Well, I did promise I’d mumble some stuff about Season 6 and masculinity, so off I go.
When Diana Rigg left Avengers to become a Bond Girl, Steed’s next partner was Tara King, played by Linda Thorson. Thorson was even younger than Diana Rigg: there was a twenty-five-year age gap between herself and Patrick Macnee. Tara King, therefore, was a youngun, and not just in chronological terms. An agent-in-training assigned to Steed by the Ministry, Tara lacked the maturity and perspicacity of either Cathy Gale or Emma Peel, and she also had a mad pash for John Steed. Unlike Steed’s relationships with Cathy and Emma, which started as friendships that progressed to romance, and which were very much relationships between equals, Steed’s relationship with Tara was … different.
Tara arrives on the scene in “The Forget-Me-Knot” already seriously crushing on Steed. She’s never met the man in person, but boy does she have the hots for him. When she introduces herself to him, she gives him the once-over in a frankly sexual manner. And for some reason best known to herself Tara thinks that Steed will automatically feel the same way about her. She tells him, “You’ll want my address and phone number” and starts fishing in her purse for her card. Steed finds this extremely presumptuous, but Tara persists. She’s expecting him to take advantage of this bright young thing throwing herself into his lap. But of course she knows jack about Steed the man: she has no clue that that is not how he relates to women.
Much of Tara’s behavior is childish in the extreme. She thinks she is having an adult romance with Steed, but in fact is only aping how mature adults relate to one another romantically. For example, she goes on vacation and promises to write to Steed on the hour every day, and does exactly that, flooding his mat with postcards covered in saccharine little messages. It’s a middle-schooler’s idea of what lovers do, based on teen magazines and movies and bad romance novels.
But more importantly, a lot of what Tara does also is closely aligned with what patriarchy and toxic masculinity expect from women in relation to their menfolk. And herein lies one of the biggest problems with Season 6: Tara King has internalized the messages of patriarchy and toxic masculinity, which dictate how women should perform their gender and relate to men, just as they dictate rules for performing masculinity and maleness and for relating to women.
And so Tara’s relationship with Steed can’t possibly work, because Steed doesn’t follow those rules.
The thing that set Cathy Gale and Emma Peel apart from most other women (other than their ridiculous levels of competence in just about everything) was their own rejection of the dictates of patriarchy. This, perhaps even more than their skills, intelligence, and education allowed them to interact with Steed as equals. They saw no reason why they should be in any way subservient to him and they made it clear that he was to accept their equality to him, which of course he did without question from the get-go, because that’s what Steed does. The relationship between Steed and those women was a relationship of equals, and it was an equality firmly grounded in feminist principles on both sides.
Tara wants to have her cake and eat it too. She wants to be an emancipated woman who lives a madcap life doing an exciting and dangerous job that involves such “masculine” behaviors as thrashing men twice her size, shooting guns, driving sports cars very fast, and catching criminals. But at the same time, she also wants to be a fragile, feminine flower whose primary reason for existing is to live for her man; whose life and activities revolve around him, his work, and his goals; who is perpetually trying to anticipate his wants and needs; who tells him over and over that he’s the only thing in her life that matters; and who is utterly defenceless without his strong, manly protection, as patriarchy duly requires.
It’s not just that Tara is a raw recruit who only barely understands her job. It’s not just that she’s very, very young and immature. It’s not just that in terms of her job she is Steed’s subordinate and he her supervisor. It’s that she has a view of herself as a woman and of Steed as a man that is entirely conditioned by patriarchal expectations. She can’t see Steed for who he is, not simply because she is blinded by hero worship, but because she can’t recognize the moral, ethical, and philosophical principles that underlie Steed’s very way of being. She can’t have an equal relationship with him because she can’t see herself as anything but always-already subordinate to him in every way. Worse still, she thinks that subordinance is what Steed wants from her.
Steed has no idea how to respond to this. He wants to be able to treat his partners as equals (including Tara), but she won’t let him do it. Although Tara surely must know at least of Mrs Peel’s existence, if not something about her skills and talents, she can’t know that Emma’s ability to kick Steed’s ass both physically and, at times, intellectually, was one of the things he most loved about her. Tara, by contrast, often feels she must prove to Steed that she is a Womanly Woman of Womanliness™ who relies on her man to be strong and brave and to save her. She has to do this because she sees Steed (utterly erroneously) as a Manly Man of Manliness™—he’s John Steed! what else could he possibly be?—so therefore his supposedly fragile masculinity must be preserved and protected.
Even when she tries to protect him instead of the other way around, she can’t permit herself to do it too competently: there must be something in that performance that reinforces Steed’s superiority over her, either by the sheer silliness of what she does (as in the piling up of chairs in “Game”) or by actual and dangerous incompetence (as when she knocks him out in an attempt to protect him in “Noon Doomsday” and he ends up saving her instead). Tara is completely unwilling or unable to see that masculinity is one of the least fragile things about Steed.
Tara keeps trying to conform to patriarchal definitions of womanliness, while at the same time trying to be the independent, skilled person that she knows or suspects Steed’s previous partner was—and who I think she actually wants to be, but can’t—and it’s like trying to marry oil and water. Tara can never be a true partner for Steed, not until she lets go of patriarchal expectations about gender and gender roles, as he has done, and not until she lets go of these expectations not only about her own gender role, but also about his. That’s something she may never be able to do, and it’s not Steed’s job to teach her.