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.
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.)
Well, I did promise I’d mumble some stuff about Season 6 and masculinity, so off I go.
When Diana Rigg left Avengers to become a Bond Girl, Steed’s next partner was Tara King, played by Linda Thorson. Thorson was even younger than Diana Rigg: there was a twenty-five-year age gap between herself and Patrick Macnee. Tara King, therefore, was a youngun, and not just in chronological terms. An agent-in-training assigned to Steed by the Ministry, Tara lacked the maturity and perspicacity of either Cathy Gale or Emma Peel, and she also had a mad pash for John Steed. Unlike Steed’s relationships with Cathy and Emma, which started as friendships that progressed to romance, and which were very much relationships between equals, Steed’s relationship with Tara was … different.
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 the Season 3 episode “Death of a Batman,” Steed breaks into Lady Cynthia’s flower shop to look for clues. While he is there, he is confronted by a very large man who is guarding the shop. After a brief scuffle, Steed manages to knock him out.
The next morning, Steed is dragged out of bed by the sound of the doorbell. He opens the door, and an effusive Lady Cynthia bounces into his flat, bearing gifts. Steed, who isn’t quite awake yet, has no idea what Lady Cynthia is so happy about.