Yes, only I would think to compare and contrast these three characters. If you don’t know, let me explain who we’re talking about.
Cathy Gale was the original female lead from the British hit action series The Avengers. Many people don’t even seem to be aware there was a character that Emma Peel replaced, but Honor Blackman played Gale for the first two seasons of the show (at least, the first two that are available on DVD – earlier eps done live appear to be lost forever). Cathy Gale was based on Margaret Bourke-White and Margaret Mead. She was an anthropologist (PhD) who’d spent time in Africa and India; she was a judo expert; she was extremely brilliant, particularly with invesetigations; and most significantly, she was a perfect foil for her extremely crafty and manipulative partner, Steed, who never stayed a step ahead of her for long (an important trait, due to his tendency to use people as bait without blinking). Steed sometimes flirted with her, and often checked her out when she wasn’t looking, but the strongest aspect of their relationship was his genuine respect and concern for her (something he affords no one else). For any Stargate fans reading this, I can’t tell you how many times Cathy reminded me of Daniel Jackson. Then Blackman left the show, and was replaced by:
Emma Peel. Emma Peel is considered a strong female character by many fans, but I have to wonder if that will change as the Cathy Gale episodes are now readily available for the first time since they aired, on DVD. I must say, starting with Cathy and moving to Emma, I wasn’t impressed with Emma at all. She’s about 10 years younger than Cathy. The fight scenes – so eloquent and impressive with Honor Blackman – are mostly an opportunity to see her bouncy shiny hair swaying and watch her strike cool poses that have nothing to do with her moves. Emma is clearly a bit in awe of Steed, whereas Cathy totally had his number and didn’t hesitate to call him on it, and predictably, Steed is always clearly in charge with Emma.
The odd thing was, as I was watching the series recently, what struck me about Emma compared to Cathy was that Emma had been “Carterized”, as I call it (more on this phenomenon below). At the time, I couldn’t figure out why the sudden change, and worried that it meant the Brits were really no better at portraying women than the Americans. Then I found out that at the time Diana Rigg joined the show, the show started airing in the US.
Suddenly, I saw a pattern. If a show is airing in Britain only, we can have a Cathy Gale (and yes, there are other strong female leads in British shows – I’m saving that for another post). But if it’s going to the US, we’ll need to make some adjustments. Let me first tell you who Sam Carter is, and then I’ll explain the formula for Carterizing a formerly competent role or character so that American audiences will watch.
Samantha Carter is the female lead from Stargate: SG-1. She began as a brilliant astrophysicist and captain in the U.S. Air Force, with a feminist chip on her shoulder. She was capable and professional, and while there was some sort of vague attraction between her and her commanding officer (Jack O’Neill), the job always came first and the regulations preventing the two from dating were never broken.
Unfortunately, as time went by, Sam started wearing WonderBras under obscenely tight tees. There are entire scenes where the viewer is hard pressed to look at anything but Sam’s breasts, so prominently are they framed (a complaint the actress has also made). But still, Sam was professional and likeable, so we assumed the costuming was a necessary ratings-grabber (like the full makeup she wears on field missions to other planets???) and tried to ignore it. Then came Seasons 7 and 8. Sam started making mistakes – not understandable mistakes, but serious breaches of good judgment. She divulged (or promised to divulge) classified information inappropriately; she nearly got her team killed trying to prove she didn’t need the backup team her commanding officer assigned; she abandoned her post in then midst of a deadly battle (to run to Jack’s side); etc. This all warrants a post of its own, so I’ll save further examples for that.
And of course, in the midst of all this unprofessionalism, we learn that she’s been carrying a serious, pining torch for Jack for years, even though she has a fiance. Now there’s a role model for your daughters.
How does this connect with The Avengers in my twisted mind? Emma Peel, like Sam Carter, is good at her job – but not good enough to challenge Steed like Cathy Gale did. Lots of camera time is spent on gauzy closeups of Emma’s lovely face, complete with glossy lips drawn outside the lines to look pouty. Completely and irrefutably gratuitous camera shots pan up and down her well-shaped body (one very memorable one shows her in a skintight glitter suit). Like Sam, she’s innocent as a kitten, appearing to have no idea at all that she’s flaunting her assets. It must be some kind of a wet dream for insecure guys – if a woman doesn’t realize she’s sexy as hell, she might just be insecure enough to date you!
Cathy Gale knew she was attractive. She didn’t play on it, but she was never falsely modest about her accomplishments or her appeal. Her distant descendant – Joanna Lumley’s Purdey in The New Avengers – had no qualms about using her sex appeal to throw men off-balance. She wasn’t inhibited about pursuing a man she wanted, but there was no torch-carrying – if nothing came of it, she moved on. In fact, if something came of it and it eventually broke her heart, she moved on. Of course, The New Avengers didn’t air in the US.