Peggy, Miss Carter, Agent Carter, Marge, Margaret, Peg. Sometimes it seems like everyone has a different way of referring to the World War II vet and founding member of S.H.I.E.L.D. The names she uses, and the names she gets assigned to her have significant consequences for the story Marvel’s Agent Carter is telling. Let’s take a look at the major characters in Agent Carter and see what their choice of name says about them, and about our heroine.
Agent (as Peggy self-identifies)
This scene from the first season of the outstanding Marvel’s Agent Carter is a defining moment for the character. Peggy is investigating an explosion at the Roxxon building and its connection to vita-radiation, when the man she is speaking with says, “I didn’t know our government had such good taste in secretaries. What’s your name, darling?” In the face of being sexualized while on the job, our hero calmly replies: “Agent.” It’s the thesis for the whole series, and the driving motivation for the character.
In the post-World War II social climate, Peggy’s situation is emblematic of what many women of her time experienced. Women were pulled into the workforce by necessity when large portions of the working population went off to war, and then faced cultural clash when the soldiers (mostly men) returned to the workplace. The roles that were available to working women broadened ever so slightly, and there was an ongoing struggle to claim space in traditionally male settings (something modern women can certainly relate to).
In choosing to identify herself as Agent, first and foremost, Peggy projects this version of herself, the working government agent who happens to be a woman, as her primary identity.
Miss Carter (as Mr. Jarvis calls her)
The relationship between Peggy and Edwin Jarvis has developed into the most fundamental pairing on the show in its short two seasons. The two characters support each other’s arcs—as Peggy learns to navigate her role within the Strategic Scientific Reserve (SSR), it’s Mr. Jarvis who becomes her investigatory sidekick and emotional support system.
Peggy only refers to Mr. Jarvis with the formal “Mr.,” and Mr. J only refers to Peggy as “Miss Carter.” This mode of addressing each other acknowledges the two characters’ respect for each other, the way they treat each other as peers and equals, and their shared British heritage and attendant social formality. As the series unfolds, Mr. J is the only person Peggy is truly vulnerable with, and he is the only one who is allowed to ask her about her romantic goings on. It’s significant that in this time period, a man and woman would have this kind of relationship with never a hint of romantic entanglement between them.
Peggy (as Howard Stark and Daniel Sousa call her)
Fellow agent Daniel Sousa, is Peggy’s colleague in the first season of the show and becomes her superior at the start of the second, but his status as a wounded war veteran puts him on the outside of the boys club that is the SSR office. Sousa is often Peggy’s champion in that first season, even when his noble efforts are misguided. His choice to call her Peggy indicates his desire to put her on the same level as him, to see her as a colleague, and an equal.
Howard Stark also calls our lead “Peggy,” most of the time. His use of the short form of her given name is notable and reflects their shared history and the length of time they spent together in harrowing situations during the war. The fact that Howard Stark knows (and uses) Peggy’s actual name is a grand compliment indeed, considering how little regard he has for the identities of the parade of women he cads about with. His fundamental respect for Peggy is tied to their experiences in the war and around Steve Rogers, who they both helped create.
Marge/Carter (as Agent Thompson calls her)
Ugh. Agent Thompson, you piece of utter crap. Agent Thompson is the embodiment of the boys’ club that Peggy is up against in the series. Thompson regularly demeans her work and assigns her secretarial tasks like filing and ordering lunches. In one amazing exchange, he hands Peggy a folder and says she should file it because she’s “really so much better at that sort of thing”. Peggy’s response? “What kind of thing is that, Agent Thompson? The alphabet? I can teach you. Let’s start with words beginning with ‘A.'” Ya burnt, jackass.
Thompson routinely calls Peggy “Marge” which undermines her agency (pun certainly intended) in choosing what name to be called. It’s a nickname that she never uses, and it’s a power play. By taking away her ability to decide what designation she uses (while having her order food for the office), Thompson shows a fundamental lack of respect for her in their shared professional space. It’s what the scholars would call a “dick move,” and he employs it specifically to belittle Peggy, and to cover his insecurities about his own value as a soldier and an agent. When they come back from Europe, and Thompson has had his dumb ass literally saved by Peggy, he calls her “Carter,” elevating her status to be equal with the other men of the SSR.
Peg (as Rose and Angie call her)
Peggy’s female colleagues like Rose (she of the “love the hat” comment, and some agent-related work in season two) most often call Peggy by the shortened form of her already shortened name, addressing her as “Peg.” Angie, her friend and neighbour at The Griffith, also calls her Peg, and it’s through these women that we see an everyday side of Peggy. For much of the first season, Angie has no idea that Peggy is a government agent, and she sees her as one of the working girls like herself. Rose is also a collegial presence in Peggy’s story, and sees her as a friend and comrade in her position as a woman working in this male-controlled world (and Agency).
Peggy Carter (as Dottie Underwood and Whitney Frost call her)
Characters who call our lead by her full name, Peggy Carter, are her female foes, Dottie Underwood and Whitney Frost (Madam Masque). Both of these women treat Peggy as a true adversary, an equal to their super-powered villainy. Dottie was trained in the same school as Black Widow, and Madam Masque has otherworldly powers gained from absorbing dark matter, and their use of her full name is an indication that they understand her as a fully realized human person and adversary. Dottie’s interest in Peggy is increasingly an infatuation, and she impersonates her on more than one occasion. Dottie’s desire to become Peggy Carter (or the version of Peggy she sees as her equal) is a desire to embody the whole woman who bested her on more than one occasion. Whitney Frost also uses the first and last name to identify Peggy as the threat to her ever-increasing power. It’s as if Peggy Carter is an institution that will oppose these dark forces, which of course, is exactly what she becomes when she founds S.H.I.E.L.D.
What Steve Calls Peggy
One of the defining relationships of Peggy Carter’s life is with the man she helped create through the Strategic Scientific Reserve, Steve Rogers a.k.a. Captain America. Peggy’s importance to Steve as an idea and placeholder for the things he fights for can be seen in all of the Marvel Cinematic Films he features in, and what he calls her changes over time. When he’s a young recruit (pre-super soldier serum), he actually calls her a “beautiful dame,” but quickly course-corrects to call her a woman, then an agent, not a dame. As their stories continue, he calls her Agent Carter, Peg, Peggy (most often), and most heart-breakingly, “my best girl” when she’s elderly and suddenly confused about why he is there by her bedside. Steve sees Peggy as a whole person and his understanding of who and what she is changes over time (a very long time for her, not so much for him). To Captain America, she’s at once a woman, agent, girlfriend, friend, and ideal, and his shifting names for her reflect all of those realities.
Agent. Peggy Carter. Peg. Marvel’s Agent Carter does an exemplary job of showing the way women’s roles are defined by the society around them, and an even better job of showing what a woman with agency is capable of. While industry folks are skeptical that Agent Carter has the necessary ratings for ABC to renew it for a third season, I’ll add my voice to those pleading for network executives to consider the value this property and this character brings to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Please. Renew Agent Carter.