Part Two: Fictional Spies
In Part One of this post, I gave a brief history of women who were real spies and how they influenced my espionage fiction. In this part, I’ll go over some fictional women spies who also impacted my writing.
When I was a teen, about the only way to view British television was on your local PBS station, and mine didn’t start showing The Avengers (not Marvel’s franchise, though I like that, too) until the first season where Diana Rigg played Emma Peel. Peel replaced Cathy Gale, played by Honor Blackman (who died this past Monday). Blackman had gotten a breakthrough role as a Bond “Girl.” [Eye roll]
Blackman’s character Cathy Gale was an expert in jujitsu and didn’t need for her partner, Patrick Macnee’s John Steed, to save her. Gale’s all-leather outfits were quite bold for the time. I did find several of the Cathy Gale episodes later in life, and her leather outfits seemed perfect for my protagonist, Mai Fisher.
But Emma Peel was the first woman I saw in a TV series who didn’t simper and weep, who wasn’t the saloon girl with a heart of gold, or a pink-clad genie who’d do anything to win over her master’s heart. Peel was a quiet, competent, bold, strong woman, everything I needed to see. And she stuck with me, almost as if she were at my shoulder when I first started writing stories with Mai Fisher as a character.
More importantly, Peel’s and Steed’s relationship showed a man and a woman could have an equal partnership, that the female side of the partnership didn’t always have to defer to the male. There were hints of a romantic relationship–Steed was quite often at Peel’s flat, gasp, at breakfast time–but the writers didn’t push it further.
Rigg, too, left the show after only a few years to explore other roles, and I was disappointed at how she left. There were allusions to a Mr. Peel who was “lost in the war,” and Peel’s departure was simply to tell Steed “they’d found” her husband and she had to be with him. Even at a tender age, I could not understand why she’d give up this exciting, stimulating profession for a man. Age and experience told me the writers simply fell back on a stereotypical and sexist trope: women give up careers for men.
When an episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E introduced April Dancer, I liked her right away and was more than overjoyed when a new series, The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. was announced.
My first reaction was “Girl?” but why when the other show is “Man?” I guess the Woman from U.N.C.L.E. was too threatening to male viewers. When the series debuted, the cast had changed. Mary Ann Mobley had played April Dancer with some gravitas, but Stephanie Powers had to act out what the writers wrote; and they took every opportunity to put her in a skimpy outfit and have her partner, Mark Slate, get her out of a sticky situation. Of course, this was TV in the 1960s. Bad writing and silly concepts limited the show to a single season.
I include Dancer here because she showed me the kind of female spy I didn’t want to write. In some ways, Agent 99 from the parody series, Get Smart, was a better spy than April Dancer, even if 99 always deferred to her incompetent but lovable partner, Maxwell Smart.
The movies–La Femme Nikita and the American version Point of No Return–were great action thrillers exploring the concept of a super-secret organization who fakes the deaths of criminals then trains them to be assassins and spies. When I saw La Femme Nikita in 1991, I had already begun to write stories about Mai Fisher, and Nikita’s toughness, competence, and defiance were characteristics I liked in a female protagonist. I’ll admit a lot Mai Fisher’s toughness stems from that.
Point of No Return‘s Nikita was tough and competent as well, but the movie was less gritty; however, the late 1990s TV series, also titled La Femme Nikita, really stuck with me.
But…I recently rewatched the entire La Femme Nikita series on The Roku Channel and could not remember why I liked it so much 20 years ago. It was basically a vehicle for Peta Wilson to wear stylish clothes. Don’t get me wrong; she’s a good actress. She brought Nikita’s frustration and despair to life. However, the writers again succumbed to stereotypes, and more often than not, Nikita had to use seduction to accomplish a mission. That I didn’t like.
I did figure out why I liked the show so much: Roy Dupuis’ character Michael Samuelle. 🙂
Still, I took some dos and don’ts away from the series, which spawned at least two remakes, Nikita and possibly Alias, neither of which I watched because I was afraid my writing would be too derivative.
But…Why a Female Protagonist?
Because when I was a young girl growing up in the rural south and who faced limited choices in my life unless I got an education, Emma Peel showed me who I could be. Now, I didn’t become a spy, but I did enter a field where I could be a role model for other women.
Because, you see, young girls need to see themselves in real and fictional characters and in situations where they have to use their brains not their bodies, and young boys need to see competent, strong, and brave women who can be their equals, not their servants.
It’s that simple. Hmmm, I guess these two blog posts would have been a lot shorter if I’d said that in the first place.