A conversation with fellow tumblr celluloidbroomcloset about the ways in which Cathy and Steed show affection for each other got me thinking about a few episodes where the two of them are shown expressing physical affection. This is relatively rare for Cathy, who is a very reserved person with strong boundaries, but it’s clear from many instances across Seasons 2 and 3 that she does love Steed very much, and part of the expression of that love comes with physical touch.
As the conversation unfolded, I was reminded of two instances in particular, one from Dressed to Kill and the other from The Undertakers, both of which end with Steed and Cathy drinking champagne together while sitting back to back, or nearly so. These two instances are some of the clearest expressions of the physical comfort Cathy and Steed have with each other: in each one, they lean back against each other and enjoy that physical contact while also celebrating the end of the case with some champagne.
L/top: Dressed to Kill. Cathy and Steed sit back to back on the tiger-skin rug in Steed’s flat. They are both wearing dark casual clothing. Cathy holds a glass of champagne in her right hand. Her head is tilted back slightly, and she seems happy. Steed is smiling and holding a bottle of champagne in his left hand and a champagne glass in his right. He is about to pour himself some champagne.
R/bottom: The Undertakers. Cathy and Steed sit nearly back to back on the settee in Cathy’s flat. Steed wears a light-colored suit and tie. Cathy wears dark trousers and a light-colored shirt with ruffles down the front. Steed holds a glass of champagne in his left hand, and with his right he pours some into the glass that Cathy holds. They are both smiling and happy.
I think it’s significant that one of the ways they express their affection and comfort with one another is by sitting back to back. This is because one of the most important moments of their first case together—and of the beginning of their journey as colleagues and lovers— takes place with that very thing: standing back to back. I’m thinking of the final battle in Warlock, where Steed is standing at bay inside a ring of evil warlocks and Cathy descends from the dais and moves to position herself at Steed’s back. She does this without being asked, and Steed accepts it as the right and natural thing for her to do. They’re both ready to go down fighting right there, to take on the whole coven of warlocks by themselves if necessary.
Now, I don’t know whether the blocking decisions at the end of Dressed to Kill and Undertakers were consciously chosen by either the directors or the actors to be explicit references to the way Steed and Cathy start their personal and professional lives together. But even absent that out-of-world decision, I still think the Cathy-Steed back-to-back thing is a metaphor for their relationship as a whole. They both care about each other, and they’d each die protecting the other. I like to think that in terms of the characters in-world they continue to enjoy sitting back to back in peaceful moments not only because it’s cozy and affectionate but also because for them it is a reference to that first battle and to that first case that brought them together. Cathy has Steed’s back, and he has hers, without fail, in their relationship as lovers and in battles with the enemy alike.
In my previous post, I discussed some of the ways that Steed nurtures people, with a particular focus on his relationship with Mrs Gale. That Steed would be kind and caring with a woman he loves might seem unsurprising, but what about how he nurtures other people and, in particular, men with whom he interacts, and what does that say about his character?
Scattered throughout the series are several instances of Steed acting in a nurturing way towards men. Steed helps them when they’re injured, and comforts them when they’ve been traumatized, and he does all these things with tenderness and compassion. Many of these examples are things that I’ve briefly noted both here and on my tumblr, but I want to draw them together both to create a more coherent picture of this aspect of Steed’s behavior and personality, and to examine it in more depth.
In at least one previous blog, I made brief mention of ways in which Steed is a kind and nurturing man. In this post, I’d like to examine that in more detail, because it’s an extremely important facet of Steed’s personality and behavior. It says a lot about him that he nurtures not only his partners, but also other people that he meets in the course of his day, and he does this not in order to initiate a transaction in which the other person owes him something in return, but simply because it’s the right thing to do when one is a decent human being.
Steed’s nurturing behavior also is an expression of his feminism, and of his comfort with behaviors that are normally coded as “female/feminine” in Western culture. Although I could take examples from throughout the series, I’m going to stick with the Gale era, because I also have an axe to grind about perceptions of Steed’s character with respect to the earlier seasons in particular, as well as overall.
One important way that Steed’s nuturing side is expressed is in the way he feeds people. Not only does Steed do the traditional male/masculine thing of taking Cathy out to dinner—for example, at the opening of “The Golden Fleece”—he also frequently prepares food for Cathy and becomes concerned about her when she doesn’t eat. These examples centered on food and feeding make excellent loci for discussion of Steed’s feminism and spirit of service towards others, especially in the context of these early seasons.
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.
Following some exchanges on tumblr regarding the whole Steed/Tara/Cathy/Emma conundrum, I began mulling some things over in my fevered brain, to wit:
A certain subset of (usually male) fans seem to be of the opinion that Tara is somehow the most suitable partner for Steed, some of them even going so far as to say that she is his “soulmate.” Cathy on the other hand, gets relegated by some viewers to Noli Me Tangere Ice Queen status, while Emma is seen as not being in either a romantic or sexual relationship with Steed, or if she is considered to be having sex with him it is simply a “friends with benefits” arrangement without much emotional attachment.
A while back, fellow tumblr celluloidbroomcloset started a really good conversation about wardrobe coordination between Steed and Emma. In the exchange that followed, Cell asked about changes in Emma’s own wardrobe across “Return of the Cybernauts,” in reply to my post abouthow sartorial details were linked to the plot and the characters of Steed and Beresford.
I did a quick examination of the three episodes that precede “Return of the Cybernauts” (leaving out “Who’s Who” because of the body-switching thing) and found something very interesting.
When Emma is in sync with Steed, their wardrobes complement one another across the episode, as celluloidbroomcloset has noted. I found that when Emma is in sync with herself, her wardrobe complements itself across the episode. When she is out of sync with herself, synchrony in her wardrobe diminishes or vanishes entirely.
This lack of synchrony is at its height in “Return of the Cybernauts,” because she is out of sync both with Steed and with herself. Her interest in Beresford puts her at a distance from Steed and she herself is not sure how she feels about that relationship and undecided over what she wants from it.
One of the threads that runs through the Season 4 episode “The Danger Makers” is a set of references to Classical mythology. The Danger Makers all take code names based in Greco-Roman myth, and they refer to their dangerous stunts as “the Labors of Hercules.” The names that are taken by each Danger Maker and the references to Hercules’ Twelve Labors are not made at random. Each of them reveal something about character and about the ethos of the Danger Makers as a whole. Although only one Classical figure is named directly in relation to these characters, they actually exhibit characteristics of others as well. This also applies to Steed and especially to Mrs Peel.