Battle Of The Secret Agent Ladies
Sydney Bristow and Emma Peel both kicked major ass and looked great doing it. But who did it better?
Hard as it may be to believe, there actually was a time when the title The Avengers was primarily associated with something other than a bunch of lantern-jawed white guys surrounded by CGI. Premiering on British TV in 1961 (two years before even the comic book version of Marvel's super-clique) and running until 1969, The Avengers chronicled the crime-fighting adventures of England's most elite secret agents -- although, like their colleague James Bond, they tended to throw the "secret" part out the door fairly often by introducing themselves by their real names.
The Avengers cycled through a few different combinations of agents, Law & Order-style, but the most iconic and memorable iteration (the Briscoe and Logan equivalent, if you will) was surely John Steed and Emma Peel, played by Patrick MacNee and Diana Rigg, who shared the screen from 1965 to 1968. Steed was the senior agent, in terms of both age and authority, and he tended to drive the plot much more, but Emma was the awesome one. In an era when female TV characters were rarely more than an arm's length away from an oven, she was kicking ass and outwitting evil geniuses -- and boy, did she know how to pop a bottle.
Then, more than thirty years later, that Felicity guy decided he was bored of writing Felicity, and a certain double agent/wig junkie by the name of Sydney Bristow was born.
Both of these ladies were iconic heroines in their own right, but let's take it point by point to see who is just...better.
Who had the more important job?
Seems pretty clear-cut, doesn't it? Mrs. Peel was a full 50% of the most elite secret agency in the whole damn United Kingdom, whereas Sydney Bristow was just one of a sea of good-looking CIA agents. She was so not-in-charge that she had to take orders from both her dad and her boyfriend, for crying out loud.
And yet! Sydney was out there doing solo missions practically every week, often singlehandedly saving the entire world from being blown up by some ancient puzzle-based nuclear weapon. She took down Arvin Sloane, one of the great romantic sociopaths of history, in not just the original Ron Rifkin version but also the less popular but more Tony-winning Joel Grey version. If even ten other agents at the CIA were doing as much as she did, the world's criminals would be wiped out by tea time.
Emma and Steed, on the other hand, were generally assigned missions not based on how dangerous or high-stakes they were, but on how many wacky sets and colorful supporting characters were likely to be involved. And their pursuits of these eccentric criminal masterminds tended to be, let's just say, a bit on the leisurely side. The travel was always local, and they rarely missed any lunch breaks. Plus, the aggressively stand-alone nature of The Avengers ensured that no case was ever too big to be solved in a single episode.
And even within the context of these consolation-prize assignments, Emma typically drew the short end of the stick in terms of responsibility. Sorry, Emma, but this is where the gender disparity gap between the '60s and the aughts comes back to bite you in the jumpsuit. (Wait until you get older, though -- there's a big promotion coming.)
Who was better at withstanding interrogation?
If cinema and television have taught us anything, it's that every heroic secret agent will inevitably be captured by the enemy and threatened with horrific forms of torture as an inducement to spilling all their secrets. Therefore, this is a situation for which every good spy must be prepared -- as both Ms. Bristow and Mrs. Peel apparently were.
In the fifth-season Avengers episode "The Fear Merchants," Emma eventually found herself trapped by the titular merchants (a group of "researchers" who specialized in driving people literally insane with fear). Much to the bad guys' chagrin, though, their sophisticated diagnostic equipment proved that Emma had no identifiable phobias, and thus their complex, mania-inducing pranks would not work on her. That was okay by them, though; they also had some actual implements of torture they were prepared to use to get her to talk. Of course, Steed burst through the door to save the day before any of that could happen, so we'll never know whether Emma could have maintained her wry, unflappable demeanor while being jabbed at with ouchy things.
In Sydney's case, the pilot episode wasted no time putting her in the vise grip of a sadistic torturer -- the "crazy dentist" first known as Suit & Glasses whose name was later revealed to be Dr. Zhang Lee. Here was a guy whose withering stare could frighten the stripes off a tiger, who had an arsenal of creepy dental equipment he was by no means afraid to use...but little did he know that Sydney had her own arsenal -- of sass! Exhibit A:
It got better (read: worse), though; Suit & Glasses actually yanked out some of Sydney's teeth when she refused to cooperate. And still Sydney revealed nothing...except, of course, her insane chair-fu skills, which she eventually used to escape. (Next stop: the CIA human resources office, to find out if they'd waive the dental surgery co-pay just this once.)
Who had better chemistry with her partner?
This is a tough call to make for a variety of reasons. First of all, the natures of the two relationships were quite different. Emma and Steed's partnership was playful -- even flirtatious at times -- yet ultimately professional. There were elements of the appealing stoicism of Mulder/Scully or Grissom/Willows, with a dash of the goofy mentor/mentee dynamic of Lemon/Donaghy. They were true friends and true allies, equally comfortable whether they were sharing a life-and-death mission or a pot of Earl Grey.
Whereas Sydney and Vaughn totally did the sex with each other.
Winner: Tie? Let's say tie.
Who had a better sense of humor about the whole secret agent thing?
Look, it's pretty clear so far that Sydney Bristow was an amazingly capable operative. You know what else she was amazingly capable of? Bumming everybody out. Every relationship she had -- Vaughn, her father, her friends -- was fraught and difficult, and her only real coping mechanism for all that was to be Tom Cruise-level intense about her work. She may have come close to literally being a martyr on several occasions, but she literally acted like one all the time.
Emma's job was decidedly not as tough, but it still put her into harm's way on a weekly basis and forced her to contend with a wide assortment of nefarious characters. Admirably, she let exactly none of this get to her. In an Avengers/Avengers crossover, not even The Hulk would be able to knock the delightful smirk off her face. Mrs. Peel may have left her post when her long-lost husband finally returned to her (conveniently timed in relation to Diana Rigg's salary disputes), but if she'd chosen to remain in her line of work, I think that breezy, above-it-all attitude would have carried her through many more years of bizarre murder-solving.
Who had better outfits?
At the risk of turning this whole piece into a shallow, cloying, E!-esque bit of drivel, there's no denying the importance of fashion to these two shows. The Avengers was an essential fixture of '60s British mod culture -- both expressing and defining the styles of its era -- and Alias burned through (conservatively) something like two hundred outfits and wigs per episode.
So who had the best duds, Sydney or Emma? I'm hardly the best judge of that sort of thing, so I consulted my wife Alexis, a fashion enthusiast and amateur seamstress (when she's not busy running a medical practice). Although she pointed to the Avengers opening credits as evidence that "droopy butt was tolerated more in '60s clothing," she still thought that Emma's wardrobe demonstrated a keener fashion sense than Sydney's, since Sydney's everyday wear was much more generic and her mission-specific outfits were just over-the-top costume-y. Also, Alexis thought Emma just looked like more of a bad-ass in her space-race-inspired jumpsuits than Sydney did in her pleather stealth gear, and I'm inclined to agree.
The numbers tell me it's a tie, which means I'm going to have to go with my gut on this one. Emma Peel may be one of the classiest, most graceful heroines to grace the small screen (or any screen), and if I were hosting a dinner party there's no doubt she'd be at the top of my list. But being a bad-ass secret agent isn't just about shooting the caps off champagne bottles and wearing funky mod dresses (although it would certainly be a much better world if it were), and if the fate of the world were truly hanging in the balance, Sydney is the one I'd send to get the job done.