Patrick McNee passed away on 25 June 2015 at the age of 93. When I saw his obituary, I could not but reflect on the profound influence he had had on my life. Indeed, I do not believe I would have turned out the same way if I had not spent my childhood years learning from him.
Well, perhaps I should rather say, learning from John Steed. Major John Steed was a fictional character created by McNee for the British television series, "The Avengers." Along with the original Star Trek series, The Avengers was my favorite TV show as a young girl growing up in the 1960s.
The show’s premise was that Steed and his partner worked for some unnamed intelligence ministry of the British government. Apparently this ministry was tasked with fighting extraordinary villains. No run-of-the mill bad guys here; these evildoers ran the gamut from electrified men to man-eating plants. The over-the-top plots gave the show an air that was both wry and camp at the same time. Yet camp never dissolved into campiness, because Steed and his partner were the height of sophisticated cool.
While Steed had a handful of partners, the one most remembered and loved by Avengers fans was the inimitable Mrs. Emma Peel, played by Diana Rigg. Though her very name derives from a solidly instrumental vision of what she was supposed to mean to the series (M-Appeal, for man-appeal), Rigg’s Mrs. Peel transcended that constricted vision in a revolutionary fashion. Yes, she was beautiful (and often dressed by the producers in clothes meant to produce “m-appeal”), but her beauty seemed, to my teenaged self at least, a secondary dimension of who she was.
The series refers to her as a “genius” with interests in chemistry and other sciences. She fought bad guys in hand-to-hand combat, handled a gun with aplomb, evinced remarkable sangfroid in the most distressing of situations, drove much faster than her partner, put two and two together quicker than anyone, and saved Steed as often as he saved her.
And yet the show did not depict the two as lovers. Indeed, in the series Mrs. Peel was always married—albeit to a pilot who went missing in the Amazon for several years and thus never put in an appearance. When he was “found,” she left Steed behind and drove off to a life with her husband. Asked about their characters’ relationship, Patrick McNee opined that they were having a love affair, but Diana Rigg insisted the characters were not lovers at all—and of course, she is the one who is right. What was truly revolutionary about Steed and Peel is that they were not having an affair: they were genuinely friends and equals without having sex.
To a young girl socialized in the 1960s and 70s, this was incredibly liberating. Mrs. Peel filled the measure of her creation—smart, capable, fearless—and her companion not only admired her for it, he admired her without trying to bed her. Even though he was a fictional character, my life was forever changed because John Steed never “put the moves” on Mrs. Peel.
There were literally no other examples of this type of behavior in my culture at the time. In that time and place, if a man did not have bedroom designs on a woman, he was indifferent and uninterested in her otherwise. In fact, if he didn’t want to have sex with her, then her intelligence and capability became threats to his masculinity, and certainly not something to be admired. In the time period I grew up in, a man seemed only interested in a woman if he thought he could “score.” If you watched a man and a woman together in that era, you could tell this was the case because he would actually turn his face to her when talking, ask questions of her, and seem to be interested in the answers. But we all knew this was an instrumental interest based on sexual desire alone, and not genuine—or lasting. After he's gotten what he wanted, he would no longer turn his face to hers in interest.
But before my eyes every week was a man who was not like that at all. And he was not like that for the full three years that Emma Peel was his partner. He always looked at her when she spoke; he asked her questions and listened to her answers. She was not his subordinate in any way. Steed clearly enjoyed her company. For years. Without an ulterior motive.
John Steed taught me that men and women could actually be friends. And if friends, then equals.
(And if friends and equals, then it seemed possible to me that when a man and a woman did marry and were having sex, they could still friends and equals. Sex, then, would be transformed from an enactment of male over female hierarchy into an enactment of deepest love and diarchy.)
I was reminded of just how revolutionary John Steed was while watching the documentary “India’s Daughter.” The 2015 film, banned by the Indian government, explores what could possibly have brought about the horrific attack on a 23 year old female medical student on a Delhi bus, and features interviews with some of the rapist-murderers and their lawyers, among others. All this was terrible enough, but then a statement by one of the interviewees chilled me to the core.
One of the defense lawyers, M.L. Sharma, says to the interviewer in the film, “You are talking about man and woman as friends. Sorry, that doesn’t have any place in our society. A woman means I immediately put the sex in his eyes. We have the best culture. In our culture, there is no place for a woman.”
And there you have it. Mr. Sharma was insisting that John Steed could never exist in India. And because Steed was an impossibility in that land, it made sense that a young medical student would be raped and disemboweled for being out on a date.
If men cannot conceive of women as friends, then women will only ever be prey. “There is no place for a woman.”
John Steed must exist for women—and the societies in which they live--to flourish. And I know for a fact Steed is not an impossibility. I believe I have met a few John Steeds; I believe I have raised a few; I believe I have taught quite a few. More power to them.
Patrick McNee, rest in peace. You have my eternal thanks for changing my life for the better: thank you for making John Steed come to life for a young girl in the 1960s. Even now, after a long day of researching or writing about the situation and status of women worldwide—a depressing line of work if ever there was—I know that I can pop a DVD of you and Mrs. Peel into my DVD player and feel hopeful once more.
Full Citation for this Article: Cassler, V.H. (2015) "The Debt I Owe John Steed," SquareTwo, Vol. 8 No. 2 (Summer 2015), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleCasslerSteed.html, accessed <give access date>.
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