Many of you probably know Diana Rigg from the series, Game of Thrones, where she played Olenna Tyrell, a withered, cunning and sharp tongued old woman with a wicked wit. To me Diana Rigg will always be synonymous with Emma Peel, the stylish, sexy, confident, daring devilish, crime-fighting partner of the dapper intelligence agent John Steed, played by Patrick Macnee, in the 1960s series, The Avengers.
I know and understand why Actors hate being remembered for a single role in a TV series and that this is tantamount to death, as Diana Rigg herself stated in an interview. Nevertheless, I must state my case and make an exception, where the character Emma Peel is concerned.
Emma Peel was the quintessential new liberated woman of the 60’s and a beam of hope for many young girls my age, who were starving for a new free spirited role model. There was no other female role, on TV, that came close or compared to Emma Peel, in the TV series The Avengers. She was unique, exciting, dangerous, a woman in control of herself and her life. She did not need to be rescued and her special skills were appreciated, and put to good use, instead of being kept under constraint, as was the case for other TV female starring roles, at the time.
TV Shows such as Bewitched and I Dream of Jeanie, which were also popular during the 60s, both portrayed iconic blondes with magical powers, sexy, daring and confident, but unlike Emma Peel, they had men, their husbands namely, that were apprehensive, overly conventional and borderline oppressive, always getting in the way, to contain their wive’s extraordinary skills.
My favorite character, in Bewitched, was Endora, played by Agnes Moorehead. She was Samantha’s quick-witted, witch mother. She knew how to exercise her witchy and female powers without exception, and she couldn’t fathom why her daughter would bend to her husband’s will and oppressive expectations. She detested mortals, in particular her son in law, Darrin. Endora refused to speak Darrin’s name correctly, alternately calling him Derwood, What’s-his-name, Darwin and Dum-Dum, all much to his annoyance. Endora saved the show for me, episode after episode, as I waited for the dynamics to change so I could finally take pleasure in Samantha’s triumphs over her controlling husband, except it never happened. The same formula applied to the show, I Dream of Jeannie, where Tony kept his own personal wish granting blond bombshell and her special talents, under wraps and sealed in a bottle.
Of course the scripted sitcom formula provided many opportunities for these women to act out, behind their husbands’ backs, always with good intentions of course. Yet it was always predictable, whereas watching Emma Peel, in The Avengers, was refreshing and exhilarating. There was nothing I enjoyed more than watching Emma kick and toss a villain about, all the while being witty and clearly of superior intellect and prowess. What young girl in the 60’s wouldn’t want to be like Emma Peel and kick ass with body and mind? Needless to say that Emma Peel appealed to both the sexes and many of her most ardent fans were quite young.
In a 2019 interview Diana explains how she was thrown for a loop as she practically became a sex symbol overnight.
She had a devoted following that, by today’s online social standards, would define her as a mega influencer and hard act to follow.
Diana Rigg’s success, as Emma Peel in The Avengers, generated much celebrity and media attention, which led to a flourishing film career. Throughout her acting career she has often embodied the self assured, daring woman, with nerves of steel, a woman with a sharp mind and tongue, not afraid to speak her mind. Diana herself was just as strong and feisty as the characters she played.
Today I want to pay honor to a Grand Dame, who shaped the lives of many young girls during the 1960s. To me, growing up, she represented an antithesis to everything my mother’s generation of women, and those before her had to suffer. This iconic female TV character fueled our collective imagination. This was the first TV show that put a woman front and center. We didn’t have Xena, the Warrior Princess, to serve as a role model for strong independent women, and the Bionic Woman didn’t show up till 1976.
You might laugh all this off as silly nostalgia and think I’ve infused this character with too much social relevance, but I assure you that young girls, growing up in the 1960s, had practically no female role models that gave them permission to explore their wilder female nature and individual gifts and potentials, without constraints.
Nowadays there are many great examples, in movies and TV series, that showgirls and women saving the day, being fearless, and brave. These female characters inspire young girls to dream and be their best. We only had Emma Peel.
RIP, Happy Birthday and thank you, Diana Rigg.