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.
⊕ 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.
Business executives are being murdered at a rather alarming rate, so Steed and Mrs Peel are called in to investigate. They discover that the perpetrators are a group of women who are chafing under the bonds of a patriarchal system that keeps them subservient. These women have been trained first to create filing and accounting systems so baroque that only they understand them, and then to murder their bosses and take over the businesses themselves, since at that point the women are the only ones competent to do so.
The ringleader of the group of women turns out to be not another woman disaffected by patriarchy, but rather a man named Henry. Henry is a ventriloquist, and he gives orders to the women by means of a ventriloquist’s doll. The doll is dressed and speaks as a female, and is named Henrietta, after Henry’s late wife. Although the women see the doll when they have their meetings, they do not realize that Henry is the one supplying her voice: they think there is another woman somewhere that they have not yet seen who is speaking through the doll, and who is the actual leader of their group.
Since the extended post I’m currently working on is giving me fits and conniptions, I’m gonna recycle this to give y’all something to ponder while I untangle the other one. You’re welcome.
(Steed stops to speak to a woman named Iris before going in to his meeting)
Steed: Hello, Iris! How’s business?
Iris: Not bad. A bit cold.
Steed: Oh, it’s early yet. It’ll warm up later.
Iris: How about you starting it off then? Buy me a drink!
Steed: You know me. Pleasure before business!
(Steed goes into the club after promising to come back)
This scene says something very important about Steed’s relationships with women and, I think about Patrick Macnee as well. Steed has stopped on his way to a meeting to talk to Iris. We can tell from context that she’s probably a prostitute: she works for the strip club that acts as a front for the Ministry’s secret meeting place, where she tries to get men to go in with her and “have a drink.” (nudge nudge wink wink)
Steed sees her as a friend, and never treats her with anything other than respect. He knows how she makes her living, but he never sexualizes her, and he never judges her for what she needs to do to put food on the table for her family.
When she teasingly invites him to buy her a drink inside, he declines, but suggests that maybe later he will buy her one. The original line in the script for Steed’s refusal is “Business before pleasure,” but Macnee changed that to “Pleasure before business.”
This is an important ad-lib. The former, with the emphasis on “pleasure” at the end carries overtones of Steed possibly intending to, um, sample Iris’ wares. But that’s not the kind of man Steed is, and not the kind of man Macnee wanted him to be. Yes, Steed will gladly take Iris out for a drink, but he’s not going to be her customer, and he’s not going to treat her like merchandise. He’s her friend.
Chapter 3 of “The Enemy of My Enemy” is up.