Cathy Gale, Emma Peel, and… Samantha Carter

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.


  1. Blarney says

    I was surprised by your comments regarding Mrs. Peel as being a weaker character than Cathy Gale. I agree that she was presented as more sexual, but I don’t think that necessarily equates with weaker. Her relationship with Steed was certainly different than Cathy’s; but that seemed to me to more because Steed was always trying manuever Cathy into participating in his plans, while with Mrs. Peel it wasn’t necessary because they were partners, and were committed to doing the work together.

    I think your critism is more appropriate for Tara King, who was always played as an ingenue; a younger agent “assisting” Steed in is work. Where Steed and Mrs. Peel would discuss the mission together and come up with a plan of attack; Steed would more often than not just tell Tara what he needed her to do. I suspect that her presentation of her character was much more affected by US network intereference than Mrs. Peel. If you doubt me, check out The Girl From Uncle, a spin off from the highly successful Man From Uncle series, that seems to be a US effort to duplicate the success of the female spies of the Avengers. April Dancer, the lead character, is a scatterbrain, who needs to be rescued by her male partner more often than not; and who’s adventures are always played entirely as camp.

    Mrs Peel was always intended as a “serious” character. She fought the bad guys along side Steed, and was just as likely to save his life as vice versa. Yes, she dressed very sexy, but in a way that I’ve always found liberating. She wore the catsuits because she enjoyed them not because she was trying to “get a man” (unlike Sam Carter and the infamous padded bra).

    Mrs. Peel was in way a perfect character, (for one thing, I can’t stand how she exited the show) but she was never weak. She was always Steed’s partner and equal. The sexual chemistry between them was never played in such a way that demeaned her, or him for that matter. They were grownups, who never let their feeling get in the way of their jobs.

    You know, Sam Carter probably has about 15 years on Emma Peel, during her Avengers years (if we’re going by the actresses ages); but Sam comes off as a 14 year old, while Mrs. Peel is a grown empowered woman.

    There it is, rambling done.

  2. Jennifer Kesler says

    Nice to meet you, Blarney. :)

    I expected some rebuttal on my comments about Emma Peel. I wonder if you saw her episodes before the Cathy Gale episodes? I think most people I’ve talked to did, as the Peel episodes by far have had the most airplay over the years.

    I had never seen the show at all until recently. I started from the beginning (1963) with Cathy Gale, and the impressions I described are what struck me. I can’t imagine how my perceptions may have differed had I seen them out of order; maybe not at all, maybe a great deal.

    That said, what really gave me pause was the difference in how the two characters were presented. Lingering, muzzy closeups for Emma Peel. Fighting that centered on really cool poses and swinging, bouncy hair rather than good moves. It seemed designed to emphasize her vulnerability – a stark contrast from how Honor Blackman was portrayed. And if the people making the show felt a need to portray Peel differently, I’m speculating on what their motives may have been, and “winning over an American audience” is my theory.

    I have no problem with Mrs. Peel’s catsuits – Cathy also wore fitted clothing for fight scenes. I recall one particular shot that bothered me, though I can’t recall what episode it was: the camera started at Mrs. Peel’s feet and slowly climbed up her body for no reason that had anything to do with the scene – it was just to show how pretty she looked in a tight glittersuit. Such a shot does not advance story or characterization, and I find it annoying. (Conversely, there’s a similar shot of Purdey in “The New Avengers”, but she’s actually flirting with the person she’s talking to, so the camera shot is showing us his response to her flirtation. That shot worked for me.)

  3. Blarney says

    I saw Mrs. Peel first, then Tara, then Purdy; all during the ’70s. I didn’t get a chance to see the Cathy episodes till 2003. Seeing Mrs. Peel during that time period, when I was just a kid (and even before Charlie’s Angel presented a jiggly version of “empowered” heroines) had an impact on me. At that time, women simply did not fight the bad guys. They were either victims; or the wives, girlfriends, or secretaries of the heroes. Mrs. Peel was a whole new world.

    Looking at both Mrs. Peel and Cathy from the perspective of a 40 year old woman, I find them both equally strong and accomplished, but differing in their relationships with Steed, and in their attitude towards their work. It often seemed that Cathy was a specialist of sorts, who often needed to be talked into helping; while Mrs Peel was a full-time agent just like Steed.

    I do see your point about Mrs. Peel’s looks being played up by the network, but I don’t think it was in a way that made her look weaker. Yes, she struck sexy poses, and tossed her shiny hair, but in the end, the bad guy’s butts still got kicked. Also, I wonder if Cathy’s fighting looked more “real” because Honor Blackman was more skilled. Didn’t I read somewhere that she knew judo? Anyway, both women were presented as capable fighters, who stood toe to toe with the men. That was pretty rare for the ’60s; unfortunately, it’s not all that common these days either.

  4. Jennifer Kesler says

    I do think there’s a noticeable difference between Diana Rigg’s stunt skills and Honor Blackman’s, and I also thought Rigg improved as time went on, for which I commend her. And I agree that Mrs. Peel was a very strong feminine character in comparison to most, even today – my concern is that upon watching the series in the order it aired, I immediately noticed a change in presentation of the heroine that coincided with the show starting to air in the U.S. “The New Avengers” never pulled the “Charlie’s Angels” routine, because it didn’t air in the U.S.

    In short, what I’m suggesting is that maybe marketing trends in the U.S. are part of the problem. Maybe the U.S. – land of the free, yadda, yadda – even has an agenda to hold women back. It’s hard to look at the success of Rush Limpballs and his “Femi-Nazi” routine and not wonder.

    This quote from your comment kinda sums it up for me:

    “Anyway, both women were presented as capable fighters, who stood toe to toe with the men. That was pretty rare for the ’60s; unfortunately, it’s not all that common these days either.”

    No, it’s not. And why is that? Are certain audiences really not ready for it? Or are marketing demographics skewed to fit the desires of someone in power? Are the people in power really researching the market with an open mind, or are they just hunting for proof of what they want to think audiences want to see?

  5. Fog says

    Your comments are well-taken, and Emma Peel fans need not automatically sound the alarm.
    Despite the break-through “The Avengers” provided for action heroines, comments over the years by producers and writers suggest they valued this more from the perspective of fetishism than feminism.
    Honor Blackman was serious enough about Cathy Gale to take judo lessons to make her fight scenes more realistic. She adopted her leather kit for the same reason, because other fabrics had a tendency to tear during these sequences.
    Let when she departed for “Goldfinger,” one producer was graceless enough to suggest they wanted a replacement who would keep the kinkiness, but be “less butch.” They brought in Elizabeth Shepherd, who was similarly blonde and buxom, but turned out not to handle action scenes well enough. She also had some ideas about the scripts, irritating her bosses at a time when the talent was supposed merely to mouth the lines supplied.
    Enter Diana Rigg, whose broad shoulders and long legs made her look suitably athletic, but took the part “for a giiggle.” As you observe, many of Rigg’s action scenes consist of her smirking and tossing her hair while stunt people throw themselves around.
    That doesn’t detract from her chemistry with Pat Macnee, or the (relative) equality of their characters, which was enough to make even this Cathy Gale-lite a shock to Americans. I do think you underestimate Emma Peel’s impact in the States, and understate Steed’s obvious regard for her.
    But where Cathy Gale expressed doubts about the morality of Steed’s schemes, and had real-world concerns like keeping her job, Mrs. Peel is more of fantasy foil. She does pretty much anything Steed wants, including donning the occasional scanty costume. The sexuality is fine, but there’s no doubt Emma is written, and played, as a softer and sometimes less astute character than Cathy Gale.
    From Diana Rigg’s published comments, we know that she eschewed leather as “Honor’s thing,” prodded the writers for more light comedy and was uninterested in martial arts. “I’m not at all militant,” she said at the time.
    It’s interesting that once the producers knew Rigg was leaving, they rushed her out before her contract actually expired. And history more-or-less repeated itself. They announced they wanted someone “softer” and less boyish than Diana Rigg.
    I like Linda Thorson fine, but she was too young to provide the equality that Blackman and Rigg estbalished with Macnee. In fact, Thorson told interviewers that she envisioned Tara as secretly in love with Steed, but too much his acolyte to ever say it.
    Despite this, based solely on her figure, close friend and producer John Bryce described Thorson as more womanly than Rigg. Brian Clemens chimed in, gurgling that Linda Thorson was so much bustier and “sexier” than Diana Rigg.
    And then, in her first episode, Tara hits the bad guy with her handbag.
    She did have a brick in it, and with her impressive physique, Thorson did better in subsequent action scenes. But the process of Carterization you have identified certainly applies to “The Avengers.”
    On the other hand, Joanna Lumley was striking in “the New Avengers.” It’s just a shame the show had such a second-hand air.
    (For a pronouned version of Carterization, see Helena Bonham Carter in the hilariously ahistorical “Lady Jane.” As Lady Jane Grey, she’s fairly astute until she invites Cary Elwes into her bed and her brains drain right out of her.)

  6. Jennifer Kesler says

    Fog, thank you for adding your knowledge about the show’s background and the thinking processes of the producers. I think you said what I was trying to say much more clearly than I did: as good as Emma Peel may be, she still represents a deliberate attempt by the producers to provide Steed with a less equal counterpart – and, perhaps more importantly, to provide themselves with a less independent-minded actress.

    Purdey demonstrated that a character could be sexy, feminine almost to the point of girlishness, *and* very accomplished and savvy. I don’t know if the producers consciously intended that, or simply aimed for the best of two worlds and unwittingly struck an exemplary balance, but I think it provides an example that should be taught in film schools.

    Thanks for the recommendation on Lady Jane – I’ll check it out to see firsthand what you’re talking about. :)

  7. Ide Cyan says

    You could say that Carter was Emma Peeled. The name “Emma Peel” is derived from “Man Appeal” or “M Appeal”, as an injoke from the producers of the Avengers.

  8. Fraser says

    I can’t recall anything that makes me think of Mrs. Peel being “in awe” of Steed. If anything she was quite amiably unimpressed.
    And while they may have amped up the sex appeal, her fights came across as much more than just flossing her hair.

  9. says

    My reaction to Peel was in definitely one of comparing her with Gayle, because I saw the episodes in order. Gayle was critical of Steed and very simply dangerous in fights. By contrast, Peel was just… not so much.

    I mention this because a lot of people who couldn’t understand my thinking on this have actually never seen Gayle, or saw Peel first, which might give a different impression.

  10. Mungo St James says

    I posted a while ago, apparently it was lost.

    The Avengers was never filmed in the USA, only in UK. A US production company did invest money into the series to improve the recording. The early B&W episodes were primitive to say the least. They were not up to American standards which is why they never made the air. I tried to watch them to see the pre-Bond Honor Blackman but gave up.

    In the original post I had all the links proving my statements but I’m too lazy to look them up again.

  11. says

    the early B&W episodes were primitive to say the least.

    Bullshit. They were cleverly written and well-executed. Have you watched any American TV from the same period? I have, and plenty of American shows couldn’t equal it for believable fight scenes or engaging plots.

    regarding Amanda/Sam Tapping, did you ever Google her glamour shots ? showing skin ? it didn’t bother her then.

    Don’t claim to know what “bothered” her. All actresses have to do pictures like that to get jobs. Doesn’t mean they’re happy about it. And you’re not psychic.

    And in any case, whatever point you’re making there is totally irrelevant to anything in the post, which was about a character, not an actress.

    • Chris Meade says

      Great post, Jennifer! I happen to love the Avengers and can see both sides of the issue here when it comes to Cathy Gale and Emma Peel though personally I love them both. But still very interesting article here on the role of females in action TV shows. You are certainly an interesting blogger.

  12. dc says

    Mrs. Gale’s scripts were written for a male character; following the loss of lead Ian Hendry due to a production strike the role went to Blackman with minimal adjustment. Following her departure, production had much more prep for Steed’s next partner, resulting in m. appeal/man appeal/Emma Peel. Rigg was not a viewer of the show so consequently no awareness of the previous relationship, you can see in some of her early episodes an attempt to repeat Mrs. Gale’s more adversarial relationship with Steed. Patrick Macnee credited Rigg with rewriting much of their dialogue on set, so their relationship softened and became more verbal and witty. Also, the Mrs. Gale episodes were technically inferior, confined to studio live recording, thus Blackman having to do her own stunts, many technical gaffes, and I believe episodes lost. Rigg’s series, committed to film, sold globally and have been available continually since. Also, as Rigg has observed, the British film industry was in a lull, consequently her series had greater resources available, plus budget when sold to ABC in the U.S. (The Avengers shot in colour before color was even being broadcast in the UK). Also, after a career playing mostly English roses (as the actress herself described them), Blackman was a veteran, on her way to becoming the oldest Bond girl. Rigg came from RADA and RSC; Thorson was a twenty year old Canadian student, reportedly hired by the producer she was dating. Every Avengers lead has brought something special to their roles, check their career longevities for further proof (including Elizabeth Shepperd).

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