Because everything happens at once, the year is 2006 and 2015; I’m simultaneously descending stone stairs overgrown with trailing ivy in the southern Anhui province countryside, walking to the dining hall for lunch, and lounging on my Somerville futon fixing to watch Agent Carter, which friends have kvelled about for months while I’ve been too buried in work to watch television.
But let’s focus on China in ’06 for now.
Two thirteen-year-old boys skip down the steps ahead of me, hand in hand. Descent complete, the taller boy drapes himself over the smaller one’s shoulders like a cloak, and, laughing, they stumble on toward lunch.
Later, in class, two other boys with the local equivalent of punk haircuts and louche bored-with-life expressions tangle their arms around one another and press flank to flank as they puzzle over a composition exercise.
Boys whisper, boys joke, boys touch each other softly with open hands and laugh. I remember the sort of body language passed between my male friends when I was young: handshakes, shoulder punches, slap on the back, hug with closed fists, surprise wrestling moves applied from behind on unsuspecting dudes at their computers. Every touch contained a strike.
I saw shoves and tackles and competitive handshaking among my Anhui students too. But they also patted, stroked, and leaned.
My first summer in Beijing years before, I’d marveled at girls and women walking hand in hand around Bayi Lake in Yuyuantan Park, twirling parasols beneath the Blade Runner sky. At first I assumed they were couples. How wonderful, how accepting! A friend told me, later, that norms of touch were different here: handholding was just something girls and women did with friends.
I didn’t know whether the same form was at play between my Anhui province students, but I suspected it might be, so I asked friends and teachers about homosexuality, and the reactions they confessed to me in Southern Anhui in 2006 reminded me a great deal of those I saw and heard growing up in middle Tennessee in 1996, ranging from educated but uneasy acceptance to a facial contortion and a slur.
So much for my intimations of higher consciousness. But the fact remained: my students touched their friends.
Obviously men like men, and women like women, and men like women, under any cultural conditions—biology in action. I would be surprised if there weren’t women walking hand in hand around Bayi Lake who were deeply, physically attracted to the women by their sides; I would be shocked if none of my male students felt a physical attraction to one another. But gentle touch, in public, seemed not to be sexually marked in this time and place. Some of these people were, presumably, queer. The rest were friends.
CUT TO, as they say in movies: INT GLADSTONE HOUSE, 2015 – DAY. (Except in movies they don’t have a period at the end of the scene establishment line, but this is the internet and if I left off that period you’d all be on top of me in the comment section at once, never mind anything I wrote here.)
At this point my attorney advises me to warn you all: the rest of this essay discusses and analyzes the plot and structure of Agent Carter in detail. Cool? Cool.
I have no idea what to expect from Agent Carter. At risk of nerd excoriation here, the first Captain America movie was, let’s say, not my favorite part of Marvel Phase One. It checked off what boxes needed checking competently and in good time. I was, I confess, a bit disappointed with Peggy’s plotline—meet-cute and body worship, with much of her screen time hinging on romantic tension between her and Steve. Atwell’s an amazing actress and Evans isn’t half bad himself, so they carry it just fine, but I’d read this script before. That final plunge into the water, the date, the swelling music, yes it brought a tear to my eye, but I could trace the etiology of that tear.
But the prospect of eight hours starring Atwell as Peggy, without Steve? Getting to know this fantastic, exceptional person when she wasn’t being movied into girlfriend mode? Without the usual romantic prop to fall back upon, what would the showrunners do?
Let’s take a shot-by-shot walk through the first few minutes of Agent Carter.
We begin with Steve crashing into the ocean, Peggy tearful, Steve stoic, rain check on that dance. This is a show about surviving heartbreak and reassembling your life. The crash ends in a beautiful dissolve to a teakettle: it’s morning in New York. Cue: big band montage of Peggy’s adventures in the war, highlighting action, adventure, competence crosscut with Peggy armoring herself for the day with makeup, stockings, skirt. Spy stuff, awesome. Peggy’s roommate introduced: Peg, you need to get out there and meet someone. Message received, Show. Peggy has to get her professional life together, and her personal life as well—she has to move on, in an explicitly romantic sense. I’ll start dutifully watching for potential pairs, just like I do in every other show. A bit tired, but you’ve shown me so much pure style already that I’m still psyched, because Atwell’s awesome and the clothes! And the New York! And the big band music! And the teakettle dissolve! And my friends say this is great, so, let’s roll.
I’m being unfair to Peggy’s Roommate, because she also introduces the other major theme: that with men returning from the war, workplace gender norms destabilized by World War 2 get reasserted with a vengeance. Rosie the Riveter’s driven to retire. And in case we missed it, when Peggy reaches the headquarters of the SSR, the spy agency for which she works, the show hammers the theme: Peggy’s wartime experience has been completely discounted. In her (male) superiors’ and colleagues eyes she’s most suited for answering phones (like the women who mind the phone lines outside the SSR HQ) and filing. Her heroism has been eclipsed by her rep as Captain America’s romantic partner. (And here’s where I perk up, because between this and the Captain America radio serial featured within the show itself, it seems like the writers had the same problem I did with CA: The First Avenger.)
We meet Daniel Sousa, played by Enver Gjokaj, and once again I am forced to thank Dollhouse because in spite of my deep and abiding frustration with that show it introduced me to a slate of actors and actresses I’ll follow to the ends of the earth. Gjokaj, as Sousa, is the One Nice Guy in the office, a war hero who service left without his leg; he white knights a bit on Peggy’s behalf against office sexism, and she asks him to stop, but it’s clear he cares for her. Potential romantic interest number one!
Howard Stark’s in trouble, in a classic Damsel in Distress “you gotta believe me, Mister Spade” situation given an elegant McCarthy spin. We know him from the Captain America movie, and he’s an interesting temperamental complement to Peggy, in an odd couple sort of way. Potential romantic interest number two!
Okay, cool, if we’re doing a love triangle, neat, I mean, seen it before, but still. Sousa and Howard are also formal opposites (struggling / loyal / patriotic vs. comfortable / adventurous / selfish), makes a nice contrast.
But then Howard leaves, after a suggestive exchange about “I never thought you would have trouble finding a man” that causes me another eyeroll, fine, Show, I get it, this is “who does Peggy end up with adventure hour,” but Atwell’s still amazing, as is most of the cast, and the clothes! And the music! And the cars! And the feminism!
And then—just then because the people who write and run this show are good at their jobs—we meet Jarvis, and my eyes stop rolling.
Because Jarvis is tall, elegant, gorgeous, impeccably tailored, well-spoken, not a fighter (in yet another contrast with Peggy and with all the other men in the show), he’s in bed by nine, he likes band music and soufflés. He’s to be Peggy’s partner in this investigation, the Scully to her Mulder.
First thought: this is our guy.
With respect to Kerouac and Ginsberg, first thought ain’t necessarily best thought. Second thought: wait, no. Sousa and Stark are also positioned as potential love interests. And the show’s told us several times it’s interested in romance.
Hold up. Am I watching a shoujo harem anime? On American live-action television? (For those of you not familiar, this is a style of relationship-centric show in which one woman becomes the center of a complex group of radically different men, all or most of whom crush on her, and the question is which one is the one?) I haven’t seen that before. It’s still a bit done, as a flowering of the love triangle trope, but, hm, neat—
Except, no. Because Jarvis is married.
I doubt we’ll go with a poly story on American network TV, and Marvel probably won’t let straight up Ashley Madison extramarital affairs fly either. Maybe they’ll shuffle his wife out of the way with some contrived plotwork. She has to be a secret agent or something, right? Or maybe we’ll end up in one of the (horrible) narratives where she’s a ‘bad woman’ who ‘doesn’t deserve’ him. God, let’s go down the misogynistic list: maybe she’s shrewish, maybe she wears him down, maybe—
Nope. He’s devoted to her. He loves her deeply. He’s committed treason for her.
What the hell is going on here?
It doesn’t hit me until episode three, and then mostly because a conversation with a friend who said she didn’t feel any particular romantic tension between Jarvis and Peggy made me realize that I wasn’t feeling any romantic tension there either—just the ghost of romantic tension Typical Show Structure was telling me had to be there.
What were these people, if they weren’t romantic interests?
That’s when the present of this show opened. The wrapping paper of style and music and outfits and pace and fight scenes and just incredible acting unfolded, and I saw the structure. Peggy’s Roommate was a double blind.
Peggy and Jarvis and Howard and Sousa aren’t romantically involved. They’re friends.
Peggy and Jarvis form the closest bond in the show. They care about one another, deeply. They trust one another. They depend on one another. They make cutting, terrifying sacrifices for one another. (Jarvis’ fake confession; Peggy’s ‘slip’ with the stolen car report.) They confess. They fight. They cooperate. They betray. They make up.
And they are both, and I cannot stress this enough, so goddamn attractive that it makes my eyes hurt to see them together on screen. Atwell has a kind of charisma I didn’t think was possible in this fallen age. She moves and I can’t help but watch her move. She’s still and I stare in awe. She’s competent and fast and strong and brilliant and witty and did I mention beautiful? And James D’Arcy, who plays Jarvis—cultured, impeccably tailored, dry, wry, insanely handsome, passionate, devoted, reserved except when fury at injustice, or boyish glee, breaks through that perfect shell. I would watch him read digits of Pi just to see his mouth move.
Nor are Sousa and Stark slouches either—excellent actors, attractive dudes, and fantastic, infuriating persons in their own right. Both Jarvis and Stark are canonically, demonstrably interested in women, and Peggy is canonically, demonstrably interested in men. Sousa has no textual history of relationships with women so far as I remember, but his reaction to seeing Peggy in her underwear in e05 suggests he’s at least interested.
(Note phrasing—we have no proof these people aren’t bi, I just mean that we have seen them demonstrate romantic or physical attraction with or toward opposite-gendered folks.)
Sidebar, here, though it’s tangential to this particular point, to note that Peggy has wonderful and strong female friendships too, most notably with Angie, the diner waitress who becomes her roommate, but also, in a lighter in-passing sort of way, with the SSR security guard / phone operator, with Dottie, and with the other women at the Griffith. (My grandmother lived in a situation similar to the Griffith in NYC about half a decade after Agent Carter’s set. The Griffith scenes felt like staring into an up-tempo version of her history.)
So we have these stunning people on screen together, their physical or romantic relationship is demonstrably possible, in fact we’d have to assume they were blind if they weren’t aware of one another as profoundly attractive physical beings, and yet what matters turns out to be not romance, but—trust. Compassion. Betrayal. Commonalities of vision. Differences of opinion. Trauma, and memory.
I’m sorry, it looks understated in mixed case. Let me try again.
And this is where I need to talk about sex. This might get personal. I know it feels personal to me. I’m about to say stuff you may or may not agree with, in public. Please understand that I don’t mean this as an attack on anyone. I’ve been trying to figure out my thoughts on this stuff for the better part of two decades, and this is where that thought has left me.
Humans have been having sex since way back when our ancestors were mice hiding from dinosaurs, and we’ve been trying to figure out how to negotiate our sex drives as long as we’ve been able to figure anything out at all. Sexual attraction in Western medieval romances tends to be seen as a socially destructive force (Lancelot and Guinevere), and sometimes even spiritually destructive (Paolo and Francesca). Sex brings down empires in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and in standard dynastic narratives of the An Lushan rebellion. Sex is celebrated sometimes for its destructive power, or (in Dionysian cults) for its revelatory power—which are of course different sides of the same thing. Sex becomes sacred practice in some tantric and Daoist ritual, in May Day revels, and the Song of Songs.
Modern Western culture, after the sexual revolution, seems to have said to itself, Sex is totally awesome. This old Jekyll/Hyde narrative is stupid. Let’s celebrate sex! Let’s celebrate sexiness! Let’s liberate ourselves from hidebound purity narratives! Sex everywhere! Sex all the time!
Which is great! I mean, I love sex. One of my favorite activities. It sucks to be suspicious of one’s own body and desire.
But when we abandoned the old Jekyll/Hyde story, I think something scary happened as a result. Sex began to colonize all forms of intimacy, like mold colonizes bread.
Cut back to China, 2006. Why could my students behave so gently to one another?
Any definitive answer here falls straight into the kind of cultural reductionism and critique I find deeply flawed. But I can’t help but think that, in the presence of serious homophobia, this sort of gentleness relied on an assumption that physical contact between men could not be interpreted as sexual. In metropolitan centers, where there was more of an awareness of male gay culture as a thing, I saw less casual contact between boys; in the countryside, where thought of queerness was repressed to the point of erasure, I saw a lot more casual contact.
Contrast growing up in Tennessee—no one in, say, my Scout troop, was aggressively homophobic, but ‘gay’ was a more-or-less common expression of scorn that always felt weird to me on a deep level but which I wasn’t conscious enough to talk out. We were aware of the possibility of queerness, and because of homophobia that possibility became a risk. People need to touch people, so we did—but we touched one another with our fists, with our arms and knees in no-pads tackle football, with cuffs to the back of the head, with wrist locks or choke holds or handshakes to crush one another’s fingers, greeting become a kind of war, and looking back I feel in those moments a sort of subtle handshake protocol: “This is not tenderness. It can’t be tenderness, because I am not weak, and neither are you. Because if we were weak, they would spear us through the gap in our scales, they would pull out our hearts and watch us bleed.”
I was weak, or I read as weak, when I first moved south. Those first years I learned to fight. I learned well. I’ve been unlearning ever since. Others must have had it worse than I did back there, back then. But the fear was real.
So, to me, my students’ fearlessness seemed to rely on an absence of possible threat—erasure of the queer possibilities of that touch, problematic of course in its own right, but that erasure could not and did not remove the fact of touch.
Obviously homophobia and misogyny and sexual repression are horrible. Obviously these patterns warp people. But maybe we could have the tenderness, maybe we could have the trust that allows a touch that isn’t war, without the institutionalized repression and erasure. What would a world look like where the possibility of sexual interest didn’t lead to the presumption of sexual intent?
It seems to me that in such a world the first and most proper bond between people—the bond we cared, as a culture, about building and preserving—would not be a bond of sex at all. It would be the bond of friendship. This world would not lie subject to the narrative of sexual primacy.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
A young man and a young woman meet, and grow close for any of the reasons people grow close to people: they like the same books, they laugh at one another’s jokes, they enjoy long walks or rock climbing or Marilyn Manson or gingerbread or whiskey, or even gingerbread whiskey. But in the background hovers this narrative—particularly for the young man, who’s been sold it again and again by mates and movies—that sex is good, sex is desirable, sex is wonderful, sex is the highest form of intimacy so intimacy necessarily leads to sex, we should want to have sex in any and all circumstances in which we can, if sex is possible sex must occur. It turns my stomach to type this, but here we go, “naturally,” in this narrative, once two people grow close and know one another’s secret minds, sex is required. If sex does not ensue, something is wrong. The “friendzone” threatens, jesus god, as if friendship were this horrible barren failure state no one would want to occupy if they could be having sex, rather than a rich and sunlit territory we discover long before our loins first twinge, and which shelters and sustains us long after they cease.
Sometimes there’s no problem, because the timing synchs—both people are single at once, or they’re poly and seeking new partners, they find one another mutually sexually interesting, etc. But often that’s not the case. Timing is tricky.
And when timing slips, life can get ugly.
People break. They sour inside. They assume they’re owed something that was never promised. They spiral down. They hunt. In the most benign scenario, they abandon old committed partners to chase new ones. The presumption that all intimacy must be sexual births horrors. And this isn’t just true of straight narratives! The assumption that any intimacy naturally results in sex leads to suspicion and scorn of contact and intimacy in same-gender groups as well—which I doubt makes life any easier for queer people. This narrative is related, I think, to the one where after your friend learns you’re gay he never hugs you again, where rumor you’re a lesbian titters through your girls’ school and suddenly some friends no longer speak with you.
I’ve seen my friends’ lives broken by these narratives of sexual presumption and sexual primacy, again and again, in small ways and large, and I’m fucking sick of it.
I’ve wanted for a while, though I didn’t know how to articulate it, a story that accepted sexual contact was just one more form of intimacy—an interesting and entertaining one to be sure, but not necessarily the most enduring, and perhaps not even the most intimate.
And that’s what I found in Agent Carter.
Peggy loved Steve Rogers, Captain America, romantically. But she also fought beside him. She believed in his principles, in his country, in his duty to his men and his self-sacrifice. Now he’s gone, and he won’t return. That physical relationship, the sexual relationship, can’t continue. But the moral relationship—her desire to serve the country they served together, to carry forward the ideals they shaped and pursued—remains. She, like Utena, met a prince—and decided princes were excellent, so she should become one, right down to the red-white-and-blue wardrobe. She’s shaken to the core by the discovery of a vial of Steve’s blood, the man’s physical presence returned. She hides it. She shelters it. And in the end, she decides to let it go, because her love for the man endures and does not depend on physical intimacy.
Jarvis loves his wife, Anna. He committed treason to save her. He makes her soufflés. He respects her after-hours requirements. She’s off-screen for the entire season, but that almost makes it better—her offscreen presence allows us to see her as a constant support and anchor for Jarvis, rather than a character in conflict with other characters, which is a risky choice but, I think, the correct one here, since the show never gives us an excuse to think, “god, if not for that lousy Anna, then maybe Peggy and Jarvis…” But Jarvis obviously cares, deeply, about Peggy. He stitches her wounds. They save each other’s lives. They work together to solve the mystery. They pick one another up when they fall. And she stops girls from slapping him in the face for Howard Stark’s nonsense.
Peggy is attracted to men. Jarvis is attracted to women. They’re both so insanely good-looking that the whole weight of narrative history seems to force them into a relationship—Jarvis stitches up Peggy’s leg in direct inversion of the famous “pain don’t hurt” scene from Road House, he’s even kneeling in front of her with his hand on her thigh. But, confounding all expectation and their own evident and nearly supernatural charms, their relationship centers around trust, mutual support, self-sacrifice, and good humor—not sexyfuntimes. By the end of the show, their tension isn’t the tension between lovers-in-waiting, but between friends who find their life paths taking them apart—and who want, desperately, to keep walking together.
On the other hand, consider Daniel Sousa, a hero who’s sick of people looking at him like one. He’s frustrated when Peggy’s passed over, but he’s also attracted to her and feels he can’t be with her, which aggravates feelings of inadequacy connected with his war wound. (Speaking of inadequacy, Sousa’s leg being shot off shades toward Jake’s injury in The Sun Also Rises. I wonder if Peggy and Brett Ashley would get along. Probably not.) He tries to stick up for Peggy, but he’s so swimming in the sexual primacy narrative he doesn’t realize there’s another one. He stays a good guy, but we see him sour. When Peggy slips up, when he discovers a difference between the story he’s telling himself about her and the truth of her situation, he turns bitter and in a way far more vicious than a confirmed all-around asshole like his colleague Thompson—Sousa jumps straight to accusing Peggy of being a sexual dupe of Stark’s. (“He’s really got you wrapped around his finger, doesn’t he? I’ve got to give it to him! He’s as good as they say. He got in so deep he scrambled your brain.”) Their relationship is on some level about sex, so her betrayal must be a sexual betrayal! (It’s no accident that Sousa gets a face full of Reaver gas in the final episode—the show externalizes that inner aggression to confront him with it.) He recovers and trusts her. But he could have been the plain and simple woobie, the nice guy everyone wants to win out in the end. The show does something far more complicated by revealing his sharp edges.
But the show doesn’t code sex as evil, either. Consider Howard Stark.
Stark seems to love no one so much as Howard Stark. He enjoys being with many women; he’s painted as a cad for it, but he’s treated with neither suspicion nor censure, nor does the show seem to scorn his romantic partners. In fact, we get a chorus of their fury when Peggy and Jarvis try to trace one of Stark’s previous hookups. They’re angry at Howard’s cavalier treatment of their relationship, but the frustration tends to hinge not on perceived romantic betrayal (“he said he loved me,” that sort of thing), but on his clumsy attempt to buy them off rather than confronting them directly. It’s jokingly sex-positive, and even relatively kink-positive. But Howard is sleeping around at least in part because of his own deep unresolved issues in the war, especially around Steve’s death.
In this context, while I understand and respect the readings of Howard Stark as bisexual based on the “I know you loved him; I loved him too” exchange with Peggy about Steve Rogers in the final episode, I think the show’s doing something more radical, in terms of resisting sexual primacy, than merely establishing Stark is bi. Peggy, we know, had a romantic relationship with Steve. When Peggy equates Howard’s love for Steve with her love for Steve, all we know is, whatever the form of Howard’s and Steve’s connection, for Peggy, it’s as strong and valid and real as her romantic and moral bond. Perhaps Howard was sexually attracted to Steve. Perhaps they were simply deep, good friends who disagreed and shaped one another and saved each other’s lives for years. Either way, the term ‘love’ applies as far as Peggy is concerned.
And either way, I don’t think Howard recognizes his love as love before Peggy acknowledges it. If Howard recognizes his love for Steve as love, why would Peggy’s description of it—and recognition of its identity with her own obviously romantic love—cause him to wake up out of the trance? No new information has been exchanged. No revelations have been made. It seems to me that Peggy’s shocking Howard out of the trance with a revelation about himself: that he did love Steve as deeply as Peggy, that his love is valid, whether or not that love was sexually expressed.
The series’ twofold climax, then, rests on Peggy’s recognition of Howard’s feelings toward Steve as love (after her rejection of them earlier in the season), and on Sousa’s refusal to listen to the evil psychotherapist’s argument that all forms of relationship hinge on sex. (“[The other agents] see you as broken, half a man,” remembering here the Jake-leg wound-impotence association, “and Agent Carter, I see how you look at her, but she will never value you for the man that you are, how can she? She feels only pity. But we can change all that. If you just focus.”) Peggy extends the vision of love beyond a narrow boundary; Sousa rejects the narrow view of human relationship into whose grip he has fallen, by refusing to listen.
Even when Sousa invites Peggy out for a drink after work at the series’ end, I think it’s easy to read that not as a date, but in juxtaposition to Krzeminski asking Peggy for a drink earlier—that is, Krzeminski asked his colleagues to join him for a drink, then asked Peggy, but with an edge of proposition toward her he didn’t direct toward, say, Thompson. I think we’re supposed to feel that when Sousa asks, she agrees (tentatively) because she feels he’s asking her as a colleague, not a potential sexual partner.
And it’s in that spirit, too, that Peggy and Jarvis resolve: “But should you again find yourself in need of my services, I would be honored to assist you at a moment’s notice, Ms. Carter.”
“Thank you, Mister Jarvis.”
And then, when he gives her the vial of Steve’s blood: “I owe Howard Stark a great deal. But he does not own my integrity. I am quite certain there is only one person in the world who knows what to do with this. You, Ms. Carter.”
He trusts her to make this final, grand, moral decision. It’s the act of a true friend.
I’ve spent ten pages and the better part of a day writing this essay. I won’t be paid for it; there’s too much personal here to burden any paying venue I could easily approach. And Agent Carter is by no means a perfect show; criticisms of (among other things) its racial balance are good and just and have been made more eloquently elsewhere.
Over the years I’ve known many brilliant, beautiful, powerful, elegant, scrappy, joyous, passionate people. I’m married to one, by some miracle. I love her deeply. I’m blessed that she returns the affection.
And we both have friends ourselves—who are brilliant, and beautiful, and powerful, and elegant, and scrappy, and joyous, and passionate, and wise, and also foolish and limited and blunt and silly and weird. We love them. We bear them with us. We build worlds together. Because we’re human, and because we seek out other amazing humans, there have been moments when the old pre-conscious bits twinge. But we are subject to our own will, not to the inner mouse, and friendship is glorious, and true, and anyway the inner mouse can be tended well and joyfully without being allowed into the driver’s seat.
That’s not the kind of life we see all that often on television, or in books for that matter.
Finding a world like that, here, on this show, on network TV—a world where people are beautiful and strong and smart yet the primary axis is not who ends up straddling whom—a world of friends—it feels like coming home.
And I’ve been a long time away.