Hayley Atwell in Agent Carter

The Lonesome Death of Agent Carter

Perhaps the only MCU woman who has truly separated herself from the traditional MCU mold for women is Peggy. Peggy became more than just “Captain America’s girlfriend” and was established as a true founding member of S.H.I.E.L.D. in the ABC show Agent Carter. The show allowed Atwell to expand the boundaries of the character, who did embody the same ideals as Captain America himself and, I’d say, became a Captain America in her own right in his absence. She was also able to subvert the traditional gender roles by having a male sidekick, Edwin Jarvis — Howard Stark’s butler and happily married man who was the domestic one in his household while his wife was out (presumably working) — help her along in her missions.

Peggy also dipped into the category of queer representation with her friendship with diner waitress Angie Martinelli, a relationship many in the Agent Carter fan community felt could be a romantic one between queer women. However, despite Angie’s possible role as a girlfriend (if the show was allowed to continue past two seasons), she was still developed as her own, well-rounded character. You could tell this woman had a life of dreams, and that she would pursue those dreams with or without Peggy. Ditto for Peggy about Angie.

This gender reversals and depth of character came about because of Agent Carter’s writers, Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas. I doubt the show would have been as sensitive about female characterizations and relationships if it was written by men. As we’ve seen in Joss Whedon’s leaked Wonder Woman script, women are usually written as a means for men to act out their emotional junk, not to exist as humans taking up emotional and societal space. Agent Carter’s cancellation was linked to low ratings, but how much of that low viewership came from ABC’s lack of overt marketing, which is reserved for its other, more boy-centric Marvel show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.? ABC just didn’t know what to do with a comic book property that didn’t fit the standard mold. If even Marvel brass like Jeph Loeb, head of television at Marvel, was blindsided by Agent Carter’s cancellation, then it would seem that ABC really just wanted out of a property they couldn’t wrap their heads around. On some level, it would seem that women-centric superhero shows aren’t allowed to flourish because of a fear that the “demographic” — men and boys — aren’t watching.

captain marvel movie 1

The fear of men not watching female-generated, female-led films and television has weaseled its way into the upcoming MCU film, Captain Marvel, the first female-led superhero film for the franchise. However, Carol Danvers won’t be alone in her film. It’s been reported that Samuel L. Jackson will star alongside Brie Larson (who is playing the titular character). Does Captain Marvel need a man’s presence? While Nick Fury has had roles in other MCU films, he’s always been a supporting player, not a co-lead, as is being reported. Why the big role upgrade? Is it indicative of Marvel’s fear of boys and men tuning out to see a female-led film? Also, is Marvel letting this fear prevent them from finally giving Black Widow, one of the two Avengers without an origin film (the other being The Falcon) her own standalone movie? I’d say she’s owed one.

If men are always allowed to write for women in either the MCU or the DCEU (because, for better or worse, Whedon has been tied to the upcoming Batgirl movie), and if marketers are always afraid that men won’t tune into media starring women, how will women characters ever begin to evolve beyond boobs and butts with mouths? More importantly, how will society ever begin to tackle the lack of empathy for women and women’s issues if more effort isn’t put into giving women characters a voice in the media? Once that happens, once men at large realize that watching a movie starring a woman doesn’t make you a “girly man,” then some of this fragile masculinity might start to fade.

cap and bucky

Romantic Friendship, Sexual Identity, and Homoeroticism in the MCU

What Disney and Marvel have failed to realize is that by disregarding female characters and overstuffing their film lineup with male characters, the MCU has more in common with the homoerotic themes found in Sherlock Holmes and The Lord of the Rings. How? Because unknowingly, Marvel and Disney have put the MCU in the context of “romantic friendship”

This type of friendship, also called “moral friendship,” was the rage in the 1800s, when it was seen as morally and societally appropriate for men and women to have close same-sex relationships. According to Axel Nissen’s Romantic Friendship Reader, Victorian England valued “spiritual relationships both between and within the sexes and devalued erotic relationships regardless of the gender constellation of the couple involved.”

However, as the turn of the century came around, writes Vincent A. Lankewish in a Lambda Book Report review of Romantic Friendship Reader, “the injunction for men to marry became more pronounced, and the supposedly ‘platonic’ nature of male friendships more suspect.”

These relationships were never outright defined as romantic relationships, but there were quite a few who actually were romantic relationships. The fine line between friendship and romance has made this time period one of the starting points for modern queer theory.

sherlock holmes

This type of bonding is prevalent in the Sherlock Holmes stories of the time period. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s books have been a staple in modern queer theory and queer literature studies, since Holmes and Watson’s relationship could, depending on your reading of the texts, fall squarely in line with the moral friendship ideal.

Watson is deeply emotionally attached to Holmes as his friend and biographer and does love Holmes (in whatever sense of the word you take it to mean). As Melissa Caro Lancho writes in her paper Holmes and Watson or Sherlock and John: A Homoerotic Reading of Conan Doyle’s Characters in BBC’s Sherlock for the Autonomous University of Barcelona, Watson inserts a rare moment of personal opinion in A Scandal in Bohemia, when he describes Irene Adler, who becomes “The Woman” to Holmes, as being a woman “of dubious and questionable memory” in a paragraph rationalizing how Holmes didn’t feel “any emotion akin to love” for Adler since [a]ll emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise, but admirably balanced mind…as a love he would have placed himself in a false position.” However, in other stories, we do see that Holmes does have emotion and does actually care about most of his clients, including women. Holmes is once again uncharacteristically emotional in The Adventure of the Three Garridebs, when Watson is shot. Watson writes later how he saw Holmes’ emotionally reserved façade crack:

“It was worth a wound — it was worth many wounds — to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay behind that cold mask. The clear, hard eyes were dimmed for a moment and the firm lips were shaking. For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain. All my years of humble but single-minded service culminated in that moment of revelation.”

It’s worth noting that the speculation over Holmes and Watson’s relationship has been the intentional undertone of several Sherlock Holmes productions, including Billy Wilder’s 1970 film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and in the more recent Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes films, which includes Robert Downey Jr. stating in interviews that he consciously played Holmes as gay. (It’s also worth noting that Doyle himself, as Cathy Camper writes for Lambda Literary, had liberal views towards homosexuality.)

sam and frodo

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings books, on the other hand, were written decades later, after moral or romantic friendships became less of an aspiration and more of a societal aversion thanks to the development of the terms “homosexuality” and “homosexual” in the late 19th century.

However, Tolkien still utilized the same principles of romantic friendship in his characterizations of Frodo and Sam, Sam in particular, who outwardly expresses love for Frodo in the book The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers:

“Then as he had kept watch Sam had noticed that at times a light seemed to be shining faintly within; but now the light was even clearer and stronger. Frodo’s face was peaceful, the marks of fear and care had left it; but it looked old, old and beautiful, as if the chiseling of the shaping years was now revealed in many fine lines that had before been hidden, though the identity of the face was not changed. Not that Sam Gamgee put it that way to himself. He shook his head, as if finding words useless, and murmured: ‘I love him. He’s like that, and sometimes it shines through, somehow. But I love him, whether or no.’”

This type of romantic friendship is acceptable because of its basis in war; Tolkien’s books were written based on his time serving in World War I, where he saw many close relationships between men on the battlefield.  As Tolkien’s grandson Simon Tolkien writes for the BBC:

“The companionship between Frodo and Sam in the latter stages of their quest echoes the deep bonds between British soldiers forged in the face of overwhelming adversity. They all share the quality of courage which is valued above all other virtues in The Lord of the Rings.”

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