She Knows Her Value
At my yearly review a couple of weeks ago, my supervisor was telling me that she thinks I’ve gotten a lot more direct with my communication style. If I need something, I just come out and say it; if I have a question, I ask it instead of wasting time trying to figure something out by myself. When I started this job, I was more tentative; I think a lot of my current directness comes from interacting with our boss–we’ll call her Anne.
Anne is extremely busy. She runs a retail program with 57 different stores across the country, and we’re adding another 12 locations this year alone–most in the second half of the year. Anne is always on the phone, or in a meeting, or sorting through email and taking care of issues at every level of the business. She’s very practical with her time. If she doesn’t have time to do something, she’ll pass it on to one of the other team members, with the expectation that it will be completed quickly and completely.
Anne’s interpersonal communications take some getting used to. For the first few weeks I worked there, I thought that Anne was a little bit scary, both in person and on the phone. As it turns out, she’s not scary at all: she just doesn’t have time to skirt issues or do a long lead into something that needs to be communicated. She says what needs saying so she can move on to the next 10 things on her list for that hour.
I credit much of my growing directness with direct exposure to Anne. I also credit this to some of my other major influences:
All of these women work and/or live in male-dominated situations where women are expected to be mothers, girlfriends, assistants and secretaries, not kickass women at the tops of their games.
My biggest influence, however, is Peggy Carter from Marvel’s Agent Carter. The show stars Hayley Atwell reprising the role she first played in Captain America: The First Avenger; it aired on ABC in the mid-year hiatus of Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD.
Caution: spoilers ahead!
Agent Carter is set in 1946, a time when there were very clear delineations between professions of men and women. Peggy, as the only woman in her office of the Strategic Scientific Reserve, is seen as the token woman of the group–she gets everyone’s lunch orders, she is directed to get coffee and mind the phones. When she attempts to stand up for herself, to be treated just like the men in her office, she is ridiculed and belittled. Peggy is there to be quietly useful and ornamental, but not to actually do the work the men around her do.
I saw exactly what I expected to see after reading the plot of the show before it aired: the fierce woman making her way through the man’s world of post-World War II New York City. I pulled for her as the underdog, and I cheered when she solved puzzles before her male counterparts did. I gasped in delight watching her take down multiple bad guys in her fight scenes (including her own coworkers!), and I cried more than once when she was confronted by evidence of her lost love, Steve Rogers.
If I’m seeing what I expected to see, then why is this show striking such an unexpectedly strong chord with me?
Peggy Carter is the woman I want to be. She is strong, courageous, and isn’t afraid to voice her opinion. Like my boss Anne, she is very direct: she says what needs to be said clearly and concisely, and then moves onto her next task. Peggy is a government agent working to keep people safe, as well as working to clear Howard Stark’s name; she doesn’t have time to couch things nicely so she doesn’t come off as pushy and a little scary. For example, the scene in Chief Dooley’s office where she makes her case to go to Europe to trap Leviathan: she broke the code, so she thinks she should go. Jack Thompson, the agent in charge of the mission, doesn’t want her to go; he thinks she’ll get in the way. The chief agrees with him, saying he can’t afford to let her go and get killed–because of how it would make him look. This part of the conversation is indicative of how they see Peggy, and it’s not as a colleague:
Peggy can also have fun with her friend Angie, and she can be poised and ready for action with her coworkers or Mr. Jarvis–who is the only man who follows her orders without undue questions or more than a little bit of sarcastic English wit. Jarvis is supportive in every way, and his character is used as a way to show Peggy’s strong character:
Jarvis: And what does the SSR have in you?
Peggy: I am a federal agent, Mr. Jarvis.
Jarvis: Yes, finely trained and skilled in the art of fetching coffee. These men you call your colleagues, they don’t respect you. They don’t even see you. Do you honestly expect they’ll change their minds?
Peggy: I expect I will make them.
Peggy is also vulnerable through her strength. She knows whose blood is hidden in the “bomb” that Howard Stark asked her to steal from the SSR, and she is absolutely furious when she discovers Stark’s manipulation. At the same time–and throughout the eight-episode run–she is both heartbroken over Steve’s loss, and still doing whatever it takes to protect her clear definitions of right and wrong. In most of the situations she found herself in and fought her way out of, I would be taking cover and crying in a corner, hoping it would all just blow over.
But this isn’t blowing over, is it? The world we live in today has frightening parallels to Peggy’s 1946. There are still people in 2015 who believe women don’t belong in the work force; women who do work certainly shouldn’t be making the same amount of money; women don’t possess the moral fiber to make decisions about their own lives; women exist as ornamentation in the world and things to be controlled. The perpetuation of these thoughts scares me, but it also inspires me to become a stronger, more direct, more compassionate woman.
We need Marvel’s Agent Carter on TV. She’s not a superhero or an inhuman; she’s a woman who has put herself in harm’s way to protect those who can’t protect themselves–the same as the men she works with, and the men she worked with in World War II. Peggy is helping to show me how to live my life more bravely; she is also paving the way for girls and women in the world to be able to stand on their own two feet and declare their own value and independence.