Friday, December 12, 2014

Strong Female Character Friday: Jemma Simmons (Agents of SHIELD)

This week's Strong Female Character Friday is a guest post from Trey Stewart!

I don’t know if Debbi consciously planned to have a week focused on women in STEM*, but today we're going to keep it going and talk about Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge), my favorite character on Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD. Because Jemma Simmons is brilliant, flawed, and the kind of strong female character that I personally would like to see a heck of a lot more.

It's not necessarily surprising that I'm fond of Simmons. At least, not to me. I tend to like smart characters such as Sherlock Homes or Dr. House. Characters that solve the mystery with just the power of their minds. But Simmons is kind of uncommon on television. When we see this trope, the character with the brains saving the world, it's almost always a guy. Or, if it is a girl, she's more of an asskicker than a scientist.

Simmons, however, is a strong female character who could almost be described as the anti-action girl. Her primary contribution to solving the problem of the week is that she is a super genius who is good at science. She wants to go out into the field, but she knows she's not good under pressure and that she isn't really interested in hurting anyone. She's a feminine nerd who wants to save people and who refuses to let the feminine or the nerd get in the way of that.

Obviously, there are female characters on television and in movies that are intelligent and/or good at science but they frequently seem to be either action girls (Brennan on Bones) or created entirely to be attractive to male viewers (Seven of Nine on Star Trek: Voyager). I wish it were a common thing for strong female characters to be good at science in the same way that action girls are common. Tragically, it isn't. Yet.

So, as a little background, Agents of SHIELD is an American TV show that takes place in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and follows a group of agents as they deal with stuff that doesn’t quite warrant the attention of Captain America and the Avengers. The cast is relatively diverse and there are plenty of weird, interesting characters. Two of the members of SHIELD in the current season have been Avengers in the comics and one of them has actually died before in canon (Clark Gregg’s Phil Coulson). It makes for a pretty interesting show.


Additionally, each character has a distinct and important role on the team, as well as their own character arc each season. Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), for example, goes from being so perfect a crystallization of what a SHIELD agent is that it wouldn’t be surprising to see him take over as Captain America to being revealed as an undercover HYDRA agent and then going full on Hannibal Lecter in season two. Then Skye (Chloe Bennet) goes from being a hacker with a shady past to an Inhuman SHIELD agent, and possible future Avenger, with a super-villain for a father. 

In short, there are several really good candidates for my favorite character.

But Simmons wins by a landslide. She's kind of the opposite of what I would expect in a spy and honestly it's wonderful. She has no killer instinct, no trust issues, not even a healthy level of paranoia. She forgives Skye for betraying the team early in season one. She's merciful to the point of not wanting to kill Centipede/HYDRA agents even when they are very literally trying to kill her. Obviously, not killing people is a good thing but spies and other official types on television tend to be a bit trigger happy. Simmons? She really isn't.

It's not just her compassion and trusting nature that won me over. She's also an incredibly terrible liar and this super happy friendly person who likes doing what is expected of her. These character traits aren’t weaknesses so much as strengths that give her a different toolkit for dealing with problems. 

She likes to do what she's told, and she's not good at hiding things. If nothing else, that makes her a character much more commonly used as a punching bag on other shows, rather than a hero with her own epic storyline.**

I love smart characters. I said that before, but it bears repeating. I love smart characters and Simmons is over the top, comic book smart. She had two PhDs by the age of seventeen. Not even Tony Stark can say that. She's described as loving homework more than life itself. She probably was one of those people doing extra credit for fun. Personally, I'm the sort of person who likes school and writing papers plenty, but even I love some things more than homework. 

I’m not saying that Simmons is bad for being such a nerd. On the contrary, it is great to see a woman who is consistently the smartest person in the room. Even better, she's not some arrogant jerk like Hugh Laurie’s House, but genuinely respects everyone while brilliantly outsmarting them.

Seriously, she might be the smartest person in the MCU. I'm sure Tony would argue, but he'd be wrong. Over the course of the series she's worked on cures derived from two different alien species, counteracted the effects of Extremis, and performed surgery to remove an eye implant with a kill switch. If she were a real person, and not a fictional character working for a fictional organization that likes to keep ground breaking scientific discoveries a secret, she would have won several Nobel prizes by now. Obviously, it's unrealistic for one person to have done all the stuff she has but not really any more unrealistic than creating a suit of armor out of spare parts.

It should be noted though that she's not really on her own for most of this. For all of the first season and a bit in the second Jemma Simmons works closely with Leo Fitz (Iain de Castecker). In fact, they work so closely together that they are referred to as FitzSimmons, a single entity. So most of the scientific discoveries Simmons makes over the course of the series are done while working with other people. 

But, again, this isn’t a bad thing. Simmons is kind of a female power fantasy in science. Actual scientists work together and it is good to see this reflected in a genre (superhero stories) that tends to feature lone scientists making incredible discoveries.

Thus far Simmons’ character arc hasn’t featured shocking revelations of the sort that have come out about other characters, but it's still pretty interesting. During season one, when the team visits a SHIELD base known as the Hub, Simmons is established as being an awful liar. She tries and fails to convincingly lie to Jasper Sitwell (Maximiliano Hernandez) while trying to find information to use in rescuing her teammates. This establishes that Simmons has flaws (always good), but it also sets a benchmark for season two, when we see that Simmons has actually learned to lie and learned to do it convincingly. Even if her arc isn't as dramatic as other characters', it still matters. She grows and changes, just like a real person. An incredible, awesome, brilliant person.

At the start of the series, Simmons isn't the most assertive of characters either, but she learns that too. One of her biggest accomplishments was using GH.325 to heal Skye. The events of the show make it clear that the drug is dangerous, but Simmons defies orders from Agent Coulson in her investigation of the drug because she realizes GH.325 could be used to save lives. She stands up for what she believes in. Granted, it goes pretty far awry, but she sticks to her guns.

The time she spends under cover, though is in my mind what really cements her as a strong female character. Specifically, when she goes undercover in season two. She's chosen for the mission - infiltrating HYDRA's science division - because her academic background gives her reason to have access to files that other agents, such as Bobbi Morse (Adrianne Palicki) would not. 

While Simmons does do some dishonest things in her time undercover, she succeeds in rising through the ranks of HYDRA mainly due to her friendly, pleasant, personality and her intelligence. How unusual is that? A spy whose superpower is being really really nice and it works? Just saying, it's refreshing.

Ultimately, the more traditional action girl, and possible strong female character in the making, Bobbi Morse, has to extract Simmons from her cover, but not because Simmons herself screwed up. She didn't. In fact, without her actions and her aggressive friendliness in infiltrating HYDRA, the team would have been lost. They need her. She adds value not just through her vast intelligence but also with her compassion. 

One of the things that makes Agents of SHIELD so much fun to watch is that it has a diverse cast of characters. Not just racially or in gender, but in the outlook and actual design of the characters themselves. There are scientists and action heroes and bureaucrats and tech wizards all working together to save the world. And that's a good thing. A very good thing. Because while it's obviously important to have a variety of strong female characters on television so that women and girls can have role models to look up to, it's also important for white dudes like me to see these women and know that their real life counterparts exist.

One of the questions I see asked when men do a terrible job of writing women is “Do they know any real life women?” People ask that because the female characters don't behave like people, they act like cardboard cutouts where human beings should be. But when written well, having women like Simmons on television gives the boys and young men who are watching an idea of what real women are like. It helps us to humanize the women we see every day, and it suggests that despite what we've been told, the problems men and women face and the way they overcome them aren't so different after all.

It feels like it shouldn't need to be said, but it does. Seeing poorly written women hurts both women and men. But when women are written well, men can see a new perspective on the world. Hopefully, this translates into male viewers having better friendships with the women in their lives, but at the very least, studies have shown that exposure to diverse media makes people, especially young men, more compassionate over all. And if the young men watching happen to want to be writers, then maybe their friendships with women will translate into better written female characters.

But most of all, I like the variety, both as a viewer and as a person deeply invested in the future of education in America.

It's been talked about a lot here and in other places, but representation in the media really does have an impact on what people choose to study. When CSI became popular there was a spike in applications for students to study forensic science. Why can't the same be true for women and the science fields? I want more character like Jemma Simmons because I want more women doing science. I want more minds innovating and creating and moving the world forward. Don't you?

Having different kinds of strong female characters isn't just good on a personal and social level, it also makes for good media. If Simmons were any less flawed or brilliant or interesting, Agents of SHIELD would be diminished. She adds value, just by being there. She is a vital part of the team. And, as far as I'm concerned, the best reason to tune in.

Trey Stewart has his PhD in Educational Research from the University of Alabama and currently works for a think tank examining educational policies in Alabama. He likes comics (just a little) and has strong feelings about gender representation in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as he should.

*Ed. I didn't. That was a coincidence. Go me!
**Ed. See also Amy Santiago on Brooklyn 99. Love her.


  1. Two of the members of SHIELD in the current season have been Avengers in the comics and one of them has actually died before in canon (Clark Gregg’s Phil Coulson).

    And another one easily could be (I reckon May coul give Black Widow and Hawkeye runs for their money - she even has a superhandle, even if she hates it). But I digress.

    On the contrary, it is great to see a woman who is consistently the smartest person in the room. Even better, she's not some arrogant jerk like Hugh Laurie’s House, but genuinely respects everyone while brilliantly outsmarting them.

    Indeed; or like Tony Stark for that matter. I'd add that Agents of Shield is very good at treating intellectual matters as skill-sets rather than all-purpose genius. Simmons is smarter than Skye, but she's not the investigator that Skye is, or the tactician that May is - like them, she's studied and learned to become as good as she is, better than any level of raw intelligence would have allowed by itself - and as you say, we see her keep doing that.

    1. I would so love for May to be an Avenger. I mean, we've already canonically established that she's friends with Maria Hill and Natasha. Please make it so, Marvel. Pleeeeease.

      That's a really good point. Simmons never underestimates her intelligence, but she also never acts like it's a more useful skill than anyone else's. It's a skill with a particular purpose and that's that.

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