Welcome to Feather Dusters at 400 Yards, my blog about the British television series The Avengers. There’s a lot of cool stuff to explore in this groundbreaking series that spanned the entire decade of the 1960s: the characters, the performances, scene and episode analysis, technical aspects of the production, and more. Plus there are Avengers music videos and fanfiction and now even fan art! So click on a tag or a category or something in the navigation menu, or just keep scrolling, and explore along with me.
I finally finished the portraits of Regency Emma and Steed. You can view the larger version here.
Recently my fellow tumblr celluloidbroomcloset made some postings about Steed making models to figure out what’s happening in Winged Avenger, and Emma’s responses to that activity. I followed up with one about him making diagrams in Murder Market, and then the following ideas kinda happened:
Sometimes Steed really needs that hands-on, tactile, kinetic way of solving problems. If we accept my headcanon that Steed is ADHD, he probably has so many different ideas blossoming in his head at once that he can’t corral them without creating something concrete that he can latch his ideas onto. Making the model of the building or graphing the murders is a way for him to streamline his thoughts and get them into some semblance of order. Therefore those methods are necessary for him, even if ultimately they don’t provide the key to solving the case.
I think Emma understands this. Yes, she thinks it’s cute that he builds models and makes graphs, but she’s not mocking him for needing to do that just because she doesn’t. She understands that his brain works differently from hers, and that whereas she can just puzzle stuff out logically in her head, Steed sometimes needs to draw pictures or use tools or make models before he can get to the place that Emma already starts from.
Steed doesn’t feel ashamed of having to make graphs or models as part of settling in to a case, and he’s not wasting time by doing those things. Yes, those activities do take time, and they don’t directly lead to the solution to the case, but if he refused to do them at all because he was worried about it seeming weird or stupid or tangential he’d only make himself miserable and the process would take even longer and be even less productive.
Steed probably doesn’t know that he’s ADHD, because that diagnosis didn’t exist back then. But he does know what he needs to do to solve a problem, so that’s what he does. Emma understands that, and accommodates it. She helps him when she can, but mostly she just sits back and waits for him to be ready to go on to the next step, which she does without impatience and with the presumption of Steed’s competence to know what works best for him. In the meantime, Emma pursues her own leads, knowing that Steed will make his own important contributions to the case in his own way.
originally posted on sparklywaistcoat
⊕ Content notice for mention and some discussion of sex trafficking and abuse
The Season 1 episode “Toy Trap” moves into fairly edgy territory for an early 1960s television show, exploring as it does issues of sex trafficking and pornography involving young, vulnerable women. Issues concerning the status of women also come to the fore in the divergent attitudes of Dr Keel and Steed towards Bunty Seton, the 19-year-old daughter of one of Keel’s friends and colleagues, who has come to London to find work and live an independent life. But Steed’s feminism and Keel’s lack thereof are not the only loci for an examination of gendered attitudes or gender relations in this particular episode, because the ways in which some men and women see heterosexual relationships as something that for good or ill may be exploited to their own advantage is one of the main themes of the story.
One of the main drivers of this move to exploit relationships is patriarchal culture and its attendant oppression of women. With certain glaring exceptions (**koff**Steed**koff**) many of the male characters (and at least one female) treat the women as property that can be owned, traded, and used for their own purposes without regard for what the women themselves might need or want. Many of the women, for their part, likewise see men as a means to an end, since finding a suitable male partner could bring with it an economic security that was difficult for single women to obtain in early 1960s Britain, along with a bump up in social status if the partners married. The villains, therefore, are playing both sides against the middle: they draw young women into their sex trafficking racket so that the women can be used for the pleasure of men, thus generating income for the traffickers; and they also turn the women’s need for the status and economic security guaranteed by attachment to a man against them, using an apparent—but ultimately false and exploitive—fulfillment of that need as the bait for their trap.
⊕ Content notice for mention of sex trafficking
The literature on Avengers is chock full of commentators gushing about the cool feminist cred that Cathy Gale and Emma Peel brought to the show. These kickass women are never treated as anything other than Steed’s equals, and the unfortunate rarity of that kind of female character and that kind of parity between the male and female leads draws a lot of attention. While it’s understandable that commentators might regularly feel compelled to examine the roles of Cathy Gale and Emma Peel (I mean, they’re both awesome: what’s not to like?), it’s somewhat curious to me that Steed’s own feminism tends to receive short shrift, even though a male feminist character is even rarer than a strong female character in the stripe of Cathy or Emma. (Although I’ve tried to mend that situation somewhat, for example here and here.)
As I noted in an earlier blog, the feminist leanings of John Steed were not something that sprang full-grown from the brows of the producers the minute Honor Blackman signed on the dotted line: Macnee himself demanded that Steed treat women with respect from the start, and Steed certainly behaves politely and respectfully towards the women he encounters. While that in itself might be neither much of a surprise nor much of a step in the direction of feminism, other aspects of Steed’s character do cement his status as a feminist and an ally, especially in his preference for treating women as full human beings having their own agency and their own right to self-determination, all of which he does even in the show’s first season, before either Cathy or Emma make their first appearances.
In Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea novel, The Farthest Shore, Arren, Prince of Enlad, is sent by his father to Roke to seek the advice of the Archmage Ged about troubling events happening in Enlad, and about rumors from elsewhere that have been circulating. Ged asks Arren to describe the problem, and in the conversation that follows Arren mentions old wives’ tales, and this exchange ensues:
“What do the old wives say?” [asked Ged].
“That all the fortunes witches read in smoke and water pools tell of ill, and that their love-potions go amiss. But these are people without true wizardry.”
“Fortune-telling and love-potions are not of much account, but old women are worth listening to.”
As a fan of both Avengers and the writings of Ursula Le Guin, my understandings of and appreciation for Steed’s character and Ged’s have long been entwined: I see a lot of commonalities between them. One important facet is their willingness to listen to women and, specifically in this instance, their acknowledgement of the value of old women, women who by virtue of their age are pushed even farther out of the public eye and public discourse and whose importance is even further diminished than that of younger women in a sexist, patriarchal culture.
Steed and Ged each live in such a culture, but both of these men refuse to dismiss what older women have to say. They find the knowledge and wisdom of older women to be worth hearing, worth considering, and worth following.
In Avengers, we see this particularly in the Season 1 episode “Tunnel of Fear,” in Steed’s interactions with Ma Black. Ma Black is a member of a rinkydink carnival in Southend and mother of Harry Black, the prison escapee who Steed and Dr Keel are trying to help. Ma Black has more than age and gender to tell against her in Steed’s culture: like all carnies, she lives on the margins of society by virtue of her work, and although she evidently makes enough to live on, she is of relatively low class, and likely mostly uneducated. But within the culture of the carnival itself, she is well respected as a community elder, and is treated as a mother figure by many of the other carnival workers.
Steed likewise respects Ma Black. When Steed is knocked out by Maxie, he accepts her ministrations, and teases her gently. Then when he has to go phone One-Ten, he invites Ma Black to come along. He listens carefully to what Ma Black has to say about the case and about her son, and he even coos over Harry’s baby pictures. When she invites him to have a drink with her after the case is done, he cheerfully accepts.
Ma Black shows Steed Harry’s baby pictures, and Steed’s all, “D’awww!”
She invites Steed out drinking; Steed cheerfully accepts
Steed acknowledges and respects Ma Black’s status as an elder within the carnival. He sees in her a woman who is loyal and honest and loving, and who wants justice for her son. Steed likes Ma Black, he appreciates her, he respects her, and he shows this in the way he interacts with her and treats her. All of these things he does in a genuine way, and his respect for her pays off: it turns out that Ma Black has important information that is one of the lynchpins to the case, and because Steed treats her well and earns her trust, she gives him that information willingly.
Although the feminist tilt to Avengers gets rather more press starting with the advent of Cathy Gale in Season 2, the seeds of it are already planted in Season 1 in the character of John Steed. Part of that is the way that Steed is written (and this is true whether the writers consciously intended it or not), but part of that also is the way Patrick Macnee himself decided to play the character. Indeed, when one of the producers gave Macnee a copy of Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale to use as inspiration for Steed’s character, Macnee read the book and then instantly rejected playing Steed in any way like Bond, largely because of his disgust over the way Bond treated women.
This conscious choice about the treatment of female characters comes to the fore in so very many places throughout the series, including in Steed’s interactions with Ma Black in “Tunnel of Fear.” Macnee could have played at least some of those interactions dismissively, for example having Steed brusquely brush off her attempts to patch him up after his fight with Maxie, or by having a flat reaction at best or rolling his eyes behind her back at worst when she takes out her photo album. But Macnee didn’t do that. He plays those interactions with an undercurrent of honest delight in this old woman who loves her son.
Macnee respected women, and that respect informed the way he played Steed. And in “Tunnel of Fear,” Steed shows us that respect, and that he knows well that old women are worth listening to.
Fire up the willing engine, responding with a roar
Tires spitting gravel I commit my weekly crime
Dame Diana Rigg behind the wheel in Avengers and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, to the tune “Red Barchetta” by Rush.
Following some exchanges on tumblr regarding the whole Steed/Tara/Cathy/Emma conundrum, I began mulling some things over in my fevered brain, to wit:
A certain subset of (usually male) fans seem to be of the opinion that Tara is somehow the most suitable partner for Steed, some of them even going so far as to say that she is his “soulmate.” Cathy on the other hand, gets relegated by some viewers to Noli Me Tangere Ice Queen status, while Emma is seen as not being in either a romantic or sexual relationship with Steed, or if she is considered to be having sex with him it is simply a “friends with benefits” arrangement without much emotional attachment.
I have Some Thoughts about this.