Emma Peel: I suppose Mother warned you about women like me?
John Steed: Until now, I didn't know there were women like you.
— The Avengers
While on a hunt for vintage buttons and vinyl records, my daughter and I came across the thrift-store find to end all thrift-store finds: Season 4 of the 1960's British spy-fi series The Avengers on VHS for $2.
I'd watched reruns of The Avengers as a teenager, and I remembered Diana Rigg, who played undercover agent Mrs. Emma Peel, as the coolest woman in a TV show ever. We popped in the videos and watched as Mrs. Peel and her partner, John Steed (played by Patrick Macnee), traded quips, outwitted the bad guys and generally just had a blast being groovy.
No question: Mrs. Peel remains the coolest woman in a TV show — ever.
She was brilliant, strong, witty, assertive, funny, and stylish — pretty different from today's TV heroines, who are silly or smart, funny or serious, glamorous or frumpy. Mrs. Peel was not afraid to be smart, silly, funny, serious and glamorous when the situation (or script) warranted it. While Steed was the model of the proper English gentleman, with bowler and umbrella, and was frequently behind the wheel of a Bentley, Mrs. Peel, an excellent driver, zipped around in her Lotus Elan convertible. It was powder blue. There was nothing you didn't believe she could do.
And she had a fabulous avant-garde wardrobe, introducing viewers to black-and-white mod designs, mini skirts, leather suits and clothes with fantastic geometric patterns. While I usually snort when I see a female superhero fighting crime in some sort of leather getup (usually because it's a bustier) Mrs. Peel's jumpsuits — including a sleek black leather one that Rigg asked be made in more comfortable fabrics in later episodes — don't look ridiculous at all.
She looks, as my daughter pointed out, "kick-ass."
I love how Wikipedia describes her: "She is a feminist heroine, eschewing traditional "damsel-in-distress" portrayals of women (she is rarely bested in any fight and rescues Steed as often as he rescues her). She is a master of martial arts and a formidable fencer."
Watching one episode after another, bowls of popcorn in our laps, I realized I’d learned a lot – and hoped my daughter did too – from watching Mrs. Peel.
1. Smart = sexy. Mrs. Peel wasn't afraid to show off the depth of her business and science acumen when talking with her cohorts and villains alike. As part of her Wikipedia description says, “A certified genius, she specializes in chemisty and other sciences. She is often seen in episodes engaging in artistic hobbies and had success in industry at the helm of the company of her late father, Sir John Knight." All by age 21!
2. Equal partnerships are possible. Mrs. Peel never played second fiddle to John Steed, rescuing him as often as he rescued her. More refreshing, Steed never doubted she was his equal, relying on her to do her part and even take the lead in some of their escapades.
3. Being assertive, confident and capable does not make you a bitch. Mrs. Peel entered into one dangerous situation after another, always confident she would be able to outthink the enemy and succeed. She was assertive and confident, and she was admired for it.
4. Having a sense of humor is important. Mrs. Peel was witty, clever and knew how to laugh at ridiculous situations — and herself. We should all be so lucky.
John Steed: [as they're fencing] We ought to get away... Down to the coast for a while.
Emma Peel: We?
John Steed: Why not? We can build sandcastles together.
Emma Peel: I refuse to carry your bucket and spade.
5. Work with people you like and respect. Mrs. Peel and John Steed worked together so well, in part, because they genuinely seemed to like and respect each other. And while life doesn't always give us the opportunity to choose our work colleagues, it's something worth thinking about.
After her first season as Mrs. Peel, Rigg wanted to leave to take on movie roles and take a break from the brutal shooting schedule. She had also learned that she was being paid less than the cameraman. They tripled her salary and, because she enjoyed working with Macnee, continued on for another season, reprising her role sporadically after that and turning her attention to movies. Fans may remember her as James Bond's wife in the movie, On Her Majesty's Secret Service. This is kind of ironic —she plays a troubled countess who tries to commit suicide (Bond rescues her), marries Bond, and is shot in a drive-by shooting. Would Mrs. Peel have put up with any of that?
As for me, I'm going to remember her as a wonderful character, the model for how any smart, modern woman would want to be portrayed on a TV show. If they can get it right in 1965, I don’t see why they can't get it right today. — CG
Photo courtesy of flickr user Mondo Gasparotto