"I'm Every Bit the S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent That You Are": Exploring Opposing Masculinities
The struggle of a man keeping his monstrous aggression in check has been played out many times in Whedon's work, not least the conflicted men in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Deep in South Ossetia, on a mission to disable a dangerous weapon (aptly named the Overkill Device), weapons engineer Leopold Fitz and field agent Grant Ward discover that S.H.I.E.L.D. has not provided an extraction plan to retrieve them after they've accomplished their goal. Realizing they've been abandoned, Ward instructs Fitz to leave, claiming that he wants to protect the younger, less experienced agent. But Fitz fights back, sternly telling Ward, "I'm every bit the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent that you are" ("The Hub" 1x07).
Their argument, though, is not just about their status as S.H.I.E.L.D. agents (observant fans will recall that Ward is a Level 7 agent while Fitz is only a Level 5). Rather, the core of their disagreement is their opposing masculinities. Joss Whedon has explored this conflict to varying degrees throughout his work, but it gains more direct focus in the first season of Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (hereafter AoS). Leo Fitz is a stereotypical beta male: short, weak, nerdy, and socially awkward. He is extremely intelligent but often portrayed as cowardly. Ward, on the other hand, embodies traditional masculinity. Brave and taciturn, he carries himself confidently and stoically. Particularly in Season One of AoS, the contrasting masculinities of Fitz and Ward permeate various plotlines, offering an interesting point of entry for analysis.
In the vast field of Whedon Studies, a large amount of work is focused on gender representation – quite understandably, femininity and female agency. Whedon's films, comics, and TV shows, however, have always portrayed interesting perspectives on masculinity as well. The juxtaposition of opposing masculinities that we see in AoS has its roots in his earlier work: Xander Harris played the dweeb to Angel's manly brooding in the early seasons of Buffy The Vampire Slayer; Wesley Wyndham-Pryce occupied a similar position next to Angel on Angel; to a certain extent, Wash and Malcolm Reynolds create this contrast on Firefly (the episode "War Stories" in particular is reminiscent of the conflict in "The Hub"); and Topher Brink and Boyd Langston fulfill the dichotomy on Dollhouse. In most cases, these oppositions manifest themselves in humorous visual gags or witty dialogue meant to mock both sides, acting as a commentary on the state of modern masculinity in the presence of strong, dominant, and independent females. Nonetheless, the character arcs of Fitz and Ward in Season One of AoS do more to valorize the alternative masculinity of Leo man over the stoic traditional masculinity of Grant Ward on its own terms. Along with Whedon's recent work on The Avengers films, the opposing masculinities of AoS point towards a new direction and thematic focus for the creator. This necessitates a more succinct and focused exploration of Whedon's opposing masculinities.
Grant Ward's introduction ("Pilot" 1.1) finds the agent on a heist mission in Paris. The sequence plays like a James Bond opener, highlighting important traits to give the audience a full sense of his character in a short amount of time. He steps off a sleek-looking motorcycle and walks into an expensive restaurant. Posing as a waiter, he obtains the fingerprints he needs by taking his mark's finished wine glass. Entering his mark's apartment, he uses his waiter tray – which doubles as an X-ray scanner – to find the safe behind a painting over the fireplace. He opens the safe with the stolen fingerprints and retrieves the neuro-transmitter he's seeking, leaving the stacks of money that were also in the safe. When he turns around, a woman is standing behind him, presumably the wife or lover of the apartment's owner. They stare at each other for a moment before Ward informs her, nonchalantly, "Your fireplace is broken." At that moment, two men rush in to attack Ward, but after a short fight, he incapacitates both of them, climbs to the roof, and sails off on a helicopter waiting for him.
The scene presents Ward as the archetypical male hero. Despite his partner's warnings of the mission's danger via in-ear communicator, Ward remains calm and confident throughout. He proves to be tech-savvy, multilingual, witty, and skilled in hand-to-hand combat, all in one three- minute sequence.
After joining Phil Coulson's team, Ward continues to play the stereotypical male hero, even though he is often out-fought by female agent Melinda May. On field missions, he is the leader calling the tactical shots and protecting the others. Even his name alludes to his protective instincts. Grant and Ward are both of British origin, "grant" meaning "great" from the Latin "grandis", and "ward" meaning "protector" from the Old English "weard". Given his Great Protector name, Ward fulfills the societal expectations of traditional masculinity in which men are strong, stoic, and protective, not only of females, but of weaker males as well.
In "FZZT" (1.6), Fitz's lab partner, Agent Jemma Simmons, becomes infected with an alien disease that threatens to kill her and the entire team. After failing to create an anti-serum, Simmons realizes the only way to save the team is to throw herself out of the plane. May, Skye, Coulson, and Ward are making plans when the alarm goes off, letting them know the cargo hatch is being lowered. Realizing what Simmons is doing, Ward – Great Protector – runs after her. Informed by Fitz along the way that the anti-serum he and Simmons have invented does, in fact, work with delayed effect, Ward takes the administering device and parachute from Fitz and jumps out before he can to save the girl.
This heroic act, however, is about more than just saving Simmons. Just as important, if not more important, to Ward is properly filling the traditional masculine role of protector. On finding out earlier in the episode that the killer in Wrigley, Pennsylvania is an alien disease, Ward expresses his anxieties to Skye: "I wanted it to be a person, some super-powered psychopath. Someone I could hurt, someone I could punish. That I could do. What I can't do is protect you guys from stuff I can't even see or understand." Ward's anxieties over his masculine role appear frequently throughout Season One. After Coulson injects him with a truth serum in front of Skye, Ward confesses, "I always try to mask my pain in front of beautiful women because I think it makes me seem more masculine" ("Pilot" 1.1). This is exactly the sort of masculine-mocking humor featured in Whedon's earlier work.
Nonetheless, living in a feminist, Whedonist universe, Ward is also anxious of becoming too aggressive. Social researchers Mosher and Sirkin describe that hypermasculinity "includes three components: 1) violence as manly, 2) callous sexual attitudes toward women, and 3) the experience of danger as exciting." Whedon's traditionally macho men often struggle to toe the line between masculinity and hypermasculinity. This inner conflict is brought to life for Ward in "The Well" (1.8). In the episode, Coulson's team is tracking down pieces of an Asgardian Berserker staff. Professor Elliot Randolph (later revealed to be an Asgardian Berserker himself) describes the Berserkers to the team: "Berserkers battled like raging beasts, destroying everything in their path. A single Berserker had the strength of 20 warriors... Fighting with [the staff] put the warrior into a state of uncontrollable rage." After accidentally touching the staff, Ward is filled with that strength and rage, becoming hostile and hot-tempered. Back in the lab, Fitz and Simmons run tests on Ward, while he becomes impatient and yells at them. He scolds Skye, for whom he has romantic feelings, with misogynistic undertones:
Skye: The memory. Was it about your brother?
Ward: Drop it.
Skye: Ward, if you need to get it out, I am here.
Ward: Right. To talk. Because that's what you do, talk and talk. Don't you ever get tired of hearing your own voice?
Later in the same scene, he similarly condescends to Fitz while also emphasizing his role as protector:
Ward: A sedative? Not gonna happen.
Fitz: Yeah, well, be reasonable! Look how you're behaving.
Ward: And if I'm sedated and we cross paths with those juiced freaks, the ones who flip cars and smash people up, are you gonna take them on? Keep us safe? Or am I gonna have to save Simmons's ass... again?
Although Ward would not normally talk to his team like this, the scene shows that this darker, hypermasculine rage exists within him and foreshadows his antagonist role in Season 2.
While explaining the effects of touching the staff, Randolph tells Ward, "It shines a light into your dark places." After touching the staff, Ward is haunted by resurfaced memories from his childhood. Images of a young boy drowning in a well flash at him as he becomes angrier. He describes it to Coulson as "My worst memory. The first time I felt hate. And it won't go away. I don't trust myself." Later in the season we learn that the boy drowning in the well is not Ward but his younger brother, Thomas. According to Ward, his abusive older brother Christian forced Ward to watch as Thomas drowned. Season 2 offers an alternative interpretation of this event from Christian, but Ward, by this point taken by his darkness, murders his older brother anyway, and it is unclear which telling of the event is accurate. In "The Well", however, it is this resurfaced memory that first fuels Ward's hatred and anger.
The struggle of a man keeping his monstrous aggression in check has been played out many times in Whedon's work, particularly in the Buffy-verse. Throughout Buffy and Angel, Angel is always anxious of the threat Angelus poses just beneath his surface. Similarly, Oz leaves Sunnydale after feeling unable to control the werewolf inside him. And, more explicitly, Pete in "Beauty and the Beasts" (3.4) embodies the monstrous masculine/hypermasculine dichotomy of Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde. This is, of course, echoed by Bruce Banner/The Hulk in The Avengers as well. Like Angel and Bruce Banner, Ward uses his monstrous side for good in "The Well", but still feels anxious about controlling the darkness inside him. The remorse he feels for how he has treated his team, particularly Skye, apparently leads him to enter a loveless sexual relationship with Agent May. The choice shows that Ward subscribes to traditional masculine ideals of repressing his feelings in favor of physical release, whether sexual or violent.
In her discussion of masculinity in the Buffyverse, Lorna Jowett describes the binary we've discussed thus far: "In simple terms, old masculinity is macho, violent, strong, and monstrous, while new masculinity is 'feminized', passive, emotional, weak, and human" (95). If Ward represents that traditional, "old" masculinity, Fitz is the New Man. His weakness, clumsiness, and awkwardness are highlighted throughout the first season of AoS both in personal interactions and on missions in the field. He is the Q to Ward's James Bond, as directly referenced by his role as weapons expert.
As with most New Men in Whedon shows, Fitz displays enormous anxiety over not fulfilling traditional masculine norms. Around manly men like Ward or Agent Triplett, he attempts to embrace his beta masculinity to put their macho strength down…
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Do you want to read more of how Fitz and Ward manage their manliness in Whedon's feminist world? The rest of this chapter and more smart writing about the Whedonverse can be found between the pages of After the Avengers: From Joss Whedon’s Hottest, Newest Franchises to the Future of the Whedonverse, by PopMatters.
Scott Interrante recently received his M.A. in Musicology at CUNY Hunter College focusing on contemporary pop music and gender where his thesis explored masculine anxiety in the music of One Direction. He frequently contributes to PopMatters and other online publications, writing about music, masculinity, and pop culture. One of the first things he used the Internet for was roleplaying as Xander Harris in a Buffy-themed AOL chat room. He is only sort of embarrassed about that. @ScottInterrante.