All of that is to say that this week for Strong Female Character Friday we’re talking about Peggy Carter, the woman who started SHIELD. Because why the hell wouldn’t we talk about her?
Well, actually, there is an answer to that. Peggy (played by Hayley Atwell) doesn’t get the treatment she deserves in Captain America, her first and most official appearance in the Marvel Movie Universe (MMU). She functions primarily as a love interest, albeit a totally badass one. And she often falls prey to the “I’m a strong woman, hear me roar!” behavior that actually signifies poor writing not strong character.*
When we first meet Peggy, she’s walking along a line of recruits for the supersoldier program. One of them mouths off to her about her being a woman, etc, and Peggy wheels back and decks him. It’s played for laughs, and also for a “look how badass and independent she is, she don’t need no man”. But actually it’s wildly unprofessional and kind of scary. Imagine meeting a male character who does that not even a minute after coming on screen. We would not like him. At all.
She also, later in the film, fires a gun at an unarmed Steve Rogers, who’s holding an untested shield. The shield is supposed to stop bullets, but they’ve never tested it. And she tests it by firing into it at point blank range because she’s pissed at Steve for being kissed by another girl. They are not, for the record, dating, and if they were, this would be genuinely abusive behavior.
Aside from those moments of insanity, though, Captain America’s Peggy is a pretty cool chick. She’s the only woman working in Special Intelligence, at least as far as we can see, and she’s already made powerful friends, in Howard Stark and Colonel Phillips. We can tell that she’s risen to her position purely on merit, and we know that she works very hard at her job. We also know that she likes to look pretty sometimes too, and that she isn’t averse to romance, she’s just busy winning World War II.
In short, aside from her fits of complete crazy, Peggy’s a good female character. But not necessarily one worthy of special mention.
Until, that is, Agent Carter.
Now, for those of you who haven’t seen it yet, I won’t spoil the movie. It’s very good, and you should watch it. But I won’t get into real details here. Just the basics. It’s after the war and Peggy’s forced to deal with a kind of institutional sexism that didn’t exist in wartime. She’s annoyed, and she’s not taking any crap. And eventually, as we know from other movies in the MMU, Peggy Carter ends up as the first head of SHIELD.
We can infer so freaking much from that one little piece. Peggy Carter, British secret agent, and woman, becomes the head of a clandestine American military operation, and then rocks it. Hard.
In the comics, Nick Fury doesn’t even bother hiding the fact that he thinks she’s great. No one does. Peggy has, by the time Steve is unfrozen, lived a long and productive life. She’s saved lives. She’s created an agency that can keep the world safe. And she did it all in an era where she was lucky not to be stuck just filing papers.
It seems like such a little thing. An aside. Oh yes, and all those people who you cared about, Steve, they went on to do things. Jim Morita got married and runs an orange farm in California. Dum Dum Dugan blew a lot of things up, and went deaf. Peggy Carter started SHIELD. Howard Stark drank a lot and had a kid who didn’t like him much. Etc.
It’s the end credits of an early 2000s teen movie, where a quick montage and voiceover tells you what happened to all these crazy kids.
Except that’s a huge freaking deal. Peggy Carter was the first head of SHIELD. I don’t think you understand how big that is.
SHIELD is founded in 1946, roughly. That’s around the time when Rosalind Franklin was discovering DNA, and having her work “borrowed” by Watson and Crick, who later received a Noble Prize for her research. Franklin got nothing. It’s the time when women were fired from the factories where they’d worked for years, because men were coming home from war, and the factory wasn’t a good place for women, apparently.
I know that this is all fictional, that Peggy Carter isn’t real, and that up until the start of the MMU, it was on the records that Nick Fury started SHIELD (the same Nick Fury, he doesn’t age). And that’s fine.
But I’m really okay with (and honestly actually thrilled about) this change. That SHIELD went from being founded and run by a white man, to being founded by a woman who was succeeded by a black man, who were both incredibly good at their jobs, respected the hell out of each other, and saved the world.
Isn’t that better?
And no, it doesn’t mean all that much for women in 1946 to have their fictional counterpart running a covert agency, but it does mean a lot to us today. It means a lot because we know how hard that would have been. Because we know how hard it is today. And because if Peggy can do it, then so can we.
I mean, isn’t that the point? We need role models, or else it’s hard to imagine that the thing you want to do is even possible. Peggy might not be the most developed character in the world, and she certainly can fall into some damaging stereotypes at times, but I’ll take it. And I’ll take this world, this Marvel Movie Universe, where a woman started SHIELD. Not because it’s reparations, or because I feel like they’re covering up the whiteness of their past, but because it’s good.
Besides, who doesn’t love a female James Bond who casually busts criminals, checks her makeup, then uses her compact to look for enemy assailants? She’s suave, polite, classy, and never stops being elegant, even when she’s Krav Maga-ing a thug to the ground. Peggy Carter is a lady, a lady who ran an agency, and she’s worthy of our respect.
She’s also worthy of getting her own movie or TV show. Marvel, get on that.
*Thanks to nani1986 for pointing out that I forgot to give credit to "I Hate Strong Female Characters". Edited to fix!