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Today we're excited to welcome [tumblr.com profile] justira to Lady Business to talk about Agent Carter! Ira is a kickass illustrator, writer, and web developer who gained their powers by consuming the bones of their enemies. They make art, comics, and writing when they are not distracted by way too many video games. You can find more of Ira's work at their tumblr.

So (this season of) Agent Carter is over and one of the most interesting bits of noise to emerge from the finale — besides, of course, the speculation over renewal and, less positively, continued criticism of the show's lack of racial diversity — is the furor over a possibly bisexual Howard Stark. But why are we (again) so excited about a white dude and his feels on a show that is, for once, explicitly about a woman? Well, let's take a look, because we're going to cover Peggy/Angie, Steve Rogers/Sam Wilson, love interest roles, Captain America: The First Avenger retcons, and sites of transgression — but most of all, we're going to talk about how much heteronormativity blows. Spoilers for Agent Carter and both Captain America movies below!

Peggy and Howard face off.

The finale's climax centers around Howard and Peggy both dealing with their unresolved feelings about Steve Rogers. This parallelism is invoked earlier in the series as well, when Peggy and Howard argue over the vial of Steve's blood that Howard has preserved. In both cases, we know Peggy's feelings to be explicitly romantic: this is the framework given to us in the first Captain America movie, and supported throughout early scenes in Agent Carter and, indirectly, by the frequent insinuations regarding Peggy's relationship with Captain America. But Howard's feelings — what basis are we shown for them? The answer is: very little aside from the parallels drawn with Peggy's. The canonical support for Howard and Steve's relationship rests almost entirely on Peggy and Steve's relationship. Howard shared vanishingly little screentime with Steve in the movie, although a stronger relationship than what we see onscreen is implied by the very end of the movie, and by the way Howard's son Tony Stark reacts to Captain America. But the key is, we are barely shown Howard and Steve's relationship. What we see is Peggy's feelings, and a reflection in Howard's eyes.

Does this necessarily make Howard's feelings romantic? Not really. Not all love is sexual or romantic. But it does give an entry point to an interesting theme in Captain America's corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe: the positioning of love interests and the disturbance of heteronormative narratives.

After Captain America: The Winter Soldier was released, something interesting happened: some reviewers misread Natasha as a love interest (and the Winter Soldier as the villain, but let's not get derailed here), while a lot of fans noticed that Sam Wilson, the Falcon, was perfectly positioned as a love interest for Steve. Sam and Steve have a meet-cute, Steve later seeks Sam out and they share some surprisingly personal insights, and finally Sam becomes a member of the team and helps save the world alongside Steve. Sam is the nurturing, emotionally steady counterpoint to the hero's larger-than-life problems and internal troubles. If Sam had been a woman, he would almost certainly have been an unquestioned love interest. Sam's portrayal incidentally pushes back against normative masculinity as well.

Meanwhile, the primary basis for reading Natasha as Steve's love interest rests on her being female and proximate, and on one shared kiss — a kiss solely to preserve their cover, clearly part of a pattern where Natasha deploys sexuality as a strategic weapon. Here, Natasha employs heteronormative narratives about the acceptability of public displays of affection: her strategy relies on such displays being both uncomfortable enough to divert attention but still normal enough to vanish into the background. I'd argue that Natasha would not have used a homosexual kiss the same way — it would draw too much attention. They later discuss the kiss, and Natasha continues trying to set Steve up with various coworkers, dismissing the idea of herself as a sole love interest for Steve and continuing to act as coworker and co-conspirator.

Sam's positioning versus Natasha's are both sites of transgression against hegemonic heteronormative and gender-normative narratives. Even if Steve and Sam's relationship is not read as romantic, it still has a basis in emotional support before physical support, on shared feelings and experiences. Steve and Sam are drawn together first emotionally, and their ability to support each other physically as well is only discovered as a later product of their emotional relationship. This transgresses against norms of masculinity and masculine relations, while Natasha's arc transgresses against heteronormativity as she first deploys and then dismisses its narratives.

Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson alonside some Cards Against Humanity cards. The black card reads 'I got 99 problems but ________ ain't one.' The white card reads 'Heteronormativity.'

A similar play on heteronormative and gender-normative narratives is in effect in Agent Carter. First, of course, is Peggy herself. The show is explicitly about how Peggy transgresses against the gender norms of her time — and ours. My favourite interplay may be between Peggy's aggressively feminine aesthetic — impeccable hair and makeup, lovely post-war fashions — and her unapologetically brutal fighting style. Peggy "fights like a man", but never sacrifices her femininity, troubling the association of brawler-style fighting with the masculine. In fact, Peggy fights like a specific man — she fights like Steve does, or did. Steve's fighting style in the first Captain America movie and in Avengers is that of a brawler, not the slick takedowns that Natasha employs. (By the time of the second Captain America movie, he's clearly learned a thing or two from Natasha.) But Peggy and Steve share a base fighting style that rests on bashing people until they stop being a problem, showing that this fighting style is not exclusive to any one gender. By contrast, Howard is not a fighter. His strength is in his intellect and charm — qualities often given to female characters. This violates normative masculinity, as does the character of Daniel Sousa, as physical disability is not part of normative masculinity. These are just a few small ways Agent Carter pushes back against normative gender roles — overall the series tackles the idea much the same way Peggy does bad guys: head-on and brutally.

But another interesting point in Agent Carter is the relationship between Peggy and Angie Martinelli, the automat waitress. Angie becomes Peggy's confidant and eventually and briefly her co-conspirator. Like Sam Wilson's, her positioning hits many of the notes of a love interest, including her role as an outsider to Peggy's organization and being a generally emotionally stable and untroubled counterpoint to Peggy's superheroic troubles. They have a fight centered around Peggy's work and ability to emotionally connect outside of her job, then reconcile and grow ever closer, to the point where Angie defends Peggy and conceals her whereabouts from SSR agents. Hayley Atwell has even expressed interest in Peggy's next love being a woman — Atwell has been generally enthusiastic about Peggy's relationships with other women (original interview). Fandom has certainly taken to this idea, producing many fanworks featuring Cartinelli. The two women end the last episode by living together in one of Howard's mansions.

Peggy and Angie hug, then pull apart to regard one another.'

Then there is the kiss between Peggy and the Russian spy Dottie Underwood. This is a clearly non-consensual act, but still serves to disrupt heteronormative narratives — it's highly unexpected for one woman to use a sexual weapon such as Peggy's Sweet Dreams lipstick on another. This is nearly an inverse of Natasha's kiss with Steve. Both were done by surprise (though Natasha at least warned Steve, even if she didn't wait for his consent), and both aggressively and strategically deploy heteronormativity to succeed — not a surprise when we know Dottie and Natasha share roots. But while Natasha's kiss relies on heteronormativity as a sort of invisibility cloak, Dottie's kiss relies on heteronormativity to lower Peggy's guard. Peggy would have likely reacted differently to a man getting close enough to her to kiss, because physical closeness between women is not seen as carrying a sexual — or potentially violent — charge. Dottie's sexuality is open to interpretation — she was clearly prepared to engage Peggy in a straightforward physical fight, or using sexual means, and she is also shown to have had sex with Howard Stark.

Finally, we come back to Howard Stark and his feelings for Steve. Let me emphasize again: the first Captain America movie provided us with very little to go on; this is both curse and blessing. Peggy and Steve shared a hefty 21 minutes of screentime, at least half of it explicitly focusing on their relationship and framed romantically, though this also includes times when they are simply part of the same mission. Meanwhile, Howard and Steve shared, at a generous estimate that includes things like Steve's first glimpse of Howard at the expo, roughly 5 and a half minutes. Over a third of that — 2 minutes — was shared with Peggy, with Steve's focus generally on her or on Erskine. Howard's screentime does, however, include his very last scene, where he nearly ignores the entire movie's MacGuffin and demands that they keep searching for Steve. There's also a brief moment where Howard touches Steve's shirtless torso, though this is framed differently from Peggy's own more impulsive and admiring touch. Likewise, in Agent Carter, we see much more of Peggy than of Howard, including her mourning for Steve, her attempts to self-isolate, and her reactions to other people's mentions of Captain America/their relationship. Grounded firmly in The First Avenger, Peggy's feelings are clearly framed as romantic.

Where things get interesting is when parallels are drawn between Peggy's feeling and Howard's. Peggy has a clearly established depth of feeling, regardless of the type of feelings she has for Steve. This depth is simply not substantiated for Howard. What happens instead is basically a retcon: there wasn't enough material in The First Avenger to really validate a strong relationship between Steve and Howard, but the MCU acts as if there was and just runs with it. And most interestingly, Agent Carter consistently uses Peggy's feelings as the measuring stick and grounding point for Howard's. Howard declares that he cared for Steve as much as Peggy did. Peggy says Howard loved Steve, and Peggy loved Steve too. The scene where Peggy talks down a hypnotized Howard deliberately recalls Peggy and Steve's last moments together. Peggy's feelings are clearly both romantic and sexual. Do Howard's run parallel?

Peggy implores a hypnotized Stark to snap out of it by reminding both herself and Howard that Steve is gone.

Is this a strong basis for a bisexual Howard Stark? I think that's not quite the right question. Here's what I'm more interested in: does this challenge heteronormativity? And there, I feel I can give an unequivocal YES. What is key for me is that these scenes do not play out in a way that upholds heteronormative narratives of love, sexuality, and gender performance.

First I want to pull out the idea of queer suffering, in that there is none. But we expect it, no? Howard is not shown to grapple with his feelings for Steve in the way we expect of characters coming to grips with their sexuality. There was a tumblr post I felt put this well:
Part of what makes Howard’s representation of a bisexual man so challenging to heteronormativity if we accept that this is what he is, is that we must accept him as simply open and out without label or announcement. Howard does not “come out” in these moments. Howard is not “in the closet” in these moments. Both Howard and Peggy seem fully aware and accepting of Howard’s feelings without reservation or scandal.

In fact, Howard’s love for Steve is treated SO equally to Peggy’s that, within a society imbued with Heteronormativity, it feels misplaced. We EXPECT Howard to feel shame for his feelings, when the only shame he feels is for failing Steve, not for loving him.

Being “in the closet” is a function of heteronormativity. Coming out if a function of heteronormativity. Agent Carter simply ignores Heteronormativity completely, which makes viewers who do have to deal with heteronormativity have to struggle more to recognize true queerness in its absence.

If those scenes had played out in ways conformant with heteronormativity — if it had been two women discussing their love for a man, or two men for a woman, or if the queer character had been shown to feel visible effects of Otherness — then a queer reading would, I feel, be much more immediate. And that's tragic.

But what I like about these moments is that they work against the patriarchy either way. Even if Howard's feelings are platonic, these are still moments where a man expresses an unusual depth of care for another man. Howard directly compares his feelings for Steve to Peggy's; Peggy calls both their feelings "love", and this, too, challenges heteronormative performances of masculinity and male relationships.

What troubles me more is how much noise there has been about this one potentially not-straight dude on my lady show. Agent Carter is already trapped in a weird ratings narrative where mainstream media are convinced the show is failing even though its ratings aren't bad and fandom is behind it; this is already a show that has to work twice as hard to be recognized as half as good. The show does suffer in terms of racial representation — a critique that definitely deserves its own post and both fannish and creator notice — but it has a consistent theme of challenging heteronormativity — why so little discussion of that as a trend? Peggy challenges the patriarchy as a matter of course; Angie and Peggy's relationship challenge heteronormative narratives of women in competition and potentially challenges heteronormative narratives on female sexuality; Howard's arc challenges heteronormative assumptions about how men relate to other men. This is part of a wider pattern in the MCU, and in the Captain America-related works in particular.

Peggy offers Howard the thing he wants most: a chance to save Steve.

Now, this is not to give Marvel too much credit. Unlike a certain other show, they have not clarified that yes, there are bisexuals afoot (Legend of Korra spoilers!). They are not paragons of diversity, particularly not racial diversity (more on a historically accurate portrayal of Peggy's comics-canon partner, Gabe Jones). Mid-century New York in Agent Carter is noticeably and notably white — this is one area where Marvel consistently does not push back against dominant narratives. But I do think Captain America's little corner of the universe provides fertile ground for sites of heteronormative transgression.

Should we stop fighting for explicit queer representation in Agent Carter and other shows? Is Agent Carter immune from criticism because it's at least trying on some fronts? Of course not. But I do think there is some gaining momentum in Captain America's world that speaks against hegemonic heteronormativity and prescriptive gender roles, and this is something only to be encouraged.

Date: 2015-03-12 08:09 am (UTC)
goodbyebird: Captain America 2: Sam snatches Steve out of the ait and hauls him upwards. (Avengers #marrieds)
From: [personal profile] goodbyebird
I am yes yes YESing to all of this.

Date: 2015-03-13 01:59 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] justira
Thanks! =)

Date: 2015-03-12 10:48 am (UTC)
such_heights: peggy carter in red, white and blue in a crowd of grey suits (mcu: peggy [crowd])
From: [personal profile] such_heights
Ooh, this is a great post! Thanks for sharing.

Date: 2015-03-13 01:57 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] justira
Thank you! Glad you enjoyed it!

Date: 2015-03-12 11:20 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] readingtheend.pip.verisignlabs.com
Huge yes. Yes to everything you've said here. It would be amazing to see a bisexual Howard Stark.

Date: 2015-03-13 01:59 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] justira
I think I will forever see him as bi in my head. I hope the trend I've outlined here continues!

Thank you for reading =)

Date: 2015-03-14 01:52 am (UTC)
monanotlisa: Retro-style icon of Peggy Carter with her red hat and a gun (Peggy! - Agent Carter)
From: [personal profile] monanotlisa
Very well outlined; thank you for sharing!

Date: 2015-03-18 02:32 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] justira
Thank you!

Date: 2015-09-21 01:04 pm (UTC)
alba17: (Default)
From: [personal profile] alba17
This is so interesting. Thank you for this fascinating analysis. Came by this from the editor announcement.

Date: 2015-09-21 08:54 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] justira
Thanks so much! I'm glad you enjoyed it!

Date: 2016-04-05 02:06 am (UTC)
creascendo: A red heart in a speech bubble. (Stock - <3)
From: [personal profile] creascendo
Thank you, this was a great read and very eloquently put. It's like you've explained things that have been hovering at the back of my mind since I first saw the show.

Date: 2016-04-05 02:13 am (UTC)
justira: A purple, gender-ambiguous unicorn pony in the style of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. (lady business)
From: [personal profile] justira
Thanks so much! I'm glad you liked the post!


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