In a Hollywood superhero landscape woefully lacking in female-driven stories, Marvel's Agent Carter is an outlier. The eponymous Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) is a female spy at the center of the narrative who openly battles sexism in every episode of the 1940s-set drama.
But, according to the ABC series' showrunners — Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas — that's pure happenstance. "I definitely think Agent Carter has feminist issues, and I'm happy to put that out there," Butters told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview. "But at the same time, it never drives our storytelling."
That Agent Carter is a woman is never forgotten on the series, though. In the first episode, which aired in January, she cites her gender as a reason that being approached by a stranger at night makes her uncomfortable; and in the episodes that have followed, she uses feminine tools to carry out her missions — a tube of lipstick to drug a man; a bottle of perfume to defuse a bomb. But the showrunners aren't consciously trying to subvert gendered assumptions, even if it is the result.
"That's not making a statement," Fazekas said. "It's just sort of, well, what would a spy have that you want to hide its true purpose? What would a woman have in her purse? She'd have a tube of lipstick."
More than using her gender to her advantage, however, Agent Carter is visibly bolstered by male characters; on the contrary, the efforts of female characters in male superhero projects largely go unnoticed. Of course, Tony Stark can't be Iron Man without the assistance of Pepper Potts, nor can Spider-Man save New York City without Aunt May to cook him dinner, but the labor of those female characters often goes unnoticed in a way that Agent Carter's male helper characters' does not. No one can do it all alone, a fact that Jarvis (James D'Arcy), the solicitous butler, reminds Carter of when he pointedly notes that Captain America relied on her for support.
"Typically, the roles are reversed, and it's Arrow and Felicity, or you have Superman and Lois Lane. The women are the support. And so when you flip that, I think Jarvis does stand out," Butters said.
In the very first episode of Agent Carter, the history of invisible women is invoked when Agent Carter's roommate, Colleen (Ashley Hinshaw), is revealed to be a riveter, à la Rosie the Riveter, the government war propaganda turned feminist icon. Colleen complains about the man she's training at work because, during World War II, "a good part of the reason why we were able to have airplanes and all the things out and going was this female workforce," Butters said. "They were pushed out when men returned from the war."
And Carter herself, of course, was an accomplished agent in Europe, but her male colleagues in the Strategic Scientific Reserve — at least at first — don't respect her. "Where we started her was an accurate position to start her in, as this woman in a man's world in which no one wants to include her unless she's getting their lunch," Butters said. "The progression through these eight episodes is, that changes."
For the most part, Agent Carter uses her imagined incompetence to her advantage. "We've always asked, 'Is it weird to do a superhero show without a superhero?' I'm like, no. I consider her superpower to be the fact that people underestimate her, and people don't really pay much attention to her, even her own colleagues," Fazekas said. "She, for sure, uses that against them."
It's something the two female executives can relate to: In their own industry, the proportion of women behind the scenes hasn't changed much in the past 15 years. But Fazekas seems to have hope that sexism will erode when she watches her young son reacting to the show. "All this discussion that we're having now, 'Oh, is it important?' — for him, and he's 6, he doesn't question, 'Why is a girl doing this?'" she said. "No. She's doing it."