Friday, June 17, 2016

Strong Female Character Friday: Whitney Frost (Agent Carter)


The second season of Agent Carter was not the show at its best - we all kind of know that. For all that there are only two seasons of the show, it's not hard to see that the second season was when the network shoved its hands into the work and tried to make the show more like what they thought people would like. It didn't work and now Agent Carter has been canceled, which sucks.

I could absolutely write an entire article on why the second season was a disappointment - even if I did definitely enjoy elements of it - and how ABC seems to not understand what made Agent Carter popular in the first place, but that's not what today is about. Instead, I want to take this Strong Female Character Friday to talk about the one part of the show that was absolutely perfect: the villain.

So Agent Carter follows the espionage adventures of Agent Peggy Carter from Captain America. It's a show that feels like a bunch of 1940s spy movies all strung together, and it's super fun and clever and occasionally silly. The first season saw Peggy (Hayley Atwell) trying to figure out who framed Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) for treason all while she battles the entrenched sexism of her job in the SSR. 

The second season saw Peggy flying out to Los Angeles, this time on official SSR business, investigating a mysteriously frozen lake and eventually getting caught up in a Nuclear-Age science fiction thriller. It also saw her beset by male love interests, probably the network trying to distract the viewers from the vague homoerotic tension between Peggy and her best friend Angie (Lyndsy Fonseca) in the first season, but that's beside the point.

While the first season made a villain out of shadowy Russian organizations and institutional sexism, the second season points its barb more sharply at the beauty industrial complex and Hollywood in particular. Our villain is both a symbol of this culture and a victim of it, a woman told all her life that her only value is her looks who goes very literally mad because of all the years she was told not to use her brilliant mind. 

I'm talking, of course, about Whitney Frost (Wynn Everett). Born Agnes Cully in Dust Bowl Oklahoma, Whitney Frost spent her whole life being told that she couldn't have the life she wanted because she was a woman. She had no power, constrained by her gender but also by poverty and classism. Her mother had to sleep with their landlord to keep the house and always told her daughter to smile because men like to see a pretty face. 

Even though Agnes was a brilliant mathematician and scientist, she was rejected from the University of Oklahoma on the basis of her sex. There just wasn't room for a woman as smart as her in the world to use her brains.

It should come as no surprise, then, that when Agnes Cully is approached outside a movie theater in 1934, she is exactly ready to be told to go into modeling and acting, ready to be told to "Smile" and change her name and give up all this ugly physics nonsense. So Agnes Cully becomes Whitney Frost and the greatest mind of her generation goes slowly crazy.

I feel like that should be established. Whitney Frost was more than a little bit unstable before the whole Zero Matter thing happened. It was just the giant ball of goop that pushed her over the edge.

Having been told her entire life that her value was wrapped up in her looks and not her mind, it's not shocking that when Whitney discovers Hollywood is getting ready to pass her by she gets angry. She's worked too hard to become a star and she's not ready for them to tell her she's too old to reap the benefits. 

But she's also figured out how to get what she really wants too - through her husband and using him as a shield, Whitney has created a scientific corporation to use her brilliance. It's there that she discovers Zero Matter and her life reaches its seemingly inevitable conclusion.

Really all of this just brings us up to the first episode of season two - we meet Whitney Frost as Peggy becomes involved in the case and starts to suspect that Whitney knows more than she's telling about the mysterious death of a scientist in Isodyne's labs. Slowly we and Peggy learn how much Whitney has been pulling the strings all this time. And it's cool because Peggy, who has spent so much of her life being the only woman in the room, suddenly is facing up against another woman, this one smart and tough and capable like her but with a completely different worldview and value system. It makes for good television.

The basic gist of Whitney's arc in the second season follows her after she's caught in an explosion of Zero Matter and finds that a tiny bit of the matter has embedded itself in the side of her face. At first horrified that her face - her most important asset - has been damaged, Whitney slowly comes under the influence of the Zero Matter and discovers that it is hungry. It wants to eat things. Living things. So she goes around for a while killing people and sucking them into the black scar on her face. 

But even that's not enough. Soon Whitney is consumed by her need to get more Zero Matter and more power. She tries to set off a nuclear explosion, kills even more people, and even tries to rip a hole in the fabric of reality. She pushes out everything in her life that isn't her relentless quest for more power, and in the end she has nothing left. It's just her and her fractured mind sitting in front of a mirror at the insane asylum. A pretty unpleasant end.

The unpleasantness of her ending is, however, more based in how tragic her fall really is. I mean, this is a woman who should have been hanging out with Einstein and Oppenheimer but was told she couldn't be smart because she was already pretty, and who learned the hard way that the only way she could get power was by force.

Hell, when Peggy offers to help her and save her from the violent end that Whitney must know is coming, Whitney responds, "Fix me? Why would I want to be fixed? I have never felt more powerful in my entire life!" 

And it makes sense. This is a woman who has been disempowered all her life - of course she's going to grasp onto what she sees as her one chance to taste real power. With Zero Matter she can push past all the sexist expectations and the life she's been forced into. With Zero Matter she can be whoever she wants to be. Zero Matter doesn't care if she's a woman, it only cares if she can use her mind to rip open a hole in the universe. Zero Matter doesn't care if she's a movie star, it's just hungry.

The best villains are the ones who you know are wrong and bad and terrible but who you kind of want to win anyway.

Okay, so there are a lot of reasons why Whitney Frost is a pretty logical choice for a Strong Female Character Friday. Obviously she's a complex and interesting female villain whose conflict is firmly rooted in real life sexism, so that's fascinating to start with. But more of her value also lies in how Whitney Frost, as a woman undone by her own intellectual hubris, is a rather unusual figure pop culture.

Victor Frankenstein might have set a precedent for male scientists being undone by their own greatest creations (though he's certainly not the first male figure like that in literature), but our culture is relatively lacking in female characters who go that route. Whitney Frost is in a lot of ways unique - it's rare to see a woman so powerful and smart and damaged that her own brilliance effectively eats her alive. Women are rarely written smart enough for this, but they're also rarely given such powerful stories. As in, stories where they have that much power.

And for all that Whitney Frost's life is very much a story of a woman who lacks power in her life because of her sex, it's also a story about someone who does gain amazing and awe-inspiring power. Whitney Frost is very powerful. She's just also deeply unhinged and dangerous, two more things that women rarely get to be without being also fixated on a man. 

In terms of the show itself, the flaws of season two really pale in comparison with its strength. By pitting Peggy Carter against Whitney Frost, the show tells a story about different female responses to institutional sexism. Sure, the rest of the plot got bogged down in love stories and an over-reliance on people's desire to see Edwin Jarvis (James D'Arcy) being British and silly, but the core of the second season was a power-play between two women too often underestimated, and that's great.

It also gets even cooler when you realize that Peggy and Whitney are really mirror images of each other. Peggy might have grown up in an upper-middle class family in the idyllic British countryside while Whitney grew up as the misunderstood poor white trash daughter of a single mother, but they are both women told from the get-go that they shouldn't rely on their minds but rather their pretty faces. Peggy was lucky in that she had a brother pushing her to ignore those voices and strike out on her own anyway. Whitney wasn't nearly as fortunate.

In seeing Peggy and Whitney go head to head, especially given what we've already noted about how Peggy refuses to see other women as competition and rather as potential allies, we get to see two competing views of how to be a smart woman in a world where women aren't supposed to be smart. Peggy has lived her life by throwing herself bodily at the glass ceiling, enduring the bruises and then throwing herself back against it. 

Whitney, on the other hand, has preferred to comply on the surface and reap the benefits, all while she still tries to push through behind the scenes. They are two very different strategies, and a lot of the joy of Agent Carter's second season is watching the two women acknowledge this in each other.

I don't look at Whitney Frost and see a character I want to be, not like I do with Peggy. Instead, I look at her and see a character I could be. I see a woman who is so tired of fighting expectations that she just gives in, and I see a woman filled with rage when she finds that giving in to expectations isn't any less exhausting than fighting them. I get Whitney Frost. I wish I didn't, but I do. And I think that as a character, she might just be the best thing to come out of Agent Carter's season two.

So here's to you, Whitney Frost. I'm sorry you went literally mad with power, and I hope that someday we'll get to see a female character who is brilliant and powerful and doesn't get undone by her own creation. But I'll still be grateful for you, the woman who proved you don't have to be a dude to go full Frankenstein and who showed exactly why you shouldn't tell women on the street to "Smile!"


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