In an earlier blog, I discussed the ways in which Steed’s masculinity is sometimes treated dismissively by critics and writers, despite massive evidence to the contrary, in part because of the way the gender binary is constructed in Western society. There’s a corollary to this, deeply entwined with issues of gender and gender performance, and that is the minimization or denial of Steed’s physicality. I’m not sure exactly how or when this started, but at least since the mid-1980s there seems to have been a tendency to relegate Steed to the sidelines when discussing the physical, embodied aspects of the Avengers, with particular reference to combat with the villains.
(I’m hoping to do a more thorough workup of the history of this in the future, but for now I’ll go with what I’ve got. Also, there are other ways Steed expresses his physicality besides combat, but I’m sticking with that one for now, too.)
Let’s take a look at some descriptions of Steed in comparison to his partners, with respect to physical stuff (emphases added; full citations at the foot of this post):
As the evolving leading man, Steed was unique. As writer John Peel noted in his 1980s Files magazines on the series, it was Steed’s partners, especially his leading ladies, who fulfilled much of the action, stunt, and fight duties expected of the hero. He was the professional who worked in the most quirky world of any secret agent, but as he observed, studied, analyzed, and occasionally hit an opponent with his steel-rimmed bowler, Steed allowed his partners to shine and the costars to stand out. In John Peel’s opinion, by standing back, Steed became the most beloved character in the genre and certainly the one most recognizable anywhere in the globe. 
Indeed, the series reversed traditional gender definitions: while Emma represented the modern masculinized woman, Steed was a feminized male, a foppish aristocrat who favored Edwardian dress, bowler hat and bumbershoot. 
Although Emma’s lethal Karate [sic] chops made her the more physically dominant of the pair, she had to possess special martial arts training and work hard to defeat her enemies. Steed dispatches villains with a simple flick of his umbrella. 
In a role-reversal unique for the time, the emancipated Mrs. Peel carried the gun and did most of the physical fighting, incapacitating 200-pound brutes with well-placed karate chops before casually pulling her hair back into place.
So as not to rumple his clothes or inconvenience himself unneccessarily, Steed used his wits to dispose of villains with well-aimed wine corks, a trip of his umbrella, or a firm tap on the head with his steel-lined bowler. Rarely did he stoop to utilizing a traditional weapon, though a cross-bow, if handy, might prove useful. 
But middle-aged, paunchy Steed, his only weapon a bumbershoot, is hardly a conventional icon of masculinity himself. 
These are the kinds of statements that drive fandoms to drink. (Or at least to shout Anglo-Saxon epithets and then go write screedy blogs. Ahem.) Every single statement above not only contains horrible factual inaccuracies but they also at best minimize Steed’s physicality or, in the case of the last quotation, dismiss it outright in fairly insulting terms. (Seriously, folks: if this is the best that scholars and writers in the field can do, there’s a problem. And what is it with these people and “bumbershoot”? But I digress. Yet again.)
I’ve already spilled a bunch of ink on Steed’s physical dangerousness, so I’m not going to do a whole lot with that again here. Instead what I’d like to examine are two other aspects of this phenomenon: authors’ reliance on what I am calling the “Steed mythos,” which has some parallels to processes in Western hagiography (writing about the lives of saints), and the ways in which this in combination with Western concepts of the gender binary and gender roles derail characterizations of Steed as an embodied being.
The Life of Saint John Steed (imprimatur, nihil obstat)*
In Catholic iconography, saints are typically identified not by their clothing or facial features, but by their attributes: objects, animals (real or mythical), and sometimes, disturbingly, random body parts. Here are some examples:
Left to right: St Catherine of Alexandria (Caravaggio, 1595); St Paul the Apostle (El Greco, c. 1612); St Gregory the Great (Anonymous, 12th century); St Lucy (Francesco del Cossa, 15th century)
(content warning for torture and murder in next paragraph)
Catherine and Paul are identified by the things that martyred them: the breaking-wheel, which became so closely associated with Catherine that it is also known as the Catherine’s wheel; and a long, two-handed sword, symbolizing Paul’s beheading by the Roman authorities. We know that the image of Gregory is Gregory the Great because of the mitre and crozier, but especially because of the dove that whispers in his ear (the dove is the Holy Spirit dictating sacred chant to him: this is why Catholic chant is known as “Gregorian,” and it’s where we get the proverb “a little bird told me”). Lucy is identified by the palm frond she holds in her right hand, but especially by the disembodied eyes she holds in her left (they’re painted like a kind of grotesque pair of flowers on a stalk), because medieval accounts of her martyrdom state that her eyes were gouged out before she was killed. (Yes, Catholics are a fairly bloodthirsty lot. They like their saints well killed, the more gruesomely the better.)
And here we have a famous icon of Saint John Steed:
Just as we know that an old bearded dude holding a big sword is Saint Paul, we know the guy in the picture above is Saint John Steed, because of the bowler hat and umbrella, and the exquisitely tailored suit. The bowler and umbrella, especially, are Steed’s attributes, in the iconographical sense. (Iconography is the study of the meaning of visual images.)
Like any good saint, Steed has a vita (lit. “life”; a biography) all his own, based on a mixture of truth, perceptions, and outright falsehoods, which creates a mythos around the character that gets reproduced uncritically. We see much of this at play in the quotations above, but let’s see if we can put it into some kind of order and see how we get from one end to the other.
- Steed is a natty dresser who likes wearing bowler hats and carrying umbrellas (true)
- Steed is more interested in his wardrobe than in fighting (fallacy of false choice)
- Steed often uses his umbrella or other non-weapons as weapons (true)
- Steed never carries or uses a gun (false)
- Steed has partners who are trained in martial arts and know how to use them (true)
- Steed’s partners are the muscle, while he is the brains (heavy distortion)
- Steed exerts no effort in his fights (yeah, no)
- Steed is too old and unfit to do much of anything physical (seriously, where does this even come from? have you ever watched the show? like, even once? GAH.)
In good hagiographical tradition, writers take the true things about Steed’s dress sense and his partners’ skills, plus one falsehood propagated by an authority (Macnee himself stated that he never carried a gun as Steed, which is untrue), which they then put into a blender along with perceptions about gender roles (about which more shortly) to create a mythical John Steed who is largely physically passive compared to his female companions. Steed, like a good saint, gets boiled down to his attributes—the wardrobe, the wit, the hat, the umbrella— such that both the facts of his history and also the physicality of his body are erased, giving his attributes pride of place and making those the things that define who he is and what he does. Steed has been turned into an icon, in more than one sense of the word.
Who Da Man?
The frequent gender-bending by the main characters in Avengers is one of the hallmarks of the series. And for some reason it gives even (nominally) feminist writers fits and conniptions in terms of accurate descriptions of these characters, and especially of Steed. I believe that the novelty of the strong female character who is eminently physically and intellectually capable and who does not rely on a male character for sustenance of any kind, either physical or emotional, has been disproportionately distracting to commentators on the show, in part because despite all their apparent efforts to the contrary they cannot release themselves from the shackles of the gender binary.
The Western gender binary conceptualizes male/masculine and female/feminine as opposites, and has done for millennia. Some of the characteristics imputed to male vs female are as follows:
Male/masculine is to female/feminine as
- strong is to weak
- light is to dark
- hot is to cold
- active is to passive
- reason is to emotion
- authority is to obedience
- depth is to surface
- speech is to silence
When writers discuss the “masculine” attributes of Cathy Gale or Emma Peel, they of course foreground their physical strength, mental intelligence, and active participation in Steed’s investigations. It is quite right that they do so: these women are strong, intelligent, and capable. But for some reason these writers and critics think that if they foreground these masculine qualities in Steed’s partners, Steed therefore must be the opposite: he must be the “feminine” aspect of the duo. Therefore they posit Steed as passive—a passivity that furthermore is created almost entirely out of whole cloth—and, as is so often done with female characters in film and television, they emphasize Steed’s surface, especially his attitude towards clothing, something that is usually gendered as a supremely feminine attribute.
This is a false application of the tenets of feminism. Feminism demands an equality among genders. What usually passes for feminist readings of things such as the Avengers, however, is an attempt to elevate female/feminine characters by highlighting their “masculine” qualities and, of course, the converse, of exaggerating the “feminine” qualties of the male/masculine character, Steed.
Except gender isn’t a zero-sum game, even when it is being consciously bent, and it isn’t a pie that has to be divided just so lest someone have to go without.
By insisting that the balance of the gender binary be maintained—in any male/female duo a “masculine” character must by definition presuppose a “feminine” opposite—these writers create an artificial reassignment of gender roles that flies in the face of the plots and action of the episodes and, much more importantly, that ignores the true complexities of these characters both as individuals and in relation to one another. The ideological tail ends up wagging the character content dog.
One result of this ideological distortion of Steed’s character and the overemphasis on his feminine qualities is the erasure of his body. His bodily presence becomes subsumed into his wardrobe: he doesn’t just wear his clothes, he is his suit, his hat, his umbrella. He is largely removed (completely erroneously) from participation in combat, a supremely embodied activity, but when he does fight is said to rely only on props and to expend little to no physical effort.
Many of these (fabricated) qualities echo standards of behavior that traditionally have been imposed on women, especially in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: their bodies are to be hidden by their clothes, which are an indicator and even creator of both status and identity; they are not to be seen to exert themselves physically, but when they do it must be with a minimum of muscular effort; and above all they must never overshadow males in anything.
Although Steed does indeed incorporate many traditionally “feminine” behaviors into his performance of his gender, the “feminization,” passivity, and general denial of Steed’s physicality insisted upon by the authors quoted above is not reflected in the character at all. Steed has a very masculine body type, and although he is neither heavily muscled nor “ripped,” as is today’s fashion for male actors portraying action heroes, he is tall and broad-shouldered, with a narrow waist and a V-shaped back. While his weight did fluctuate over the course of five seasons, he is healthy and strong in each. To call him “paunchy” is something of an exaggeration, to say the least.
Steed is a quick-thinking and imaginative combatant who can turn even a garden fence into a lethal weapon, but whenever he wades into battle it is still a physical challenge that requires strength and endurance as well as cunning, and he is just as likely to punch or kick an opponent as he is to hook them with his brolly. He also exhibits athleticism in other ways.
left: Dispatching a baddie in “Super Secret Cypher Snatch” (Season 6)
right: Avenging an act of hat sacrilege in “Silent Dust” (Season 4)
Even at his heaviest and (nearly) most middle-aged-est in the first season of The New Avengers, he still was strong, quick, and not to be trifled with.
Wherein the Ministry dude learns that sneaking up on Steed is a bad idea
(“Last of the Cybernauts”)
This is not a man who is in any way detached from his body. He relies on his physicality not only to do his job, but to keep himself and his partners alive.
So in the end, it’s not really a question of Steed stepping back and allowing his partners to be foregrounded, nor is it a shifting of responsibilities such that the women do the “masculine” physical fighting while a “feminized” Steed watches adoringly from the sidelines and bops the baddies on the head when they come into range (although this does happen on one occasion). Steed’s partnerships with either Cathy Gale or Emma Peel are partnerships of equals. (Tara King is a somewhat different story, poor thing.) In each pairing, both partners fight; both follow clues and reason things out; both have individual dress sense and wardrobes that reflect their tastes and identities; both exhibit a balance of masculine and feminine behaviors and personality attributes. It is a grave error and a considerable distortion to insist on the “feminization” of Steed’s character, and this includes denial of his physicality.
For a discussion of Emma Peel’s physicality and dangerousness, and how that relates to Steed’s, please read my blog entry, “Nine-Tenths of the Law of Chivalry.”
* Imprimatur (“let it be printed”) and nihil obstat (“nothing stands against [it]”) are printed in the front matter of Catholic religious writings to indicate that the Church has formally examined the item and has deemed it fit to publish (imprimatur), and that it conforms to official doctrine (nihil obstat). (NB: conformation to doctrine is not the same as historical or factual accuracy.)
 Wesley Alan Britton, Spy Television (Praeger Publishers, 1994), p.60.
 Thomas Andrae, “Television’s First Feminist: ‘The Avengers’ and Female Spectatorship,” Discourse 19/3 (Spring 1996): 116-17.
 Andrae, “Television’s First Feminist,” 129.
 James Murray, “The Avengers: A Look Back at England’s Wild, Sexy, ‘Extraordinary’ Secret Agent Series,” Cinefantastique 30/3 (June 1998): 46. (Oh, and it’s Mrs Peel who uses the crossbow, in “Castle De’ath” [Season 4]. Just sayin’.)
 Adrienne L. McLean, Review of Tough Girls: Women Warriors and Wonder Women in Popular Culture by Sherrie A. Innes (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998), in Film Quarterly 53/3 (Spring 2000): 57.