by Raizel Liebler
There are many hopes for the newest season of Agent Carter, the short series focusing on the Marvel character who was an early ally of Captain America, and after World War II, becomes an undercover agent for good while working as a glorified secretary. The first season ended with a literal bang, and with a man taking credit for Agent Carter’s spy work — and at least from the previews, two main elements have changed for the show — a move from the East to the West Coast and the addition of a Black man into the cast.
I’ve avoided spoilers for this new season of Agent Carter — and will mostly dance around them for the other shows mentioned here. During the first season, there was a strong fandom push directed at the creators to increase diversity, considering the all-white featured cast. The producers have pledged to have greater diversity this season, but I hope the diversity is realistic.
And by realism in diversity, I mean that I want to see characters deal with the racism, sexism, homophobia and other -isms that we have been led to believe the so called Greatest Generation didn’t dish out (or face).
For example, the first season of Agent Carter touched on, but didn’t focus on the truthful situation that the United States which had just battled the Nazis, decided that the new Cold War was important enough to excuse the behavior of many Nazi scientists and let them into the country. However, not yet dealt with by the show, Americans of Japanese ancestry, who had lost everything due to being sent to internment camps, were not “graciously” welcomed back.
So how could Agent Carter deal with the idea of incorporating these elements into the show? There are a few recent shows set in similar time-frames that could help show the way for different ways of handling a realistic, rather than a rah-rah diversity. I am mindful that none of these shows have the mostly-realistic, but still in a world where superheroes exist, world setting of Agent Carter — and that there may be other similar examples, but these are the shows I’ve seen: Bomb Girls, Foyle’s War, and George Gently.
This Canadian show focuses mostly on the young women workers at a Canadian World War II bomb factory. The Black characters are severely underused; however, the blatant discrimination against Italian-Canadians is focused on, including the internment camps for those of Italian ancestry in Canada.
One of the young women is a lesbian, and her difficulties with being fine with who she is while social pressures gnaw at her is a focus of the show, including her facing down slurs and attacks. Like all of the other characters, she has considerable nadirs to many of her plot points, but neither her friends, nor the show itself will allow her to be a tragic figure.
But the greatest parallel to the plot of Agent Carter, one of the characters becomes a spy, complete with secret assignations, and is clearly smarter than her assigned superiors. While she and the other women on the show are talked down to constantly by men, they manage to push through. Additionally, the show doesn’t slut-shame any of the young women, though secondary characters — in keeping with the time frame, seriously do.
Foyle’s War starts out as the story of the titular character solving crimes during World War II in a small town in England for the first six seasons, and then after the war ends, he becomes involved in spy stuff with MI5, for two more seasons. Throughout the entire run of the show, his sidekick is a young woman who is (mostly) his driver, but to whom he trusts greatly. This type of non-romantic bond with extreme loyalty is reminiscent of the relationship between Agent Carter and Jarvis. The crimes Foyle solves have included dealing with many issues of discrimination and hatred against various groups — and by the time of the later seasons, the way the U.K. after the war didn’t charge war criminals who could help in efforts against the Communists.
Much of the focus on -isms on Foyle’s War is on anti-Semitism specifically, but there is also a focus on anti-Black racism in an episode, and also on the difficulties of dealing with sexual assault at the time. Additionally, throughout the spy years, there is a parallel drawn by the show between the “cover” of being a spy and of hiding one’s sexuality, complete with an important spy business person throughout several episodes. And one of the major important characters of the spy years is an older spy lady, who despite her expertise, is questioned by her bosses at every turn.
In Inspector George Gently, a recent British detective show set a bit later than the other two shows — in the 1960s, issues of racism, sexism, and homophobia are dealt with and directly confronted. Throughout the show, the second-in-command – and younger officer Detective Bacchus, at every opportunity to do so demonstrates his disgust with gay men. Though his supervisor/partner Gently doesn’t share these beliefs, fitting for the time period, he also doesn’t shut down the slurs, only not sharing in or subtly raising an eyebrow. There are also several episodes that deal with racism against both British Arabs and British people of African descent.
But the episode that demonstrates the greatest potential for thinking about prejudice against others (as well as the hierarchical structures that protect themselves more than those that they are sworn to protect) is Gently Between The Lines, an episode in the sixth series, technically about police officers clearing an area intended for urban renewal. The plot shifts around to reveal how much the blue wall of silence protects officers from claims of police brutality, including blaming an innocent woman police officer, rather than punishing the guilty officers.
But this is also the episode where Gently admits that during an earlier incident with protesters years before, he used a racist slur. While he also talks about how he regretted his words, the import and power of a police officer insulting the public isn’t brushed aside. Bacchus’ continued homophobia and Gently’s past racist statements are integrated into who they are as characters – neither behavior is expected to be excused by the audience.
A final thought — there may be objections in some circles to adding in the type of diversity I’ve mentioned because it would somehow be disturbing for children. But we already allow children to watch hyperviolent movies (think: all of the Star Wars), so to think they won’t be able to handle “a bad word” said about a character they like (or from a character they like) is a facile argument. It is important for kids to see more accurately the way things were — and if that leads to uncomfortable conversations for some adults, so be it. But that argument also focuses on the idea that racism, sexism, and more isn’t something that kids can or should understand — and obscures all of the types of struggles that those that have come before have faced.