When I was fifteen, just about the time I realized that the discrepancies between myself and Agent 007 would not be resolved by further growth, I discovered The Avengers, a British second-season import. In the proverbial nick of time. Instead of obliging me to fight through the hordes of S.M.E.R.S.H. to rescue the woman of my dreams, The Avengers presented me with the pleasant alternative of laying back and being rescued by the woman of my dreams.
The Avengers had many good qualities. Patrick Macnee was the 1960's best incarnation of the non-working-class hero. The writing was excellent: each script was populated by a host of semi-satiric villans, victims, and vaguely innocent bystanders designed to give all those wonderful British character actors work. And there were plots, which blithely ignored all tradtions of credibility; they cleverly juggled parody and suspense without ever degenerating into camp.
But most of all there was Diana Rigg, a Shakespearean actress in a black leather jumpsuit. Male viewers lusted after Emma Peel, and female viewers understood why. Emma Peel turned television's feminine mystique on its head. She rescued lots of men, and more importantly, she rescued women from their usual thriller roles of clumsy hostages, hysterical victims, and untrustworthy witnesses. She was capable, self-reliant, and intelligent.
In one epsiode, Steed and Mrs. Peel have to infiltrate a high IQ society which is being used by the enemy to design clever assassination plots. Steed can't pass the admissions test, but Mrs. Peel passes with flying colors. In another show, the British Ministry is being depopulated by an evil genius who discovers and then uses the most irrational fears of high government officials to drive them insane. Finding Mrs. Peel on his trail, the villian captures and then subjects her to the same tratment, only to find that none of the conventional feminine fears seem to apply.
All this is not to imply that Mrs. Peel never needed rescuing, but rather that when she got into trouble, it was not because she was out of her element. She was an exemplary, if unconventional, damsel in distress. In fact, after watching Steed rescue her a few times, I began to reconsider the benefits of being the rescuer. The payoff in saving your usual TV woman seemed somehow dubious. How much honest reward is there in the gratitude of an over-reacting, generally incompetent female? None. The woman offers sex, but it is the men who provide the respect. Not so with Mrs. Peel. In rescuing her, I could find all my satisfactions in one person.