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.
⊕ 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 thereofare 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.
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.
Any Avengers fan will tell you the sad tale of The Avengers Series 1 episodes. The very first season of the show is almost entirely lost, thanks to the habit of British television studios of not preserving the video stock used to record their shows. There were even a few episodes that were never recorded, just broadcast live. So all that remains of the first series/season of The Avengers are two and a third episodes, one of which (“Girl on a Trapeze”) that doesn’t even feature John Steed. But now we make that three and a third episodes, with the happy discovery of “Tunnel of Fear,” now released on DVD from Studio Canal.
“Tunnel of Fear” was the twentieth broadcast episode, nearing the end of the first season, and as such already has some of the hallmarks that would carry over…