Confession time. I’m a Bond fan. Yes, I know. It’s horribly colonialist and the protagonist is a sexist jerk. But there’s something about the entire aesthetic that appeals to me.
“Bond girl” is pretty much synonymous with the image above: A sexy woman in a bikini who happens to be at least somewhat competent in some area. There’s always a Bond Girl. Sometimes she’s a damsel he rescues, sometimes she’s another agent, sometimes she’s a villain…sometimes she’s any combination of the above.
But she’s always there first and foremost to sleep with Bond. That’s her raison d’etre, and it’s why some people are stepping away from Bond.
So, let’s talk about different spy fi of a similar vintage.
The Formula of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was an American spy fi show that ran for three and a half seasons (1964 to 1968). At the time it was the show everyone was on at some point…high profile guest stars included both William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy (together in “The Project Strigas Affair”), Sonny and Cher, James Doohan (as a different character each time), Angela Lansbury, Cesar Romero and the last appearance of Elen Willard.
Like most shows at the time it was highly formulaic. Each episode was a specific mission, and all episodes were named “The X Affair.” (This may or may not have been homaged by the creator of Leverage when he named each episode “The X Job.” If I ever meet him, I intend to ask).
And there was always, by design, an “innocent.” This was a new character who was pulled into the spy shenanigans with no previous experience. This character was there for the audience to relate to.
And surprise surprise, the innocent was almost always a woman.
The Women of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
Yet, there was a qualitative difference between The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’s “innocents” and Bond Girls.
Rewatching the show as an adult (I was a kid the first time I saw it and missed a lot of the nuances), I’m struck by the following:
- Although the woman almost always ends up with either Solo or Kuryakin, she is never there to sleep with Solo or Kuryakin. Part of this was the TV censorship of the time (which was gently mocked in the 2015 film).
- The women are almost always highly competent in their own field. While they may be rescued, they are seldom there to be rescued. Characters include a highly rated physicist (yes. In the 1960s), a film maker, one of U.N.C.L.E.’s translators, etc. One common innocent is the daughter or wife of a scientist THRUSH has kidnapped.
- There are no bikinis. The characters may or may not be dressed practically (I just watched an episode in which the innocent, who is both the daughter of a scientist and a scientist in her own right, spends most of the episode in an evening gown), but they’re always, well, dressed.
However, the show did not get a recurring female character until the last season, when Lisa Rogers was played by Barbara Moore. At this point the show had already jumped the shark in the third season, when things just got a bit too campy. All of the women were in one episode, although a couple of times there are implications that some of them might actually have been recruited by U.N.C.L.E.
(And as a side note, there’s a certain parallel to Star Trek here. Clearly, the producers thought Napoleon Solo, played by Robert Vaughn, was there for the “housewife” audience, but all the women old enough I know went for David McCallum’s Kuryakin…just as most female Star Trek fans would rather have Spock than the playboy Kirk. Ahem)
The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.
And then, of course, there was the now-seldom-remembered spin off. The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. lasted for 29 episodes in 1966 and 1967 and starred Stefanie Powers as agent April Dancer (anecdotally named by Ian Fleming, which explains too much). It never achieved the popularity of the original, and there were reasons for that.
There was, in fact, one reason for that. Unlike the innocents, April Dancer is commonly seen in midriff-baring harem outfits and worse. She’s always having to be rescued by her male partner. She was also constantly compared negatively to the much more badass Emma Peel.
It also had the same flaws as season 3 of being far too campy, and its failure contributed to the demise of the original.
Many people have now forgotten that the spinoff existed…but if they had let Dancer be as competent and suave as Solo, then maybe things would have been different.
The point, though, is that women in spy fi don’t have to be bikini-wearing damsels (or, as much as I adore her, catsuit wearing martial artists literally named “Man Appeal”). And this show was proving that in the 1960s. Until it all fell apart.