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Try, Try Again: Agent Carter Tries and Fails at Integrating Race into its Second Season

By on March 1, 2016
Agent Carter

(ABC/Byron Cohen) HAYLEY ATWELL, REGGIE AUSTIN

By Chelsea A. Hensley

When Agent Carter debuted last winter, it was to critical acclaim. Though it lacked the ratings to show for it, the show’s fearless examination of 1940s sexism and misogyny earned it a permanent place on the roster of feminist television shows. Along with a colorful take on Peggy Carter’s 1940s spycraft, the show never shies away from the fact that its cast of women—from leading lady Peggy (Hayley Atwell) to villainesses Whitney Frost and Dottie Underwood—share a place in society that constantly limits and exploits them, and Agent Carter approaches their specific plights with confidence and authority. From Peggy’s struggle to be taken seriously at the SSR to Dottie’s underestimation by male SSR agents and the incredibly smart Whitney being whittled down to her pretty face, Agent Carter is undoubtedly successful in painting a realistic picture of women living in a man’s world. However, in its triumph it leaves out something major: race. Last year Agent Carter was criticized for the invisibility of non-white people, and it sought to correct this in its second season by introducing Jason Wilkes (Reggie Austin), a black scientist at Isodyne Industries and a love interest for Peggy.

In 1940s America, Jason’s race would play a large role in his character and the way he’s come to be, but Agent Carter hesitates at exploring it. Jason mentions being unable to find a job anywhere but Isodyne Industries and a shopkeeper, thinking Jason is a threat to Peggy, and then offended by their being together, won’t let them use the phone. Early episodes are oddly configured so no one, even Jason, seems comfortable admitting that Jason is black (when discussing why he can’t find a job he says its because no one will hire one of his “kind”). It’s not until episodes later, when Whitney calls him “colored” that someone officially acknowledges Jason as being a black man. Though we know Jason is dealing with racism, he’s never given the opportunity to reflect on it. There’s a single moment of exhausted resignation after the interlude with the shopkeeper, but other than that, we get little in the way of reaction from him. When Agent Carter explicitly condemns 1940s racism it’s in a monologue from…Whitney Frost.

Continuing the trend of odd choices, Agent Carter squanders the chance at filling in Jason’s character by allowing Whitney to speak for him. While the sexism Whitney (Wynn Everett) experiences, and the racism Jason faces, could complement one another narratively, that only works if they can exist independently as well as together. While Whitney makes good points about Jason turning against the system that’s oppressed him, it’s still Whitney speaking. It’s her voice and her opinion, one we’re treated to throughout the season already. We see Whitney’s point of view in flashbacks and present-day scenes, and all contribute to our understanding of how Whitney’s encounters with gender disparity shaped her into the woman she is. That’s not the case for Jason.

 (ABC/Byron Cohen) REGGIE AUSTIN, WYNN EVERETT

(ABC/Byron Cohen)
REGGIE AUSTIN, WYNN EVERETT

When he debuts, Jason is immensely intelligent, well-meaning and likable. Yet his character is never as fully-fleshed as it should be, and he swings in whatever direction is most dramatically useful. He’s helpful when Peggy hits a wall in the investigation, and he’s a potential romantic option when Sousa becomes (temporarily) unavailable. Still Agent Carter’s hesitation at exploring Jason’s experience with racial prejudice leaves a gap in Jason’s characterization, and it’s only widened by his alliance with Whitney, which is a strange turn for a man we’ve only seen trying to do good. Unlike Whitney’s well-tracked evolution from brilliant young woman to vengeful and ambitious villain, Jason’s turn is sudden and sporadic from start to finish.

This could have been easily resolved by allowing Jason to interact with the world. Early episodes have him out and about with Peggy, which is also where we get the most indications of the status of people of color during the period. After an accident at Isodyne, Jason is made invisible, inaudible and untouchable. It’s a thankless plot that confines Jason to Howard Stark’s lab and immediately encases him in a bubble of Perfectly Decent Non-Racists, and gives Agent Carter a convenient way out of addressing any of the blatant racism that we know exists beyond the lab.

Besides Jason, all of Agent Carter’s cast is white despite glimpses of other people of color in stereotypical roles of an Asian man as a doctor and black women as maids. The show is careful not to present anyone with significant screen time as racist, and any show would hesitate at presenting its main characters (our heroes) as such. It’s been done before, however, and handled before with more nuance than Agent Carter is willing to attempt. Even resident jerk Jack Thompson (Chad Michael Murray) is enlightened enough to be beyond racial rhetoric, but not beyond misogyny. The Arena Club, known for keeping its ranks “male and pale,” makes explicit its stance on women but remains vague on people of color. This could just be hesitation at displaying some of the more overt and insidious examples of racial injustice, but in its tiptoeing Agent Carter makes the 1940s appear close to a utopia of acceptance unless you’re a white woman.

(ABC/Bob D'Amico)

(ABC/Bob D’Amico)

Agent Carter is one of a growing number of shows integrating social issues into its makeup, moving criticism beyond that of narrative and character development. Showrunners Michele Fazekas and Tara Butters are deserving of the praise they’ve received for their sophisticated handling of gender-based storytelling, but Fazekas and Butters have written what they know. As white, professional women they’re likely well-versed in the same issues faced by Peggy, Whitney and Dottie, but they don’t have any personal experience with racism.

This is clearly known to them since Agent Carter’s writer’s room expanded to include black and Asian writers before this season, a step in the right direction for a show clearly aware of the missteps of their first year. Such awareness is promising from the MCU, which hasn’t done very well when it comes to representing anyone other than white men. A turn in the tide has made white women slightly more visible (but we’re all still waiting on that solo Black Widow film). Agents of SHIELD has two Asian women in its main cast, but also has a trend of killing off black men. Netflix hits Daredevil and Jessica Jones have been criticized for their handling of race, and the recent Iron Fist casting hasn’t helped.

Agent Carter is the first to hear and respond to criticism of its handling of marginalized groups, and while their attempt at delving into race this season was flawed and incomplete, it’s also important. Agent Carter has proven itself willing to try and correct its weaknesses, and even if it requires some trial and error, it’s worth a potentially positive end result. Though a third season of Agent Carter is up in the air, it’s still a show worth watching. It’s also worth criticizing, especially if that criticism will be heard.

Agent Carter’s second season finale airs tonight on ABC.

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