MRS. PEEL . . . WE’RE NEEDED!
Mrs. Emma Peel is the name of a fictional amateur secret agent – the partner of John Steed. She first appeared in 1965 in the British action adventure series THE AVENGERS. She was played by Diana Rigg. GAME OF THRONE fans will recognize her as the actress who played Olenna Tyrell. She is one of the first totally liberated, kick-ass females and arguably the best.
In 1965 I was ten years old and I took one look at Mrs. Emma Peel, and her leather catsuit, and fell hopelessly, madly in love. I’m still in love and can say without any hesitation that she is my absolute favorite female character bar none. Let me show you why.
THE AVENGERS premiered in 1961 with Patrick MacNee as John Steed. His partner was played by Ian Hendry. Later in 1962 Ian Hendry left the series and his partner became Cathy Gale and was portrayed by Honor Blackman. She left the series in 1964 to play Pussy Galore in GOLDFINGER. In creating a new character to be Steed’s partner the producers wanted someone with man appeal and mass appeal. She had to have “m appeal” and that is how she got her name – Emma Peel. Originally Elizabeth Shepherd was cast as Mrs. Peel but midway into the second episode they realized they had made a mistake. Shepherd was let go and Diana Rigg was brought in – and the rest is history!
In a time when female characters were all damsels in distress, Mrs. Peel was a hero in her own right. Totally liberated she didn’t burn her bra she nuked it! She could fight better than any man, was almost never defeated in battle, and was fully capable of rescuing her male partner Steed when needed. She was a master of martial arts, a fencer, a certified genius specializing in chemistry, electronics, and other sciences, and in fact had led her late father’s industrial company to great success. Most episodes began with her engaged in some kind of artistic endeavor (painting, scultping, etc.) and she seemed to change hobbies more often than some people change socks. Mrs. Peel drove a blue Lotus Elan fast and well and had no trouble operating undercover and portraying any number of different occupations – from administrator to zoologist.
Her husband Peter Peel was a pilot and agent for the same no name organization that employed John Steed. His plane was lost over the Amazon and he was missing presumed dead. As the wife of an agent Mrs. Peel had security clearance and her particular skill set made her ideal as Steed’s new partner.
Mrs. Peel is famous for her witty banter with her partner Steed. The verbal action also included thinly disguised sexual innuendo. Did Mrs. Peel and Steed have a sexual relationship? Fans for fifty years have been arguing yes and no. In separate interviews when asked, Patrick MacNee said he played it as if they were definitely having sex off-camera, but Diana Rigg said absolutely not that Mrs. Peel was a married woman – her husband missing but not declared dead. The debate goes on!
Now would be a good time to mention Mrs. Peel’s fashions since she started an entire fashion trend in the 1960s. In fact, she was wearing miniskirts before minis became a fad. Early on Mrs. Peel wore a leather catsuit – leather being a good material for action sequences. But Rigg disliked wearing leather. So the leather went out and soft stretch materials came in and they were so popular they became known worldwide as the Emma-peelers.
Mrs. Peel’s fashions became so well known and so popular that even Wonder Woman – the premier female super-hero – began emulating her in her own comic book. First, Diana Prince began dressing like her and then in the next issue she loses her powers, meets a martial arts guru, and begins fighting like her. That is a testament to Mrs. Peel’s popularity and impact that Wonder Woman felt the need to copy her.
So let’s review. Mrs. Peel was a hero in her own right. She had a full and equal partnership with Steed. They had an adult relationship. She was also repsonsible for leading fashion not following it – and even Wonder Woman wanted to be her. Plus she IS enormously popular – with people still talking about her fifty years later. Now, in 2020 this may not sound all that remarkable. But in 1965 this was phenomenal! Actually, even now it sounds pretty good. Women have not come all that far and there is a lot more they need to go.
Mrs. Emma Peel went on to appear in a variety of mediums including comic books, trade paper backs, music, and television. The character also appeared in a movie based on the TV show THE AVENGERS (1998) as played by Uma Thurman. The less said about this movie the better.
THE AVENGERS British television series is available on DVD. The Mrs. Peel years come complete in one package. You can also see snippets of the show on YouTube. I recommend you check it out but I warn you in advance – like me you will fall in love with Mrs. Emma Peel.
Mrs. Peel remains a feminist role model even now more than fifty years later and rightly so. TOMB RAIDER, ATOMIC BLONDE, and SALT all owe her a debt of gratitude. Even Marvel’s Black Widow wouldn’t be here if not for the ever delightful Mrs. Emma Peel. Cue music and let’s ride into the sunset.