⊕ Content notice for mention of sex trafficking
The literature on Avengers is chock full of commentators gushing about the cool feminist cred that Cathy Gale and Emma Peel brought to the show. These kickass women are never treated as anything other than Steed’s equals, and the unfortunate rarity of that kind of female character and that kind of parity between the male and female leads draws a lot of attention. While it’s understandable that commentators might regularly feel compelled to examine the roles of Cathy Gale and Emma Peel (I mean, they’re both awesome: what’s not to like?), it’s somewhat curious to me that Steed’s own feminism tends to receive short shrift, even though a male feminist character is even rarer than a strong female character in the stripe of Cathy or Emma. (Although I’ve tried to mend that situation somewhat, for example here and here.)
As I noted in an earlier blog, the feminist leanings of John Steed were not something that sprang full-grown from the brows of the producers the minute Honor Blackman signed on the dotted line: Macnee himself demanded that Steed treat women with respect from the start, and Steed certainly behaves politely and respectfully towards the women he encounters. While that in itself might be neither much of a surprise nor much of a step in the direction of feminism, other aspects of Steed’s character do cement his status as a feminist and an ally, especially in his preference for treating women as full human beings having their own agency and their own right to self-determination, all of which he does even in the show’s first season, before either Cathy or Emma make their first appearances.
Which brings us to Steed’s Season 1 partner, Dr David Keel, the ostensible lead character of the series played by Ian Hendry. While Steed is a shadowy secret agent and man-about-town, Keel is a respectable doctor with a steady practice in a decent corner of London, a man who is engaged to be married and ready to settle down and isn’t particularly interested in cloak-and-dagger stuff, although he does agree to help Steed initially in an effort to get revenge on the killers of his fiancée (“Hot Snow,” “Brought to Book”). After the killers have been dealt with, Keel continues to help Steed, often only reluctantly, and sometimes with a degree of disapproval for Steed’s methods, profession, and overall character.
One crucial way that Keel differs from Steed has to do with his relative attitudes towards women. Whereas Steed acknowledges the agency of the women he encounters, Keel tends to treat them as something he has the right to control, if not possess outright. Keel’s attitudes towards Carol, the nurse who works in his surgery, and towards other female characters in various episodes show that the good doctor embraces and perpetuates patriarchal structures that ultimately function as an attempt to deny these women the right to decide for themselves what course of action they ought to take without reference to the opinion of a man, in this case, the opinion (or even permission) of one David Keel.
Some critics might object that we cannot make firm judgements about either of these characters in Season 1 because although we have extant scripts for seventeen episodes, only one partial episode and three full ones survive in video, and therefore we do not have the vital evidence of the actors’ performances on which to base our decisions. I actually agree with that, but only up to a point. While it is true that the way the actors chose to play specific scenes is indispensible for some aspects of analysis, I would argue that the surviving scripts themselves actually provide more than sufficient raw material for consideration of other facets of these characters even in the absence of performances, since what the characters say and do on the page is ultimately the basis for who they are as people.
For the purposes of this blog post, I will use two episodes, “Ashes of Roses” and “Toy Trap,” as case studies. The former was the ninth and the latter the nineteenth of the first season’s twenty-six episodes. Neither episode survives in video, but only in camera script. Each story features Steed interacting with female characters who become involved in his investigation at his request and with their consent, an involvement to which David Keel objects for sexist reasons that stand as such on the page even in the absence of Hendry’s performance.
Case Study #1: Ashes of Roses
Steed is investigating a suspicious fire that took the life of a security guard. It seems that insurance fraud is likely behind both the fire and the death, and so he is following leads trying to find out who the arsonist was and who is running the fraud racket. The trail of clues leads to an exclusive, upscale women’s hair salon, and so he calls at Keel’s surgery to enlist the help of Carol, Keel’s nurse assistant.
At first, Keel thinks that Steed has come to ask for him. He says no, quite brusquely, before Steed can even make his request, but then seems disappointed when Steed says it’s Carol he wants to see. Then when Steed says he has a job he wants Carol to do, Keel becomes offended:
STEED: I just want Carol to do a little job for me.
KEEL: What do you mean, a little job? I don’t remember offering you the services of my staff.
STEED: Doesn’t she ever get an afternoon out?
KEEL: Oh, this is on a personal basis, is it?
STEED: She’s intelligent, over 21. Shouldn’t you be off on your rounds? You said you were late . . . I give you my word.
Keel obviously thinks that Carol’s time and social life are his to manage, whether she wants this of him or not. Steed, on the other hand, recognizes that what Carol does with her time and who she chooses to hang out with are entirely her own business.
But if that weren’t sexist enough, Keel then finds a pretext to send Carol out of the room so that he can have a man-to-man talk with Steed about what he wants from his assistant. Steed explains that he’s taking Carol to have her hair done at the fancy salon so that she can act as his eyes and ears, and he’s also going to take her to lunch. Keel bristles at the idea of Steed using Carol to spy for him:
KEEL: And now we’ve got to the point.
STEED: Don’t you think you’re being a little unreasonable? I can assure you there there will be absolutely no danger.
KEEL: Anything can happen with you. Do you want to see the scars?
STEED: If we go on like this she won’t get her hair done at all, quite apart from the fact that I’m going to give her lunch. Did you want her to enjoy herself?
KEEL: Yes, of course I do. Just don’t get her involved in any trouble. And I mean that.
STEED: All right.
When Carol comes back into the room, Keel makes his exit after warning her not to let Steed talk her into anything stupid. Then Steed explains what it is he needs from Carol and why, and she readily agrees to help him. At the salon, Carol does what Steed asked of her: she drops the name “Roffey” and immediately the salon owner, a man named Jacques Beronne who is complicit in the fraud scheme, becomes suspicious. Carol manages to talk her way out of that jam, but when she is put under the dryer after her shampoo, the dryer turns out to have been boobytrapped, and Carol receives an electric shock strong enough to knock her out, but not kill her. Steed takes her back to his flat and feeds her tea while she recovers, and he also debriefs her about what happened, telling her she did a fine job and that the information she gathered is helpful. Then Carol wonders what to do about Dr Keel:
CAROL: Oh, dear. Just think what Dr Keel’s going to say. . . .
STEED: Yes . . . er . . . I suppose he’ll have to be told? He’ll forbid you to leave the surgery again without an escort.
CAROL: Let’s not tell him!
STEED: Not tell him. I don’t think that’s quite ethical.
STEED: Well . . . all right, if you really think so.
Although Keel’s solicitude for Carol’s safety is understandable, the way he goes about expressing it is both paternalistic and possessive. As far as Keel is concerned, Steed is answerable to him for Carol’s safety, and Carol ought not to go anywhere with Steed unless Keel agrees to it. This, of course, is sexist balderdash, and both Steed and Carol find it oppressive enough that they agree not to tell Keel about her mishap. Not telling Keel is Carol’s idea, and although Steed is a little uncomfortable with this at first he follows Carol’s lead.
As Steed himself pointed out earlier to Keel, Carol is an adult, and competent to make her own decisions. Steed understands that just as it isn’t Keel’s place to tell Carol what she may or may not do, neither is it his place to force her to interact with her employer in any particular way, nor is it his place to go over her head and tell Keel something Carol doesn’t want him to know. Steed agrees that what happened in the salon is Carol’s story to tell, not his, and he trusts that what Carol herself considers the best course for her to follow is, in fact, the best course. Therefore Steed goes along with her request that they keep Keel in the dark about the faulty dryer.
This is not the end of Carol’s participation in the case, however. She takes it upon herself to go back to the salon, against Steed’s express wishes, where she ends up befriending Jean, the girl for whom the boobytrap was intended. She warns Jean that someone wants her dead. Jean says that it’s not safe to talk in the salon; she gives Carol her address and the women agree to meet later. Steed goes back to the salon, too, where he sees Carol, but all he can do is glower at her: he can’t break his cover and he dares not break hers. Carol gets Jean’s address and agrees to meet her later. She tells Steed what she found, and together they go to Jean’s flat, where they find that Jean has been murdered: her conversation was overheard by Olive Beronne, Jacques’ wife, who turns out to be one of the primary villains.
It’s important to note here that although Steed does try to protect Carol by telling her she needs to step aside after the incident with the dryer, he agrees that if she feels strongly enough about helping that she’s willing to take on additional risk even against his own wishes, then she should continue working with him. Steed easily could have taken Jean’s address from Carol and gone there by himself, or have taken Keel with him instead, but rather than do either of those things Steed chooses to acknowledge Carol’s courage and personal investment in the case and continues to include her as a partner in the investigation.
At Jean’s flat, Steed asks Carol to stay with the body until the police come, while he goes in search of the Beronnes. Carol does stay, until another of Jean’s friends shows up, a co-worker at the salon named Denise. Carol then asks her to stay with the body while she goes to the salon a third time, in hopes of preventing the arson. Steed, meanwhile, is on the train the Beronnes are taking as part of their alibi for the arson, although only Jacques is there. After Steed captures Jacques and sees him safely in custody, he returns to the salon just in time to rescue Carol, who has been captured by Olive and the other bad guys who are getting ready to set fire to the salon. They do manage to set the place ablaze, and Steed ends up having to rescue Olive as well as Carol.
When the excitement is over and the baddies in custody, Keel, of course, scolds them both for getting Carol into a situation where she might have been killed, but he is especially snarky to Steed. Carol, however, is having none of this, and stands up for her friend:
KEEL: “No danger at all,” you said. “Nothing at all will happen to her–I give you my word.” “Fresh air will do her good,” you said. I suppose you know you’re both lucky to get out of there alive? This was the first early night I’ve had for weeks.
CAROL: Well, I’m the lucky one–the fire never touched me at all.
KEEL: That was more by luck than good judgement.
KEEL TAKES CUP ACROSS TO STEED
STEED: Ooh! It’s hot.
KEEL: It’s just come from a hot place. you should know.
CAROL: Be nice to him. He was very brave. After all, he did save Madame Beronne’s life.
In each interaction with Carol, Steed treats her like an adult. He explains to her exactly what she will be getting into, and he makes sure he has her consent for the tasks he sets her. He trusts her courage and her judgement, and respects her ability to make decisions for herself. And when she shows him how invested she is in seeing the case through, he agrees that she has the right to continue working with him, even though it is dangerous.
Keel, on the other hand, thinks that Carol’s decisions are his to make, and he must be convinced not by her but by another man, by Steed, that she ought to be allowed to play the spy at the salon. And when she winds up in mortal danger through her own actions, it is Steed that Keel makes the primary target of his displeasure, not Carol, as though she was merely a puppet in the hands of Steed, who owed it not to only to Carol but to Keel to keep her safe.
For Keel, Carol does not exist as a free agent making her own choices, but rather as a being who exists solely in reference to the men in her life. Keel thinks that Carol must have his permission to work with Steed, that Carol is something that can be handed from one man to another, and that once that transfer is complete it is Steed’s sole responsibility to look after her. And when Carol goes into the lion’s den of her own volition, Keel simply cannot wrap his brain around the idea that Carol might have chosen that course of action for herself without reference to what he or Steed might have wanted her to do, nor can he accept that Steed is in no way responsible for Carol’s decisions.
Steed, by contrast, sees Carol as a human being in her own right, as an individual separate from him, whose agency and desires matter, and who is responsible for her own choices, even as he most certainly will do his utmost to keep her safe when she is endangered. Although Steed acknowledges Carol’s relationship to Keel as the doctor’s employee, he does not consider her to in any way “belong” to Keel, nor does Steed take possession of her in any way once Keel gives his (unnecessary) blessing for her to go to the salon as a spy. Unlike Keel, Steed treats Carol as a partner, not a dependent, especially after she shows him that she wants to see the case through to the bitter end.
Case Study #2: Toy Trap
Bunty Seton, the daughter of one of Keel’s friends, has come to London to work. Keel has promised Bunty’s father to keep an eye on the young woman, and so he shows up at her boarding house to take her and a friend out to dinner. When the friend, a co-worker named May, fails to show up at the boarding house, Bunty becomes concerned, and so she and Keel go to May’s flat. The friend isn’t there, but Bunty and Keel find photos of May and another young woman that cause them alarm. Bunty also admits to having seen bruises on May’s body earlier that day in the locker room at work.
Because the photos apparently are pornographic in nature and because of Bunty’s statement about May’s bruises, Keel becomes concerned that he has stumbled onto a sex trafficking ring, and that Bunty might herself be in danger. He therefore cancels the dinner at the restaurant and returns with Bunty to his place, inviting Steed over to have dinner with him and Bunty there so that they can tell him what they found in May’s flat. While Bunty sets the table in the dining room, Keel and Steed are in the kitchen. Keel cooks dinner and shows Steed the photos they found in May’s room:
KEEL: Take a look at those.
STEED: They don’t leave much to the imagination. Is this the May you were talking about?
KEEL: No. That’s May.
STEED: Gee–she doesn’t look much older than that little thing in there. She’s a bit young to be on the game.
KEEL: Well, what are we going to do about it? Because if we don’t, she’s going to start nosing around and I don’t think she fully understands what it’s all about.
Over a dessert of peaches, Keel and Steed suggest to Bunty that maybe she might want to go home to visit her parents for a while. Bunty says that she hasn’t been in London long enough to warrant a visit, and she’s also worried that she’ll lose her job. Steed tells her that he can help her find another one, and then offers to to make the coffee. While Steed is in the kitchen, Keel presses Bunty again to go home for a visit, saying that he’s worried that she could become involved in whatever May has become embroiled in.
The next day, Steed and Keel find the photographer who took the pictures of May and the other girl. They discover that the other girl’s name is Chrissie. When Keel and Steed track Chrissie down, they find her dead. Steed then goes to the toy store where Bunty works, to tell her what happened and to see what else Bunty might know:
BUNTY: Oh, hullo, did you find the photographer?
STEED: Yes. You remember the other girl in the photographs? Her name was Chrissie.
STEED: Ever heard of her?
STEED: We called on her this morning. She’s dead. The police think that she was murdered.
STEED: I’m inclined to agree with them. I think she was trying to get out of a racket. You know what a call-girl is?
BUNTY: I’m afraid so–yes.
Whereas Keel makes assumptions about Bunty, Steed refuses to do the same. Instead of assuming that Bunty is completely innocent about the kinds of things that happen in big cities—which carries with it both the implication that she should stay that way and denial that she could possibly know anything like that—Steed asks her whether she knows what call-girls are. As it turns out, Bunty does know, but by asking rather than assuming, Steed shows that he will not make judgements about what Bunty ought or ought not to know, nor does he expect her to necessarily conform to a particular cultural image of what a young woman of good family should be and know. Bunty is young, yes—we learn in the scene in Keel’s kitchen that she’s 19—but she is an adult and an individual, and Steed treats her as such.
After pursuing some lines of investigation that include questioning Bunty’s boss and Alice, one of Bunty’s co-workers and another of May’s friends, Steed pops in to visit Keel. they talk about the case, and Steed mentions that his department suspects the action of a large and well-organized international sex trafficking ring is behind the business with May and Chrissie and many other young women. Steed floats a trial balloon about using Bunty as bait in a sting operation, which Keel vehemently opposes:
STEED: Yes, they’ve got tabs on most of the smaller fry, but our department are after one particular big fish. Have you got a cigarette? Did you manage to persuade young Bunty to go home to her parents?
KEEL: Well, she said she’d think about it, but in her present state of wide-eyed wonderment there isn’t much chance. I mean, what can you do?
STEED: Wouldn’t it be a good idea of we could persuade her to play along with one of the charmers? You know, kind of, well, act it up a bit.
KEEL: Wouldn’t it be a good idea if you got those ideas out of your head, permanently?
Here Keel’s concern for Bunty is not misplaced. Bunty is quite young, and Steed wouldn’t be sending her to get her hair done and drop names in a public place with other witnesses: he’d be sending her directly into the hands of some very dangerous people, people who exploit, assault, and then murder young women just like her.
I’m going to come back to the whole Bunty-as-bait thing presently, but for now what I’d like to highlight is Keel’s dismissive attitude towards Bunty. Yes, it’s likely true that Bunty is enjoying her time in London and savoring the freedom of having her own income and an independent life, but Keel’s statement about Bunty’s “state of wide-eyed wonderment” also implies that he doesn’t take her seriously. That Bunty might have sound adult reasons for wanting to get a job and be independent, and that pursuing those desires might be more than some kind of youthful fling seems not to have crossed Keel’s mind.
Steed, on the other hand, does take Bunty seriously. The contrast between Keel’s dismissiveness and Steed’s attitude is shown the scene where the three of them eat dinner at Keel’s place, where the first thing Steed does when Bunty expresses concern about losing her job is to offer to find her a new one. Yes, Steed also is worried about Bunty’s safety and agrees that her connection to May might be putting her in danger; yes, he also encourages her to go back to visit her parents where she will be safe; but he also acknowledges that having a job and the independence that comes with it are things that Bunty is right to want, that it’s her choice whether to stay in London or go home, and that he’s willing to help her with job stuff if she wants that from him.
Later in Act II, May is found. She gives Keel and Steed important information about the racket in which she has become embroiled, and Steed decides to follow through with his plan to use Bunty in a sting. We don’t see the conversation in which he proposes this plan to her; instead we see Bunty telling Alice that she’s going to move out of the hostel and into a flat, and then we see her flirting with a man named Johnnie who is one of the sex traffickers. In terms of story structure, this would seem to be set up as a point of tension for the audience, who don’t know whether Bunty is accepting this man’s favors out of naivete or because she is helping Steed, but it is quickly revealed that it is the latter.
Bunty reports to Steed what she has been doing and what she has learned, and that Johnnie will be taking her out that evening. She expresses some trepidation about going with him, since they’ll be in a car, but Steed assures her that she’ll be followed every step of the way. Bunty also worries what Dr Keel might think, but Steed also brushes that aside. Keel’s opinion isn’t relevant here, but Bunty’s is: Steed makes sure that Bunty is really on board with this plan. He asks her whether she has any other worries about going through with it before turning her loose to do the job. When she says that she doesn’t, he acknowledges that the plan is to be put in motion. Steed therefore does three significant things: he obtains Bunty’s consent for her cooperation; he trusts her to do her part well; and he arranges to protect her throughout her interaction with the bad guys.
In the end, the sting goes according to plan, and all the baddies are rounded up with ease in the toy store. We discover that in addition to Johnnie and Freddie (another goon we meet in Act II who threatens Keel over his interactions with May), the two ringleaders are Bunty’s employer, Mr Burge, and Mrs McCabe, the matron of the hostel where Bunty has been staying, who have been using their businesses and positions of trust to ensnare young women into their trafficking ring.
When Keel finds out that Bunty participated in the sting, he is livid, and very nearly assaults Steed. The relevant excerpt below is lengthy, but it does need to be reproduced in full for the purposes of the current analysis. (And a quick aside: Because action is largely not described in the extant script, I’m unsure what aspect of the capture of the bad guys Steed finds funny.)
STEED: I’m over here. Wasn’t that the funniest thing you’ve ever seen in your life? Don’t you think it’s funny?
KEEL: (KNOCKING STEED OFF SWING) No I do not. And if you ever do anything like that again, I’ll beat the living daylights out of you.
STEED: What the devil do you think you’re doing? Nobody–
KEEL: I’m doing something I should have done a long time ago.
STEED: What the hell are you talking about?
KEEL: Knocking some sense into that bigoted head of yours.
STEED: (LOSING TEMPER, GRABS KEEL) Steady on, boy. People don’t talk to me like that.
KEEL: (GRABBING STEED) Well here’s one that does. Now you listen to me: if you ever go behind my back again, I’ll take you apart. That girl was in my trust, and I thought we had an understanding. All right. If you want to be like that, then be like that! But from now on, you’re on your own. (HE THROWS OFF STEED)
STEED: Wait a minute. I don’t need you to give me a lesson in morals. It was a question of time. If I hadn’t used her it might have taken me weeks to set up another contact, and in the meantime a couple of dozen other girls would have been recruited into the game. There might even have been another killing.
KEEL: And you don’t need me to give you lesson in morals! Have you ever heard of the end not justifying the means?
STEED: Oh, do me a favour.
KEEL: I’ll try. For some obscure reason I’m not going to question the fact that you do have the interests of humanity at heart. But I’m going to point out to you that you cannot ride over people the way you do, at least not as far as I’m concerned.
STEED: I thought I’d explained to you. There was no other way.
KEEL: You explained nothing. You just find another way.
Although I do think Keel’s concern for Bunty is genuine, as far as it goes, what he says to Steed betrays a disturbingly sexist attitude, which is that Steed’s having used Bunty in the sting is first and foremost an insult against Keel himself. Keel feels personally betrayed by this, and this sense of betrayal is evinced in his protest that he and Steed “had an agreement”; that Steed went “behind [Keel’s] back”; that Bunty “was in [Keel’s] trust” and that using her for the sting amounted to riding roughshod over Keel.
It is telling that nowhere in Keel’s altercation with Steed does he express any concern for what might have happened to Bunty. His protestations are exclusively about his own sense of having been violated by Steed’s actions. To Keel, Bunty isn’t an adult and a free agent capable of making her own choices: she is the property first of her father, and then in absence of that father, of Keel, who is acting in loco patris at Dr Seton’s request. Steed’s sin isn’t having put Bunty in danger, therefore; it’s having disrespected the putative right of two other men to control the life of this young woman.
While much of Keel’s dudgeon has to do with gender, I believe that a strong undercurrent of classism also flows through his relationship with Bunty and his responses to her involvement in the case. It’s not just that Bunty is a young woman for whom he feels responsible: her father is a doctor and therefore a colleague of Keel’s, and that professional status also brings with it a certain amount of class cachet. Therefore Bunty isn’t just any young woman; she’s not just a young woman Keel likes and cares about; she’s a young woman from a “good family” whose reputation might be sullied if their daughter got caught up in the seamy world of call-girls and pornography. Keel thus is protecting Bunty not simply because it’s the right thing to do, but because there are appearances that must be upheld, and status that must be maintained, not only for Bunty’s own sake, but for her father and for Keel himself. For should Keel fail in his efforts to keep Bunty free of any undesirable influences, he also will be tarred with that same brush, as the man to whom Bunty “belongs,” however temporarily, by virtue of his role as a kind of father-figure.
Steed, for his part, doesn’t see Bunty as anyone’s property. Although he does employ her in the sting, he does so with her consent, and presumably with a full explanation of what is expected and what the risks might be, although we only see hints of that on screen in their conversation after the sting is already activated. Bunty wants to help protect her friend, and she wants to stop the sex traffickers from hurting anyone else. She also trusts Steed to give her the instructions she needs to do the job properly and to be hard by in case things go wobbly. Steed acknowledges that Bunty is capable of making her own decisions, he respects what she wants from the situation, and so he goes ahead with using her as a plant to draw the villains into the open.
Steed enlists Bunty’s help in part because he is unwilling to subscribe to a patriarchal code that treats women as a form of property that exist only in reference to men, rather than beings with agency and a right to self-determination. He is also unwilling to subscribe to the equally poisonous aspect of patriarchy that dictates that status and class are too valuable to risk, that losing face is to be avoided at all costs, and that a woman’s adherence to patriarchal norms above all reflects not only on her but on the men to whom she belongs.
Keel, on the other hand, is concerned about what happens to him, in terms of his control over Bunty and his social and professional status, much more than he is concerned about the fate of the many other women currently caught up in the sex trafficking racket or who might yet become embroiled in it. Because of course as far as Keel is concerned, the only kind of women who would fall into that trap are the ones whose men can’t control them, the ones who don’t come from “good families,” the ones whose class already marks them as undesirable.
Steed refuses to see the world that way. To him, every young woman who is suffering from being trafficked or who is at risk for being sucked into that world has value and is worthy of being saved. Steed doesn’t do his job just for the Buntys and Keels, or for those who come from “good families.” He doesn’t do his job in order to maintain patriarchal structures and codes. He does it because he wants justice, because he wants to stop bad people from hurting the innocent and vulnerable. And for Steed, innocence and vulnerability don’t come only with a certain level of class status, just as agency and self-determination don’t come only with being male.
John Steed is a feminist, and that feminism was baked into the character from the start. Steed cares about people. For him, women count as people just as much as men do, and people from the lower classes count just as much as those who are more well off. David Keel, by contrast, is very much not a feminist, and despite his profession as a doctor his care for others is somewhat circumscribed by adherence to patriarchal and class norms. Keel often takes Steed to task for the dodginess of his methods, whether real or apparent, and in “Toy Trap” at least, Keel openly questions Steed’s moral sense. But given what Keel himself reveals of how he thinks of the women around him, it would seem that the respectable Dr Keel is not the one with the corner market on morals: rather, that status should go to the shadowy secret agent who works outside the law and without regard for standard proprieties. Because for John Steed, human beings matter more than hierarchies, and for John Steed humanity is not defined solely by having a particular gender or being from a particular class.