“That’s Almost Romantic!”: FitzSimmons, Romance, and the Observer Effect

Estimated Reading Time: 14 minutes

(This essay is #9 of 9 in a series on Agents of SHIELD.)

I have a long-standing vendetta against romance. The majority of romances in visual-based media are absurd, offensive, unrealistic annoyances that utilize narrative shorthand in place of actual character development and thus never make sense as more than some kind of male fantasy sequence. Media is predominantly an extended make-believe of straight male wish fulfillment. As such, its rare that women are anything aside from hetero sex objects and queer romance is taboo or a punchline. Even romances that aren’t gross masculine indulgence are usually some tumorous plot point included to appease the “lady demographic.” The irony is inescapable: women are perceived as obsessed with romance, but most “romances” in mainstream media are included for male audiences.

Even when relationships are given space to develop, time to breathe, and are a reasonable progression for the characters involved, I still tend to feel generally indifferent towards them. Take, for example, Roslin and Adama on Battlestar Galactica. Their romantic arc is perfectly lovely. I don’t care about it at all. It takes some serious shit for me to fall for a relationship and after every foiled investment it gets that much harder to sway me.

Fitz and Simmons are my actual downfall. Not only are they positive representations of scientists with no superpowers and some fascinating gender politics—the nuances of their relationship feel like they were calculated to eviscerate me. What I used to say was “I have issues and these two stick their fingers right into every single one of them and wiggle them around.” That’s still accurate. Frankly, this did not come out of my brain very well, so I’m sure I’ll return to the topic in the future.

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“I Am Every Bit the SHIELD Agent You Are”: Fitz, Simmons, and Gendered Expectation

Estimated Reading Time: 19 minutes

(This essay is #8 of 9 in a series on Agents of SHIELD.)

By all rights, this should probably be three or four completely different essays. But they’re related, and interrelated. The first few are legit enough that I have research to back them up. The last few are just me kind of ranting. Here’s a brief outline of what you’re in for:

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“It’s Like Magic”: Science, Superpowers, and Narrative Utility in Cult TV

Estimated Reading Time: 11 minutes

(This essay is #7 of 9 in a series on Agents of SHIELD)

Genre cult television tends to have two character types: action heroes and brainy exposition characters. Oftentimes, the brainy characters develop some kind of physical or metaphysical power of their own because generating ways to keep them narratively relevant over time becomes difficult. In the MCU in particular, science is used by the majority of scientist heroes to level themselves up and give themselves superpowers. Yet Fitz and Simmons don’t use science as a personal enhancement, their intelligence is something like a superpower, keeping them relevant while still allowing them to remain mundane.

Additional Spoiler Warnings for: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly/Serenity, Supernatural, Angel

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FitzSimmons, Science, and Scientists in the MCU

Estimated Reading Time: 13 minutes

(This essay is #6 of 9 in a series on Agents of SHIELD. The final four essays in this series can best be summarized as “Blubbering and Screams Interspersed With Big Words.”)

LET’S TALK ABOUT SCIENCE AND SCIENTISTS IN THE MCU, AKA MY LITERAL ACTUAL FAVORITE THING. Let me take you on a journey through the cultural historical traditions of scientists’ representations in the media, the necessity of carefully constructed science to the MCU, and how all this context helps me explain why Fitz and Simmons make me weak at the knees.

Please consider this more of an exuberant outline. I have so much research on this topic that I could literally fill a book with it and technically it covers the entire MCU.

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Agents of SHIELD’s New Kids

Estimated Reading Time: 13 minutes

(This essay is #5 of 9 in a series on Agents of SHIELD.)

With all the griping at the beginning of Agents of SHIELD about the underdeveloped original characters, the series learned its lesson and introduced three agents adapted from the comic book canon for season 2. All three are presented so effectively that I adored them instantly. This in contrast to the disaster of a first season where I still didn’t care for some of the characters by the end. Two things are in play here: the first is that Hunter, Mack, and Bobbi are fully developed when initially presented to us and even have their own history and business together separate from the main narrative. The second is that all three are introduced by treating our old friends kindly, helping, or saving them.

This is less an essay and more a collection of brief character analyses, but I love the new kids so much that they definitely qualify as one of the reasons I adore Agents of SHIELD on the whole. Trying to articulate just what I love about their personalities results in some nebulous commentary, so bear with me.

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Grant Ward Don’t Need Your Bullshit, He’s Got Plenty of His Own

Estimated Reading Time: 17 minutes

(This essay is #4 of 9 in a series on Agents of SHIELD.)

Most of you have probably made it here because you know me for my very public Agents of SHIELD meltdowns which are 95% 97% 99.9% over Fitz and Simmons. So I know how strange it sounds when I say: this one is about Grant Ward and it is by far the most personal of this series.

Ward’s character development is a complicated, ambitious undertaking that ultimately Agents of SHIELD just doesn’t care about dealing with. Let me take you on my armchair psychology tour of messed up childhoods and identity crises.

Warning: if you bring the word “woobify” at me I will knock you in the teeth. Character analysis does not automatically mean woobification. Additionally see this please and stop demonizing abuse victims, thanks.

xoxo
-Tumblr Refugee

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Rambles On Romance

Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes

I’ve been thinking lately for a few years about the way various fandoms castigate and canonize different kinds of relationships. Now, me, I very rarely go in for romance stories. I find them generally infuriating, reductionist, and unnecessary. But there are those few that hit me like a truck and I sit around trying to figure out where they went right for me and where all the others go wrong.

Back up a bit: I was a Tumblr addict from 2011 to 2014. I quit cold turkey. I’m glad I did. In all seriousness, the straw that broke the camel’s back was the Tumblr Agents of SHIELD fandom’s treatment of Leo Fitz which is mostly a topic for another day, but it comes into play here. What I find so fascinating is that the same group of people who angrily reject the notion of “the friendzone” are also furious to the point of character assassination when two characters who are friends realize that they have strong feelings for each other. It’s fascinating to me that there is even such a hard delineation in our culture between feelings of friendship and feelings of romantic love. That’s not how feelings work.

I’ve always been a shipper. No shame in it. Every time I find a new ship I say “nothing could ever hurt me as much as these two do.” And then the next two waltz into my life. It was Mulder/Scully once. It’s been Ron/Hermione forever. Buffy/Spike have their place in my heart. Kara/Lee destroyed me for actual months in what I can only describe as the worst breakup of my life. I swear it off after every decimation. Never will I ever get sucked into some fictional relationship again. After every emotional murder it gets that much harder to slip past all my locks, laser grids, and insurmountable walls. FitzSimmons slid in there like ninjas. The thing with those two is that I love them so specifically that I can’t really discuss it with other people because other people are wrong.

So, back to Tumblr: there is a lot of projection onto Fitz. The bits of fandom I was privy to projected every gross, cliched, overdone trope of unrequited dudebro pining in existence onto his head. There was much opining about how here was yet another example of hetero platonic friends falling in love. Le sigh, why can’t they ever just be friends? Okay, well, 1.) this ignores Jemma Simmons entirely (and if you think they weren’t in love for years you are wrong; ship manifesto likely forthcoming), but 2.) who has ever fallen in love with someone who is not their friend? And had it turn out even halfway well? Men and women can be friends. “Just” friends, though why friendship is somehow “lesser” I’ll never quite understand. But there’s also nothing quite as satisfying as a romantic arc that starts from a realistic place of friendship, commonality, and shared interests. Every ship I’ve ever captained has history. They have mutual respect. Even if the two meet for the first time during the story, the history builds over the narrative to a point where romance makes sense, rather than just suddenly having kisses. (Example from Agent Carter: Sousa and Peggy have history; Jason Wilkes and Peggy have sudden kisses.) I agree that a male friend realizing he’s in love with his female friend and then spending years pining after her waiting for her to “notice” and believing he’s entitled to her love because he “put in the work” is disgusting. The prime example I can think of is Ross and Rachel on Friends (a show I despise) though the trope is annoyingly common. But that’s not what was happening here, so I can only conclude that a large swath of people needed Fitz out of the way to further whatever agendas they champion.

This is also why the dudebro notion of “the friendzone” and “getting friendzoned” is so hysterical to me. Hello, idiot: if a girl would like to be your friend that means she would like to know you as a human being because (gasp) she is one as well! If you rail about being “friendzoned” that means you saw her as nothing but an object of sexual and emotional gratification and aren’t worth the time anyway. Romance only works if it’s between two human beings on an equal footing. Don’t come at me with romantic or sexual intention, bro. That shit hangs around you like a ten-thousand mile wide funk. It’s off-putting. It immediately declares to me that you don’t care to know me, you just want to use me.

It’s true that it’s fairly rare to see men and women in platonic friendships on television, but it’s also true that it’s rare to see any truly platonic friendships on television. Supernatural fandom is of the opinion that all relationships are sexual. All of them. It’s a fault of our culture that we’ve been conditioned to believe the only relationships with value are sexual ones. Granted, I watch a thin slice of genre TV, but off the top of my head some platonic male/female friendships: Joan and Sherlock on Elementary (the best example because it’s deliberate), Doggett and Scully on The X-Files, Mal and Zoe on Firefly—male/female friendships are more common than you think. It’s just that it seems they’re rarely noted both because there aren’t that many well-rounded female characters and they’re friendships with men are (zomg?!) commonplace. To be honest, female friendships are probably the rarer bird here.

Anyway, I was just thinking how weird it is to me that there was such griping about FitzSimmons being cliche when they are (or at least were until this season) a trope-busting bulldozer. And Fitz never “pines” after Simmons, give me a break. Even once he realizes how he feels about her, he never forces himself on her, doesn’t believe he is entitled to her, and never demands that she reciprocate his feelings. Simmons is another thing entirely, but I’m also projecting in her case, so I’ll save that for another day.

Nobody’s Nobody (Except When They Are): Agents of SHIELD and the Problem of Coulson (v. 2)

Estimated Reading Time: 12 minutes

(This essay is #3 of 9 in a series on Agents of SHIELD.)

It’s time to talk about our fearless leader: Phil Coulson. Agents of SHIELD was conceived entirely as a vehicle for Coulson, a minor character from the film continuity with a large fan following. Coulson was Jossed (aka “killed for plot reasons”) in 2012’s The Avengers and the outcry was so enormous that an entire series was built around resurrecting him. Agents of SHIELD‘s genesis is more complicated than that (experimenting with different media formats to optimize all available revenue streams has a lot to do with it too), but without Coulson there is no Agents of SHIELD.

Which is why it’s too bad that Coulson was never really a character at all. It’s doubly too bad that it took nearly an entire season of Agents of SHIELD for them to fix that problem. (I wrote a much shorter piece about this before season 2.) Advance warning that almost all of the links in this piece are to TV Tropes.

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Coca-Cola’s Not-Cool Attempt to Be Cool Because Marvel Explosions Are Cool, Right?

Estimated Reading Time: 4 minutes

I pretty much hate American football, but being from North Carolina I felt some weird obligation to tune in this year. There was always the chance I’d get a Captain America: Civil War trailer (I did, #TeamCap!), and there are those (in)famous commercials people talk about. I spent the majority of the first-half snarking about American masculinity, gay panic, and misogynistic commercials. And then Coca-Cola decided to try to sell me their unhealthy product with Ant-Man and the Hulk. Not just, like, cartoon characters or wink-wink nudge-nudge selling. They made a full-on action sequence involving stealing soda, destroying buildings, and questionable MCU physics. It literally took all the sassy fun out of this entire endeavor because no, no, there was so much wrong with this entire sequence.

First, the MCU is unusually strident about policing its narrative boundaries. It has to be because it does some fascinating world-building work—particularly in Iron Man films where it deliberately positions Tony as existing in a universe so similar to ours that he hangs out with Elon Musk and is on the cover of Rolling Stone. The way each installment references and crosses over with the others constructs a very tight, consistent world. Rather than a really cool opportunity to advance that illusion, this advertisement was least-effort blatant commercial exploitation of recognizable pop culture. Which, whatever, that happens all the time. I’m not pissed that it’s finally happened with Marvel. Disappointed, yes. There is a big difference between intercutting clips of a car with clips from a movie and making an entire heist scene “set” in a fictional universe. But if you’re going to actually appear to set something in the MCU it needs to make sense in the MCU. This does not. The truly disappointing thing is that this was a phenomenal chance to further the conceit that the MCU is a coherent reality. Instead it shatters that illusion about as thoroughly as Age of Ultron. There’s no reason Ant-Man is stealing Coke from Bruce Banner’s lab (since when does Bruce Banner even have a lab?) There’s no reason he Hulks out to the point of destroying a building because the Coke is missing except haha cool action bro. I’m not sure it’s a good idea for tiny Ant-Man to drink normal-sized Coke—that’s some sketchy quantum physics there.

Now, this could have been hella cool. Rather than a weird forced usage of characters in an implausible scenario, Coke could have actually used the way the MCU deliberately plays with media. It’s absolutely within the realm of possibility that the Avengers have product endorsements in their own world. They’re media stars. There are Avengers action figures and kiddy costumes. The MCU is only separated from our reality by a paper thin barrier. They could have framed this ad as an artifact that escaped through a fissure between our worlds. If you want Bruce Banner to endorse Coke, make an ad where Bruce Banner legit endorses Coke. Ant-Man, as a complete unknown in that universe, should not be in any form of mainstream media. Tony Stark would be both most and least likely to endorse something: most because he’s a ham, least because he doesn’t need the money. Logistically, I know that the advertisement was the way that it was because with green Hulk and tiny Ant-Man all you need is CGI and you don’t have to pay Ruffalo, Downey Jr., etc. But, come on guys! Think for five seconds beyond the cool factor! This is how Age of Ultron was so awful.

Basically, this was pointless garbage that fits nowhere, even though its framed as an actual incident. The layers of metafiction here are inconsistent. It’s seriously lax policing of the universe boundary. Even if you do try to view it as an in-universe advertisement, Banner would never Hulk out for commercial purposes (it’s too dangerous) and no one even knows who Ant-Man is. I know how ridiculous it is to get bent out of shape about a Coke commercial, but there’s so much here that’s out-of-character and inconsistent that it’s offensive to my emotional over-investment.

Bad. Shame. I’m swatting your nose with a newspaper, MCU. This universe is not just for serving up “awesome” visuals—it’s doing some really cool stuff with media, metafiction, etc. I already had hints that they didn’t respect their own creation but this just seals the deal.

Anyway, I already think Coke is disgusting, so whatever.

Agents of SHIELD as Accountable Cult TV

Estimated Reading Time: 18 minutes

(This essay is #2 of 9 in a series on Agents of SHIELD.)

Agents of SHIELD is the glue that holds the Marvel Cinematic Universe together. Not exclusively, and sometimes not entirely successfully, but there’s no denying that the work the series does is deeply enriching to the MCU as a whole. Through its utilization of cult TV conventions, the pioneering transmedia interconnectivity in the MCU, and its own nerdy sensibility, Agents of SHIELD is a (nearly) ideal example of cult television and the storytelling potential of modern media. I love cult TV, meta, intertextuality, and transmedia storytelling so much that a lot of times I just start squealing like people can understand what high-pitched piggy noises mean. So, here I’ll unpack it in human English with as little jargon as possible.

Additional spoiler warnings for: The X-Files, Battlestar Galactica (2003), Lost

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