In many ways, The Avengers is dated. Sexism and racism are sadly present in many of the episodes, and none of the characters (including our heroes, alas) are perfect in this respect. But the series was also groundbreaking in its treatment of Steed’s female partners: these are strong, talented, capable women, whom Steed treats as his equals. He values and respects their skills and intelligence, and quite rightly expects others to do the same.
An early scene in “Room Without a View” exemplifies this (and also Steed’s general disdain for officialdom, but that’s a story for another time). Steed and Mrs. Peel arrive to take over the case and have to deal with Mr. Varnals, a sexist ministry factotum who not only is dismissive of Mrs. Peel, he can’t even bring himself to look at her. Steed calls him on his bullshit, gently at first, but with growing annoyance.
Mrs. Peel doesn’t back down, either; she owns her right to be there by taking part in the investigation as usual and expecting Varnals to simply deal with it. She leaves the righteous anger to Steed while asserting her own competence in a devastatingly poised and understated way.
It’s important to understand that what Steed is feeling is outrage, not protectiveness. He knows better than anyone that Mrs. Peel could mop the floor with Varnals intellectually, verbally, and physically and not even break a sweat, but seeing her disrespected really gets his hackles up.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Peel (who also knows she could make mincemeat of Varnals) plays it completely cool, partly because it goes against the stereotype of the useless female that Varnals apparently expects from her, making it all the more delicious to watch his surprise when he finds out what she’s really like. She also stays above the fray out of respect for Steed, who asked her earlier to go easy on Varnals.
Besides getting her own back, Mrs. Peel gets the fun of watching Varnals push Steed’s buttons, and of wondering how long it will take before he finally figures out that Steed has been deeply offended by his behavior towards her. Varnals, however, remains completely oblivious throughout the entire exchange, both to Steed’s ire and the fact that an angry John Steed can be an extremely dangerous John Steed. That Mrs. Peel might herself be offended (and dangerous) never crosses his mind.
Steed’s own natural and deeply ingrained courtesy and his respect for Mrs. Peel are what help him to restrain himself. Attacking Varnals on Mrs. Peel’s behalf not only would be pointless in terms of reforming Varnals’ attitudes but would put Steed in the position of playing white knight to a woman he knows to be eminently capable of taking care of herself, thus only serving to confirm the gender roles Varnals wants to perpetuate. Steed is willing to indulge Varnals’ bureaucratic mindset up to a point by playing official sponsor to Mrs. Peel in his capacity as a ministry employee, but he also expects his partner to be treated as his equal.
Varnals isn’t happy that Mrs. Peel is with Steed. Mrs. Peel lets Steed take the lead. He decides on a lighthearted tack at first.
Varnals keeps trying to get rid of Mrs. Peel. Steed is having none of it, and he’s just about out of patience. Varnals seems not to know Steed well, otherwise he would understand what thin ice he is skating on. Mrs. Peel sees it, though.
Mrs Peel decides that it’s time to jump in. Varnals won’t even acknowledge her existence. He has no clue how hard Steed is working not to rearrange his face.
Mrs Peel quietly asserts her intelligence, an act that is all the more effective for its being completely casual. Varnals begins to realize that he may have underestimated Mrs Peel.
… and mic drop to Mr Steed. Tapping Varnals’ chest functions for Steed as a kind of sublimated physical aggression. He isn’t going to hit Varnals (much as he’d like to), but he can’t resist making a physical point with him even so. Meanwhile, Mrs Peel finds it no end amusing to watch the testosterone fly.