When it was announced in May that ABC’s Agent Carter would be cancelled, I wondered if it would have succeeded if it had been kinder in its depiction of the Greatest Generation.
The male denizens of 1940s America in Captain America: The First Avenger were heroic stalwarts willing to fight and die for a noble cause.
By contrast, nearly every male character in Agent Carter is a portly desk-jockey with no regard for women. It would almost be caricature, except that the show takes itself completely seriously.
But even a brief examination of a few movies actually made in that era demonstrate a far different world. Women are respected by men as equals, being strong characters in their own right, and are often in positions of authority themselves.
Francis Schaeffer wrote that all art reflects the worldview of the artist. Logically, classic films depicting noble treatment of women in contemporary times are in line with a worldview that endorses such behavior in reality.
In a time when modern period pieces pull out all the stops to remind us just how stupid and backward our ancestors were, a more accurate picture of the past can be found in classic films.
In the 45 minute televised installment that was the pilot episode of Agent Carter, the eponymous heroine, played by Haylie Atwell, struts about post-World War II New York City as a secret agent.
The show takes every opportunity to remind us that all men are fat, lazy, sexist pigs, except for the subservient Jarvis (James D’Arcy).
One handicapped colleague who does stick up for Carter is immediately chastised by our heroine for thinking that she couldn’t fight her own battles. One wonders how exactly Carter wants men to behave.
Another fellow chews out a waitress, stating that the Nazis who put him in a POW camp gave him better food. I found myself contemplating how that rotund gentleman would ever have been accepted for military service.
Agent Carter isn’t the only modern TV show to follow this trend. A Christmas special for the popular BBC drama Sherlock re-imagines the show in Victorian London.
Once again, nearly all male characters are unrivaled sexists. In this take on the 1890s, Women are treated as mere chattel. The episode’s antagonists are a bizarre cult of suffragettes whose murders Holmes justifies in his concluding summation of the mystery.
Contrast this rubbish to the 1957 film Desk Set, starring Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn.
With a tight script and a fun plot by today’s standards, this romantic comedy depicts women working in the offices of a large media corporation on a level equal to that of men and critical to the organization’s function.
In fact, the main conflict within that film isn’t the typical feminist cliche of women being hampered and discriminated against due to their sex. Rather, the conflict arises from the introduction of new technology into the workplace.
Take another film, Deadline – U.S.A. This 1952 film starring Humphrey Bogart shows multiple women not only in positions of power and influence, but almost universally in a positive light.
It features the owner of the newspaper which Bogart’s character runs, an elderly matron. She herself summarizes the problem with many female characters in fiction today, complaining that girls in her day are “all gall and no guts.” There’s also a career woman, a tough reporter and a respected member of the newspaper staff.
Regarding the Sherlock Christmas special, I recall a 1954 American Sherlock Holmes TV serial. In one episode, an English lord’s wife takes the blame for a murder apparently committed by her husband.
This particular husband, however, is not an oafish pig. Rather, he’s a man in a position of power suddenly put in an impossible situation.
Holmes deduces that the murder was actually committed by the lord’s secretary, the wife having taken the blame in order to keep her husband free of scandal in the midst of sensitive diplomatic wrangling.
Both Holmes and the husband commend the woman for her moral courage. In fact, all of the men do so, except for the weaselly secretary, who is arrested for his crime.
This is a very different take on Sherlock Holmes than we have recently seen.
My brief survey of a few obscure films and television programs is hardly comprehensive in nature, but perhaps you’ve heard of this one: Miracle on 34th Street.
This hugely popular film featuring a female lead in a position of authority (Maureen O’Hara) was critically acclaimed when it was first released in 1947. Surely the homogeneously misogynistic world of Agent Carter wouldn’t stand for such a thing!
Unless, of course, our television programs have been lying to us.
I have long since resolved not to watch much television in general, or even movies. Modern period pieces are almost always suspect in either medium.
But I will be happy to watch any film made prior to the 1970s. I daresay that people living in those times had a much better perspective on what the world was like in their era than we do today.
Image: Scene from Deadline – U.S.A. – Source: HamptonRoads.com