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“But you would have gone to Ali’s defence? Physically?”
“Under different circumstances, certainly.”
He did not seem angry at my disobedience, just puzzled. Finally he said, “But women do not fight.”
“This one does,” I answered. He held my gaze, then looked sideways at Holmes.
“This one does,” my mentor confirmed.
— Mahmoud Hazr, Mary Russell, and Sherlock Holmes in O Jerusalem by Laurie R King
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One of the groundbreaking aspects of The Avengers from the beginning of the Cathy Gale era was that Steed’s female partners were treated as his equals, and hints were often dropped that the women might be even better than he was at some things, or smarter in some ways. This was done in absolute seriousness: Cathy Gale and Emma Peel were written neither in a humorous attempt to undermine Steed’s masculinity, nor in order to lampoon the women as ball-breaking viragos. These women are not caricatures: they are strong, skilled, capable, and intelligent, and expect to be treated accordingly. Steed certainly does that: he accepts Cathy and Emma just as they are. He is not threatened by their talents, but rather celebrates them, and Steed’s delight in his partners and what they can do is one of the finest aspects of those relationships.
The ability to fight and defend themselves physically was one of the key facets of both Cathy ‘s and Emma’s characters, and as with their intellectual talents was conceived of as something integral to each woman and her role in the series, something that would be treated as having value and function both equal and complementary to Steed’s physical abilities. In this post, I’m going to focus on two different aspects of Mrs Peel’s physical dangerousness. The first of these concerns the variety of circumstances under which she claims or is given the right to deal with the baddies on her own and/or administer the coup de grâce. The other concerns the ways Emma’s physical and existential threats to the villains complement or intersect with Steed’s parallel role, which I will examine with particular reference to the Season 4 episode “The Danger Makers.”
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“A desire to have all the fun is nine-tenths of the law of chivalry.”
— Lord Peter Wimsey to Harriet Vane in Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers
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That Emma Peel is Steed’s physical equal is emphasized from their very first meeting, during which they have a duel (“Town of No Return”). First Mrs Peel manages to knock Steed down into a chair, then later he wraps her up in the draperies. We learn from this that they are evenly matched at combat. Later, when they have the final confrontation with the bad guys, they begin their attack exactly in tandem. It’s not even a question that this battle is Emma’s just as much as it is Steed’s. (I discussed the final battle in “Town of No Return” in an earlier blog.)
Although Steed absolutely will rescue Mrs Peel any time it’s necessary, he always trusts that she can take care of herself. With Mrs Peel, Steed’s chivalry isn’t aimed at keeping her perfectly safe from harm, or even from mere exertion. He would never suggest that she look on passively and admire his own prowess—although he’s certainly not averse to preening in her general direction after he flattens his enemies—nor does he feel he has anything to prove to Emma. What Steed finds chivalrous is giving Mrs Peel the coup de grâce, even if he himself is already poised to deliver it (“The Gravediggers”).
Emma doesn’t always wait for Steed to give her the nod, though. She’s just as likely to take the initiative in dealing with the bad guys. And Steed is happy to stand back, watch his Emma do what she does best, and glow with pride. (“Quick-Quick-Slow Death”)
And when Steed is in trouble, God help his opponent. Mrs Peel doesn’t hesitate to step in to save him, quickly, decisively, and ferociously. (“Dial a Deadly Number”)
Steed would never suggest that Emma leave all the fun of dealing with the villains to him. He considers her to be just as entitled as he is to be in on the collar, and neither his masculinity nor his chivalry is wounded by her participation or by the times when he needs rescue and she jumps in to provide it. In fact, he recognizes her physical abilities and combat skills to be not only valuable in a fight but part of her very identity: at the end of “Who’s Who,” when Emma has changed back into her own body but Steed hasn’t, Steed (in Basil’s body) attacks her to make sure it’s really Emma, because only she would be able to defend against him.
For her part, Emma assumes that she has a right to participate in any physical confrontations that might ensue from the progress of a case. She doesn’t need Steed’s permission to fight, nor does she always hold back until he initiates combat. In fact, there are times when Emma’s role is specifically to act as the “muscle” while Steed does all the talking. Emma is coequal with Steed in their physical battles, and she claims that equality unapologetically.
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Ali gave out a guttural laugh.
“Strengths? What strengths are those? An old man and a girl.”
… I leapt to my feet and stormed over to thrust my face into his.
“Hit me,” I ordered. Behind me, Holmes put down his cup with alacrity and moved out of the way.
— Ali Hazr and Mary Russell in O Jerusalem by Laurie R King
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The Season 4 episode “The Danger Makers” contains an interesting counterpoint in the presentation of Emma and Steed as physically dangerous people. The premise of the episode is that there is a group of military men dissatisfied with their peacetime roles who seek out dangerous stunts in order to prove their bravery to themselves and to one another. They call themselves “The Danger Makers,” giving the episode its title. What makes this group problematic is that their stunts often endanger innocent people, and if one of the members fails to complete his task but survives it, the punishment is to be murdered by one of his colleagues.
Steed and Mrs Peel are called in to investigate, and Mrs Peel goes under cover as an estate appraiser to value the belongings of a recently murdered general who belonged to the group. In the process she meets the Major, an army officer and member of the Danger Makers. The Major takes a liking to Mrs Peel, who plays up her own adventurous spirit in order to capture his interest. The Major later brings her to the stately home that serves as the Danger Makers’ headquarters, to introduce her to his friends there.
When Emma and the Major arrive, they find that Steed is already there, posing as a member of the (nonexistent) “northern chapter” of the group and going by the code name “Bacchus.” The Major introduces Mrs Peel to Steed (he doesn’t know that Steed and Mrs Peel already are very well acquainted, and they don’t disabuse him of this). He goes on to propose they start an “Amazon chapter”and make Mrs Peel a full member. This requires that she pass a test of nerve and skill. And it’s a potentially deadly test: one mistake at the wrong moment, and Mrs Peel will be fried by 5000 volts of electricity. But of course Emma manages to pass the test, much to her and Steed’s great relief.
The military men are very impressed with Emma’s skill and sang froid; they welcome her enthusiastically into their group. That is, until their leader, code named “Apollo,” arrives. He has already met both Steed and Mrs Peel, and knows them as agents of the Ministry. Their covers blown, Steed and Emma are taken captive.
It is important to remember that of the two, only Mrs Peel has yet demonstrated her nerve and physical abilities to the rest of the Danger Makers. Steed got in merely by stating that he was part of another chapter of the group. Yet Steed seems to be treated as being the more dangerous: he gets manacled to a pillar in the cellar and has to use guile and hand-to-hand combat skills to escape, while Emma is locked in a bedroom and merely needs to knot sheets together, climb out the window, and shinny down the wall. Or maybe the choice of her imprisonment is some kind of odd chivalry or maybe even misogyny on the part of their captors who, despite having seen with their own eyes what a badass Emma is cannot conceive of her as being as dangerous or even more dangerous than Steed is because she is a woman.
Although Steed gets plenty of opportunities to show how dangerous he can be in the final battle, the most important points in that conflict are given to Mrs Peel. When she and Steed interrupt the Danger Makers as they plan to steal the Crown Jewels, it is Steed who engages in banter then stands aside so that Mrs Peel can launch herself at the bad guys and get the melee going. And it is Mrs Peel who causes the demise of master mind Apollo, by propelling him onto the electrified bars that were used in her membership test.
During the last battle, Emma concentrates on fighting and says nothing. She deals with the problem at hand on a purely physical level. Steed, by contrast, adjusts the odds against them by talking: he appeals to the Danger Makers’ sense of honor and, well, danger-making by suggesting that it’s not terribly brave for them all to gang up on himself and Mrs Peel. Several of the Danger Makers lower their weapons and bow out of the fight at that point.
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This episode says some important things about real vs perceived combat skill and physical ability for Mrs Peel and for Steed, and also about how the two of them approach the division of labor in a fight. Mrs Peel was required to demonstrate for the Danger Makers that she is both courageous and skilled, while all Steed had to do is say, “I’m one of you.” Steed might like nothing better than a good dustup with the bad guys, but here he acknowledges that since Mrs Peel has taken all the real risks during this case, she should have the right to take the first swing when it’s time to fight. The Danger Makers themselves might make gendered or even outright misogynistic assumptions about the relative dangerousness of Steed (more dangerous, because male) and Mrs Peel (less dangerous, because female), but Steed refuses to do so. And when Emma fights people who have made the mistake of underestimating her, she doesn’t do it with the intent to humiliate or prove her worth to them: she already knows her own value and is secure in that. She’s fighting because that’s the only way to bring down the bad guys in that moment, and while she often relishes her victories, her self-esteem does not depend on either winning or the margin of victory, just as Steed’s does not depend on being the one to do the most fighting, or always being rescuer but never rescued, or the one to always give the coup de grâce. They are two halves of the same team, working side by side, each valuing the other’s contribution and strengths as though those were their own.