By Guest Contributor Anna Cabe
Like many feminist-cum-superhero fanatics, I eagerly awaited the Marvel Cinematic Universe mini-series, Agent Carter, the company’s first real attempt at a female hero-driven property. In many ways, it delivers. The show makes good use of its 1940’s setting with strong costume and set design and snappy period music. The cast are mostly wonderful and show great chemistry—with the standout, of course, being Hayley Atwell, the titular Strategic Scientific Reserve (S.S.R.) Agent Peggy Carter.
As Agent Carter, Atwell kicks multiple men’s (and one equally badass woman’s) asses, wrings tears from viewers’ eyes, makes us laugh with an archly delivered quip, and looks smashing in an evening gown and red lipstick. She flips the script of the superhero’s girlfriend—She doesn’t die! She isn’t always being rescued!—and has her own adventures after her boyfriend, Captain America, “dies.” When I finally finished the season (I live overseas with sketchy Internet so I’m slow to catch up to broadcast shows), I sang its praises all over Twitter and Facebook.
That said, Agent Carter has not escaped criticism for limitations when it comes to both race and gender, namely a painfully white and very male cast. Defenders of the casting have deflected this criticism in the name of “historical accuracy,” as though American history is exclusively white unless the subject is slavery, immigration, and the Civil Rights Movement. And of course, this is a show set in an alternate timeline in which superhuman Captain America is the United States’ first line of defense against a Nazi supervillain named Red Skull. A few substantial brown characters hardly seems a stretch of credibility or a distortion of history by comparison.
Indeed, Agent Carter’s roster represents a lost opportunity to cast meaty roles for Black actors in particular, as the New York City of the era had a vibrant Black culture and societybarely touched in the series. Building on this criticism, in this piece I explore how Agent Carter also marginalizes Asians.
Firstly, there aren’t many Asian faces on the cast. Only two Asian characters get any significant screen-time: a woman who is one of Howard Stark’s many former conquests and is unnamed onscreen in episode 6, “A Sin to Err,” and S.S.R. Agent Mike Li, introduced—and promptly killed off—in episode 5, “The Iron Ceiling.” To put it concisely, one is a red-shirt, killed off to show the danger the main characters are in, and the other merely more evidence of Howard Stark’s raging libido and callousness towards women. At least we know Stark’s pecker is #YesAllWomen. Okay, gotcha.
In the “The Iron Ceiling,” Peggy, Agent Thompson (Chad Michael Murray), and the Howling Commandos go into the U.S.S.R. to track a lead on Howard Stark. S.S.R. believes Stark has committed treason by selling his dangerous inventions to enemy powers. By this point, we know Agent Thompson as a competent agent and a Navy Cross winner but also an arch-chauvinist, having told Peggy in the last episode, “The Blitzkrieg Button,” that no man would ever see her as an equal and believing up until the mission really goes underway in the U.S.S.R that Peggy will be a burden and not an asset. We also know Thompson received his Navy Cross for service in the Pacific Theater in World War II, after he killed six Japanese soldiers about to attack his sleeping camp in Okinawa.
As it turns out, however, Agent Thompson isn’t the hero his country thinks he is. At the end of “The Iron Ceiling,” Thompson—who has showed signs of PTSD throughout the episode—admits to Peggy that the soldiers he killed had come to his camp to surrender. He hadn’t noticed their white flag until it was too late.
“I’ve been trying to tell that story since I came home from war,” he says to Peggy.
“You just did,” she answers sympathetically.
The exchange is meant to be a tender moment of bonding between two people who, up to this point, have been antagonistic; it’s a moment of character-deepening vulnerability for Agent Thompson. Both Atwell and Murray sell the hell out of the scene.
And yet, it doesn’t completely work for me.
The problem: humanizing Agent Thompson’s character comes, as it so often does in TV storytelling, at the cost of treating people of color as marginal and purely instrumental bodies. Time and again we see how the deaths of people of color or white women are used to generate sympathy for white male characters, to give their seemingly impermeable armor a few cracks. The viewer is invited to lament—oh no! They died because of him? Because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time? Let’s pity the man for his mistake. To err is to be human.
But “human” is a label rarely afforded those whose deaths are used to create a tragic backstory for more central, white characters. Agent Thompson’s Japanese victims aren’t given the time or space to be human, much less superhuman; they are mere specters that haunt Thompson’s past. What’s more, the kinds of bodies that too often serve this narrative function belong to the already marginalized, to those already denied anything resembling significant, nuanced characterization in television and other media.
The cheap tragedy of Agent Thompson’s backstory is highlighted by the fact that the incident isn’t meaningfully brought up again in Agent Carter. Thompson is nicer to Peggy after confiding in her, but to the show’s credit, he doesn’t really change substantially by the end. When Peggy, Howard Stark, Stark’s butler and Peggy’s sidekick Jarvis, and a team of S.S.R. agents, who finally recognize Peggy’s worth, save the day, Thompson takes all the credit and buries any mention of Peggy’s or the disabled Agent Sousa’s contributions. Because if he already lied about the much bigger problem of having murdered six surrendering soldiers, why not lie again for another prize?
There’s really no one on the show to push back against Agent Thompson’s lying. Peggy chose compassion, and as I mentioned before, there’s no developed Asian, much less specifically Japanese, character in the show who might challenge Thompson on that count. Hell, the only Asian agent with a name, Agent Li, dies in the same episode Agent Thompson confesses that he isn’t a WWII hero.
This episode is especially galling given the historical setting of the show. The United States imprisoned Japanese-American citizens in internment camps all along the West Coast because they might be “dangerous,” just as Agent Thompson assumed the soldiers approaching his camp to be. There are also troubling echoes of all-too-real coverups of U.S. military atrocities, and the lack of consequences for those responsible when such atrocities are brought to light. When American soldiers murdered about 500 Vietnamese people in My Lai hamlet, mostly women, children, and the elderly, on March 16, 1968, claiming, incorrectly, they were harboring Viet Cong, the murders were covered up for nearly a year by high-ranking officials. The eventual leak of the story led to such outrage that 14 officers were charged with the crime in 1970.
Only one was convicted.
This history of the U.S. government and its military abducting, detaining, killing, and hiding from sight the Asian bodies they fear and call enemy makes the erasures of Agent Carter all the more painful. This is the history in which the bodies are buried and forgotten.
With yesterday’s announcement Agent Carter has been renewed for a second season, its creators have a new opportunity to respond to this and other criticisms. Let us hope that the bodies they uncover in the future—Asian bodies and all the bodies of the marginalized—stay unburied and unforgotten.
Anna Cabe lives, teaches, and writes in Indonesia. Her work appears or is upcoming in The Hairpin, The Toast, the Atticus Review, and Pink Pangea, among others. She will be attending Indiana University-Bloomington’s MFA program as a fiction candidate in the fall. In her spare time, she’s either ranting about movies on Twitter (@annablabs) or killing it at karaoke.
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