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.