Update 6 April 2020
Very sad news: Honor Blackman has passed away at the age of 94, so I’m pinning this post to the top of my blog in her memory. She was a terrific actor and an amazing woman, and she will be missed.
When Avengers first aired, it was a show starring Ian Hendry as Dr David Keel, and John Steed (played by Patrick Macnee) was a secondary character. When Hendry quit after one season, the producers decided to make Steed the main character, and to give him a female partner. They hired Honor Blackman for the role, as Catherine Gale. Because they had a bunch of Hendry scripts left over, and because they didn’t have a budget to commission more, they ended up adapting scripts originally written for the male character of Dr David Keel to the female character of Catherine Gale.
The Gale era of Avengers was a watershed in television history. Catherine Gale was the first female character on television to be treated as not only the complete equal of her male partner, but as better than he was at some things. And not only that, it was done with utter seriousness: Steed was in no way threatened by Mrs Gale’s skills and strengths (in fact, he is regularly bowled over by her), and her character was not written either with lampoon of gender roles in mind or as any kind of misandrist.
Catherine Gale was a PhD in anthropology; a supremely intelligent woman who could think her way out of almost any problem; a judoka who could pummel the tar out of pretty much any opponent (Blackman actually learned judo for real for the role and did her own stunts); a crack shot and big game hunter; a freelance contractor who could do anything from help manage a charity to write essays about medieval couture to catalogue a museum. She helped Steed collar the bad guys on a regular basis, working side by side with him as his equal, not as his subordinate or sidekick. She never played the damsel in distress, and although Steed had to rescue her occasionally, she had her own chances to repay the favor when the baddies captured him.
Catherine Gale would become the inspiration for the character of Emma Peel, who maintained the relationship of equals and high level of badassery of her predecessor. Both characters have been a source of inspiration for generations of women audience members.
But it was Catherine Gale, PhD, a woman who took no shit and gave no fucks, who broke that barrier first.
So here’s to Honor Blackman and Catherine Gale, original badasses both.