One of the hallmarks of The Avengers from Season 2 onwards was the way the show frequently turned gender roles on their heads, leading at least one commentator to describe Steed as a “feminized male” and his partner(s) as “masculinized female[s].” Even Patrick Macnee and Honor Blackman stated in interviews that Steed took on the (ostensibly) “female” role while his partner took the “male.” Other writers often remark on the fact that Steed is given to wearing fine clothes and carrying a “bumbershoot” (yes, some writers really use that word, God help them), leading to descriptions of Steed as “effete” or “foppish.” But is Steed really a “feminized male” (a phrase that could certainly do with some unpacking), or is there something else going on?
Problems with describing gendered aspects of Steed’s character rest primarily in the way masculinity and femininity traditionally are codified and performed in Western society, and with expectations around what it means to be male/masculine or female/feminine. For one thing, Steed is quite obviously a feminist. For another, he often subverts gender norms and expectations even as he clearly identifies and presents himself as male and (presumably) heterosexual. This subversion, combined with Steed’s feminism, leads some commentators to downplay his masculinity, sometimes in favor of overtly foregrounding his supposed effeminacy/feminization, even though this is neither accurate nor appropriate.
Despite his engaging in behaviors that tend to be coded as “feminine,” Steed is not effeminate in any way, nor is he doing these “feminine” things mockingly as an expression of either homophobia or misogyny. Steed is very male, and very masculine, but that maleness and masculinity are not always constructed or performed in service to traditional views of what it means to be a man. As a male feminist, Steed does not find the female/feminine either threatening or inferior, and therefore his performance of his gender includes “feminine” attributes that neither diminish his own masculinity nor function as a derisive commentary on femininity generally. This is in direct contradistinction to traditional constructions of what it means to be a man, and particularly to the definition of manhood/manliness that has come to be known as “toxic masculinity.”
The concept of toxic masculinity provides a framework for the discussion of Steed’s own healthy performance of his male/masculine gender identity. Although there are many and varied descriptions of what comprises toxic masculinity, the mileposts for this analysis will be based on the following five categories: suppression of emotion; violence; rape culture; homophobia; and misogyny. These aspects are held in common by most definitions of toxic masculinity.
For the purposes of this post, I’m going to stick to Seasons 2 through 5 as the source of examples. I also have things to say about Season 6 in connection with the idea of toxic masculinity, but that’s a whole other kettle of fish that I’m going to leave for another time.
notes to the introduction:
(1) Thomas Andrae, “Television’s First Feminist: ‘The Avengers’ and Female Spectatorship,” Discourse 18/3 (1996): 116–17.
(2) Steed is clearly not homosexual, but tumblr blogger celluloidbroomcloset has posited that he might be bi. I find this plausible.
(3) Andrae’s article is especially problematic in this regard, overemphasizing Mrs Peel’s “masculine” qualities while minimizing or dismissing Steed’s.
Boys Don’t Cry
Men aren’t supposed to have feelings. That’s girly stuff. Well, except for anger. That one they’re allowed to have. Otherwise, it’s supposed to be all stiff-upper-lip, all the time.
Suppression of emotion is a big part of the traditional construction of masculinity. Men are supposed to be strong all the time, unflappable all the time, brave all the time. They’re not supposed to let anyone see that they’re sad or grieving. They might be able to get away with being happy occasionally, but usually only in service to something ur-manly, like their favorite football team winning the championship. And under no circumstances—positively none—must they shed a tear. Ever.
To be a man is to be a rock, stoic and unmoveable.
Unless that man is John Steed.
Steed allows himself to feel and express a full range of emotions. Not only that: he expresses these emotions in front of others. Yes, Steed can be angry and fierce, and he expresses those feelings on a regular basis because he loathes what the bad guys do and he fights them so that they stop hurting other people. But he also has deep wells of tenderness, which he shows even to people other than his partners. In “Man-Eater of Surrey Green,” Steed feels compassion for Pedersen, who has been traumatized by having been controlled by the giant alien plant and made to do very bad things. Steed even reaches out in an effort to comfort Pedersen, but withdraws at the last minute, because he’s not sure whether Pedersen would want to be touched right then. (Consent is a big deal to Steed, as we’ll see later.)
Steed isn’t afraid of expressing his delight, either in things or in people. In “Correct Way to Kill,” he can’t resist strumming the umbrellas in the umbrella display. In “Death on the Rocks,” he can’t contain his exuberance and shows it by hoisting Cathy up onto his shoulders and waving her around before dumping her on the sofa.
Although it happens rarely, Steed also is sometimes driven to tears, although he does not weep openly. Seeing Pieter Borowski’s plight in “Man With Two Shadows” is almost more than Steed can bear. In “Lobster Quadrille” he thinks Cathy has been killed. When he hears her voice and discovers that she’s actually still alive, he has tears in his eyes, and he’s obviously shattered emotionally.
This is not to say that Steed is always emoting indiscriminately all over the place. He is firmly in control of himself, and is a very private man. He also has been repeatedly traumatized by things that have happened to him in the course of his work. Steed rarely opens up to anyone about these, but when he does he’s not ashamed of his pain or of having shown that he is vulnerable. In “Room Without a View,” he is told that scientist John Wadkin likely was being held in Nee-San, a prison in Manchuria. This causes Steed to temporarily dissociate: he’s sent into a kind of flashback to his own imprisonment and torture there. But when he finally comes out of it, he doesn’t seem either ashamed or angry with himself that he had that lapse. It’s something that happened, it’s something he has to deal with; the pain of those memories is a part of who he is now, and he doesn’t see any point in denying it.
One of Steed’s strengths is his comfort with feeling and expressing emotion, and not just the limited collection of socially sanctioned “manly” emotions. Steed is an incredibly tough and dangerous man, but he knows that it is okay to be soft sometimes, that it is okay to be vulnerable, to be tender and compassionate, to grieve, to take joy in things he finds delightful, and that free expression of these feelings does not lessen him in any way.
Kill ‘Em All and Let God Sort ‘Em Out
A Real Man™ is strong. A Real Man™ can fight. No Real Man™ turns down a challenge, and when he takes it up he fights to destroy his opponent. Guns are an outward sign of masculinity, because they are tools used to kill, and being a Real Man™ is all about killing things.
Or so go the Manly Man’s Rules for Manly Manhood and Manliness™.
Steed is physically very strong, he has a great deal of courage, and he’s one tough, dangerous mofo who knows a dozen ways to kill you, several of them likely involving nothing more than his bare hands. And even if he decides not to kill you, he can still put you in the hospital for a very long time, where while you are in traction you can contemplate the multitude of your sins. Steed is a crack shot who can put out a candle flame with a single bullet. He’s a skilled and deadly swordsman. He can cobble together a bomb using chemicals he finds to hand in a lab. He knows a lot about drugs, poisons, and antidotes. He’s a champion improviser who can and does make a weapon out of just about anything he finds in his environment.
In short, John Steed is a remarkably efficient maiming and killing machine in a bowler hat, and if you are a villain who makes the mistake of pissing him off, John Steed is your very worst nightmare.
But killing is something Steed does only very reluctantly, only as a last resort, and never with enthusiasm. Steed carries and uses guns rarely and then only when he has no other choice. He’d much rather the villians simply surrendered, but since they never do that he tries to knock them out or otherwise incapacitate them rather than kill them. And while he occasionally enjoys a good donnybrook with the baddies—the physical challenges are part of the attraction of the job for him, after all—he doesn’t go picking fights just because: he fights when he needs to defend himself or someone else, or to stop the bad guys in their tracks before they can hurt innocent people.
Steed doesn’t have anything to prove. He knows his own strength and skill, and he doesn’t care whether others challenge these or can’t see them.
Women Are Vessels of Pleasure, Nothing More
The Honorable John Cartney (“Touch of Brimstone”) is anything but honorable. He is a poster child for toxic masculinity and the rape culture that goes along with it. Rape culture normalizes sexual violence against women. It casts sexual violence in all its forms as something that just happens, that can’t be prevented, that is the woman’s fault, and that is something that men have a right to do, even if the woman does not or cannot consent. Cartney craves power and control, he uses people to his own dastardly ends, and he believes that the only reason women exist is for the pleasure of men. Women are objects to him. They are property, puppets with which he can do anything he likes. He is a sexual predator, women his prey, satisfaction of his urges his goal, and consent isn’t even an afterthought.
Steed rejects rape culture, and thinks Cartney and his posse some of the most despicable people he’s ever met. For Steed, consent is both necessary and very sexy. He’s not interested in sexual activities without the enthusiastic agreement of his partner, and he graciously takes no for an answer. The place where this is most apparent is in “Death at Bargain Prices,” where Steed goes to Emma’s flat looking for sympathy over the black eye one of the baddies just gave him and maybe a little hanky-panky to follow. But Emma is busy: she’s trying to finish a paper on thermodynamics. She shows Steed the door. Steed does make one last play for her favors, telling her that he also has a “dynamic—red blooded,” upon which Emma says, “Good night, Steed; you’ve had a strenuous day.”
Steed takes the hint. Emma doesn’t want sex just then, and it’s her right to say no. Steed goes, without any fuss, and without any additional attempts to get Emma to sleep with him. Yes, he’s horny as hell throughout this episode, but he wants sex to be something that is mutually enjoyed between himself and his partner, not something that he insists on or forces on them, and not something he thinks is his due.
Neither does Steed automatically take advantage of circumstances that present themselves as an invitation to sex. Just because the invitation was issued doesn’t mean he has to agree to it. In “Death of a Batman,” Lady Cynthia bounds into his apartment, gushing over Steed’s prowess at having knocked out her bodyguard the night before. She’s clearly very turned on by this, and flings herself bodily at Steed. Although Steed does like Lady Cynthia very much, and while he is flattered by her attention, he doesn’t think that having sex with her right then is appropriate, partly because he is in a relationship with Cathy Gale at the moment. However, I believe he would have resisted Lady Cynthia’s advances even if he hadn’t been with Cathy: Lady Cynthia is a witness in a case he’s working, and he doesn’t want to do anything that might lead to a misunderstanding and bad feeling between them. Although Steed definitely likes sex and will cheerfully pursue it, he does not hold with the idea that a man must always have sex every time he has an opportunity.
Not every relationship with a woman is a romantic or sexual one for Steed. His friendship with Venus Smith is much more on the order of older brother/younger sister, or else that of an older to a younger cousin. Steed likes Venus very much, and she likes him, but there’s never any question whether they are more than very good friends, and there’s no question that this is a completely healthy relationship for both of them.
Steed thinks consent is very important, whether he is wanting to have sex with a partner with whom he has a steady relationship or whether he is in the mood for casual sex when he’s not otherwise attached, as he is in “Death Dispatch.” Steed wants his partner’s consent because he recognizes that women are full human beings who have the right to determine what they do with their bodies, and because sex is better when both partners are having fun. He has strong boundaries himself: he doesn’t like it when people touch him without his consent, so he tries to treat others with the same respect he demands for himself. Steed doesn’t consider women prey to be stalked and overcome, nor does he expect that other people automatically owe him sex for any reason. And even though Steed has had sexual relationships with several women, he doesn’t think of these as conquests, nor does he see every woman he knows as a potential bedmate.
Not That There’s Anything Wrong With That
The corollary to the Manly Man’s Rules for Manly Manhood and Manliness™ enumerated above, of course is:
Thou shalt not ever do anything remotely feminine because thou art a Manly Man of Manliness™ dammit and not gay and doing the feminine thing means thou art gay and being gay is the worst tragedy that could ever befall a Manly Man of Manliness™, with the possible exception of actually being female.
To these rules, Steed says “pish-tush.” (Or he would do, if “pish-tush” were a phrase he were ever heard to utter. But I digress.)
Steed is totally at home with doing things that are ordinarily coded as feminine. Here are a few examples:
Gotta make sure those lace cuffs are just so.
Taking time to stop and smell the flowers.
Punting with Emma. And a parasol.
Not only is Steed comfortable with these things, he does them unironically. He likes fancy clothes, so he wears them and expresses his enjoyment of them. He likes flowers, so while Mrs Peel is doing meteorology he picks some and enjoys their scent. (And Mrs Peel is the better scientist anyway, so may as well leave her to it and stay out of the way.) He likes getting to lounge in the punt in his boat club togs while Mrs Peel takes the pole, and since it’s a sunny day he shields his face with a parasol. No matter that the parasol is lacy (and very likely pink): he likes it and it does the job.
Steed doubtless understands how those behaviors might be seen by others, and he probably thinks it great fun to tweak the nose of convention and gender norms, but there is not one hint of derision or playacting or mockery in any of it. There are no overtones of homophobia or misogyny. Steed is confident in his masculinity and comfortable in his own skin. So if he wants to dress up, or pick flowers, or use his favorite lacy parasol, he’s going to do those things. Anyone who doesn’t like it can go play tiddlywinks with manhole covers, and who cares if they think Steed is gay.
After You, Mrs Peel
If you’ve read this far, you’ve probably gathered that anxiety about femininity/femaleness/effeminacy is a pretty big chunk of toxic masculinity. And so a pretty big chunk of toxic masculinity is therefore misogyny. Toxic masculinity consciously constructs itself in opposition to the female/feminine. It regards the female/feminine as inferior, as always to be in submission to the male/masculine. If women refuse to submit to men, then it is a man’s job at either to make things difficult enough for women that they finally give in and submit, or if that doesn’t work, to force them into submission more directly.
Steed, of course, is having none of that.
The idea that Steed would treat his female partners as his equals was baked into the character from the beginning of Season 2 onward, and also reflected Patrick Macnee’s own personal philosophy about relations between the sexes. Mrs Gale and Mrs Peel, particularly, are Steed’s equals in most things, and better than he is at some things, and Steed thinks this is simply grand.
Steed frequently expresses pride in his partners. He revels in their accomplishments, not because he thinks he can take credit for them, but because he delights in how amazing these women are. In “November Five,” Steed has convinced Cathy to run for Parliament as part of solving the case. At one point, she is giving the verbal beat-down to the bad guys, who are trying to get her not to use her campaign to talk about the scandal that has them in hot water. Steed doesn’t enter the conversation at all. Instead, he stands behind Cathy, listening intently, backing her up by his physical presence, and then when she slams down the mic drop, saying that she will so talk about that scandal whether they like it or not, he beams with pride.
In “Mr Teddy Bear,” Steed is testing Cathy’s unarmed combat skills. She flattens him. Instead of thinking it a grave embarrassment to have been bested by a woman, Steed thinks it’s the sexiest thing. He tries to kiss Cathy, but she puts the kibosh on that by mashing him into the mattress they’ve put down to cushion their falls. So now Steed has been pummelled not once but twice by the same woman, and he takes it in stride. Mrs Gale is a good fighter who can kick his ass, she’s not afraid to stand up for herself, and to Steed those are good things, not things to get angry or resentful about.
Steed also is a good ally. He calls out other men on their sexism and demands that they treat his partners with the respect they deserve. This happens at the beginning of “Room Without a View,” and you can read my full blog on that here.
So yeah. Steed is a manly guy. He’s strong, he’s a good fighter, he’s brave and heroic. He likes women, he likes sex. But he doesn’t feel the need to prove his masculinity to anyone, not to his enemies, not to his partners, not to the other men and women he encounters as he moves through his day, and certainly not to himself. Steed inhabits his maleness and his masculinity in a healthy way, on his own terms.