Mrs. Peel, You're Needed: Dame Diana Rigg, 'The Avengers' and Modern Feminism
Author's Note: This is a post that I wrote a few years ago on an old personal blog when I was first getting familiar with the work of Dame Diana Rigg in Game of Thrones and The Avengers.
The news of her passing prompted me to find this post, and while it is not strictly about my life as a trainee solicitor, it provides some background to my aspirations, a valued role model and what I have taken to heart from her acting career.
It was written from the point of view of a fan sharing her interests, so the tone is quite casual.
There will be some spoilers for anyone who has not watched Game of Thrones or read the books.
Some parts may have been updated to reflect the current affairs and some parts added to improve the sentences and flow, but I hope it will still be a worthy read.
"Always keep your bowler on in time of stress, and watch out for diabolical masterminds."
- Mrs. Emma Peel
I have a lot to thank my dad for. Emotional support. A father's ear when I needed advice. Introducing me to The Avengers among other great television shows.
It was a way of bonding, to appreciate television history so far removed from the glossy production values we now witness on a daily basis both in films and on television. He had made the connection between Lady Olenna Tyrell of Game of Thrones and Dame Diana Rigg's role in The Avengers, back when television was in black and white and the use of CGI effects was but a futuristic imagining.
To see television magic as it was back then was refreshing and a mini break from work and study.
Were it not for him, I would never have known who Mrs. Emma Peel was, what she meant as a character, and what she still stands for today. I would not have witnessed her feats of strength, her adeptness at handling foes and her witty banter with John Steed accompanied by the pair's undeniable chemistry.
In a time in history when women were expected to remain in the home at the kitchen stove, raising the children and providing a cooked meal for a hardworking breadwinner, it is no surprise that women of the sixties needed heroines that did not fit that stereotypical mould.
It was a time of cultural and social revolution, in the field of women's rights, artistic expression, and even political views. The feminist movement was in its infancy, and equality was the word whispered in the ranks of women who yearned for the world to be different.
At this juncture in history, Mrs. Emma Peel was very much needed in the world crying out for change.
Much like her predecessor of the series, Kathy Gale (played by the legendary Honor Blackman), who inevitably set the standard by which anyone would choose to follow, Emma Peel was smart. In fact, she is quoted as being 'a certified genius, specialising in chemistry and other sciences'.
She was witty, trading flirtatious banter with her partner, John Steed. She was not afraid to forge her own way in life, and possessed a unique style. She lived in her own flat and was thoroughly self sufficient, a uniquely modern woman.
When her husband, Mr. Peter Peel, disappeared while flying over the Amazonian rainforest, she chose the way of independence rather than a grieving widow. She established herself in her own career as an accomplished spy, fighting the good fight in defense of the realm, using her knowledge of sciences to foil would be villains and their plots. She was an equal to John Steed, who treated her with the utmost respect and fond admiration, and their relationship evolved into one of the most iconic on-screen partnerships of that decade, with the ever present running motif of Steed summoning Mrs. Peel with hilarious on-screen gags and the slogan, 'Mrs. Peel, we're needed'.
The moment when they stand side by side in the opening credits of Series 5 of the show, their silhouettes shoulder to shoulder, is a perfect symbol of their relationship: they are on equal terms. A man and a woman working together in harmony, and being bloody good at it.
Emma Peel, whose name was born out of a masculine skewed viewpoint (the production required their new female character to have 'Man Appeal', which was later shortened to M. Appeal) , not only appealed to men (I note the infamous 'Queen of Sin' segment and the Dance of the Seven Veils sequence that would have been both quite scandalous by standards back in the sixties), but also to female fans who saw her as a heroine for the times, a trailblazer, and a lasting icon for British television and in the fashion world.
There was never any worry about Mrs. Peel not being able to handle herself. She had combat skills, hand to hand self defence, fencing, and could easily flip an aggressor over her shoulder with ease.
She could very easily have been painted as a femme fatale, a seductress with doe eyes, but she was imbued with characteristics that made her even more interesting: a keen mind, a sense of fashion, a plethora of hobbies and pastimes, and a love of cars.
But the question remains: is Emma Peel considered a strong female character? Can she be considered in the realm of feminism?
The term 'strong female character' tends to be flung around with ease, especially on the internet, where debate on public forums pertaining to television shows, films, and beyond, probes what it means to write a strong female character.
Can she be invulnerable? Is she allowed to cry? Can she be a mother? Does she have to carry a gun? Does she have to know how to break bones? Can she ever have feelings? Does she have to wear revealing outfits? Does her every second word have to be a sassy retort?
Mrs. Peel is clearly not impressed with this direction of discussion.
A Tumblr post by blogger 'madlori' that encapsulates what it means to writing female characters is something that I feel strongly about, states:
"Screw writing “strong” women. Write interesting women. Write well-rounded women. Write complicated women. Write a woman who kicks ass, write a woman who cowers in a corner. Write a woman who’s desperate for a husband. Write a woman who doesn’t need a man. Write women who cry, women who rant, women who are shy, women who don’t take no shit, women who need validation and women who don’t care what anybody thinks. THEY ARE ALL OKAY, and all those things could exist in THE SAME WOMAN. Women shouldn’t be valued because we are strong, or kick-ass, but because we are people. So don’t focus on writing characters who are strong. Write characters who are people.
Bearing that definition in mind, it is certainly true that Emma Peel is a fully-formed person. She had moments of bravery facing off foes, of course, but her own personal courage came to the fore in the episode 'The House that Jack Built' where she was compelled to think on her feet and face an adversary with a personal grudge.
There were moments when she became frightened, frustrated when it appeared all hope was lost and yet even as Steed raced towards her destination, Emma ultimately saves herself by figuring out the machinations of the house, how it was constructed and freed herself from the labyrinth nightmare.
Emma Peel not only became a figure in her own right, but I feel that she set the bar for female characters in television that followed in her footsteps. She stood apart from the bevy of 'Bond girls', who were seduced by the philandering MI6 agent with a smooth tongue and taste for vodka Martinis (though Dame Rigg did indeed play Tracy Bond nee di Vicenzo, and Honor Blackman the charming Pussy Galore, but both proved a challenge for Bond rather than a pawn for him to shamelessly seduce), and she became an iconic fashion symbol, with suits and designs from the series being sold in shops, courtesy of the show's costume designer, Alan Hughes.
I believe that Emma Peel is a figure that can still be relevant today. Dame Diana Rigg's performances still stand the test of time, giving inspiration to a new generation. She was a thoroughly modern woman, comfortable in her identity as a British agent, who devoted time to pursuits such as painting and sculpture, and who saved the day while looking stylish all at once.
"Another golden rose, how original. I eat from plates stamped with roses, I sleep in sheets embroidered with roses, I have a golden rose painted on my chamber pot... as if that makes it smell any better. Roses are boring, dear.
'Growing strong'. Ha! The dullest words of any house...'
- Lady Olenna Tyrell
With the role of Lady Olenna Tyrell, the famed Queen of Thorns and matriarch of the Tyrell family of Highgarden, Dame Rigg is showing just what it takes to be a smart, sharp tongued tactician in a medieval world dominated by men, where you win or you die.
In her first on-screen appearance, introduced to Sansa Stark by her grand-daughter, Margaery Tyrell, her disdain of the status quo and keen insight into the patriarchy was something I looked forward to seeing much more of.
Lady Tyrell spars with powerful men with ease, reducing them to shadows of themselves, particularly the Lannister men who would not be used to such female empowerment and holds herself as the matriarch of her family, taking responsibility where her son ('a pompous oaf') and late husband (who rode off a cliff while hawking since he had been looking up at the sky) have failed. Lady Tyrell made choices that not only affected her family's standing, but held sway over the entire War of the Five Kings. She galvanises a fellow female ruler, Daenerys Targaryen to 'be a dragon', just as she encapsulated the title of 'Queen of Thorns'.
Her witty barbs and keen political sense of strategy won her much admiration, both in the fictional world of Westeros and among fans of the show. Honestly, I aspire to be as sophisticated and sharp as her in my older years.
Her relationship with Margaery Tyrell, her beloved grand-daughter, was always a joy to watch, especially as she imparted wisdom to the younger woman, telling her tales of her younger years when she used her wiles and found her way to a worthy marriage, even telling her grand-daughter that she was far better than she ever was at charming men and using her intelligence to play the courtly game engaged by so many lords and ladies.
While her demise was not something I enjoyed to watch, she maintained grace, courage and had the last word, directed at a plot to kill the youthful, ruthless King Joffery at a wedding ceremony, which she planned and executed in secrecy. While she lost the battle, she ultimately won the war of true cunning, of succeeding with her mind where men had hopelessly failed on the battlefield.
There is really not so much that separates Emma Peel from Lady Olenna, in terms of their quick wit, charm, and keen minds, and we truly need women like that in the world.
Dame Diana's career spanned many decades, and her work is diverse and distinguished from the stage to the screen. I could paint her acting story in broad strokes, but I will leave that valuable job to journalists far more talented in article writing then I am. I simply wanted to pay homage to two characters, two beacons in her career that have inspired me and so many others.
Now as I revisit this post, I recall my excitement and admiration when researching Diana Rigg's work and the viewpoints of writers online, both from the perspective of presenting a view on feminism as well as writing about a wonderful lady's career. Now there is a bittersweet feeling, knowing that the lady herself has passed away, but my admiration has not diminished.
Truly, we should hold onto the respect and love we have for our heroes, who may inspire us in one way or another.
As this year continues on, I find myself being shattered by one catastrophe after another, one grim headline after another and could almost ask the question 'How can we do better?'
This year has taught the hard lesson of loss and grief, and that one may emerge stronger and better for it.
Take care and thank you for reading.