⊕ Content notice for mention and some discussion of sex trafficking and abuse
The Season 1 episode “Toy Trap” moves into fairly edgy territory for an early 1960s television show, exploring as it does issues of sex trafficking and pornography involving young, vulnerable women. Issues concerning the status of women also come to the fore in the divergent attitudes of Dr Keel and Steed towards Bunty Seton, the 19-year-old daughter of one of Keel’s friends and colleagues, who has come to London to find work and live an independent life. But Steed’s feminism and Keel’s lack thereof are not the only loci for an examination of gendered attitudes or gender relations in this particular episode, because the ways in which some men and women see heterosexual relationships as something that for good or ill may be exploited to their own advantage is one of the main themes of the story.
One of the main drivers of this move to exploit relationships is patriarchal culture and its attendant oppression of women. With certain glaring exceptions (**koff**Steed**koff**) many of the male characters (and at least one female) treat the women as property that can be owned, traded, and used for their own purposes without regard for what the women themselves might need or want. Many of the women, for their part, likewise see men as a means to an end, since finding a suitable male partner could bring with it an economic security that was difficult for single women to obtain in early 1960s Britain, along with a bump up in social status if the partners married. The villains, therefore, are playing both sides against the middle: they draw young women into their sex trafficking racket so that the women can be used for the pleasure of men, thus generating income for the traffickers; and they also turn the women’s need for the status and economic security guaranteed by attachment to a man against them, using an apparent—but ultimately false and exploitive—fulfillment of that need as the bait for their trap.
For the purposes of this blog, I’m going to focus on four characters in particular. Two are women, both colleagues of Bunty’s at the toy store. One is Alice, who manages to avoid the traffickers, while the other is May, the young woman whose disappearance leads to Steed beginning his investigation. I’m also going to look at Keel and Steed, with special reference to some aspects of Keel’s attitudes, in particular his apparent assumptions about Steed, on the one hand, and what Steed himself probably thinks on the other.
The character who best expresses this utilitarian view towards finding a partner is Alice, one of the girls who works in the toy store with Bunty. In her conversation with May and Bunty at the end of their work day in Act I, she makes clear that she thinks finding a man is necessary for financial reasons and also as a way to gain status:
ALICE: Oh, there you are. I thought I was going to have to face the hostel alone. The lockup for young ladies–you’re lucky, May. How’s the new flat?
MAY: It’s all right.
ALICE: Crawling with wealthy boy-friends in their fast motorcars. I know the sort of thing.
MAY: Do you?
ALICE: You should worry–you’ve given in your notice. I’m stuck in this job–beg pardon–career, for life.
Alice chafes at the restrictions of hostel life, which include a strict curfew and a ban on male visitors. She seems to think that May has managed to find a better situation, one that comes with economic opportunities and greater status, because having a flat of her own affords her a way to entertain gentlemen and, presumably, find a good one, if not to marry, then at the very least to partner with in a way that is economically and socially advantageous. What Alice seems not to know is that the reason May has the flat is because it was part of the setup that sucked her into the sex trafficking ring. That May has bruises all over her body, presumably from the caller she had to see the night before, is something that Alice simply dismisses. Then she proceeds to misconstrue the date Bunty has that evening with Dr Keel:
BUNTY: Those bruises were horrible.
ALICE: Maybe she’s got man trouble. Don’t worry about May–she knows what she’s doing. Who are you meeting tonight?
BUNTY: Doctor Keel.
ALICE: Doctor? That’s useful. Is he serious?
BUNTY: It’s not like that. Daddy asked him to keep an eye on me.
Alice thinks that Bunty has a date with Dr Keel because she’s trying to make a match with him. Bunty has to repeat that Dr Keel is just a family friend before Alice lets go of the idea that Bunty is angling for a good marriage by going out with him, and even then it’s unclear the degree to which she’s convinced, until she laments, “So it’s all very proper,” to which Bunty replies, “I’m afraid so, yes.”
For Alice, a flat of one’s own or a date with a doctor are means to an end: getting a man and keeping him on a permanent basis, or at least as permanent as one can manage. And although being connected to a man has its own downsides—not least of which is the potential for abuse—Alice still sees taking up with a man as a way out: out of the hostel with its rules and into a space she can control, out of a boring retail job with its drudgery and low pay, out of a situation where a single woman is easy prey for wolfish men.
Despite Alice’s statements to May, it turns out that Alice is actually quite savvy: we learn in Act II that Alice is definitely aware of how traffickers ensnare their victims. Steed learns that Bunty told Alice about Chrissie, a girl who had been trafficked, forced to pose for pornographic photos, and then murdered. He asks Alice what he knows about Chrissie, and this exchange follows:
ALICE: She came from up North somewhere, raring for a good time, like most people do when they come down to London. Ten thirty bedtime at the hostel didn’t suit her–she was off like a shot–and fell into the first trap some pimp set for her.
STEED: It sounds familiar.
ALICE: And frequent round this town. He picked her up, showed her a good time, got her a club job, paid her first month’s rent or so–and before she knew it . . .
STEED: Yes, I think I’ve got the picture.
Further along in Act II, when Bunty mentions that she’s leaving the hostel and going to find another job, Alice at first encourages her to stay, and offers to either job-hunt or flat-hunt with her (this is unclear in the script). But then Bunty warns her off with a sharp look, and Alice backs down. Bunty, of course, is now working the sting with Steed, and the whole thing about leaving the hostel and the toy store are part of her cover for that. Alice can’t know that that’s what Bunty is doing—and Bunty doesn’t disabuse her of this—but she would seem to be concerned that her co-worker is headed down the same path as May and Chrissie, each of whom also worked at the toy store.
But once Bunty makes clear that she doesn’t welcome Alice’s interference, Alice washes her hands of Bunty completely, even to the point of leaving her alone in the store at night with their employer, whom Alice knows to be a philanderer, when Bunty, Alice, and another girl are required to stay on after closing to do stocktaking. At one point, Henry Burge, the manager of the store, tells Alice and the other girl that they can leave for the night, and the two women have this conversation in the locker room:
GIRL: Think we should wait for Bunty?
ALICE: No. Old Henry said we should go.
GIRL: Did he make the usual offer?
ALICE: Yes. “You’ll find me in the Saloon Bar at the Coach & Horses. I’d be happy to treat you to a little drink!”
GIRL: Oh, no. He’s got a nerve.
ALICE: Yeah. And he will keep pawing me.
GIRL: Yeah. And if there’s any thing I hate, it’s a porer [sic] . . . ‘Ere, do you think we’d better tell her we’re going?
ALICE: If we go in there, he might change his mind. Come on, I’m starving.
GIRL: Yeah–I’m starving.
We see from these scenes with Alice that she takes a purely utilitarian view of dates with men, and that she sees a relationship as a means by which to get away from the hostel and her boring job. But we also see that she is quite shrewd, understanding well how men exploit women in her situation, and although she does offer to help Bunty when she sees that Bunty might be falling into one of those traps, Alice refuses to do more for her even in the face of almost certain molestation once Bunty makes it clear that she’s unwilling to meet Alice halfway.
Alice’s sole concerns are self-interest and self-preservation, neither of which are unreasonable given her circumstances, although some of her expressions of this do betray a lack of moral fiber. Alice realizes precisely how vulnerable she is as a young, single woman in a patriarchal culture that treats her as less valuable than a man, as disposable, as a commodity that can be trafficked and consumed. She also sees how vulnerable the women around her are, but with the exception of her one flash of solidarity towards Bunty at the end of Act II, she is perfectly willing to leave those others to the sharks, since that means that she herself might not be devoured, at least not for the moment.
When we first meet May in the episode teaser, she is on the phone, inviting an anonymous male caller to come up to her flat. The next time we see her is in the changing room at the toy store where she works with Alice and Bunty. Alice snarks jealously at May for having gotten out of the hostel by getting a flat, “crawling with wealthy boy-friends in fast motor-cars.” May snaps at Alice, who along with Bunty is surprised and horrified to see that May’s body is covered in bruises.
Later that evening, Dr Keel and Bunty go looking for May at her flat when she fails to show up for a dinner date. In the flat, they find evidence that May has been sucked into a sex trafficking ring. Keel and Bunty bring Steed into the picture, and he and Keel try to find May. They eventually track her down at the flat of Lennie Taylor, a small-time crook who also works at the toy store, and bring her back to Keel’s flat where she will be safe.
While Keel tends to May and they wait for Bunty to show up, Steed begins to ask May about her situation, and why she was at Lennie’s:
STEED: Why did you hide out with Lennie Taylor?
MAY: If it hadn’t been for him I don’t know what I’d have done.
STEED: You could have gone back home to Mummy and Daddy?
MAY: Very funny. I could have done a lot of things.
But it’s not until Bunty arrives that May feels safe telling her story:
BUNTY: May–How did you get into such a mess?
MAY: What do you mean?
KEEL: Why don’t you tell her?
MAY: I met this charmer–Polite, kind, good-looking. I’d landed on my feet. Before I knew it I was installed in a nice flat. He wasn’t hard to look at.
[some dialogue omitted]
STEED: This young man–he got you a job, of course, in a nice respectable nightclub?
MAY: Yeah–how d’you guess. You know everything, don’t you? You — (SHE BREAKS) I tried to get out, but they said they’d write to my dad. You remember that day at the store. (BUNTY NODS) All those bruises? That’s what happens when you call their bluff . . . Huh, call their bluff . . .
From these exchanges, we learn that May fell into a pretty standard trap used by the traffickers. They use a polite, good-looking young man as bait for a young woman who sees that relationship as a way to move up in the world. And at first it seems to work: May no longer needs to stay in the hostel with its curfew and rules; she has a flat that belongs to her. There’s a promise of a better job with better pay in the offing, and the young man is an attractive one. May sees her relationship with that young man as primarily transactional: she presumably gives him sex—or the promise thereof, at least—and in return he gives her independence an an economic boost. But of course the young man also sees the relationship as something to be exploited, since he is in the pay of the traffickers. May is nothing to him but a commodity first to be obtained and then rented out to those who are willing to pay.
One interesting thing that is revealed about May in her exchanges with Steed has to do with her relationship with her father. When Steed asks her why she didn’t just go home, May replies, “Very funny.” And then later when she tells Steed about trying to leave the ring, she says that the villains threatened to write to her father, which she apparently found a frightening prospect. It would therefore seem that May is concerned about rejection at best and potential abuse at worst, should her father find out what happened to her, or should she return home to him. It’s unclear whether any abuse existed before May came to London, or whether abuse might even have been one of the reasons she left home in the first place, but clearly she finds herself in a position where she does not want her father to know what her life has been like recently.
For her father to blame May or reject her or even abuse her based on her having made pornographic photographs and become a prostitute would, of course, be a fairly standard reaction under the strictures of patriarchy. A woman in May’s circumstances is damaged goods: not only can she no longer present her virginity to any potential husband, but she has brought disgrace upon her father’s house in the bargain by allowing herself to be used in that way by other men. Under patriarchy, May has become a liability to her father instead of an asset, since the prospects of an advantageous marriage are now dimmed and her father may have to continue to support her whether he wants to or not.
That May was coerced with physical violence to do what she did doesn’t matter in a patriarchal context, because patriarchy insists that the victims in this scenario are her father and any potential husband, the men to whom May rightfully belongs and whose body they ought to have the right to control. That the root of the problem and the source of all of May’s sufferings might be men’s attitude that they are entitled to women’s bodies at all likely would never cross their minds.
Keel and Steed
In Act I, we learn that Bunty’s father has asked his friend and colleague, Dr Keel, to “keep an eye” on his daughter while she is in London. While it certainly is a good idea for young adults to have elders to whom they can go for help and advice, Keel sets himself up as more than that: he feels responsible not only for Bunty’s safety but also her purity, which he promises to keep not because it’s what she needs or wants but because another man—in this case, Bunty’s father—has asked him to do it. Now, it’s unlikely that Dr Seton said “make sure Bunty doesn’t have sex” in so many words, but that almost certainly was implied when he asked Keel to look after his daughter, and Keel certainly assumes that maintaining Bunty’s purity is part of his job. We see this in part of the exchange Keel and Bunty have when they first visit May’s flat and they find the pornographic photos:
BUNTY: How could she let herself be photographed like that?
KEEL: Come on.
BUNTY: But what about May? Something must have happened to her–look at the room. What are you going to do?
KEEL: Now, don’t worry! It’s probably nothing at all. Out you go.
This is yet another disturbing instance of Keel’s sexist attitude towards women, and towards Bunty in particular. Keel and Bunty have just come across a set of pornographic photos of Bunty’s friend, in an apartment that looks as though a violent struggle has taken place, but when Bunty voices her concern, Keel essentially gaslights her, telling her that that concern is misplaced because despite the evidence of both their eyes it must be “nothing at all.” Later, when Keel shows the photos to Steed, he says that Bunty must be protected because she doesn’t understand what’s going on, and then he is livid when Steed employs the young woman in a sting operation that results in the successful roundup of the bad guys.
Although we later learn that Bunty is neither as naive nor as innocent as Keel thinks she is or wishes she could be, and although Bunty participates in Steed’s sting because she wants to, the good doctor thinks Bunty’s putative innocence must be maintained at all costs, even to the point where he is willing to lie to her face about what she has just seen, and moreover while she is still there in May’s flat actually looking at the evidence the significance of which Keel denies. And this denial isn’t because Keel is concerned about May, but rather because he thinks Bunty ought not to be sullied by what is obviously going on with her friend. This he does less for Bunty’s sake than for his own and for her father’s, as I pointed out in my previous blog.
Just as insidious are Keel’s attitudes towards Steed. On at least two occasions, Keel says things that suggest he considers Steed to be a threat to these young women. The first of these happens during the scene in Keel’s kitchen. Keel is fixing dinner, and Bunty offers to go set the table. After she leaves, this exchange ensues:
STEED: How old did you say she was?
KEEL: Nineteen. You watch it.
STEED: I am.
This is one instance where having the performances would be helpful, since an awful lot would have been conveyed by the way Macnee played Steed’s “I am.” However, I think we can assume both from the way Steed treats women across the series and the way Macnee plays those encounters, and also from Macnee’s own stated philosophy that women should be treated with equal respect, that Macnee would have played this with the assumption that Steed never had any designs on Bunty whatsoever, and that he likely would have been surprised or affronted or both by Keel’s presumption on that count.
That Keel’s concern is misplaced would seem to be confirmed by the scene in his flat after the rescue of May. Keel has given May a sedative, but before allowing Steed to begin questioning her, he says to Steed quietly, “Go easy on her.” Steed replies, “I admire your humanitarianism.” I believe Steed’s reply is meant to be snarky, since of course he has no intention of doing May any harm.
What is disturbing in both these scenes is Keel’s willingness to assume that Steed means any harm to these women, or that he intends to exploit them sexually himself. Yes, Steed is a man, and a virile one at that who likes women and enjoys sex, but exploitation simply isn’t his thing, especially not exploitation of very young, very vulnerable women whom he moreover is trying very hard to keep out of or rescue from a sex trafficking ring.
In the second instance, Keel also seems to assume that Steed will think it appropriate to treat May harshly, possibly because, as I mentioned above, traditional patriarchy views such women as “damaged goods” and blames them for having been victimized. But just as Steed has no interest in having sex with either Bunty or May, neither does he think that May ought to be punished for what happened to her. Indeed, as we see throughout the series, Steed is, in fact, a remarkably non-judgemental person (I have discussed this aspect of his character here and here, for example). And as we see in particular in “Toy Trap,” Steed’s desire is to shut down the trafficking ring, to save the girls who are already ensnared in it and to prevent any more young women from sharing that same fate. Steed’s goals therefore stand in contrast to Keel’s, since the doctor’s primary concern would seem to be the preservation of his own honor and that of Bunty’s father.
One thing that is never directly interrogated in this episode are the social, economic, and cultural structures that make these young women vulnerable to the traffickers in the first place, although that interrogation is implied in subtext. Because of the workplace discrimination that was common at the time, it was more difficult for a woman to find and keep a job that would pay a living wage than it was for a man. This has knock-on effects for women in terms of housing: if they cannot make enough money to pay for a flat, they are forced to seek other accommodations, in this case, to patronize hostels that are set up expressly to house single women. These hostels have curfews and rules that ostensibly are set up to protect the women from predatory men; but further they exist to prevent the women from having even consensual sexual relationships outside the bonds of matrimony. Thus patriarchy whitewashes what essentially is yet another tool of control of women’s bodies and lives, by calling it a “protective measure” against the predatory men that women are somehow helpless to resist.
But it is this control masquerading as an ostensible desire to protect the women “for their own good” that ends up being the very mechanism for their exploitation. The matron of the hostel, Mrs McCabe, turns out to be the leader of the trafficking ring, since she can use her hostel and her position of trust within it to steer young women into lives of prostitution for her own benefit, with the aid of Henry Burge, who employs many of these women in his toy store. Mrs McCabe is able to do what she does in part by using the restrictions she places on her tenants to her advantage: when a young woman starts to chafe at curfews and bans on visitors, that is the signal for Mrs McCabe to have her pet attractive gentleman start the process of grooming the woman for exploitation as a sex worker, while the low wages paid by Burge and his own predatory behavior are a further goad to look for greener pastures elsewhere.
It is important to note that the reasons behind single women’s vulnerability in early 1960s London ultimately are economic, and that economic precarity is a direct result of oppressive patriarchal structures that allowed women to be paid less than men or even to be denied work at all simply based on their gender. Likewise, the assumption that women are somehow not to be trusted and that independence is something they neither deserve nor can handle appropriately is behind the creation of the hostels, to which young single women are forced to resort because they are not paid well enough to live elsewhere. But if the women had enough income to actually live independently, and if patriarchal social pressures and expectations did not force them to consider themselves incomplete without some attachment to a male, the traffickers’ bait of the flat, the better job, and the boyfriend would have been utterly ineffective.
Alice’s response to her situation is to bemoan living in the “lockup for young ladies,” but also to be canny about any lures men might set out for her. Alice envies May her apparent independence while privately congratulating herself for not taking that road, which she recognizes might come with a price that she is unwilling to pay. Alice also feels no compunction to help May in any way once it is clear that May is in trouble: “May knows what she’s doing,” Alice says, but coded in that and in her attitude towards leaving Bunty alone with Mr Burge is the implication that any trouble a woman might get into is her fault and therefore deserved.
May, by contrast, is unable to resist the bait set out for her by the traffickers. Evidence seems to suggest that May is not on good terms with her father, and so even had she stayed out of the traffickers’ clutches she may not have had a safety net to fall into should things go badly for her in London. Taking the flat and the boyfriend therefore seemed a reasonable course of action for her at the time, which is precisely what the traffickers were counting on in the first place.
Although of these two women only May gets caught up in the sex racket, both of them are victimized by patriarchy, which demands that women’s bodies be controlled by men at all times, if not directly then by the threat of what men will do to women who dare seek independence. Alice remains single and uncaught by the traffickers, but suffers under this control through having her movements curtailed by the hostel’s policies, by having to endure molestation by her employer, and by having internalized the patriarchal strictures that making a good marriage represents freedom and that human relationships must necessarily be transactional in nature. May, on the other hand, chooses a false independence by attaching herself to a man who turns out to be a procurer for the trafficking ring. May thus exchanges the indirect control of hostel life for the direct control of the false boyfriend and exploitation by the men who consume her body. In both cases, how these women live their lives and the choices they make ultimately are circumscribed by their relationships to men; by the threat of male violence towards them, both real and implied; and by a patriarchal culture that treats them as property to be exchanged between and among men.
David Keel unfortunately also acts as an agent for patriarchy. We see this in his attitudes and actions towards Bunty, whose purity he feels compelled to ensure and who he sees not as an individual with her own agency and right to self-determination but as a being who can exist only in relation to men, specifically to her father and to himself. Keel also subscribes to the patriarchal dictum that a woman who has been sexually active or violated by a man or men outside the bounds of marriage has diminished value. He shows this possessive, utilitarian attitude towards women in several places throughout the episode. We see this when he gaslights Bunty over what they find in May’s flat, and when he brings Steed into the case less because he finds May and Chrissie and women like them worth saving than because Bunty must be protected and kept pure at all costs because her father has asked that of Keel. Here again it is what men want and what men expect of Bunty in relation to themselves and, especially, in relation to their perception of their own honor that matters most.
This patriarchal attitude is not reserved solely for Keel’s relationships with women, however. It also informs his responses to and attitudes towards Steed. By virtue of his profession, among other things, Keel represents respectability and the status quo, and he feels obligated to uphold that image. But Steed is a secret agent and a man-about-town; he is neither married, nor engaged to be wed, nor courting with a view towards marriage, but rather engages in casual sex when he finds a consenting partner who also wants that.
Therefore Keel assumes that Steed, as an unwed, unaffianced male lacking the standard trappings of “respectability,” must necessarily think an unattached woman is his for the taking, and therefore Keel feels compelled to remind Steed, if only in subtext, that Bunty already belongs to other men, namely to her father and, by proxy, to Keel. It does not matter that Steed finds consent to be vital in his relationships; it does not matter that his entire career is devoted to protecting the innocent and the vulnerable; and it does not matter that Steed simply is not predatory towards women, because Keel is conditioned by patriarchy and by the ideology of respectability to automatically consider Steed a threat where Bunty is concerned.
Keel also projects other aspects of patriarchal ideology onto Steed, such as when he assumes that Steed will be harsh and judgemental towards May in the scene following her rescue. As with Keel’s fears about Bunty, his perception of Steed as a threat to May are utterly unfounded in reality, but rather are borne of an internalized view of how men relate to women and how they assign value to women in patriarchal societies, to the point where Keel conflates morality with adherence to patriarchal strictures. That Steed might not function that way, and that he might actually have the superior moral compass seems not to cross Keel’s mind at all.
In the end, Keel and Steed also become victims of patriarchy even as they benefit from the privileges it affords them as men, since patriarchal attitudes prevent Keel from seeing Steed as he really is, and Keel’s false assumptions about the other man are harmful to their relationship with one another. Even more harmful is Keel’s possessiveness and paternalism towards Bunty, since it prevents him from seeing her as fully human and possessing her own agency, and it nearly brings him to blows with Steed, a rift that remains unhealed at the end of the episode. Because Keel persists in viewing Steed through the lenses of patriarchy and respectability, he cannot form a real friendship with the other man, even though he does continue to help Steed with cases from time to time. There’s simply no way to form a genuine connection when one party has a prejudiced view of the other, a view that moreover is entirely false.
“Toy Trap” thus stands as an extended critique of the damage patriarchy does to human beings and to their relationships with one another, and this is true whether the writer consciously intended this message or not. “It’s for your own good” is a refrain used in several places throughout the episode, but it becomes quite plain throughout the story that nobody is well served by patriarchy or the ideology of respectability, not the women who are controlled and oppressed by them, and not even the men whom patriarchy directly privileges.