Emma Peel, Cinnamon Carter, and Me

by Nancy Jane Moore

Emma Peel 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.

Cinnamon CarterThe 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.

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Emma Peel, Cinnamon Carter, and Me — 6 Comments

  1. Hey Nancy,

    I got curious about those old Mission Impossible episodes a few months ago, too. I loved that show when I was a kid. And, like you, I loved Cinnamon. Probably because she was the only person to identify with. She was terribly cool. I don’t know if I got the same message as you. She was someone I would aspire to be. I couldn’t be, though; it’s just not in my makeup. I couldn’t be her, but not because I wouldn’t try to be. I’m just too goofy to be cool.

    I can’t get through more than one episode now. Post Prime Suspect (Helen Mirren), it’s hard to watch those old shows with their stiff and unrealistic women. Much as I want to go back and watch that stuff, I can’t.

    One thing though: the music for the show is as good as it ever was. Bump, bump, ba-da bump, bump.

    • Nope. No intention of seeing them, either. The only movies made from 60s television that I’ve seen are Star Trek movies and even they disappoint me. I don’t think I could sit through the Mission Impossible ones. I bet they do include some sexism: How could anyone remaking those movies resist the hoary plot device of getting to the bad guy through his pants?

    • In some ways I think sexism is even worse today because it’s sugar coated and sometimes covert. When Cinnamon Carter used her sexual charms on screen we look back and say it’s sexist, but when women in movies today are portrayed in the same way, because the treatment of women has changed in other areas, we’re encouraged to think of it as liberation. The difference, as I’ve had it explained to me, is that NOW we’re doing it of our own free will and not because men expect and accept it of us.

      I question that idea. It would be interesting to take a cross-section of movies that portray female agents and see how many of them avoid using the attractive female as sexual bait. I can think of oneā€”The Avengers. Joss Whedon’s movie, that is, not the old series (which I adored, by the way).

      Black Widow/Natasha Romanov never once comes on to a guy, wriggles her hips, or bats her eyelashes to distract someone. This, despite the fact that she kills in that black cat suit. A worthy heir to the Emma Peel legacy.

  2. I loved Cinnamon, too, but boy, looking at those shows now, one can really tell that white men were making all the story decisions in TVland. It is painful to watch some of those old shows.