It was watching The Avengers that gave me the idea that a woman who studied martial arts could take care of herself. I knew the show was fiction — and rather tongue-in-cheek camp fiction at that — but Diana Rigg’s portrayal of Emma Peel was just realistic enough to make me think it was possible.
There were probably other reasons why I signed up for karate classes at the Wichita Falls YMCA back in 1979, and I certainly haven’t kept training all these years out of a youthful fantasy based on a TV show, but I can’t discount the effect of watching Mrs. Peel rescue Steed on my choice to train.
The effect on me of Barbara Bain’s portrayal of Cinnamon Carter on Mission Impossible is less obvious. She frequently played the femme fatale who could wrap any man she chose around her little finger. I never aspired to that role, and even if I had, I certainly never thought I could pull it off. But Bain made me love the character and identify with her when watching the show. If I could be that competent, I was willing to be that femme for 50 minutes a week.
When I recently watched some of the first year of Mission Impossible on Netflix, I noticed something that I’d never thought about consciously before. The guys in the IMF treated Cinnamon as a competent equal when planning their missions, but most of the men she vamped eventually showed their core contempt for her.
She used that contempt, of course — counted on it in her planning. Time and again, she turned the tables on these men who didn’t have the sense to see what they were really dealing with. I loved seeing her show them up — even when they didn’t realize she had brought about their downfall — but after my recent viewing, I began to wonder if the contempt they’d shown for her played a part in my choice to be a very different kind of woman than Cinnamon Carter.
In one early episode, Cinnamon and another character, charged with distracting a prison guard, insult each other and eventually end up in a classic cat fight. The man laughs at them both. He’s enjoying having two pretty women fight over him and he doesn’t even care who wins — either will do. His contempt for them is manifest.
In another, a prince (a rather ugly one, not Prince Charming) is taken with her, but when her supposed husband “shoots” her (a staged event), he sends his minions off to dump her body across the border. He wastes no sentiment on her at all.
Did the contempt those men showed help me figure out that using looks and sexuality to get something done might be a useful skill for a fictional spy, but was a lousy way to deal in the world if what I really wanted was to deal with men on equal terms?
It might have. Watching the show now reminds me that, despite being mainstream television, it did slip some progressive ideas into the Mad Men reality of the day. As with the contemporary I Spy, the show cast an African American man — Greg Morris — and had him portray a bright and competent character. This was a period when, despite the Civil Rights Movement, real life black men met vicious discrimination at almost every turn.
Sure it was tokenism, but at the time, even tokenism seemed like a breath of fresh air.
It wasn’t great art. It was even dull in spots and the moments of tension are obvious. There are long stretches of time when there is no dialogue and we watch the characters set up something complex and incomprehensible. With rare exceptions, the characters weren’t developed with personalities beyond their spy personnas. Sometimes there were bits of witty dialogue, but it certainly couldn’t compete with either The Avengers or I Spy on that score.
It is also disconcerting to realize that all these shows were about spies. Mission Impossible has a definite Cold War feel about it, and while the writers tended to create vague enemies, any watcher in the 60s knew that a “bad” Latin American country was probably Cuba and recognized the hand of the Soviet Union everywhere.
Spy stories were everywhere in the 60s and I recall gobbling them up even as a kid. The best of them (the ones by John Le Carre or Len Deighton) showed the ugly side, the contradictions, but the underlying impression was always that the other side was worse. Certainly most of the villains in Mission Impossible were bad guys, at least as written.
I’m afraid those shows made it easy for U.S. leaders to sell us a view of the Cold War that even today is only questioned by serious historians.
I probably couldn’t watch a show like Mission Impossible today except as a cultural artifact. I’d be cursing the simplistic political thought underlying it. And why anyone wanted to bring it back as a movie is beyond me. But something about Barbara Bain’s portrayal of Cinnamon Carter stayed with me all these years and made me want to check the show out when it popped up on Netflix.
I’m not sure the show’s creators intended the feminist subtext I got, but it was useful to me all the same.