns, and doxxing as a form of vigilante justice. It may be tempting to imagine that such tools can be used safely in the pursuit of a good cause, but the reality is that if you condone such behavior for a good cause then you have to accept it when it is utilized to intimidate activists and silence minority critics and creators (3).

This does not mean, of course, that people cannot (or should not) express their opinions. I'm not referring here to fans who have posted measured responses to the video that point out the context of the interview—which takes place well into a long press tour and involves two notoriously flippant interviewees—and discuss the ramifications of sexism in culture broadly and in this interview specifically. I'm referring to those people who are calling Evans and Renner disgusting, suggesting they die in a fire, haranguing them on twitter, etc (4).

Yes, Chris Evans and Jeremy Renner said something incredibly sexist, and it was hugely frustrating—although not entirely unexpected in our age of constant media exposure. But people say fucked up things from time to time, and incidents like this are going to continue to happen. (I shudder to think what we’ll do when Mark Ruffalo finally says something problematic.) Given human nature, and the nature of humans on the Internet, we need to think carefully about how we can respond to situations like this in a way that will truly effect change.

Notes:
1) And they have already apologized for their remarks. Evans' apology was particularly free of equivocation or excuses.
2) I am not even going to get into the argument that in the MCU Natasha wasn’t actually playing the field. While it’s true that she wasn’t, that’s not what makes Evans and Renner’s response wrong. It would have been wrong regardless of the level of Natasha’s promiscuity.
3) Neil Gaiman's excellent piece on what it means to support freedom of speech raises some points that are relevant for this discussion. In it he notes “The Law is a blunt instrument. It's not a scalpel. It's a club. If there is something you consider indefensible, and there is something you consider defensible, and the same laws can take them both out, you are going to find yourself defending the indefensible.” In my opinion, the same rule of thumb applies to shaming, harassment, and doxxing. The minute you utilize one of those tools to achieve a goal, even a good one, you are no longer in a position to rail when the same tools are used in service to a cause that you find deplorable. See also: Ijeoma Olou, “Taking Down Bigots With Their Own Weapons is Sweet, Satisfying—And Very,Very Wrong,” Medium (April 6, 2015).
4) Many of these sorts of responses appear to have been deleted, but several of them remain.

Friday, April 17, 2015

A Brief Note on the Casting of Psylocke in "X-Men: Apocalypse"

Note: A slightly edited version of this post originally appeared on my tumblr.

Earlier this week, Bryan Singer made headlines when he announced the casting of Olivia Munn for the role of Psylocke in the upcoming X-Men: Apocalypse.

Some of you who know me may know that I started reading X-Men comics when I was thirteen years old and that my favorite character was Psylocke. The death of Psylocke was a large part of why I stopped reading comics post-Onslaught. The return of Psylocke is basically why I started reading comics again with Remender’s Uncanny X-Force (a series that very peripherally crossed over with “Fear Itself”—the comics event responsible for my ongoing love-affair with Bucky Barnes, but that’s another story for another time…).

As you can imagine, reading comics when you’re a graduate student in your late twenties is really different from reading comics when you’re a thirteen-year-old misfit just trying to live through middle school. Having become a much more critical media consumer, I now have serious problems with the British-woman-in-a-Japanese-body trainwreck that is Psylocke. And there’s a part of me that hates the way that Marvel ignored an opportunity to ameliorate the racist, culturally appropriative, and exoticizing elements of the character when they brought her back to life in the lead up to “Utopia” (1). And that same part of me is hoping like hell that maybe they’ll fix those issues in “Secret Wars.” In fact, I’ve been thinking of writing an essay about it all, but I haven’t had time recently to get into the nitty gritty of why Psylocke, as she now exists, is so problematic and how I’d like to see the character addressed.

With the introduction of major players like Archangel (not, I suspect, to be confused with the Angel character that appeared in The Last Stand) in X-Men: Apocalypse, I’ve been expecting Psylocke to turn up. But I’m not sure how I feel about this particular casting. The choice of a biracial actress to play Psylocke may indicate a different take on the character’s origin story, but whether or not that origin story will make the concerning elements of the Psylocke character better or worse remains to be seen…

Notes:
1) Psylocke was brought back during the "Sisterhood" storyline, which took place in Uncanny X-Men vol. 1, nos. 508-511 (2009) and was written by Matt Fraction. Over the course of the story, Psylocke's British body was once again killed while her Japanese body lived on. Psylocke's British body was subsequently destroyed during the "Kill Matsuo" story, which appeared in the Psylocke miniseries that was released in 2010 (words by Chris Yost, pencils by Harvey Talibao).

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Review - Agent Carter: "Snafu"

This review contains spoilers.

Not gonna lie here, when Chief Dooley looked at Peggy Carter and said, "Atta girl!" before doing a sacrificial header out of the office window to save his team from the explosive strapped to his chest, I totally cried.

This reaction was one-third the fact that Chief Dooley had grown into a complex character that I cared about, one-third the pitch-perfect performance of Shea Whigham, and one-third the sheer significance of his last words. Dooley asked Agent Thompson to speak to his wife; he asked Agent Carter to get the son-of-a-bitch who killed him. The fact that Dooley looked to Peggy, rather than to any of his other agents, to solicit the promise that the SSR would catch Doctor Faustus (aka Dr. Ivchenko)—the man who put Dooley's head on the chopping block—was deeply meaningful. It indicated that Peggy had finally succeeded in earning not just Dooley's respect but his trust as well, and I would argue that earning Dooley's trust is what lay at the heart of Peggy's actions. She thought she wanted his respect, but—as last week proved—having his respect meant nothing without having his trust.

What's most interesting here, though, is the manner in which Peggy had to go about earning first the respect and then the trust of her male coworkers. The final blow against their deeply-rooted sexism came during a positively electrifying confession scene, in which Peggy called each and every one of them out on their misogyny—a call out that very clearly shamed both Sousa and Thompson because they knew not just that Peggy was right but that she was dead right. (Chief Dooley was unmoved, but in fairness to him Dr. Ivchenko already has his claws in by that point, so Dooley was fighting a harder battle than either Sousa or Thompson.) That call out would not have been possible, however, without the violent campaign of resistance on Peggy's part that first got the attention of those men. To whit, neither Dooley, Thompson, nor Sousa was in a position to really see or hear Peggy until she violently claimed their attention. Days of clandestine operations and properly channeled challenges didn't fully earn their respect—to say nothing of their trust. Working her way into the boys' club didn't fully earn their respect. Only forceful resistance and explosive violence earned their respect, and only a confession delivered in a tone of carefully controlled, but nevertheless vehement, anger earned their trust.

Peggy could not earn the respect or trust of her SSR colleagues simply by remaining pleasant and working within their prejudiced system. She had to act against that system, and against her colleagues, to do so. There's an implicit message in the fact that Peggy couldn't earn the respect of her colleagues by either remaining demure or playing the game by their rules that applies generally to the nature of successful resistance: politely asking for your rights gets you nothing; anger, on the other hand, gets shit done. It's a sad fact of life, but most people will never give up their privilege without first having their ears boxed, and "Snafu" was a perfect illustration of that principle at work. White women, not to mention minority communities not represented on this show (1), are often told that they should be polite, that they will get more flies with honey than they will with vinegar, that they need to not alienate people from their cause if they want to be victorious in the end. The narrative of Agent Carter explicitly rejects this argument and tacitly supports the viewpoint that change, social and otherwise, requires a willingness to resist, a willingness to challenge people and upset them, a willingness to wield anger as a tool, and—yes—a willingness to resort to violence should the situation call for it.

The world tells minorities to remember their place, and to have consideration for the feelings of their oppressors. Agent Carter reminds us that bitches get shit done.

Notes:
1) I've fiddled with the language of this sentence multiple times in an attempt to articulate the fact that these issues are being writ large with an overwhelmingly white palette. The social justice commentary of the show is obviously meant to apply to more than just white women, and yet many people quite justifiably feel that such a message is undermined by the fact that Agent Carter takes place in a world of manufactured whiteness. My intention with this statement is to acknowledge the criticisms while analyzing what I perceive to be the intended message of the narrative.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Review - Agent Carter: "A Sin to Err"

This review contains spoilers.

Well, Peggy Carter is in a tight spot now, and no mistake. After confirming his suspicions in what must be noted as a rather unscientific manner (isn't it bad form to only have one person in a lineup?), Agent Sousa took his findings about Peggy to Chief Dooley—igniting a manhunt that was equal parts exhilarating, intense, and at times distinctly amusing.

On a personal note, I have to say that Sousa's interruption of Dooley's debriefing with Dr. Ivchenko was one of the best instances of good timing/bad timing I've seen in a long time. I had a strong sense that Ivchenko was a Leviathan operative in the last episode (he was willing to kill a man under his care with far more ease than was plausible for a person in his supposed situation), but nothing could have prepared me for the near-apoplectic levels of fangirl flailing I would ultimately go into when I realized that he was shaping up to be the MCU's version of the iconic Captain America villain, Doctor Faustus. So, good job Sousa for saving the Chief, but bad job Sousa for busting Peggy.

As I said, Peggy Carter is in a tight spot, and it is one delineated by bitter ironies. The first irony is that Peggy got into this situation in part because of the internalized misogyny that prevented her from realizing that Dottie from Iowa was a threat. The second is that, as of "A Sin to Err," Peggy has only just managed to earn the hard-won respect of her male coworkers in time for that respect to be turned against her. Had she been caught in the conspiracy to aid and abet Howard Stark before she had earned that respect, Peggy might have been able to call upon the feminine wiles that served her so well when practically everyone in the office saw her as a creature of inherently lesser talents as a defense. Having seen her in action and developed a healthy appreciation for her abilities, however, none of her fellow agents were inclined to take it easy on her.

One of the primary driving motivational forces on the show has been Peggy's desire to be valued by her male coworkers, but that desire has manifested not in an attempt to improve her colleagues' perceptions of women, but in an attempt to be perceived as one of the boys—a strategy that in itself has sexist overtones. Joining the boys' club often seems like the solution to the problem sexist discrimination, but as this episode demonstrates it actually does little-to-nothing to advance the cause of gender equality. Though the agents of the SSR have come to respect Peggy's abilities as a trained operative, that esteem does not extend to women in general—a fact made all too clear by the fact that both Thompson (who has come to admire Peggy over the course of the show) and Sousa (who admired her from the very beginning) were taken in by the relatively simple subterfuges of both Dottie and Angie. Clearly, Peggy, like many women who find themselves in the boys' club, has won a battle only for herself—not for feminism—and the spoils of that battle are not nearly as valuable as she might have imagined.

It's interesting to speculate on whether or not Peggy would have had the opportunity to win her colleagues' approval without the chain of events that transpired as a result of her taking Howard Stark's offer to investigate for him. For my part, it's debatable. After all, much of her success in the department seems to have hinged on the mission to Russia that came about as a direct result of their acquisition of Sasha Demidov's typewriter, an object that the SSR—arguably—would never have acquired if Peggy hadn't provided them with Demidov's dead body and thus his identity, residence, and possessions. In ways both orthodox and un, Peggy has had to make all of her opportunities for herself, and she will undoubtedly continue to do so as the series draws to a close. But what this episode has made clear is that she has been making opportunities only for herself at this point, and not for women as a whole. The pressing question now is not so much whether or not Peggy has engendered enough respect amongst her colleagues for them to believe in the possibility of that her intentions were honest, but whether or not Peggy will realize what membership in the boys' club actually means for her and for the fight against sexism in general.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Review - Agent Carter: "The Iron Ceiling"

This review contains spoilers.

The plot of Agent Carter is heating up as we come into the back half of the series, with several threads weaving together for what will no doubt be an exciting explosion in the next episode, "A Sin to Err." Chief Dooly of the SSR (can I say again how much I love that he is obviously incredibly good at his job?) is onto the fact that there's a lot more at stake than a witch hunt for Howard Stark. Dottie from Iowa, now revealed to be a product of the Black Widow program, is advancing her covert agenda right under Peggy's unsuspecting nose. And Agent Sousa has—as we all knew he would—succeeded in uncovering the identity of the mysterious blond operative. There's a lot to talk about, but perhaps the most intriguing element is the dynamic that has developed between Peggy and Dottie and the way it represents yet another subtle layer of sexism's insidious cultural reach.

For the seasoned television viewer, comic book reader, film buff, etc., the introduction of Dottie from Iowa in episode three ("Time and Tide") immediately raised a ton of plot-twist red flags, which the showrunners were wise not to drag out. The show's reveal of her as a spy in episode four ("The Blitzkrieg Button") probably came as a surprise to very few people. In "The Iron Ceiling," however, the writers did give us something surprising—an exploration of Dottie's backstory in a manner that enabled us to contrast her experiences with Peggy's in a wholly unexpected way. Like Peggy, Dottie is a hardened soldier—skilled not just in warfare but in the ability to disconnect the emotional responses that is intrinsic to the successful pursuit of war missions. And like Peggy, Dottie is being underestimated on the basis of her gender. For just as Peggy's coworkers should have sussed her out ages ago and have not solely because she is a woman, Peggy should have noticed Dottie's maneuvers and did not solely because she is a woman. Internalized misogyny here we come.

Peggy has never really taken notice of Dottie. In fact, she had absolutely no interest in Dottie when they first met as she was lost in thought over her upcoming mission to trace the path of Howard Stark's stolen technology at the time. That motif of not taking notice, of being lost in thought, of inherently—and without even the slightest critical consideration—assuming that she can lose herself in thought around other women because women are safe was repeated in this episode's diner scene. Sitting across the table from an apparently-planning-a-walking-tour-of-New-York Dottie, Peggy loses her focus completely while looking at Jarvis' business card. She loses her focus so entirely that Dottie has to verbally recall Peggy to herself—something that would never have happened if Peggy had been sitting across the table from a man. But just as Peggy has consistently used the sexism of her male coworkers against them, Dottie expertly uses Peggy's own sexism against her. Dottie's method of stealing Peggy's room keys—knocking over her purse and then insisting on picking everything up as a penance—is such an obvious tactic that it's almost unbelievable that an agent as good as Peggy is wouldn't pick up on it. In the end, however, she is no more immune to her own prejudices than Chief Dooley and Agent Thompson were when Peggy botched their interrogation of Jarvis in the most staggeringly incompetent fashion.

Peggy's dangerous dismissal of Dottie, predicated on her internalized misogyny, is presented alongside Peggy's first taste of success at making her way into the boy's club, and the juxtaposition of these two events is significant. This episode presented a radically different view of Agent Thompson that both humanized him and gave him some common ground to share with Peggy—thus laying the groundwork for the rehabilitation of his character that was hinted at in "The Blitzkrieg Button"—but the fact remains that Thompson is an ethically questionable figure. We've seen him beat, berate, and bribe witnesses; we've seen that he's quite capable of, and comfortable with, lying (although, he is—as I've noted before—not one to lie to himself). In short, we've seen that Thompson's desire to do his job, sometimes trumps his ethical standards—as the desire to do the job sometimes trumps many SSR agents' standards. And while that's okay for a government agent, if Peggy Carter really wants to be a hero she may have to rethink her club membership goals.

Just as it significant that Peggy's tentative acceptance into the boy's club has come at a moment when her own sexism is showing, it is also no coincidence that said acceptance came at the moment when the one person who has always respected her—Agent Daniel Sousa—has discovered a reason to doubt her. Right from the very beginning of the series, Sousa's quest to uncover the identity of the mysterious blond operative (Peggy) who was independently investigating—and possibly sabotaging—the SSR's case against Howard Stark has set him apart from his contemporaries. Unlike Thompson, and even Chief Dooley, who expressed frustration at the existence of this operative but otherwise ignored the conundrum, Sousa has been convinced that the identity of the unknown operative was a key to cracking the case. Neither Thompson nor Dooley ever felt that much time should be devoted to the problem because neither of them really thought that it was possible for a woman to be an important player in an espionage case. Sousa, on the other hand, knew that a woman could be an important player—an embrace of gender equality that actually puts him a step ahead of Peggy Carter for the moment.

Thus, in yet another ironic turn, it is not Peggy Carter but Daniel Sousa who has turned out to be the most emancipated thinker on the show.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Review - Agent Carter: "The Blitzkrieg Button"

This review contains spoilers.

Well, things have well and truly been turned on their head now. Howard Stark returned to New York in "The Blitzkrieg Button" in order to reacquire a specific piece of technology now in the SRR labs after Peggy's successful discovery of Howard's missing weapons at the end of "Time and Tide." However, his failure to tell Peggy the truth about his motives cost him, and, in my opinion, it was no less than he deserved.

Around about a month ago, a short (but apt) tumblr text post made the rounds on my dash. It said:
"I can stomach bro-type boys who actually are quite sweet and loveable beneath their bro exterior significantly more than like, guys who study philosophy and write “poetry” but beneath it all actually have the skewed moral compass and heedless self absorption of your common or garden[-variety] bro."
This post strongly resonated with me for the way it struck at the heart of an issue that had been troubling me for a while—the way some men either pretend allyship for the purposes of getting something out of a women or mistakenly believe themselves to be an ally when they are actually, at their core, committed only to a selfish personal agenda. For me and many of my friends, spotting a true ally has become an ofttimes fraught task, as discovering that someone you trust is untrustworthy is incredibly emotionally draining. However, on the flip side, the discovery of allies in places you never imagined they'd be can be a wonderful and uplifting experience.

As of "The Blitzkrieg Button," Peggy Carter has experienced the profound disappointment that comes with realizing a trusted ally was actually a self-absorbed snake in the grass, but she hasn't yet found that ally in an unexpected place. Of course, the dichotomy between false allies and allies in unexpected places is not so clear-cut in Agent Carter as it is explained here. Nevertheless, I find it an apt description of the lines that are being drawn between the characters of Agent Jack Thompson and Howard Stark.

On the one hand, we saw Agent Thompson riding Peggy hard over her continued commitment to the SSR. He said things to her that were utterly deplorable and cruel. And yet, I cannot help but admire that he had the guts to say such things to her face. Thompson has never hidden his disdain for Peggy and her doggedness. He has never disguised the fact that he considers her persistence to be a waste of everyone's time—not because she is not capable, but because she is a woman and the system will not allow her to succeed. Failing at this point to understand his role in perpetuating that system—and consequently his ability to change it—Thompson has been consistently unpleasant and unashamed of his unpleasantness, and I kind of love that about him. Because as a awful as he is, it is nevertheless clear that he has very few illusions about himself. (A fact that was made equally plain in his exchange with Agent Sousa.) Whatever else we may say about him, Agent Thompson—at the very least—is not a hypocrite.

Howard Stark, on the other hand, is a hypocrite. He's a user and liar, and he has used and lied to Peggy—deploying her desire to prove herself against a rigged system against her, not because he has no respect for her but because he has no respect for any woman. During this episode, Howard Stark spent his time wreaking havoc in Peggy's apartment building and ordering her around like a servant. And when his scheme to steal back a vial of Steve Rogers' blood was ultimately revealed, it was so very clear that he had viewed Peggy as just another girl he could manipulate. He claimed to respect her, but his intention was always to use her as his running dog—fetch this, fetch that—just like her coworkers do and with even less integrity. As Peggy rightly noted, when her colleagues tell her to do some menial task she at least knows that they mean what they say.

What we are seeing in Agent Carter is not just a depiction of sexism, but a deconstruction of it—an examination of its nuances and complications. This is not a black-and-white world but a world of greys and grays. And what has emerged thus far is the improbable notion that Agent Thompson—for all his faults—may well be a more redeemable character than Howard Stark is. Thompson knows the system is unfair, and he thinks Peggy is a fool for trying to change it, but he is neither completely oblivious to her merits nor entirely unsympathetic to her plight. By contrast Stark knows the system is unfair, and he thinks Peggy is a perfect mark because of it. He is surprisingly oblivious to her merits and unsympathetic to her plight. His first inclination was to take advantage of her weaknesses, and it never occurred to him that she would be able to look past his manipulation to see the truth. In the end, he had even less respect for Peggy than her SSR coworkers. And that's not exactly a direction I was expecting the show to go, though I'm rather glad that they have.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Review - Agent Carter: "Time and Tide"

This review contains spoilers.

Agent Carter is really, really killing it.

In this episode, Peggy and Jarvis set out to follow up a lead given to them by the mysterious (and now deceased) Leet Brannis, but before they can do so, Peggy is called upon to sacrifice her professional pride in order to save Jarvis from persecution at the hands of the SSR in one of the episode's most intriguing moments.

I've seen a couple of good metas that have pointed out how brilliantly the writers have fit the perception of Peggy as incompetent by her male coworkers into a pitch-perfect narrative that explores the institutional sexism of the period, and I'd like to expand on this theme a little bit. As has been noted, in "Time and Tide" Peggy flubbed in a major way to get Jarvis out of a difficult situation, and her flubbing was so obvious that if a man had done it he would have come under immediate suspicion. But in Peggy's case her fellow agents expect her to be incompetent, and so it never registers that her obviously deliberate actions are deliberate. It doesn't register even in spite of the fact that they know a) that she is an associate of their suspect, b) that she is on record as stating she thinks the SSR is after the wrong man, and c) that there is an unknown female operative in the mix who seemingly came out of nowhere. It's staring them right in the face, but they can't see it at all.

Now, it would be really easy for the writers to portray the male agents on the show as brainless hacks. (One of my major problems with Marvel's other spy show was that it regularly requires its characters to be temporarily, and inexplicably, bad at their jobs in order for the plot to move forward.) That's not the case in Agent Carter, however. As we have repeatedly seen, the male agents of the SSR are very good at their jobs—if occasionally unthinkingly impulsive. These men are smart; these men are experienced; these men are capable. From the chief on down, they have been shown to be highly observant, methodical in their analysis of evidence, and quick on the uptake. In the first three episodes, we've seen agents Sousa and Krzeminski pour over evidence with a fine tooth comb, leaving no stone unturned. We've seen Agent Thompson routinely move his investigations forward quickly using a combination of tactics (interrogation, carefully maintained personal contacts in the espionage world, etc.) and while coordinating the activities of an investigative team. We've seen Chief Dooley consider and implement good suggestions rather than simply give orders, and we've also seen him to be an expert investigator—as when he immediately noticed that Demidov's typewriter was unusual and had it impounded intact. Time and again it's been made very clear that these men know what they're doing.

And the fact that they so clearly know what they're doing makes their inability to recognize what Peggy is doing all the more explicitly rooted in sexism.

These men are not soft targets for Peggy to work her way around. These men are not tools for making Peggy's (and the writers') job easier. These men are rigorously trained and highly skilled operatives who are so blinded by the institutional framework of sexism in which they live their lives that they cannot see the rigorously trained and highly skilled operative who's going to save the damn day. At the same time, though, the fact that these men are sexist, and that their sexism has material costs (both to them and to the women around them) does not mean that they have no redeeming qualities or that they are inherently bad people. Just as it would be easy for the writers to make Peggy look smarter by making her male coworkers stupid, it would also be easy for them to paint these men with a stereotypical brush, and I am so thankful that they are not doing that.

The nuances of the show's writing came strongly to the fore with this week's handling of the death of Agent Krzeminski, who was not a nice man. The writers never shied away from this fact when dealing with Krzeminski. The reality of what kind person he had been was never glossed over, even as his death was treated with sympathy and respect, and what this indicates is that the writers and showrunners understand that the world is a place where people are complicated. Krzeminski was a sexist, abelist jerk. He was a cheat. He had a wife and a girlfriend and big, rude mouth, and (like a number of the men working under Dooley) he had a very flexible sense of ethics. But he was dedicated to his country, and he was good at his job, and he didn't deserve to die. And the fact that the writers acknowledged this, and showed Peggy acknowledging this, is so important. You can dislike someone and still feel sorrow over their untimely death. You can disagree with someone, and wish they would be different, and—failing that—wish them to stay the hell away from you, and still be cognizant of their fundamental right to exist.

The writers of Agent Carter are giving us so much more than caricatures and sloppy worldbuilding. They are giving us a time and a place and a story imbued with honest, relatable realism. And I am loving it.