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.
⊕ Content notice for discussion of sexual assault and mentions of rape
“Emma, Darling, You Look Ravishing”
Secrets have been mysteriously leaking to the opposition, and the primary suspects are all highly placed military officers—a vice admiral in the Royal Navy, a major general in the Royal Army, and a group commander in the Royal Air Force—each with his own potentially exploitable personal weakness. Group Commander George Miles is known as something of a Lothario, so Steed asks Mrs Peel to use her feminine wiles to see whether she can’t worm some information out of him. Mrs Peel obliges, managing to wangle a date with Miles at his home. Steed, meanwhile, goes under cover as Miles’ butler, to see whether he can find any info himself and also to be on hand to protect Mrs Peel in case the date gets ugly.
Recently on social media, I saw a link to a story about comic book author Farida Bedwei, the creator of Karmzah, a superhero with cerebral palsy who derives her powers from her crutches. Ms Bedwei, who herself has cerebral palsy, created Karmzah because she wants to see heroes who are like herself, and to share them with other disabled people. She also wants to use Karmzah as a way to end the stigma over the need for assistive devices such as crutches, which are so vital for disabled people, but the use of which all too often comes with additional costs and frustrations because the world has not been constructed to be accessible to the disabled.
This terrific story about Bedwei’s comic and her crutch-wielding superhero set me thinking about the third act of the Season 6 episode “Noon Doomsday,” in which Tara’s ableist attitude ends up endangering both herself and a crutch-wielding Steed, and how Steed’s adaptability, foresight, and approach towards his temporary disability allow him to defeat the villain and rescue Tara. Further, the ableism of this episode exists in intersection with sexism and toxic masculinity, and the presence of all three of these issues is a direct result of the way Tara’s character and her relationship with Steed was handled by the Season 6 producers in general and by “Noon Doomsday” screenwriter Terry Nation in particular.
⊕ 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.
In an earlier blog, I discussed the ways in which Steed’s masculinity is sometimes treated dismissively by critics and writers, despite massive evidence to the contrary, in part because of the way the gender binary is constructed in Western society. There’s a corollary to this, deeply entwined with issues of gender and gender performance, and that is the minimization or denial of Steed’s physicality. I’m not sure exactly how or when this started, but at least since the mid-1980s there seems to have been a tendency to relegate Steed to the sidelines when discussing the physical, embodied aspects of the Avengers, with particular reference to combat with the villains.
(I’m hoping to do a more thorough workup of the history of this in the future, but for now I’ll go with what I’ve got. Also, there are other ways Steed expresses his physicality besides combat, but I’m sticking with that one for now, too.)
“But you would have gone to Ali’s defence? Physically?” “Under different circumstances, certainly.” He did not seem angry at my disobedience, just puzzled. Finally he said, “But women do not fight.” “This one does,” I answered. He held my gaze, then looked sideways at Holmes. “This one does,” my mentor confirmed. — Mahmoud Hazr, Mary Russell, and Sherlock Holmes in O Jerusalem by Laurie R King
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One of the groundbreaking aspects of The Avengers from the beginning of the Cathy Gale era was that Steed’s female partners were treated as his equals, and hints were often dropped that the women might be even better than he was at some things, or smarter in some ways. This was done in absolute seriousness: Cathy Gale and Emma Peel were written neither in a humorous attempt to undermine Steed’s masculinity, nor in order to lampoon the women as ball-breaking viragos. These women are not caricatures: they are strong, skilled, capable, and intelligent, and expect to be treated accordingly. Steed certainly does that: he accepts Cathy and Emma just as they are. He is not threatened by their talents, but rather celebrates them, and Steed’s delight in his partners and what they can do is one of the finest aspects of those relationships.