Saturday, January 21, 2012

Female Romantic Archetypes of 1960's Television Shows, Part 2 of 3: The Inimitable Emma Peel, Man's Best (Sexy) Friend

When the producers of The Avengers were looking for someone to replace the character of Cathy Gale, as played by the tough and lovely Honor Blackman  (who herself was a feminine icon, though the show was not yet popular anywhere but Britain), they knew they needed to find someone with Man Appeal. That's how they came up with the name of agent John Steed's new companion: Emma (M. for Man-A) Peel. They found Diana Rigg. And man appeal she had.

But Emma Peel was no sex kitten, no plaything for a man. Of course she had to be strong, since she was a British secret service agent. But they went far beyond that. Emma Peel was the equal of Steed in every way, if not his superior. She could match any man in brains, resourcefulness, charm, courage and even physical prowess. Many were the episodes when she was judo chopping, flipping or even tossing a man around a room. Yet, she did not forfeit her feminine charm, beauty and grace. For a time in the late sixties, every man wanted Emma Peel and every woman wanted to be her.

But in what way did every man want her? What, exactly, did Emma Peel represent?

Emma Peel was very much an archetype of the Goddess whose name was shared by the actress who played her: Diana. Emma was basically an Amazon. No doubt lesbian women found her as attractive as heterosexual men. But to either, she represented not only the female warrior, but also, the sexually unattainable woman (like the Goddess Diana).

They set her up at Mrs. Emma Peel and thereby solve the issue of her sexual availability. She is supposedly a widow, her husband lost in some unnamed (as far as I can remember) military campaign. She is thus free to flirt with John Steed or any other man, but it remains unspoken but implied that she is unavailable, perhaps because not enough time has passed since the loss of her husband, or even better, because he was not surely killed, but lost and assumed dead (SPOILER: This turns out to be the case, as her husband returns at the end of the last episode with Mrs. Peel.). Thus, she has the perfect set up to be sexually unattainable and morally admired for that, as she is honoring her husband's memory, or hoping for his return. She is also, therefore, free to be a completely independent woman, free of society's previous limitations upon women, yet not judged as immoral or unwanted because of her single status.

As a romantic archetype, she is the ultimate, equal companion for a man, admired, perhaps even desired, but never giving herself sexually to anyone. She remains not a sex object, but an object of admiration, a sexual ideal. Of course, this fits in perfectly with the British sensibility. Mrs. Peel and Mr. Steed flirt and there is double-talk and sexual innuendo going on between them, often done with an air of false naivete or modesty. This is the sexual human, fighting to break free, or at least cheating enough to not grant complete victory to, the inhuman Puritan sensibility.

On the positive side, Emma was a symbol of women's liberation and empowerment. I was quite young when I first watched The Avengers and I believe Emma Peel had a very positive influence on my young psyche that stayed with me. I grew to admire and be attracted to strong women. But even now, I do not feel sexual desire for the character as much as admiration and an indefinable romantic longing. One longs to be in love with Emma Peel. But one cannot even imagine fucking her. At least, I can't.

Next week, I'll talk someone whom I feel quite differently about. A character, played by the indescribably sensuous Julie Newmar, that drove me and still drives me mad with sexual desire. A character that makes even Barbara Eden's Jeannie seem controlled and proper by comparison. I'm talking about the ultimate femme fatale: Catwoman.

Robert Szeles (saylesh)

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