Last week, Marvel and ABC’s Agent Carter got renewed for a second season, which is awesome. As I’ve written here before, Agent Carter is my subversive spy-thriller holy grail of television, the show I’ve been waiting for since I was old enough to want more.
But there’s one particular front where Agent Carter trips hard, and that’s race. Almost all the speaking roles — including bit parts — belong to white actors. Hell, almost all the extras are white. It’s weird, and it’s a both a social shortfall and a narrative one: This is a series that on one hand very directly explores themes of marginalization and privilege, and on the other is dressed with extremely careful attention to historical detail. The racial homogeny of its cast undercuts the show on both fronts.
Fans have been calling this out consistently because it matters, because Agent Carter gets so much else right that it’s frustrating to see it fall on its face in such a major way, and because the people who make it seem like they might be smart and aware enough to listen.
Some of the backlash is clearly (and unsurprisingly) racist. Some of it is from people who object to the idea of anyone wanting things that they do not personally consider priorities.
But the stuff that gets me the most, the stuff that is just boggling my mind, is from the people who seem to genuinely believe that to add racial diversity to Agent Carter’s cast would compromise the artistic integrity or historical accuracy of the show.
First, let me get this one out of the way fast: The glaring, homogenous whiteness of mainstream entertainment is not a natural state. It did not evolve in an ideological or practical vacuum: it’s the result of over a century of deliberate policy, legal, financial, and social.
Nor — for the most part — is it a deliberate artistic vision. Do you want to know who sits down at a pitch meeting and says, “Okay, hear me out. It’s 1940s New York, but with a twist: all white people!” Nobody. Nobody does that shit. What people do is internalize the patterns and biases they’ve seen in media, in education, in popular portrayals of American life. We’ve been doing this for generations, reinforcing those myths until we accept them as immutable fact. The racism of Agent Carter isn’t malicious: it’s negligent. It’s the racism of privilege; of growing up so saturated with a very specific set of self-reinforcing norms, in a culture and creative and business environment that treats white as a natural default and anything else as an exception.
Let me say this again, just in case: The overwhelming whiteness of Agent Carter is constructed. It is artificial. It is not normal or realistic. It did not happen in a magical creative vacuum any more than deliberately cultivating more diversity would.
Now that we’ve got that one out of the way, let’s talk about the history argument.
First of all, if you think that New York of 1946 was as white as it looks in Agent Carter, then you are just super, super wrong. I’m not sure how else to go into that one, because it’s just a straight-up question of factual accuracy. Even in the 1940s, even under a lot of de facto segregation (which it’s worth noting largely persists 70-plus years later), New York was an incredibly racially diverse city, far more so than the version we’ve seen on Agent Carter. Hell, I live in the whitest major city in the America — Portland, OR — and it’s not as white as the New York of Agent Carter.
Nor were the intelligence and military communities. In 1941, an executive order had desegregated the defense industry, and in 1946, when Agent Carter takes place, A. Philip Randolph and the March on Washington Movement was campaigning vocally for the desegregation of the armed forces, which would occur by executive order in 1948.
The FBI had hired its first black agent — James Wormley Jones — in 1919; others followed. Understand that you are looking at the tip of the iceberg here: click over to #DiversifyAgentCarter for an ongoing lesson on the history you did not learn in schools for much the same reason that you don’t see it reflected on TV. Google the names Pancho Barnes, Maggie Gee, Katherine Sui Fun Cheung.
Certainly, Jones, and Barnes and Gee were minorities in their fields, exceptions in a system aggressively biased against them: but then, so is Peggy Carter. That’s the whole point. Agent Carter is a show about an exceptional individual fighting a system in which she is a second-class citizen, a system that fails to recognize her value or support her work. It tells that story exquisitely well, and it is already telling it along multiple vectors: in the case of season one, gender and disability. There is no reason that race should not be part of that narrative — and plenty of reasons that it not only should but must.
But ultimately, this is a red herring: the history, even the narrative context. Agent Carter should have a more diverse cast and tell more diverse stories because those things matter. Because they are the right things to do: for the story, for the audience, and for the cultural landscape both share. Because when we list reasons that Agent Carter — or any show — should be more diverse, we are supporting the idea that the burden of evidence lies with us, when it should be the opposite. Why shouldn’t it be?
And seriously: If you can accept a world with Hydra, with Captain America and Howard Stark and Leviathan; but you can’t accept that world with black Federal agents? Your problem isn’t history.
Rachel Edidin is a writer, editor, and podcaster. She hangs her Internet hat at racheledidin.com; X-plains X-Men at rachelandmiles.com; is vaguely Internet Famous as @WorstMuse; and lives in Portland, Oregon, with a nice system administrator and a terrible cat.