BEFORE BUFFY: THE SCARCITY OF FEMALE ROLE MODELS IN 1960s BRITISH TV

This is part of the first chapter of my book BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (BFI TV Classics, published 2005). 

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I’m a telly baby. I was born into the postwar generation that grew up with television. This brave new medium would become our sibling and playmate, nursemaid and teacher. The programmes we watched so avidly in our childhood would one day take their place in our dating and mating rituals – hazy pre-video memories of Bill and Ben or Whirligig, F Troop or Doctor Who exchanged in a quest for common ground. My first experience of the generation gap was when I started meeting people who couldn’t remember Prudence Kitten, or Boots and Saddles, or the newsflash announcing that President Kennedy had been shot.

I watched a huge amount of television back then, as did everyone I knew, with the exception of one classmate whose Luddite parents had banned it from their home. With a choice of only two channels, we would all watch the same programmes and discuss them at school the next day, but although I tried to share my friends’ enthusiasm for Coronation Street (1960-) or Emergency Ward 10 (1957-67), soap operas never seized my imagination the way that Westerns or The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964-8) did. Nobody thought it odd that I preferred heroic action to domestic drama; they assumed it was because I fancied the male stars – David McCallum, say, or James Drury.

But if I identified with anyone, it was with the Cowboys and Indians rather than the women who cowered in the middle of the wagon circle while the menfolk did all the fighting. I mentally shifted genders as a matter of course, without even being aware that I was having to make the adjustment. Many years later, I read about a piece of graffiti spotted in a women’s lavatory in New York (quoted by Andrea Weiss in Vampires and Violets: Lesbians in Film, 1993) that seemed to sum up a lifetime’s experience of watching action stories written and shot from a male point of view: ‘When you watch the film Vertigo, are you Scotty wanting Madeleine, or are you Madeleine wanting Scotty to want you? Or both alternatively and simultaneously?’ I was all these things, and more.

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Scotty and Madeleine in Vertigo.

It wasn’t until I was watching the final episode of the final season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that a long-buried memory stirred at the back of my brain. In this episode, Buffy’s friend Willow casts a spell enabling Buffy to share her hitherto exclusive superpowers with vast numbers of adolescent girls, who suddenly find themselves possessed of the strength and skill to fight back against the legions of vampires pouring out of hell. Shazzam! These girls were all action heroines!

And, at that point, I remembered that when I was ten years old, maybe even younger, I too used to think of myself as an ‘action heroine’, though I would never have used those words back then. In my secret fantasies, I would rescue the most popular girls in my class from evildoers who would have locked them in remote towers or chained them to dungeon walls for reasons that my innocent prepubescent self couldn’t begin to comprehend. Even though in real life I was rubbish at sports, the rescue would invariably involve acrobatic feats, swordfights and scaling castle walls, and the popular girls, once rescued, would be humbled and grateful, as well as surprised and intrigued that this quiet classmate to whom they’d never paid much attention was not as uninteresting as she appeared. That she was, in fact, a superheroine who had been leading an exciting and glamorous double life.

This was thirty years before the heroines of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Alias (2001-) or Xena: Warrior Princess (1995-2002) kicked all manner of evil ass on a weekly basis. The young girls of today don’t know how lucky they are; thanks to Buffy, they’re spoilt for choice. It’s clear to me now, thinking back, that I was continually if unconsciously searching for female role models in the popular culture of my childhood. The problem was that there weren’t any, at least not in the TV shows and films and books I knew. Girls were annoying, like Violet Elizabeth in Richmal Crompton’s Just William books, or insipid, like the schoolgirls of Enid Blyton’s school stories. Or, like Snow White or the Sleeping Beauty, they were victims, forced to rely on handsome princes to get them out of trouble.

I suppose it was symptomatic that, when it came to fairy tales, I was always more impressed by the witches, especially since in the Disney cartoon versions, they were not just powerful but glamorous – at least before they morphed into dragons or crones. I grew up fascinated by evil women, from the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz (1939), to Cruella De Vil from 101 Dalmatians (1960), to Milady de Winter in the BBC’s 1966 serialisation of The Three Musketeers. Milady had a fleur-de-lys branded into her shoulder, kept a poisoned dagger by the bed and repeatedly stood up to the manly musketeers, who were able to cut her down to size only by summoning the Executioner of Lille to chop off her head on what I considered the flimsiest of pretexts. I was outraged when a well-meaning aunt gave me a children’s edition of the Alexandre Dumas novel in which all traces of Milady had been excised, leaving nothing but a story about men fighting men. And where’s the fun in that?

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Lana Turner as Milady de Winter.

I was drawn to these women not because they were evil, but because they were anything but simpering victims. They played second fiddle to no man; they had their own agenda, and if that involved unleashing flying monkey demons or kidnapping spotty dogs or poisoning a duplicitous lover’s mistress – well, at least their lives were more exciting than those of the other female characters glimpsed on television, in films or in advertising; women so bland they barely registered on my childhood radar. I couldn’t understand why Samantha from Bewitched (1964-72) had opted for the life of a housewife, married to a drab mortal (Darwen, was it? Or Durwood?), forced to keep her spell-casting under wraps instead of indolently wafting around in chiffon gowns like her mother, Endora. I sometimes wonder whether my continuing fascination with the horror genre – which has endured long past the age when we’re supposed to have grown out of such foolery – had its roots in those early days, when the only decent female role models I could find were those who dabbled in black magic and murder.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, action heroes were exclusively male. The stories in girls’ comics were lacking in life-or-death situations, so I gravitated towards my older brother’s weeklies, which were packed with more colourful yarns about invading aliens or man-eating dinosaurs. My favourite TV programme was The Lone Ranger (1949-57) and my favourite character was Tonto. There were two things I wanted to be when I grew up: a ballerina and a Red Indian, perferably both at once. But I had no intention of being a squaw, confined to the wigwam, tending papooses or rustling up buffalo stew; I wanted to be a brave with long hair, feathers and weapons. On the other hand, I wasn’t interested in being a tomboy in short hair and trousers, like George in Enid Blyton’s Famous Five stories. My heroic ideal, I realise now, was something that simply didn’t exist when I was growing up: a beautiful heroine with long hair and pretty clothes – a heroine who looked like a princess, but who nevertheless battled cowboys, musketeers and man-eating dinosaurs.

Vampires had yet to enter the equation. It would be years before I would pass as old enough to sneak into X-rated movies, and my first glimpse of a vampire, on an early episode of Doctor Who, might have quickly been forgotten had not my older brother afterwards taken a sadistic delight in lurking in dark corners and intoning, ‘I am Count Dracula’, in a heavy foreign accent. I was sufficiently intrigued to start scouring film magazines for pictures of the Count and his cohorts. I became a vampire expert in embryo. (One of the biggest disappointments of my childhood was the discovery that the TV series Batman (1966-8), starring Adam West, had absolutely nothing to do with vampires, or even bats.) I was familiar with the faces of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing long before I’d watched them in any of their starring roles, though the title that excited me most was that of a 1963 Hammer film called Kiss of the Vampire. Even back then, the idea of kissing, or being kissed by, one of these horrible yet fascinating creatures gave me a guilty thrill.

Imagine how excited I would have been if I had been able to watch a TV show combining the beautiful long-haired heroine of my dreams with pretty clothes, swordfights, kissing and vampires.

Lady Penelope from the 'Thunderbirds'.

Lady Penelope.

It was children’s television that eventually provided me with my first female role model. She was a puppet on Thunderbirds (1965-6). The Tracy brothers were interchangeable (apart from Deep Space John, whom I quite fancied), but Lady Penelope was a class act, more than just a gussied-up Woodentop. She was blonde, chic and independently wealthy: a cross between Jackie Kennedy and Lady Antonia Fraser, with added strings. She knew how to handle a gun and kept a cool head even when tied up in the path of an oncoming express train. She answered to no man; men answered to her, notably her chauffeur, Parker, who drove her around in a pink Rolls Royce. She spoke in a sort of cultivated murmur. And she was the proud possessor of the ultimate girly gadget -a powder compact cum two-way radio.

I was so smitten that I bought the Lady Penelope comic and wore the free Lady Penelope X-Ray specs and practised the Lady Penelope walk – a sort of jerky wooden skip – on my way home from school. As an action heroine she had her limits; unlike the puppets in Team America (2004) twenty years later, she didn’t do kung-fu, but at the age of eleven I’d never even heard of martial arts so I didn’t miss it.

Fortunately, my next and most important pre-Buffy female role model turned out to be a heroine of flesh and blood, albeit one who existed in a fantasy world. Unlike Lady Penelope, Emma Peel of The Avengers (1961-9) did practise a rudimentary form of karate. She was the successor to Cathy Gale (before my time) and never subservient to John Steed, her partner-in-adventure. Though she was married, she was the very opposite of the Bewitched-style housewife; we never saw her husband, and neither, apparently, did she. The ‘Mrs’ tag was a cunning ploy to grant her autonomy, enabling her to flirt with Steed but imposing limits so the flirtation was never in danger of tipping over into anything mushy, which would have relegated her to mere love interest.

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Diana Rigg as Mrs Peel.

Mrs Peel’s habitual facial expression was an ironic smile, often accompanied by a quizzically arched eyebrow. She was sophisticated, witty and though, in her first season, she was continually being captured and tied up and rescued by Steed, she never panicked or acted helpless. She wasn’t a decorative appendage, she was his equal – unlike female sidekicks in shows such as Doctor Who or Adam Adamant Lives! (1966-7), whose function seemed to be to provide an irritating counterpoint of hysteria or stupidity to the cool-headed male heroes.

When, thirty years later, I encountered Diana Rigg in a queue for the ladies’ lavatories at the Savoy, I couldn’t help blurting out, ‘You were my role model!’ She replied, very graciously I thought in the circumstances, ‘Why thank you,’ before I remembered my manners and added, ‘And you still are.’

Mrs Peel proved that heroines could be feminine and feisty at the same time. She also proved they could be sexy without being reduced to a dumb sex object. In ‘A Touch of Brimstone’, she dresses as the Queen of Sin in a costume only a whisker away from full-blown S&M gear: tight boots, spiked collar, figure-hugging black corset. She looks like a male adolescent’s wet dream, obviously, but this doesn’t stop her from frowning disapprovingly at the villain’s description of women as ‘mere vessels of pleasure’.

It’s no exaggeration to say that watching The Avengers in the Mrs Peel era was the highlight of my life. My diaries for these years are full of entries such as: ‘Had bath and washed hair. Watched Avengers and now feel glam,’ or ‘Did loads of prep. Washed hair and had bath and watched Avengers. Feel Avengerish.’ (Evidently the life of the average 1960s teenager was not so thrill-packed with sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll as we are nowadays led to believe.) Mrs Peel was my kind of woman. I was so besotted with her, that when in 1968 she quit the series (that MIA husband had finally turned up) and was replaced by the dizzy Tara King, who was neither as pretty (cropped hair, for heaven’s sake!) nor as clever, nor as skilled at fighting, a light went out of my life and I stopped watching.

Had I but known it, female action heroes were already beginning to infiltrate Marvel and DC superhero comics in the 1960s. Since these were strictly the province of boys and hard to come by in those parts of Croydon where I grew up, they passed me by, though I did get my hands on a few copies of The Fantastic Four, featuring Sue Storm alias Invisible Girl, though I reckoned being invisible was less exciting than, say, turning into a human torch. All unseen by me, Super Girl and Bat Girl were mere afterthoughts to their better known sires, but Wonder Woman (‘beautiful as Aphrodite, wise as Athena, stronger than Hercules and swifter than Mercury’) had made her debut back in 1941 and Jean Grey alias Marvel Girl (and later Phoenix) was already making her bow in the original line-up of X-Men. In the 1970s, she would be joined by Ororo Munroe alias Storm and, in the 1980s, by Kitty Pryde alias Shadowcat, a teenage girl with the power to pass through solid matter.

Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, has acknowledged Kitty as one of the inspirations for Buffy. But teenage superheroines were a long time coming, and more often than not they were part of a team rather than individuals in ther own right. One of the best things about Buffy is that, ultimately, she got to be both at once – part of a team and an independent operator.

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Monica Vitti as Modesty Blaise.

The one comic-strip heroine I did stumble across was Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise, who started life as a cartoon strip in 1963 in the London Evening Standard, though I first discovered her in a series of novels (again by O’Donnell) published a few years later. Here, at last, was a worthy female counterpart to James Bond – a beautiful secret agent with a mysterious past, innumerable male admirers and a sprinkling of what was, for a pubescent girl in the 1960s, exciting amounts of nudity and sex. I was probably the only twelve-year-old in the world who rushed out to see Joseph Losey’s 1966 film version, starring Monica Vitti. I confidently looked forward to seeing more kick-ass heroines like Emma and Modesty.

Except there weren’t any. It was as though Emma Peel had never existed, and in the 1970s television ceased to be of vital importance to my life; at long last, I had better things to do than wash my hair and feel Avengerish. I was vaguely aware of Police Woman (1974-8), though Sgt Pepper Anderson seemed to spend more time disguised as a gangster’s moll in fishnet stockings than engaged in active police work. Charlie’s Angels (1976-81) was an insult to my nascent feminist sensibility (which unfortunately went hand-in-hand with a temporary sense of humour bypass, though compared to the twenty-first:century film versions, the original TV series now looks almost politically correct), while Wonder Woman (1976-9) was just too camp to take seriously.

The 1980s weren’t much better, though Alexis in Dynasty (1981-9) was a soap-opera variation on Servalan, Supreme Bitch of the Universe on Blake’s 7 (1978-81), while Cagney and Lacey (1982-8) gave TV cop shows their first strong, realistic female characters, whose emotional lives were given as much weight as the cases they had to deal with. For my taste, though, they were a little too drab.

In any case, in the 1970s and 1980s, instead of sitting at home watching television, I was going to the cinema…

Extract from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (BFI TV Classics, 2005)

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17 thoughts on “BEFORE BUFFY: THE SCARCITY OF FEMALE ROLE MODELS IN 1960s BRITISH TV

  1. Nice intro, and as a personal reflection there is nothing to be argued with.
    But there was a definate up tick of female heroines, (that might be a tautology or redundant I can’t remember which! and nor can I find my copy of California Suite to check.) in the 80′s and 90′s.

    From memory, Sgt. Makepease (effectively Lady P. with a gun.), Insp. Jean Darblay, Insp. Kate Longton, Detective Inspector Maggie Forbes, Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison. (All police but the ranks rise and rise through the decade.)

    If actual administration of blows to the seat is a must then the logical place to start would be in the seventies with Purdey, then there was Hu San-Niang (female swordswoman in the ‘Water Margin’), one of Charlies Angels does beat people up, can’t remember which but I’d put money on it being the one without the flicky hairdo, and then Ripley pops up in 1979.

    But being a hero(ine), is frankly a bit dull, the character is stuck in a tedious loop, the plot is virtually the same every week. How more delicious it is to be a villain, OK, you generally end up deaded, but in between you can really let rip.

    But the rise of the kick-ass female action hero has a darker side that gives me pause, the graphic depiction of men beating women. I will admit that this had slipped me by, because it was so insidious.

    It was only watching the dungeon scene in ‘Doomsday’, did I realise how normalised it had become.

  2. Well, as I wrote, I was too busy going to movies in the 1980s and 1990s to watch much TV – and also I do feel this era has already been covered by writers and journalists a lot more than the 1960s (and to a lesser extent the 1970s) which is when I grew up, when, beyond Mrs Peel, there was NOTHING. We didn’t even have the luxury of finding heroines dull – there just weren’t any. I’m not sure people actually realise what a wasteland it was in this respect.

    I read a lot about the TV-related memories of generations younger than mine – the 1970s and the 1980s (and very soon it’ll be the 1990s, I suppose) but very little about those of my own generation, which is one of the reasons I wrote this piece (which by the way is incomplete here – I go on to write about films as well). I just hadn’t read anything remotely like it from a female point of view, and I thought maybe it was a gap that needed to be filled.

  3. Well yours was a nicely written introduction and I was slightly disappointed when the bottom of the extract rolled up into view, before you got to the ‘res’. (I might have to scour the site of a well known tax dodging ‘Mega-corp’ and buy a copy to read the rest.)

    But a simiilar allegation could be made about the lack of representative male heros of the period, I’m thinking of British TV, and my overwhelming feeling that it was dominated by very posh types. Steed, posh, The Saint, posh, Jason King albeit transported through time, definately posh. Even Capt’n Scarlet was posh and as for that tedious litte squit Joe90, well enough said.

    If your usual evening was sitting in front of a two bar electric fire, hoping that the last shilling in the house would run both the fire and the telly long enough to reach the end of the episode. Then these figures were an unobtainable ideal that existed in an alien world. Anybody who was working class was either a ‘wrong ‘un’ or some sort of servant.

    (Ok, Budgie and Callan, but scarcely heroes.)

    It is an area of TV history that does need to be written about, especially as so much has been lost, wiped, or dumped into landfill.

  4. Sorry our posts crossed, but no harm done.

    I was already in a slightly giiddy mood any way having picked up a copy of the complete series of Nigel Kneale’s ‘Beasts’ today.

    But then I had a nosy at the people that perch in the gallery above and never say anything (‘other bloggers who like this’).

    When Paula’s was loading I happened to read her blog name in the address bar, and managed to involuntarily redistribute a considerable amount of beer all over the table.

  5. I leave it up to you to write about the lack of non-posh male role models in 1960s TV if you feel they were underepresented. I thought it was clear I was writing about the female perspective here; class is another story entirely. But if you think there weren’t enough non-posh heroes, just try thinking of some non-posh heroines.

    I quite fancy writing something about posh accents, as someone who talks quite posh (picked up unthinkingly at grammar school, presumably trying to fit in, since no-one else in my family talked like that) who now finds herself stereotyped as middle-or-upper class when she’s nothing of the sort. One of the nice things about living abroad is you don’t get that crap any more. Not that France or Belgium are any less class-ridden than the UK – just that here I don’t slot into any category other than foreigner.

    I’ve never seen Beasts! (part of my missing TV decades) I too must pick that up ASAP.

    • Sorry MsB, I did get your point, the original piece is after all your personal reflection on a particular period.

      My (for want of a better word) contention is that TV at the time was so devoid of entertainment it is unsurprising that heroes of any gender were in very short supply.

      Given that programmes were a direct reflection of the attitudes of those that commisioned them, the lack of representation of the working classes is equally unsurpising. (smiley face).

      If you accept that hypothesis, it would logically then be easier to find a posh heroine than a non-posh heroine. (The definition of heroine is a bit nebulous, and mine might vary considerably from your own.)

      I’ve plucked some old schedules from another site just to illustrate just how scant things were, even on a peak night for family viewing.

      BBC TV Programmes for Saturday March 2nd 1963

      12.25 Telewele (Welsh Children’s TV)
      12.50 Newyddion
      12.55 Noticeboard – public service announcements
      1.00 Grandstand – Boxing, Motoring from Wendover, Racing from Warwick, Rugby League
      5.00 The Boss Cat – The Missing Heir
      5.25 Zero One – Fly Away Peter (rpt)
      5.50 News; Today’s Sport introduced by Kenneth Wolstenholme
      6.00 Juke Box Jury – David Jacobs with Harry H Corbett, Alan Dell, Dusty Springfield
      6.30 Dixon of Dock Green – A Strange Affair
      7.15 Laramie – Beyond Justice
      8.00 The Rag Trade
      8.25 Dangerous Moonlight – film with Anton Walbrook
      9.55 News and The Weather Man
      10.05 Saturday Sport – introduced by Kenneth Wolstenholme: Figure Skating, Football
      10.45 That Was The Week That Was
      11.35 Close Down

      BBC TV Programmes for Wednesday November 3rd 1965
      BBC -1
      9.10am-12.25pm Schools
      1.25 News; 1.30 Watch with Mother- The Flowerpot Men -1.45
      2.05- 2.50 Schools
      5.00 Hector Heathcote- comedy film series, part 5
      5.25 Animal Magic – last in series; Magic Roundabout. The News, Regional News and Weather
      6.30 Going for a Song – with Max Robertson
      7 United! – Job for the Girl
      7.30 The Best of Hancock – The Big Night
      8 Bewitched – Alias Darrin Stephens…
      8.25 Sportsview – introduced by Frank Bough
      8.50 News; Twenty Four Hours
      9.30 Party Political Broadcast
      9.40 The Wednesday Play – Up the Junction
      10.50 Rostropovich and Richter play Beethoven
      11.20 Postcript by the Archdeacon of London
      11.25 The Weather; Close Down

      BBC -2
      11-11.25am Play School
      7.30pm Outlook – Shop Floor. 5 Dispute with Harold Webb
      8 The Great Adventure – Kentucky’s Bloody Ground part 2, starring Peter Graves, David McCallum
      8.50 Master Class – Paul Tortellier
      9.30 Party Political Broadcast
      9.40 Vintage Years of Hollywood – Man’s Castle (1933)
      10.45 Newsroom and The Weather
      11.05 Jazz 625 – Jazz from Kansas City introduced by Humphrey Lyttelton
      11.40 Late Night Line Up

      BBC TV Programmes for Sunday March 13th 1966
      BBC -1
      11.30 Forward to Retirement – Finding Something to Do, interviewer Joan Bakewell
      12.00 A World of Weather – 9 Climate in Miniature
      12.30 Man Discovers His Past- From Savagery to Civilisation -1pm
      1.30 Gardening Club – with Percy Thrower. First outside broadcast of the year
      1.50 Farming- with Frank Taylor. How Much Off?
      2.15 Adventure- Secrets of the Chasm rpt
      2.40 Skiing
      3.15 Made in Britain
      3.25 Clash By Night film starring Barbara Stanwyck
      5.05 The Lucy Show- Lucy and Clint Walker
      5.30 David Copperfield- 9 Domestic Tangles; Pinky and Perky; The News and Weather
      6.15 Meeting Point – Comeback with Canon Bryan Green
      6.45 The Sunday Story – Warren Mitchell tells The Happy Prince, part 2
      6.50 Songs of Praise – from St Giles Newcastle-under-Lyme
      7.25 The Egg and I – film starring Claudette Colbert
      9.20 Dr Finlay’s Casebook – Better Safe Than Sorry
      10.10 The Rachmaninoff Concertos – with Moura Lympany, Piano Concerto No 1; Meeting Point (rpt from 6.15pm)
      11.25 The Weather; Close Down

      BBC -2
      7.25 News Review – presented by Richard Baker
      7.55 People to Watch – Talking of Things to Come. 3: Andrew Shonfield
      8.25 Horizon – Colin Riach introduces The Beginning of Life
      9.10 Theatre 625 – The Queen and Jackson starring George Baker, Jill Dixon and Brian Oulton
      10.30 Tonight in Person- Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger
      11.00 News Summary
      11.05 Late Night Line Up including Plunder, a weekly raid on the BBC archive: Music Maestro Please.

    • It would be interesting to read your perspective on accents, I have often been accused of sounding posh.

      But in my case that has more to do with elderly relatives having worked ‘in service’ where they were required to talk correctly in front of their employers.

    • Sorry MsB, I did get the point, my counterpoint (albeit expressed badly), was that TV back then was very different from what we might remember. And in reallity there was much less entertaintment than one would expect.

      I’ll find some links to old listings, they will make the point more elegantly than I can.

      (Might trip the anti spam filters, so if it doesn’t show up in the next comment. It might need fishing out of the spam folder.)

  6. My childhood TV viewing is from a similar era, from the sixties through early seventies, and I have strong memories of a number of female action-adventure characters from British television. While Emma Peel may have been the most famous, my own personal favourite was Sharron Macready, played by Alexandra Bastedo in The Champions, but I also recall Annabel Hurst, played by Rosemary Nicols in Department S, and Contessa di Contini played by Nyree Dawn Porter in The Protectors.

    • Never saw The Protectors – it was broadcast after I left home, I think. I liked Department S (especially Jason King) though not nearly as much as The Avengers.

      But honestly, can’t think why I never watched The Champions – sounds like it would have been right up my street. Unless I watched it but can’t remember (unlikely). Or unless it clashed with something my parents or siblings wanted to watch – when did people stop being one-TV families, by the way?

  7. Pingback: Awesome Women in Fandom | Fandom and Feminism

  8. Pingback: A SF and Pop Culture Round-up | Selected Tales

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