The modern readers of Captain America are undoubtedly aware of Sharon Carter, SHIELD’s Agent 13, as a hard-as-nails operative who knows her shit like few others — the manipulations of Doctor Faustus notwithstanding, of course. But she wasn’t always like that. Let’s just say that back in the day, even the mighty Marvel bullpen was not entirely hip on this whole equality thing, but you bet your ass they tried really hard.
Of course, the thing to keep in mind is that these things are very much products of their time. In the spirit of that whole 1960’s civil rights movement, these guys were trying pretty hard to liberate women in comics as well. We’re talking some serious zeitgeist here; sure, it’s stupid and laughable now, and looking back, it wouldn’t be unfair to say that they did a pretty half-assed job about it, but that was the age — baby steps, and all that.
Cap spent a lot of time being anything but enlightened, as far as women went. He had no problems hanging out with a black dude, but a woman who wanted to work? That was a big a no-go. The Sharon Carter of today is an ultra-competent woman who kicks ass with the best of them. She doesn’t need to prove a damn thing to anybody. But back in the late 60s, things were different. Sharon was still pretty competent, though typically portrayed to be that despite the inherent and nearly crushing handicap posed by her gender — as in these panels from 1969’s Captain America #114 by Stan “The Man” Lee and Johnny “Ring-A-Ding” Romita:
Of course, just as soon as she’s done kicking the crap out of a couple of evil AIM agents while explaining that she’s just as competent as any man and that she’s inspired by the greatest master of hand-to-hand combat that ever lived, she promptly gets attacked by, uh, the Walking Stiletto.
Yeah, I know. It was just one of those “high on life” days for The Man and Ring-a-Ding. I dunno, say what you will about MODOK, at least he’s got some style. The Walking Stiletto just doesn’t have that pizazz. Things aren’t looking that good for Sharon, but just then Captain America shows up and saves the day. In all fairness, Sharon’s good at what she does, but she’s no super-hero; fighting extremely advanced AIM super robots (or, as in this instance, when those are not available, the Walking Stiletto) is a little out of her league. It’s no blemish on her status as an independent woman to need a little rescue at that point.
Getting called a “little fool” by Cap for trying to help him fight the robot, on the other hand — well, hey, adrenaline was flowing, death was close, people say shit they don’t have time to think through, right? We’ll let that one slide. Not surprisingly, Cap shoves his shield up the Walking Stiletto’s ass pretty quickly, and afterwards he shows his love for Sharon by, uh, insisting loudly in front of everyone that she resign from SHIELD so that she’ll never be in danger again. Sharon refuses, so Cap throws a hissy fit, breaks up with her and stalks out of there. None of that “talk things over” shit for Mr. Rogers, ladies, you roll his way or he rolls right outta your life. What a catch!
Things follow up with a classic storyline in which the Red Skull uses the Cosmic Cube to switch identities with Cap, enjoying the perks of being an American icon while poor Cap has to run from the authorities who think he’s an insane Nazi war criminal. The Skull gets to make time with Sharon, too, who’s childishly happy now that “Cap” is no longer mad at her. That’s women’s lib, Marvel style! Also, in a couple of issues, we get the first appearance of the Falcon, who would have his origin retconned from a normal guy into a former petty criminal in just a couple of years’ time. Good times!
Anyway, after all this crap is settled, Cap goes on to, uh, become a college teacher and has to deal with student riots and whatnot. That’s the era for ya. He also fights a guy called — shit, I can’t even type it without cracking up — the Man-Brute, as well as the Scorpion, AIM and a bunch of other bad guys. This goes on for a bunch of issues, but, oh, how he loves Sharon! It’s doing his poor patriotic head in. So, ten issues after breaking up with her, he finally decides to deal with the thing in Captain America #124 (by Lee and Gene Colan) like a grown-up instead of sulking and being a jerk about it.
He goes to Nick Fury and demands that he put Sharon on a desk job, or he’s not going to help SHIELD out when the world is at stake. Nick plays ball. Sharon, being an ultra-competent and independent woman who’s not going to take any shit from anybody, folds like a cheap lawn chair. So, she gets dispatch duty, which is a little like assigning the SAS to mowing your lawn, while Cap goes out and fights MODOK’s cyborg.
And, of course, because she is so competent, she handles that job like a fucking pro:
Gasp! It’s a trap! So, you’re gonna let the Colonel know that Cap’s about to be ambushed, right, Sharon? Right? Nah. She lets Fury go and then rushes out to warn Cap herself, because it’s “too late to get help — the Colonel took his best men with him!” Yeah, if only there was some way to contact him in the field or something. Or if only he’d been there when you found out it was a trap by seeing him walk right past you and realizing it was a trap.
Whatever. She gets grabbed by MODOK’s cyborg, Cap shows up and gets real mad, because Sharon is in danger. The cyborg gets in his face about it, too. “So, you have more than a casual interest in her, do you? The cyborg is amused!” Them’s fighting words, pal, ain’t nobody pawin’ Captain America’s property without pissing blood afterwards.
Cap’s all broken up because Fury and Sharon broke their promise to him, though, and once the cyborg has that unbreakable shield up its backside, Cap breaks up with Sharon, because he can no longer trust her. True to form, Sharon doesn’t say anything, probably because women aren’t supposed to give their rightful owners any lip unless they want to see the back of their hand. Teary-eyed, Sharon wonders how she could ever convince him that she only did it save him. I dunno, Sharon, have considered writing the man a letter, maybe? Or taking out an ad in the newspaper? Or, oh, I dunno, saying something other than “what…?” when he accuses you of lying to him, instead of just clamming up?
Haha! Those wacky feminists. Well, Cap goes on to do a bit of absolutely non-essential fighting in Vietnam — not against the Viet Cong, of course, but the Mandarin, because it’s okay to beat up an ethnic stereotype as long as it’s not politically relevant. He’s also all torn up about this thing with Sharon, yadda yadda yadda. It goes on for a good while, the both of them pining for each other and generally doing the thing that made Marvel Comics great at the time.
Anyway, by issue #141, by Lee and Romita, things between Cap and Sharon have warmed a little bit. Fighting the Grey Gargoyle, Sam gets turned to stone, and they bring him aboard the SHIELD Heli-Carrier. Sharon thinks it’s a bad idea, because she’s “got bad vibes! There’s something wrong!”
Cap isn’t having any of it, though. “This is no time to go feminine on me, honey!”
But wait! She might be right, says Fury. Because, uh. Well:
Not that that’s completely stupid and sexist or nothin’. The idea of SHIELD having a separate bunch of female agents who intuit things with their magic ovaries is completely reasonable. Ask anybody! For some strange reason, I don’t think the Psyche Squad was ever mentioned after this.
Anyway, all that gets sorted out, and Sharon and Steve patch things up. Cap is even going to let his woman work for a living and all, that’s how good things are.
But it’s in 1972’s Captain America #145 (by Gary Friedrich and Gil Kane) that things really get good, and frankly, it’s the main reason I’m writing this entry in the first place. Lee’s Pscyhe Squad was a pretty great idea, no question about it, but it wasn’t enough for Friedrich, because issue #145 is where we meet the most awesome fighting unit SHIELD has ever assembled, led by Sharon Carter and called the — are you ready for this? — THE FEMME FORCE.
It’s composed entirely of female agents, you see! And right off the bat, the girls just can’t learn to work together. Why? Because Sharon’s second-in-command, Contessa Valentina Allegra di Fontaine, wants to get her some Captain America, and Sharon ain’t about to let her have any. This is how highly professional secret agents act, ladies and gentlemen:
So they’re a highly competent force, provided that there’s a man around to keep them in line and keep them from pulling each other’s hair out or throwing like girls or maybe baking pies for the Heli-Carrier crew when they should be fighting bad guys. I hear this is why they shouldn’t let gays in the army. Marvel Comics was again ahead of its time!
Anyway, these girls are a highly professional bunch who concentrate on the job at hand and certainly aren’t acting like they were written by a guy who was pretty much puzzled by this whole women’s lib thing but was really earnest about taking part in it or anything. On the flight over to their mission to foil some Hydra plot or another, Sharon tries to make out with Cap, but Val butts in and strikes up a conversation with him. Cat fight looms! With a Hydra attack imminent, Cap gets suspicious of one of the Femme Force agents, while Sharon and Val concentrate on what’s really important:
The Hydra attack, and Cap has to save the surprised Femme Force from them. The ladies manage to rally, though, and the fight gets underway. “Come on, gals! They’re only men… and that doesn’t cut any ice with us,” Val yells. She also finds the time to call Cap a “number one male chauvinist” and kiss him on the cheek, because, well:
What, you say this comic was written by a man? No! C’mon, no! Really? But — but how could he get that female behavior down so convincingly? I dunno, but two issues later Val is shooting at some Hydra agents and thinking about Steve as the “man she loves”. It’s that authentic emotional depth that really set Marvel books apart from the competition back in the day, folks.
It’s easy to make fun of this stuff, but once you read through the issues, it’s obviously not mean-spirited. It’s comes off as painfully earnest work by guys who probably thought they were doing a good job of portraying women as competent people, as opposed to just housewives or damsels in distress. They were pretty much making it up as they went along, just like everyone else at the time; it’s not that easy to go from what you always knew to be true to a new world; at least they were making an effort, one mistake at a time — compared to how things used to be, it was a step in the right direction. It’s where the Sharon Carter of today, written with much skill by Ed Brubaker without a hint of these ridiculous elements, came from.
As an appropriate footnote of sorts, it’s probably worth noting that a couple of issues later Friedrich was replaced on the book by Gerry Conway, who revealed that Val had, uh, just been trying to make Nick Fury jealous. Yeah, that’s probably why she thought of Cap as the man she loved all those times, Gerry, but fair enough, I’d try to get the hell out of that subplot, too.
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