“I know my value” is perhaps the best-known, most-quoted line from Marvel’s Agent Carter, and with good reason: it’s short, bold, and fist-pumpingly feminist. But thus far, I haven’t seen anybody point out two of the most interesting undercurrents of this quote, and of this whole conversation between Peggy and Daniel Sousa. There are a lot of layers to what Peggy’s saying here, but I believe two crucial layers are these: (1) Peggy is specifically yet subtly rebuking Daniel, and (2) Peggy is rejecting the patriarchal power structure of the SSR, while previously she had been trying to work within it.
A Game of Friendzones
The first time we hear Daniel Sousa speak, he’s sticking up for Peggy amidst yet another round of sexist ridicule from their other coworkers. “You owe the lady an apology,” he said. I know I can’t have been the only one immediately endeared to him because of that, but right after that, Peggy sets up the fundamental difference in values that defines their dynamic by telling him not to stick up for her. She can take care of herself, and she tells him as much. Throughout the show, Daniel persists in sticking his neck out for/generally trying to ally himself with Peggy, seeing them as similarly marginalized within the SSR. She clearly doesn’t return the sentiment, though, given that she refuses to tell anyone in the SSR about her secret mission for Howard Stark. Even in episode 3, when she and Jarvis tip the SSR off about the ship with Howard’s stolen gadgets, she says she can “just about stomach” the idea of Sousa taking credit for it – not the most enthusiastic of endorsements. This tension comes to a head when Peggy’s secret mission is exposed. Daniel is angrier than we’ve ever seen him on screen while interrogating Peggy, something that seems out of character until we consider how he’s thought of his and Peggy’s relationship up till this point. He’s obviously crushing on her, yes, but he’s also seen them as allies, the two scapegoats and laughingstocks of the SSR, and he’s acted accordingly. Both the romantic and platonic mindsets intertwine to make Peggy’s revelation an extremely personal slight in his eyes.
His big mistake, though, is in thinking that she owes him something in return – romantically or otherwise.
Viewed in this light, “I know my value” begins to sound a lot like this: I don’t need Jack Thompson’s approval, but I also don’t need yours, Daniel Sousa. I value myself, and while I appreciate you sticking up for me, my self-esteem does not live or die by you. You being a decent person does not mean I owe you something, and don’t you forget that. It’s rather like that one oft-quoted aphorism (side note, I looked for a source for this, and I haven’t found one yet): Women are not vending machines you put Kindness Coins into until sex falls out. This interpretation is further reinforced by the fact that two seconds later, Peggy turns down Daniel’s offer of a drink. She doesn’t owe him groveling kindness, unswerving loyalty, or a drink.
Something’s Rotten in Denmark
In a larger sense, though, this line is the culmination of Peggy’s patriarchy-battling arc of this season. She’s moved from working within the system to rejecting it entirely. Despite the fact that in order to do anything exciting at all, she literally has to take a mission outside of the SSR, Peggy is still determined to climb up the corporate ladder (so to speak). In episode 3, she almost exposes all her sneaking-about herself when she finds Howard’s gadgets, claiming “I will call them in, and they will respect me.” Later, in episode 5, when Jarvis insists yet again that her coworkers don’t/won’t treat her right, she retorts, “I expect I will make them.” Though she’s previously tried to ward off Daniel’s attempts to garner respect for her, she’s still hung up on making the SSR work for her, finding a place for herself within its power structure.
By episode eight, though, she’s moved from thinking of her workplace situation in hegemonic terms to rejecting that power structure entirely. She doesn’t need to depend on the SSR for respect or appreciation, nor can she – she has to work outside the system rather than trying to make the system work for her. That’s something Daniel still doesn’t necessarily understand (yes, he’s disabled, but he’s still a man, and the rest of the SSR respects him more than they do Peggy). He’s indignant about Jack taking all the credit for stopping Dr. Fennhoff, because he’s effectively where Peggy was five episodes ago. He’s focused on getting his due reward through the system, because as far as he knows, that’s the only way to get rewarded. Peggy knows better now, though.
This line and this whole scene are really great in a lot of subtle and sorely underappreciated ways, and also I need season 2 now.