In Ester Forbes’ classic young adult novel, Johnny Tremain, the protagonist, Johnny overhears a meeting of the Sons of Liberty in 1773, where James Otis says, “We give all we have, lives, property, safety, skills . . . we fight, we die, for a simple thing. Only that a man can stand up.” Though I read that book for the first time maybe 35 years ago, that line has stayed in my head ever since. I thought about it recently, when I read the two blogs I reposted about Agent Peggy Carter.
I have been lucky not to have to deal with much overt sexism throughout my life. I recognize that as an overeducated middle class white woman doing a relatively “female” job (teaching English), I may have an advantage that other women don’t have. As we have seen with the recent tale of the Nobel Prize-winning sexist idiot who called women in the lab “distractions,” sexism hasn’t gone away and probably won’t any time soon. But it is another reason why we need shows like Agent Carter, to remind us of the time when women had to put up with that kind of bullshit all the time. We remember what our mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, etc. fought for and we sign on for the fight too.
Because it isn’t only sexism. It’s racism, classism, homophobia, me-first politics and religion, and all the other intersecting forms of institutional oppression. And the people most hurt by each of these problems, and that may well include us too, need us to stand up and fight so that others may stand up. But how do we do that? Well, when I went to seminary the first class we took was on anti-oppression, and it required us to face our own isms and untangle them, admit to them, and start habits that would help us stop doing some of the things, having some of the thoughts, that lead us into participating in the oppressions. It’s hard work. You will disappoint yourself more often than not.
So how do we find the strength to fight this battle? Well people like King and Gandhi found religion/God helpful. That can be good for some, although for others sometimes religion has only taught them to be ashamed of themselves, not to respect themselves. So I also like how popular culture heroes, and the writers behind them, offer us a line here or there that is just jam-packed with wisdom. In the last episode of the first season of Agent Carter, we see Peggy jump all the hurdles with her many skills: hand-to-hand fighting, code-breaking, shooting, parachute jumping, and most of all a crack brain and a big heart.
At the end, when one of her so-called “superiors” at work takes all the credit for Peggy’s efforts, another colleague asks her, “How can you just sit here and take that?”
She says, “I don’t need a congressional honor. I don’t need Jack Thompson’s approval or the president’s. I know my value. Anyone else’s opinion doesn’t matter.”
And that could just be a single line in a single episode in a single season of a single show. But it is going beyond that. Because when Hayley Atwell goes to ComiCon and other nerd-fest conventions and people ask her for advice on being strong, facing sexism and other oppressions, she tells them, “Know your own value.” And I just bought a T-shirt with her image on it and the phrase, I know my value, because although I do often know my value (thank you, many years of therapy), I also often forget and need a reminder. And this is what characters like Xena, Buffy, and Agent Carter fight for, inside the stories that transfer from TV to our heads: that a woman also can stand up.