Saturday, June 27, 2015

Sexism is the Fire in Which Jurassic World's Undisputable Queen was Forged (and Consumed)

This review contains spoilers and profanity.

First and foremost, let's get something clear right away:

Claire Dearing is a goddess, and anyone who thinks differently can fight me.

*ahem*

Okay.

I have to say that I enjoyed the heck out of Jurassic World. It wasn't the splendid perfection of Jurassic Park, of course, but I never had any expectation that it would be. It was fast-paced, well-acted, decently-scripted. It hit all the beats a summer popcorn blockbuster is supposed to hit: science gone horribly, desperately wrong; precocious children in peril, evil military/corporate goons who get their just desserts; a Drive-In Saturday romance (1). And it featured a fabulous female protagonist. (Seriously, fight me on this one.) All in all, not bad (2).

I loved the raptors; I loved the T-Rex Hail Mary in the denouement. And, oddly enough, I loved the rampant sexism.

Hear me out on this one.

As other reviews have noted, the character of Claire Dearing is subjected to piles and piles of sexism through the whole film. She's constantly under the microscope of the patriarchal gaze, judged and found wanting. She gets sexist shit from her boss, from her subordinate, from the coworker she went on one date with, from her nephews, and even from her own sister—all of whom fail in varying ways fail to respect her capabilities, her drive, her comfort levels, her intelligence, or her life choices. And I love this. I love it because it is so real. The sexism of Jurassic World is so believable, so exactly how powerful career women often are treated by their family and colleagues, that it becomes a thing of beauty—especially given that Claire consistently refuses to bend to these people's attempts to shape the person she is. In spite of everyone talking over her or telling her what to do and how to be, Claire Dearing knows that she isn't called upon to conform to another person's idea of how she should run either her personal or her professional life.

You think Claire Dearing won't get five feet in those fancy heels of hers, you smug, self-absorbed jerk? She will outrun your punk ass so fast, you won't even know what hit you. You think Claire Dearing isn't capable of empathetic care of children because she a) has a demanding job and b) doesn't want children of her own, you hypocritical, meddling older sister? She will teach your sons the true meaning of the phrase boss-ass-bitch by ensuring that they believe (on an emotional level) that she's going to get them home safe.

Claire Dearing is a motherfucking queen. Blue the Raptor, Indominus Rex? They ain't got nothing on Claire. Claire Dearing for President of Everything Ever.

Given that the film features such a powerfully-written (and powerfully-portrayed) female character, it's a real shame that Jurassic World doesn't stick the landing. And it fails to stick the landing by sending Claire Dearing off into the sunset with sexist jerk extraordinaire, Owen Grady.

I really wanted to like Owen. He's basically Star Lord—if Star Lord had a raptor squad instead of the guardians of the galaxy—but without the personal character growth. And that's why he doesn't work. (And why the relationship between him and Claire doesn't work.) It's not that I have a fundamental problem with characters who possesses unsavory personal traits. I actually appreciate those characters when the narrative appropriately calls out their behavior. But the narrative of Jurassic World doesn't do that.

Owen Grady opens with a pathetic pickup line, and he ends with a pathetic pickup line. And, for my money, nothing that he does or says in the course of the film really indicates that he's learned anything about how to treat women with the respect they deserve. Over the course of the film Claire Dearing passes the test to become one of the guys, and since he wanted to sleep with her right from the start that's very convenient for him, but there's no sense that he truly sees her or understands how his previous treatment of her was inappropriate. He never tells her that he misjudged her, and he never apologizes. Maybe it's meant to be implied, but for me—in 2015—implied just isn't good enough.

By all rights, Owen Grady should have done something to indicate that he was at last truly capable of deserving Claire, of deserving an intelligent, resourceful, and multifaceted woman. Failing that, Claire Dearing should have thanked him for his help and politely declined his offer to stick together for survival.

Of course, the second alternative—at the very least—wouldn't have been appropriate to the kind of film that Jurassic World is. (The Drive-In Saturday romance is a tried-and-true component of this sort of film, one I don't necessarily object to if it's done well.) But dammit, it would have been nice to see the filmmakers use the trope to drive home a material lesson about how sexist jerks don't get the girl in the end unless they reform.

Maybe that would have been too unrealistic.

Notes:
1) The phrase "a Drive-In Saturday romance" comes from a song by David Bowie, the lyrics of which are "She's uncertain if she likes him, but she knows she really loves him. It's a crash-course for the ravers; it's a drive-in Saturday..." I use it to refer to a particular trope of romance, where the two main characters start off detesting each other but end up in a relationship in spite of that fact. See "Drive In Saturday," Aladdin Sane (Rykodisk, 1973).
2) As is typical for a Hollywood film of this scope, the diversity was so-so. They didn't kill off the black best friend, which is something, but they also didn't have a single woman of color with a speaking role as far as I could tell.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Review - Avengers: Age of Ultron

This review contains spoilers.

In 2005, Joss Whedon gave an interview for Wizard Magazine in which he discussed his dislike of crossover events and his desire to ignore them when structuring his story arc for Astonishing X-Men volume 3—a title that he wrote for Marvel from 2005 to 2008 (1). A year later, in another feature article for Wizard, Whedon reiterated his personal dislike of crossovers and expressed frustration with being unable to work on characters that hadn’t already been defined by the efforts of other creators (2). I mention these decade-old articles because I think they speak to the fundamental problem with Whedon’s recent take on the Marvel Cinematic Universe—his inability to do his best work in the collaborative crossover environment. The majority of the film’s flaws—from the seemingly retconned characterizations to the Deus ex Machina that saved the day in the final fifteen minutes—can be traced to this core issue: that Whedon, uncomfortable with the developments that other writers/directors in the Phase Two cohort had implemented, chose to ignore the majority of those developments in favor of making a film that was a direct sequel to The Avengers, rather than a sequel to the Phase Two films as a whole.

In terms of its basic premise, Avengers: Age of Ultron is a film that could have grown out of the elements from previous films in the series. However, the film was primarily characterized by a disregard for the aspects of the franchise that Joss Whedon appears to have disliked (3). As a result, Age of Ultron did not take Tony Stark’s character development in Iron Man 3 into account. It did not in any way acknowledge the conspiracy at the heart of Thor: The Dark World. It did not incorporate the recent character development of Steve Rogers or Natasha Romanoff into its portrayal of those characters. And it made a mockery of the principle plotline of Captain America: The Winter Soldier—that S.H.I.E.L.D. had been largely dismantled and that therefore it was well-nigh impossible for Nick Fury to ride in on a massive helicarrier (that just happened to be loaded up with everything the heroes needed to evacuate a flying city that no one knew was going to be a flying city) and save the day.

These are not insurmountable flaws, of course, and character/event retconning has been the bread-and-butter of comic book franchises since their inception, but because the script did not provide any transitions between the Phase Two films and Age of Ultron, Whedon’s retcons are incredibly difficult to swallow. We never see any acknowledgement of the lessons Tony Stark took away from his battle with Aldrich Killian—that building an army of drones was not an appropriate way to maintain control over his (or anyone’s) life; any acknowledgement of the grief and guilt that Steve Rogers felt (and must have continued to feel) upon learning that he had failed to save his best friend from a fate worse than death; any acknowledgement of the immense uncertainty that Natasha must have struggled with in the aftermath of creating a world that knew both her name and her incredibly conflicted past. Even the barest of dialogue exchanges would have helped the audience to transition from these status quos to the new foundation being laid by Age of Ultron—and yet such exchanges were almost entirely absent (4). And the fact that they are absent is a major failing of the film.

These failings are, I think, attributable to the fact that Joss Whedon is at his best when he’s able to work on his own, largely free of the creative constraints that crossovers and multiple storylines present. That freedom is what made The Avengers such a good movie. Whedon was, for the most part, working on a blank canvas with a fresh palette, and with that latitude he made something great. In the post-Phase Two world, however, as the storylines got more and more out of Whedon’s control, the situation became one in which he could not do his best work. It’s unclear why no one stepped in to help Whedon overcome this struggle, or perhaps why he refused to accept their help (5), but in the end this fundamental conflict between what the MCU needed and what Whedon wanted made for an extremely muddled movie.

Age of Ultron was fun while it lasted but impossible to think about too deeply once it was over because very little about it made a lot of sense. The motivations of our heroes were largely at odds with how the characters had previously been developed, and the attempt to write them with the same basic motivations as those that they had in The Avengers complicated Whedon’s ability to handle other aspects of the film’s narrative. The mechanism by which Ultron was created and the basis for his behavior was confusing; the motivations of the twins were never adequately explained; the narrative arc of what happened to JARVIS and how he “became” the Vision was extremely incoherent; and Nick Fury showing up to pull off a Hail Mary during the film’s climax strained credulity. It’s not that the film was bad, exactly—it holds up as well as most action films of this nature do—but the high bar set by such films as Iron Man 3, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Guardians of the Galaxy makes it difficult to settle for something that is just okay.

In many ways, Avengers: Age of Ultron was a film struggling to live up to (perhaps impossibly) high standards and find an emotional arc that really mattered (6), and it missed the mark largely on the basis of the fact that Joss Whedon—for whatever reason—just couldn’t seem to bring himself to interweave the threads of the larger crossover event into his movie. Instead of taking the rich material that he had been given in the form of the preceding Phase Two films, he stuck with the dynamics that he had established in The Avengers. The result was a film that was (in terms of its narrative beats) almost indistinguishable from its predecessor, decidedly retrograde, and a hot mess with a fundamental lack of stakes.

And that’s a great shame for everyone.

Notes:
1) “Joss Whedon’s X-Men,” Wizard: The Comics Magaine, no. 165 (July 2005). During the course of Whedon’s run, Astonishing X-Men operated without reference to such events as “House of M,” “Decimation,” and “Messiah Complex,” amongst others, and his practice of writing independently of major Marvel crossovers set the standard for the title when it passed into the hands of other creators like Warren Ellis, Greg Pak, and Marjorie Liu.
2) “The ABCs of Joss Whedon,” Wizard: The Comics Magazine, no. 180 (October 2006). This article can be read at The Ink & Code.
3) According to a BuzzFeed piece, Whedon’s post-Avengers contract with Marvel engaged him to weigh in on the creative direction of the Phase Two films—a process he enjoyed when other production teams took his advice and was frustrated with when they “missed the point entirely.” “Joss Whedon’s Astonishing, Spine-Tingling, Soul-Crushing Marvel Adventure,” BuzzFeed News (April 20, 2015).
4) Clint Barton’s characterization, while not set up in any way in the previous MCU films (and at serious odds with the 616 characterization of Clint that is so beloved), is apparently drawn from the 1610 Ultimates universe, and I’m not entirely certain what I think of it. On the one hand, I think it opens up some interesting ways to read the dynamics of the character in The Avengers—as described in this post by tumblr user Tea Berry-Blue—on the other hand, I feel that the inclusion of the traditional wife and kids family unit did very little for the narrative of Age of Ultron other than to function as a deliberate attempt to mislead the audience into thinking that it would be Clint Barton who died rather than Pietro Maximoff and to provide more weight to the implication expressed in the Natasha-Bruce romance subplot that women who cannot bear children are somehow flawed.
5) A recent article in The Playlist reveals that many of (what I consider to be) the film’s most cumbersome and tedious segments—like the plethora of dream sequences and the extended stay at Clint’s farm—were things that Marvel wanted excised from the film’s final cut and that Whedon was determined to keep in. “Joss Whedon Shot An Alternate ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ Ending Where [Redacted] Doesn’t Die & Much More,” The Playlist (May 4, 2015).
6) The fact that Joss Whedon elected to try and establish an emotional arc by including a major character death was, I think, a major missed opportunity. The Avengers found its emotional arc not in the death of Agent Coulson but in the moment when Tony Stark realized that he was the sort of man who would lie down on the wire and let the other guy crawl over him—a character development that is, ironically, missing from this film. Age of Ultron was rife with the potential for a similar kind of arc, and it’s too bad that Whedon couldn’t quite find it—or couldn’t quite trust that it would be there without a major character death. (For my money, Hawkeye’s secret family life could have been put to incredibly good use in this respect. Imagine if the film’s narrative had combined the knowledge of everything Clint Barton had to lose, along with his history of mentoring Natasha Romanoff, his obvious willingness to step into that role with the twins, and an immediate feel-good return on that investment with Pietro saving Clint's life without dying himself and then going on to become Clint’s most trusted lieutenant/sidekick/etc. Now that’s an emotional arc that I could get behind.)

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.