As I have noted elsewhere, there are many points of contact between The Avengers and The Champions, two British television series from the 1960s, and between The Champions and The New Avengers, which aired in the mid 1970s. In those previous blogs, I wrote about how elements of Avengers episodes are echoed in some of those from Champions, and then later how a New Avengers story echoed a Champions one.
Plots and villains and action aren’t the only places where these three series intersect, however. One important point of contact is in the character of the female secret agent. In Champions, this is Sharron Macready (Alexandra Bastedo), a medical doctor, biochemist, and agent of a private security service called Nemesis. Across the entirety of Avengers (including TNA), there were five female partners who worked with John Steed, but the one I’d like to concentrate on here is Emma Peel (Diana Rigg), since in many ways she has the most in common with Sharron.
One of the hallmarks of The Avengers from Season 2 onwards was the way the show frequently turned gender roles on their heads, leading at least one commentator to describe Steed as a “feminized male” and his partner(s) as “masculinized female[s].” Even Patrick Macnee and Honor Blackman stated in interviews that Steed took on the (ostensibly) “female” role while his partner took the “male.” Other writers often remark on the fact that Steed is given to wearing fine clothes and carrying a “bumbershoot” (yes, some writers really use that word, God help them), leading to descriptions of Steed as “effete” or “foppish.” But is Steed really a “feminized male” (a phrase that could certainly do with some unpacking), or is there something else going on?
In many ways, The Avengers is dated. Sexism and racism are sadly present in many of the episodes, and none of the characters (including our heroes, alas) are perfect in this respect. But the series was also groundbreaking in its treatment of Steed’s female partners: these are strong, talented, capable women, whom Steed treats as his equals. He values and respects their skills and intelligence, and quite rightly expects others to do the same.
An early scene in “Room Without a View” exemplifies this (and also Steed’s general disdain for officialdom, but that’s a story for another time). Steed and Mrs. Peel arrive to take over the case and have to deal with Mr. Varnals, (more…)