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:
- Gender Irrelevant SHIELD
- Fitz as a refutation of toxic masculinity
- Simmons as a rejection of modes of traditional feminity
- Fitz and Simmons are the best
- And then me being hella mad that Agents of SHIELD threw all this out the window
At the beginning of Agents of SHIELD, the main cast is not only completely gender balanced, but gender is utterly irrelevant to anyone’s role. Skye is the only character who is sexualized and that’s only in a few incidents at the beginning of the series. In fact, all mention of a character’s sex or gender is gone by the time the show hits Winter Soldier. What’s particularly notable about Agents of SHIELD and SHIELD itself making no fuss whatsoever about anyone’s sex or gender is that nearly every other series would, but without examining the gendered presumptions in any way. Arrow is constantly hammering on how great Felicity Smoak is as a girl doing things. The shows I can think of that treat gender as irrelevant in favor of (truly) merit-based advancement are all far-future institutions deliberately constructed as equal like in Battlestar Galactica. SHIELD falls right in line with this.
My personal theory is that, since Peggy Carter was one of the founding leaders of SHIELD, there was a concerted effort to make it as gender-blind as possible. With Agent Carter portraying the incredibly sexist post-war environment of the SSR, there’s no doubt in my mind that Peggy would make adjustments to the the system while founding SHIELD. The MCU is not the kindest place for female characters, but Agents of SHIELD—even when it sucked—was like a safe space where everyone was evaluated according to their strengths regardless of their genitals. That sort of space is rare not just in the MCU but in television in general. It was refreshing. Seriously, there is no institution on earth in our current reality where Simmons would have made it to that level as a professional scientist with her unbounded enthusiasm for science intact. Imagine May trying to find work in the physical protection industry of our world. And think of what Skye would have to deal with as a hacker. I’m thanking Peggy Carter that we can even imagine the environment of Agents of SHIELD as plausible1.
The way Agents of SHIELD presents Fitz is an active refutation of traditional (and toxic) representations of masculinity in media, especially as the series goes on. Fitz at the beginning has all the trappings of an entitled nerd. He’s clumsy, brilliant, and quick to crush on anything sexy and female (namely: Skye.) While this perception is tempered by his close friendship with Simmons, it’s not until the series gives both Fitz and Simmons more screentime that Fitz really starts to come into his own. In particular, Fitz is a direct contrast to Ward whose machismo is first placed on a pedestal and then revealed as a dangerous tool used to manipulate Ward into harmful behavior.
There is a careful rhetoric surrounding Fitz which never calls attention to his maleness. Fitz is always defined by anything and everything except the fact that he’s a man. The few examples to the contrary are all very early in the series. The “Pilot” features Fitz embarrassing himself with unintentional double entendre about his “hardware” and “equipment.” There are only two times when he even mentions anyone’s girlness, first in 1×03 where Simmons nearly wallops him for suggesting Skye used her boobs to charm Quinn, and second in 1×09 where he says that Simmons “screamed like a girl.” Both of these do more to emphasize the irrelevance of gender than to undermine it. Frankly, I consider everything before 1×16 in a state of wibbly canonicity since the series itself can’t even decide what’s true and what’s not. (For example, Doctor Hall was FitzSimmons’ advisor in their second year (1×03), yet Fitz and Simmons graduated from the Academy three years early and never got to pull any freshman pranks on anyone else (1×09). You see where the problems arise.) Primarily, the dialogue takes pains to establish Fitz as an individual unconcerned with posturing masculinity as a symbol of social status. In 1×07 Fitz claims to be “every bit the SHIELD agent” Ward is, where the common phrase would require him to say he’s “every bit the man.” Told that everyone says he’s the smartest person to come through SHIELD Academy, Fitz immediately says that Simmons is smarter. Fitz is unthreatened by intelligent and competent women and ignores the traditional masculine social hierarchy except when directly confronted with his potential inadequacies. Then he’s jealous for about five minutes.
Even though Ward is Fitz’s masculine foil, he’s also still caught up in Agents of SHIELD‘s neutrality. You’ll note that Ward doesn’t say he jumped out of an airplane to save the girl. He jumped “to save the scientist” (1×18). It’s Fitz discussing the 1×06 incident in 1×07 who notes that Ward gets off on being the one “to swoop in and save the girl,” which casts Ward’s (adopted) persona as one of a straight, traditional masculinity even before his duplicity is revealed. Simmons makes a particular point of convincing Fitz that he’s “the hero” in the situation rather than Ward. And, most importantly, rather than having Fitz, Ward, or any specific person save Simmons like a damsel in distress, Fitz and Simmons work the problem together from a mutual understanding of trust in each other and equality of knowledge.
Hydra is inextricably tied up in traditional ideals of masculinity. Their principles demand submission and domination. The Council on Agent Carter, who I’m convinced is a proto-Hydra faction, staunchly excludes women from even entering their clubhouse. In Agents of SHIELD, Garrett constantly drills into Ward that feelings are a weakness and Ward takes that lesson so to heart that he repeatedly physically injures the loved ones of the SHIELD agents he’s targeting in order to break them. Ward is held to an ideal of rugged individualism to the point of being left in the woods as a teenager as a sink-or-swim lesson in survival (1×21). Garrett’s rhetoric regarding women and emotions is always belittling, commanding Ward to retrieve Skye like misplaced property and commenting that Ward’s attachment to her is understandable because of how “cute” she is.
Garrett’s few interactions with Fitz are constantly emphasizing how Fitz’s emotions and lack of physical strength are subjects of ridicule. Garrett attempts to shame Fitz for fearing for his life in 1×14, barely averting casting aspersions on Fitz’s masculinity by saying “you Brits are too serious.”2 Garrett also dismisses Fitz’s Golden Retrievers—a crucial piece of their search for Deathlok and the Clairvoyant—as an “impressive toy” (1×16) all before it’s revealed that Garrett is Hydra. In the face of death while infiltrating the Hub, Fitz is visibly upset when he shoots a Hydra soldier and cries when confronted by Garrett yet Fitz is still presented as courageous (1×17). The narrative makes no moral judgment of his tears and, in fact, seems to think better of him for his ability to cry. Even Fitz’s jealousy over Simmons’ attention to Trip is resolved within about three episodes, with Fitz and Trip becoming fast friends.
It’s the combination of Fitz’s Love Epiphany and the contrast between himself and Ward that first emphasizes the disconnect between traditional modes of masculinity and Fitz. Over the course of the series, Fitz is repeatedly threatened by physically imposing men making the moves on Simmons. Not only are they strong, they’re also smart, which in a normative competitive sense completely obliterates Fitz’s chances to “get the girl.” Even when the series and supporting characters continually insist that Fitz view his affections as a competition with Simmons as the prize, he categorically refuses (3×06). Trip and Will embody a masculine ideal that Fitz could never dream of living up to, and yet rather than resent them he takes pains to appreciate them as individuals. This is so at odds with normative presentations of masculinity and romance that just the threat of Fitz losing this demeanor gives me physical pain.
Beyond the first season, Fitz continues to avert hyper-masculinity at every turn without ever being judged as effeminate or lesser. Fitz and Mack develop a close bond, with Fitz’s imagined version of Simmons even commenting on how physically attractive Mack is (2×05). Fitz never insists that Simmons owes him for the sacrifices that he’s made for her. He never believes himself entitled to her affection or even her friendship. The third season in particular, while I have extreme issues with it, presents Fitz as a defiantly supportive friend swallowing his jealousy to the point that Simmons berates him for not being angry with her. There is a lot going on here, not least of which is Simmons’ anger at herself for giving up on Fitz. But Fitz’s characterization forbids him from jealous rages and ultimatums. That he refuses to play the role of jealous lover leaves her scrambling with her own guilt.
Additionally, physics in particular is one of the most aggressively masculine sciences3. That Fitz is not only an engineer (another virulently macho science discipline), but a physicist who actively collaborates with a female colleague is itself a revolution of representation. That he rejects traditional expressions of masculinity and is still presented as a viable hetero love interest and the character with the most integrity and honor in the series is practically unheard of.
At every opportunity, Agents of SHIELD lets Fitz undermine the traditional and expected notions of how men should behave in order to protect their fragile masculinity. Fitz never measures his self-worth against the masculine attributes of other men and systematically rejects the social standing that hyper-masculinity would provide. In direct contrast to Grant Ward who embodies the toxic elements of manliness to the point that they define his villainy, Fitz is allowed to express emotion, is valued for his intelligence despite having no corresponding physical strength, and refuses to engage in territorial romantic behavior. Fitz is basically the best.
The MCU’s inclusion and representation of women is an enormous topic that I couldn’t hope to cover in such a small space. In the context of Agents of SHIELD, women are presented in a limited number of traditional ways (I’ll summarize “traditional” here by defining it as “a highly gendered page exists on TV Tropes that describes their character-type to a T.”) Simmons, in categorically refusing to fit into any box of gendered behavior, is in a middle ground that’s so viciously humanizing it leaves her quite vulnerable. It also means half the writers don’t have a clue what to do with her. I’ll take you through a few of the modes of femininity in the MCU.
Probably my favorite use of traditional femininity in the MCU is when various femme fatales use it as a weapon against patriarchal expectation. Natasha is the founding member of the weaponized femininity crew, introduced in Iron Man 2 as a sexy, (faux) airheaded secretary to infiltrate Tony’s inner circle. In The Avengers she feigns terror and weakness in the face of interrogation, and appears emotional to trick Loki into giving her information. Agent Carter‘s Dottie Underwood is a direct descendant (or possibly ancestor) of Natasha’s style of espionage, fawning on men and playing at being wide-eyed and innocent so that her marks drop their guard. Even Peggy Carter gets in on the act, though Peggy uses femininity as more of an obfuscation to shield her unauthorized activities. Peggy hides behind “ladies’ things” and is a world-class spy primarily because she consistently adopts different accepted “types” of femininity as cover (a shrew, a ditz, a harpy, etc.) to let her slide through the patriarchal landscape. There’s truth in television to this, as women were recruited as spies during World War II entirely because they wouldn’t be suspected.
Within the confines of Agents of SHIELD, Raina is an ideal example of this type of femme fatale. Raina moves through the world confident that her beauty and sex appeal will open every door that she needs opened. She flirts with people in an effort to disarm them and advance her agenda. Unlike Natasha, Dottie, or Peggy, Raina doesn’t have an accompanying ability to physically destroy any of the men she’s using. Raina is entirely dependent upon feminine wiles. Yet while Raina uses her sex appeal to her advantage, it also masks her intelligence and ambition without her ever having to pretend at ignorance. Raina moves through the world by being as hyper-feminine as possible while still actively maintaining control over her own affairs. It’s of note that her monstrous Inhuman transformation from beautiful woman to spike-y beast-thing leaves her suicidal, powerless, and unable to cope with the world for like nine episodes before she regains her ambition.
Bobbi, of course, is the lady I’m leaving out of this analysis as Bobbi doesn’t so much weaponize femininity as simply inhabit it. She never goes out of her way to make sexiness or helplessness the main aspect of her attack. And while Bobbi and Hunter reverse the gendered dynamic (with Hunter completely defined by his relationship with her rather than the other way around), Bobbi also still falls largely within the scope of the Comic Code Authority. As noted in Heather Hogan’s on-point analysis of Jessica Jones, most ladies on the side of good (particularly lead ladies) in the MCU are still morally upstanding paragons of perfection. That said, Bobbi is as much of a gendered outlier in this series as Simmons. (Possibly the reason why they’re my favorite alt-ship.)
Nurturers and Ice Queens (and then there’s Simmons)
In the context of Agents of SHIELD, in particular the original six, May and Skye embody two completely opposite poles on the lady-trope spectrum. Simmons falls squarely in the middle, thoroughly busting gendered expectations. May is a ruthless, emotionally closed-off Ice Queen, while Skye is the bubbly, empathetic Nurturer. May inhabits the role of “unnatural” woman, or a female character who eschews her own “inherent emotionality” (quotation marks for sarcasm) in a bid for total self-control. Skye, by contrast, is a lover of all mankind. Her worldview is originally so rosy that she’s a non-character, completely annoying and morally perfect. Even after Skye has to confront the darkness in human nature (repeatedly), her primary goal in life is to emotionally nurture as many lost souls as she can.
By contrast, Simmons is caring and friendly but a complete emotional dunce. She insists on applying logic to every situation and eschews poetic hyperbole even when it’s appropriate. Simmons unintentionally insults people (1×06), deflects compliments (2×03), and misreads humor (also 1×06, among others). She’s kind of a walking social disaster-zone, but she’s so charming that pretty much everyone forgives her. How is she charming? She’s earnest, open, and enthusiastic about her interests. She’s a terrible liar even while undercover, and that honesty makes it very easy for her to connect with people. But even as she’s “very likable” she sucks at flirting to a hilarious degree. When told to actively make friends, she’s so awkward that she nearly blows her cover. She legitimately cannot figure out that Fitz is asking her on a date even after she just told him that she returns his feelings. She’s that oblivious. May shuts down emotional advances even from her loved ones. Skye deals with them warmly and gently. Simmons can’t even figure out they’re happening. It’s her combination of deep caring and tone-deafness that allows her to bust feminine tropes and exist as a female character unfettered by traditional notions of femininity.
I’ll get into this more in my next essay, but it’s worth mentioning here. If Fitz is a rejection of the traditional masculine and Simmons is a rejection of the traditional feminine, that leaves them together in a space that reverses gendered romantic expectations. Fitz is highly emotional while Simmons is rational to the point of shutting down romantic advances. While it’s largely obvious throughout the first season that they have a crush on each other, Fitz tamps down on his feelings while Simmons tries to ignore them entirely. She is actively oblivious, not just to Fitz, but to pretty much any romantic advances, generally shrugging them off with a twitch of her nose. Fitz is open about his feelings but afraid to push Simmons away. Simmons, by contrast, is so afraid of her own emotions that she can’t directly express them to Fitz even after they both make it clear that they have feelings for each other. She always skirts the topic and only addresses it most directly when there’s a form of mediation between them.
Fitz is the squishy one and Simmons is the hardass. While subverting gendered romantic expectations isn’t unique to Agents of SHIELD, when it’s combined with their characterization, their roles in the series, and their presentation in the genre itself, it makes them that much more delightful. (Sidenote: when looking at the short list of all my ships, they all tend to be like this.)
While the series started out with an intentionally gender balanced cast, as time goes on the ratio grows more and more skewed. At this point we’ve added five new male characters (six if we count Trip) and one female character. That’s Mack, Hunter, Lincoln, Andrew, and Joey to just Bobbi. Agents of SHIELD went from a completely gender balanced cast to a ratio of one lady to every two dudes. Come on, now.
I’ll get to Simmons in a minute, but it’s not just Simmons who gets forcibly girled by the third season. The plot business given to every single female deals with their heterosexual love affairs. Rosalind, introduced as a strong and uncompromising foil for Coulson, is even classically fridged almost immediately after she enters into a romantic relationship with him. May quits SHIELD because Andrew left her, and then all she deals with thereafter is her relationship with Andrew. Skye’s business is ostensibly starting an Inhuman team, but most of what this amounts to is dramatically angsting at Lincoln. Bobbi is the only one who really gets to keep her own storyline unrelated to a forcibly feminine role.
Additionally, the first time anyone explicitly makes an issue of someone’s gender on the series it’s Malik saying it “never occurred to [him] to send a young woman” through the portal. Overt sexism used to mark his villainy aside, the comment also disturbingly suggests that it’s Simmons’ very girlness that marks her as special. This demarcation was so pronounced that it suggested Will himself was Death the entire time, that the reason she survived was because heteronormativity dictates lonely Death would fall in love with the first woman he’d seen in millenia rather than killing her like the plethora of men who came before, and that Simmons—Simmons who cannot even parse when her best friend and the object of her affection is asking her on a date—was thrust into the role of redeeming an irredeemable evil with her Love. (Sidenote: I also don’t really understand why Fitz and Simmons needed to be tortured to find out the “secret” of her return—Fitz literally dove through the portal and physically dragged her back. There’s no secret in that. Torturing them for their research is one thing; torturing them for the “secret” is bizarre.)
As it was, “4,277 Hours” was already heinously heteronormative, particularly in the context of Fitz and Simmons’ relationship (hold that thought.) Since Agents of SHIELD could think of nothing better to do with Simmons’ disappearance than use it for forced romantic conflict, I’ve lost all faith in their portrayal of Simmons. I live in terror of the reveal that she’s pregnant with Will’s child like this is a daytime soap opera, stripping her of the little agency she has left. Because of his death, she’d be left with no choice over the direction of her life and forcibly slammed back into traditional roles that she previously obliterated. Why? Because she has a uterus and, by the laws of American media, it must be filled. Because two characters can’t be in a relationship unless that relationship is their main source of conflict. 95% of sex in American media is only present so there can be pregnancy drama. If you want to see a grownass woman throw a temper tantrum and then vomit while punching her fist through glass, come find me if this happens.
(My babes had better be holed up like two hibernating teddy bears in a cottage in Scotland. That’s all I’ve got to say.)
1 I get mad about season 3 later, never you fear.
2 The correlation between Britishness, intelligence, and emasculation is actually a huge topic that I don’t have space for here.
3 I have many citations for this.