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March 15th, 2012

Thank you, Emma Peel

A strange confluence has taken place in my head recently: The buzz around the upcoming Avengers movie has combined with watching the right-wing assault on women's rights, and has sent me spinning into nostalgia for another Avengers, one that should have become a cultural turning point and marked the road ahead, not one that now stands alone as a sad reminder of how much better things could have - and should have - been by now.

I say this without exaggeration or amusement: Emma Peel made me the woman I am today. 

In case you're part of some deprived generation, let me explain: In the mid-1960s, there was a British television series called The Avengers. It was a spy show, and for fifty glorious episodes it focused on a dapper professional agent named John Steed (Patrick Macnee) and his "talented amateur" partner Mrs. Emma Peel (Diana Rigg). Steed had partners before Mrs. Peel - her immediate predecessor was Cathy Gale, played by Honor Blackman - and after (the youthful Tara King, played by Linda Thorson), but it's the Emma Peel seasons that are chiefly remembered now...and for good reasons.

EmmaFirst, let's talk a little about what it was like to be a rather smart little girl growing up in America in the 1960s. On the one hand, there were a lot of movements going on - civil rights, equality for women, peace demonstrations - that denied the strict adherence to conformity that defined the previous decade. Suddenly we were all being told that we could be anything we wanted; any of us could be astronauts, scientists, even the President. If you were a little girl who was more interested in dinosaurs and books than dolls, that was totally groovy, baby. 

But that wasn't the only message we girls got. Because whenever we turned on our televisions or went to the movies, we saw something different, something that we instinctively knew was (ironically) a lot closer to reality: Female characters were almost all mothers, wives, girlfriends, or secretaries. In monster movies (which of course I watched an inordinate amount of) they were damsels in distress, the screaming mimis who fled the monster until they managed to trip over absolutely nothing. The men never tripped. Heck, the men were never even chased.

We'd anxiously tune into science fiction shows like Star Trek, sure that we'd see a future depiction of women in real positions of power. But once again, we were told otherwise; the only two women on that show were a nurse and a communications officer who was really just a glorified secretary. "Captain, I'm frightened," she even admitted in one show. Surprise - none of the male characters ever uttered that line on Star Trek

Occasionally something fun might come along like Goldfinger, in which Bond gets literally tossed by a beautiful aviatrix named Pussy Galore (played, strangely enough, by Honor Blackman, who left The Avengers for the role)...but the very name "Pussy Galore" was a tip-off to what her real purpose in the movie was: To provide a sexual conquest for the male lead. Surprise!

Then this British import came along...and finally. Finally. FINALLY. Here was a woman who was easily the equal of her male lead. In case you need a refresher course: Mrs. Emma Peel was a wealthy widow whose father had been an industrialist, and she was both intellectually brilliant and physically adept. Depending on the episode, she might display expertise in everything from chemistry to fencing, sculpture to karate. She and Steed drank insane amounts of alcohol, wore stunning clothes (her one-piece catsuits even inspired fashion at the time - I know because I had one that I finally wore out), and fought a bevy of eccentric villains, all in high style. Their mutual flirtation came across more as respect and affection than real sexual involvement; Steed, despite being a classic British gentleman in tailored suits and bowler hats, was a bit of a philanderer, and his conquests were occasionally the fodder for some teasing on Emma's part.

Emma Peel never had to hide her intelligence or power; in fact, she positively reveled in both, and yet she did so without ever being un-feminine. She oozed confidence and assurance...and watching her ooze made me think maybe, just MAYBE, I didn't have to hide my own smarts behind a girlfriend's eyelash-batting or a victim's screaming. 

Although I'm certainly not the first feminist to admit to being heavily influenced by Emma Peel, there's another aspect to The Avengers that I think is mentioned too rarely, and that's her male partner, John Steed. Steed was never less than masculine and suave, but he was very happy to occasionally be rescued by Mrs. Peel (and yes, she DID rescue him, as often as he rescued her). His staggeringly accomplished counterpart did not detract from his male identity, but increased it. They were true equals, in every sense of the word. 

And that was what I wanted. Finally, a silly television show had shown me that it was possible. It was a fantasy I unabashedly embraced, and still do.

It makes me sad to think that now, nearly half-a-century after The Avengers, it's nearly impossible to imagine that show airing today. Of course the parts for women are overall better than they were - hey, according to movies and television, we can now be cops, vampire slayers, or...well, wait. Buffy the Vampire Slayer ended nearly ten years ago now, and I can't imagine that show making it anymore, either. Our culture has embraced Snooki and Desperate Housewives and Sarah Palin and the Kardashians so much that it should be no surprise that we're now considering taking away basic rights we thought were granted to us women decades ago, rights like birth control and abortion. 

Mrs. Peel was never political, but I can only imagine how she would cringe to see what's happening in the 21st century. And I pity all the little girls like me being born now who are looking around for role models, and wondering - again - why the boys seem to get all the good stuff. 

I hope at least some of them will discover The Avengers via their parents' DVD collections or streaming media.

Mrs. Peel, you're needed.