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Max Gladstone made a great post today about friendship and Agent Carter which I had a few quibbles/addenda to. I tried to explain them on twitter while at work which, predictably, failed. So here is my new attempt.


Casual touch is sexualized, yes. But it is also gendered. Specifically, it is gendered feminine. I don't want to quite go so far as to say that it's gendered more than it is sexualized, but I don't think it's a coincidence that guys touching each other -> touch gendered feminine -> effeminacy -> queerness.

Female platonic touch in many ways mirrors male-female sexual/romantic touch. This is predicated not on the phenomenon Max points out with men where "We were aware of the possibility of queerness, and because of homophobia that possibility became a risk" but with a separate phenomena where touch between women is desexualized--the vice-versa of "platonic touch is gendered feminine".

As with any set of constructs, there's a breaking point. If you "opt out" of any of the foundational assumptions of the feminine platonic touch world, you are ergo potentially in the realm where affectionate touch is assumed to be sexual. Presenting more masculine than feminine, as I do, can be one such "opting-out". Being openly queer is another. This is both why pairs of physically affectionate friends who are both openly queer get interpreted as couples and why a straight woman once said to me offhandedly that she was afraid a particular stranger would interpret me and her as a couple.

It's also why lesbian couples get persistently read as "sisters? Cousins?" and a good guess at why my girlfriend and I have only ever gotten that when we were both bundled up into winter gear.

So. That's one thing I wanted to say.


I also want to get into film history a bit. Let's be clear, I don't know a lot about film studies. But I do know that the way emotional and physical (in the most basic "they touch each other" sense) relationships are set up cinematographically is heavily associated with the heterosexual monogamous ideal.

Part of this is (I hypothesize) because early film had emotional relationships between heterosexual couples and the type of shots they used for those, the visual shorthand, are inextricable in our minds with the romantic (and presumably sexual) conclusion of the pair's relationship.

Part of it is that so many of the primary emotional relationships on our screens fit the heterosexual ideal that our brains fill in the rest of it. As Max puts it: "I wasn’t feeling any romantic tension there either [between Peggy and Jarvis]—just the ghost of romantic tension Typical Show Structure was telling me had to be there." Now, arguably (I'll get to this later) there are concrete reasons why that ghost was in Max's brain, but I have another tangent to take first.

Said tangent diverts us into slash. Mostly, when we see that shot-by-shot set-up of the emotional relationship between Man A and Woman B, it's going to resolve into a heterosexual relationship. So when those same tropes and cinematographic tricks are used to set up an emotional relationship between Man A and Man B, or Woman A and Woman B, slash fic is arguably a way for the audience to resolve the relationship in fanon in precisely the same way that straight relationships are resolved in canon. It's not that slash shippers are "seeing things that aren't there"; it's that they're seeing what is there: the similarity in the cinematographic set-up of emotional relationships and the disparity of emotional, romantic, and sexual conclusions of such stories based on the genders of their participants.

One thing Agent Carter does admirably is subvert these visual tropes and cues for heterosexual pairings. Max identifies Sousa in his post as "Potential romantic interest number one!" and yeah: Sousa's set up with the meet-cute she-hates-him-a-little-but-he-protects-her romantic comedy filmic beat. Howard Stark is the lovable-asshole. Jarvis--now, Jarvis. Jarvis, at the end of the first episode, fixes Peggy's leg wound in a shot that is everything a quiet romantic moment dreams of being. Let's pull that image up again.



We've got the warm light (check) the illuminated profiles (check) the bare leg, the direct gaze between a man and a woman, check, check, check. Everything about this shot is exactly what it would be in the show where Jarvis was Peggy's designated romantic interest. This is what puts the ghosts in people's heads. It's not just Typical Show Structure, it is deliberate and focused choices this particular show made in its cinematography which invoke these visual tropes.

Now...possibly this isn't the best move Agent Carter could have made. Given that after this (pilot) episode Peggy and Jarvis are never in such physically-intimate situations, it's a cheap way to get audience interest. They've got limited time to get an audience's attention after all! So they throw the standard tropes at the screen and see what sticks. But for people who do keep watching, they have that ghost of expectation in their head, which is (as Max noted) befuddling. Why do I think these two people are maybe going to get together? The script has never suggested it, has it? I mean, he's married, isn't he? But--something makes me think-- (The answer is, The show made you think it.)

This is the section where I complain about Agent Carter so if you do not want to hear a word against it this is probably the part to stop reading.

So. Jarvis is friends with Peggy Carter. But he's also the meticulously-dressed man who trembles about confronting a light-fingered cook, the man who sits at Peggy Carter's feet to fix her wounds. In short, he partakes in a number of things traditionally associated with femininity. This isn't a bad thing! But it needs to be taken into account when celebrating the fact that Peggy and Jarvis are friends. (Side note that dudes partaking in things traditionally associated with femininity are few and far between in fiction and media, and thus Jarvis is still positive representation, just maybe of a different sort.)

Howard Stark is friends with Peggy Carter. He was also friends with Steve Rogers and that relationship was incredibly important to him--Max's analysis of that arc is spot-on, I think--but he's also the playboy. Peggy Carter is The Exception. She's the One He Trusts To Do A Good Job. He doesn't remember the names of the women he sleeps with. He can't even give Peggy the job to track down his inventions without making it into a wink-wink quest for a man.

And I don't care for the way that Peggy Carter ends up having to do the emotional work for Stark--yes he's cut up about Steve's death, yes society doesn't really give him a way to express the relationship he had with Steve, but on the other hand the finale makes that Peggy's problem and also the problem of the entire New York metro area. The friendship Howard and Steve had was not sexual, so it must be violent, right, because those are the only two options (according to media)--so Stark's flying this plane full of stuff that'll make everyone violent, hah, let's raise the stakes, people!--and the only way to stop it is for the feminine (Peggy) to intervene.

Meanwhile, the only way that non-platonic touch between women is introduced into the series is through the literally weaponized and wholly nonconsensual kiss Dotty plants on Peggy. Peggy/Angie shippers are not only responding to the clear emotional relationship between the two women by resolving it in the way that heterosexual relationships thus set up are usually resolved, they are planting a flag in Agent Carter that says "Non-platonic touch between women can be a good thing too."

I don't have a grand conclusion here. Maybe it's this: Max titled his post with why Agent Carter feels like home to him. I can appreciate a lot of aspects of what he talks about, but there's no place in Agent Carter's world for me.

August 2015

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