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Character Deep Dive: Peggy Carter

Hayley Atwell in Captain America: The First Avenger

Portrayed by: Hayley Atwell
Show | Film: Marvel’s Agent Carter, The First Avenger, Civil War, Endgame

Peggy Carter has been, is and will always be integral to the Marvel Cinematic Universe–we’ll even go far enough to say that when the character’s excavated through feminist theory, she’s the heart of the universe. We all have our favorites in the universe, ships we agree and disagree with, but we’ve got to give it up to Peggy Carter for the ultimate fight towards equality. If it weren’t for Peggy, S.H.I.E.L.D. would not look the way it does today and that’s a cold hard fact people need to swallow.

When the audience first meets Peggy Carter in Captain America: The First Avenger, it is 1943 and along with Colonel Chester Phillips, she is in charge of training agents in order to discover who’d be the ideal candidate for Project Insight, otherwise known as Captain America. As a longtime friend of inventor Howard Stark, Peggy’s position in the Strategic Scientific Reserve (S.S.R.) is a large one. A feminist reading could state that at this point, Peggy Carter appears to be the token female lead—it’s painfully obvious she will end up with Steve Rogers in the end, but what isn’t obvious is the role she’ll play in his life long after she is gone. During her time working on Project Insight until Captain America’s death at the end of film, Peggy is present during each of the battles showcasing to the audience that there is more to her than brains and the ability to throw a punch.

Hayley Atwell in Marvel’s Agent Carter series. Now on Disney Plus streaming.

However, it isn’t until Marvel’s short-lived Agent Carter series where the audience is able to understand Peggy Carter the woman, and the large bridges she crossed to ensure that the future of S.H.I.E.L.D. looked better than her present at the S.S.R. In the exhibition of sexism at the S.S.R. Peggy’s character journey touches on femininity and vulnerability leading to an ending that solidifies the idea that feminism and knowing one’s own value go hand in hand. In her essay, Feminism is for Everybody bell hooks’ states that “to understand feminism it implies one has to necessarily understand sexism” (1). From the moment Peggy walks into her new office, a division of the S.S.R., on Agent Carter, it is clear that her rank here is different than that where Captain America or the Howling Commandos are present.

Chief Dooley, Agent Jack Thompson, Agent Ray Krzeminski do not care an ounce about the position she has held before this, and they especially don’t care to consider her part of the team. On Agent Carter, she is less of an Agent and more like “Marge,” the lunch lady. And ultimately, it’s the start of Marvel showcasing the historical accuracy of the time because in spite of the fact that there’s progress for women, they still have a long way to go. The sexism in Agent Carter is evident on multiple occasions including statements such as: “What’s your name, sweetheart?” to which Peggy’s inarguably feminist reply is “Agent.” A man would never be given a pet-name upon introduction, but as a woman, she is immediately objectified thus, replying in a way to indicate that she deserves respect for the badges she carries.

However, the real showcase of Peggy’s power and the ultimate desire she has to be seen solely as she is without stepping on any of her male coworkers is seen in season one’s seventh episode titled, “SNAFU.” When Peggy is caught with one of the weapons she stole back that were confiscated from Howard Stark’s collection, she is seen as a traitor amongst the S.S.R. Thus, when she is asked why she did it, she states: “I conducted my own investigation because no one listens to me. I got away with it because no one looks at me, because unless I have your reports, your coffee, or your lunch, I’m invisible” Peggy’s metaphorical invisibility amongst her coworkers showcases the idea that this series wants its audience to focus on the fact that this sexist workplace needs a plethora of work for the future to look as it does now. In order to make her position believable, the series needed to show the audience exactly how far Peggy has come in earning the respect she now has.

Now while that little bit above is from a theories paper I wrote that I figured we’d share through a literary perspective. But what’s often made this character stand out is just how vulnerable she is. The cinematic universe always let women grieve and for that I’m grateful, there’s are a plethora of flaws within the films and series, but for the most part, where Peggy Carter is concerned, they’ve rightfully written a woman for whom agency matters. A woman whose agency is respected. It’s no wonder she’s so beloved. Peggy is both admirably badass and fiercely feminine, but she’s been the constant reminder to audiences that women can be whoever they want as long as they respect their own worth. 

This isn’t a woman who masked her pain with her pain through armor, but rather a woman who allowed herself to cry, to grieve, to feel. She’s a woman who has time and time again stood on her high heals when the world told her to back down. She’s a woman who’s persevered even through her tears. She’s a woman who’s doubted. She is a woman who’s fallen. She is a woman who’s fallen in love more than once. That’s what makes Peggy feel so real, while we admire her for being this extraordinary she falls and questions herself. And it’s through questioning where she learns just how impactful she’s been. “Compromise where you can, where you can’t, don’t. Even when the whole world is telling you to move it’s your duty to plant yourself like a tree and say, ‘no, you move.’” What Peggy sought to begin and essentially carried on to completion is seen in the amount of women that stand before us as leaders. It’s seen in the leader that Steve Rogers is because without her, he wouldn’t have the emotional strength he does.

As Edwin Jarvis clarified in Agent Carter’s “Bridge and Tunnel–“Captain Rogers relied heavily on you. For courage, strategy and moral guidance. You were his support.” Peggy’s belief in Steve thus made him the hero that he is. Time and time again throughout the films, Steve reminds the audience that his decisions are a direct result of the influence Peggy has had on him. “Knowing you helped find S.H.I.E.L.D. is half the reason I stayed.” Her impact was colossal on Steve Rogers, and inadvertently on every life he touched following. Peggy Carter was a woman who was set to get married to someone she didn’t fully love before we met her, and instead her brother’s death paved the road towards her fight for a better future. A future she took ahold of because she knew how important it was to him, and thus how important it would be for everyone who’d come after her.

And we can’t end this without an ode to Hayley Atwell. Atwell was born to play Peggy Carter and I miss Agent Carter tremendously. Agent Carter was an impeccable series in its first year and it gave Atwell the opportunity to continue establishing a character we already loved deeply. But in its second season Agent Carter gave Hayley Atwell the means to bring out sides of Peggy we may have otherwise never seen. She continued to carry the character with an unparalleled grace, but she also layered it much more with emotional and physical vulnerability. She continued to struggle with opening up all while firmly following her instincts. Hollywood presented a plethora of unexpected challenges for Peggy and Atwell made sure we could see that though put together, Peggy Carter is still a woman who’s learning every moment of the day. And that exploration of growth has made her even easier to adore. We all know how deeply Hayley Atwell cares for Peggy Carter, and it’s that very devotion which has allowed her to bring Peggy to life masterfully.

Peggy’s choices effortlessly serve as an inspiration to us all and though we don’t exactly participate in espionage, we’ve all experienced some sort of mistreatment in our lives. Peggy beautifully shines light to significant issues we deal with in our day-to-day lives while brilliantly revolutionizing the fact that we must focus on our own perceptions of ourselves rather than another’s.

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