Fellow tumblr celluloidbroomcloset wrote this brilliant analysis dealing with the characters of Cathy Gale from The Avengers and Pussy Galore from the Bond film Goldfinger, both of whom were played by Honor Blackman.
OK, I’ve been thinking about this, and here’s one of my issues with the transition from Honor Blackman playing Cathy Gale to playing P*ssy Galore (asterix included because Tumblr might decide to flag it).
I think most of us can agree that the way Goldfinger (book and film) treats Galore is all kinds of problematic. But there’s an added issue with the way that things went down in terms of Blackman’s contemporary star persona.
Blackman got the role largely because of her performance as Cathy Gale in The Avengers. Cathy, superficially, seems perfect for the Bond franchise: the cool blonde judoka in black leather. But she’s also not good for the Bond franchise at all: she’s independent, intelligent, ridiculously competent, and really does not take any kind of male bullshit. She’s paired with a male character who, for the most part, respects that about her; who, when she pins him, early in their relationship, finds her physical and psychological strength not something to be overcome but something to be loved and respected. Whether or not we accept the idea that they eventually have a romantic and sexual relationship, there’s no doubt that Cathy retains her autonomy and that this is something that Steed supports and does not find threatening.
Cathy Gale, then, cannot be a part of the Bond franchise in 1964. Bond’s sexual politics do not allow for a woman to reject him on any terms. When Blackman takes her Gale persona and transmogrifies into the character of Galore, she’s largely playing Cathy but not – Galore is also a physically capable, psychologically strong female character who demands autonomy and is largely unimpressed by male posturing. While this is something that Steed actually likes about Cathy, that’s something that Bond cannot stand. She has to be dominated; that physical and sexual autonomy has to be made subservient to his desires, otherwise her very existence questions his masculinity.
Unlike Cathy, Galore is typed as a lesbian. (In the book, she’s explicitly lesbian, but even James Bond can’t get away with that in 1964.) So, she presents a double threat, a woman who not only doesn’t want James Bond but doesn’t want men, full stop. Again, Bond’s world view cannot allow for that. He will dominate her and control her desire, even if that means coercing her or raping her outright (which, yes, is what he does). That’s the only way he can bring her existence into line with his own view of masculinity and femininity.
In casting Blackman in the part, the Bond franchise is doing more than just bringing a Bond character to heel; it is trying to reconcile the existence of Cathy Gale with a conservative, patriarchal world. Cathy cannot exist in the same world with James Bond, but she can be transposed, commodified, and dominated as Galore. Cathy Gale is capable of breaking James Bond’s neck; Galore is not. Cathy Gale wouldn’t even permit him to look at her; Galore must, by the nature of the narrative and the franchise.
Cathy Gale is actually a really good cook, and on the rare occasions when she cooks for Steed he heartily approves of whatever it is she makes, and he’s not just being polite. Cathy’s issue is that she gets busy and forgets to eat, and then when she remembers her brain is too on overdrive to fix anything elaborate, so she doesn’t cook very often.
Emma Peel is more or less useless in the kitchen. She can make tea and coffee and a few other very simple things, but otherwise she’d burn water if left unsupervised, because when she tries to cook she also tries to multitask, and cooking + multitasking = disaster for Emma. So if there’s any cooking to be done, Steed usually takes care of that, and he tries to coach her a little sometimes, with mixed success. But Emma knows where all the best delis are, and she gets really good stuff from them.
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.
Storytelling in many ways is simply the repetition and reworking of tropes, some of which have been in circulation as long as humans have been telling stories. The hero and the villain, the beast that must be slain, the damsel in the tower, and many others form the canvas or skeleton upon which new tales are created and fleshed out. One common trope (in modern times, at least) is that of the ambitious, skilled female who wants to join in male activities, only to be ignored or told that she’s not welcome, because she’s a girl. Stories based on this trope usually involve the female having to prove that she’s just as badass, or even more badass, than the males, in order to win their respect, if not admiration. I am here calling this the “you’re pretty good, for a girl” (YPGFG) trope.
YPGFG functions simultaneously as subversion and as reinforcement of traditional gender roles. It is subversive because it allows the female character to assume a putatively “male/masculine” role. However, this subversion ultimately is built on a foundation of male/masculine hegemony, because it makes the degree to which the female is able to enact male/masculine behaviors the degree to which she becomes acceptable and worthy, which in turn depends on the assumption that male/masculine is both the default and the better part.
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.
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.
The first in an occasional series on representations of disability in The Avengers
⊗ Content note for discussion of ableism and disabled-as-villain tropes
Odd and possibly criminal things might happening in connection with an intended corneal transplant involving a live donor and an exclusive eye clinic in the Swiss Alps, so Steed asks Mrs Gale to hop over to the Continent to check things out. Marten Halvarssen, a wealthy, blind recluse who is the owner of the clinic (although he himself lives in London), seems to be one of the possible players in the apparent nefariousness, along with Dr Eve Hawn, who is Halvarssen’s fiancee, and Neil Anstice, who at first appears to be one of the clinic’s surgeons but in fact is a sort of mercenary criminal hired to do the legwork of the scheme.
As the title of the episode and the above brief synopsis indicate, disability—in particular, blindness—plays a very important role in both characterization and plot. Although the blind man is worked up as a suspect and potential villain, his actual role in the criminal doings that drive the plot of the episode is rather less black-and-white, making him something of an outlier in Avengers and New Avengers episodes that feature disabled characters, who nearly universally are unequivocally bad guys. Even so, Halvarssen is no Boy Scout: the elaborate diamond-smuggling plot that leads to the murders of Hilda Brauer and Dr Spender was set in motion by him, although the deaths were not part of his plan and he is furious that Anstice killed those people. In the end, however, Halvarssen shows himself to be on the side of the good guys, at least for the moment, actively helping Steed and Mrs Gale take down the others.