Maggie A's Meanderings




 Feb 2, 2014

The First (Female) Action Hero

I've heard the claim that the character of Buffy Summers (from the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997 - 2003)) was a groundbreaking character because Buffy was the first female action hero on TV. Now I don't know if the people who say stuff like that are just such enormous fans of Buffy they have enormous blinders on or if these people think pop culture began with them.

Either way, to those people who think that Buffy was groundbreaking for being the first female action hero on TV, allow me to cure your ignorance ------ though I can't do anything about your inability to master a Google search.

I grew up in the 1970s. And in the 1970s, I found plenty of role models on TV. And by role models, I mean females who were every bit as much an action hero as any male on TV. Feminism was big in the 1970s and "Women's Lib" was a popular term through the decade. Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique was published back in 1963. The 1970s had the Equal Rights Amendment and Ms. magazine. How could any thinking person not realize that this movement reached into the world of TV production?

Now I certainly don't have a complete list of all the TV shows I watched growing up. But, limiting myself to live action series and not cartoons, here are the TV shows that I remember watching as a kid, all of which break the claim that Buffy was a groundbreaking character for being the first female action hero on TV..................

  • My favorite action hero had to be the eponymous lead of Wonder Woman (1975 - 1979). A superhero, the immortal Amazon would periodically leave Paradise Island to come save mankind in times of trouble. She was stronger than any man, faster than any man and, frankly, smarter than any man.
  • Then there was Charlie's Angels (1976 - 1981) with three female private detectives who kicked butt and solved crimes. I clearly remember the scene where the character played by Farrah Fawcett (then Farrah Fawcett-Majors) defeated a bad guy played by Timothy Dalton in hand-to-hand combat.
  • One show I was allowed to stay up past my bedtime to watch was the short-lived Get Christie Love! (1974 - 1975) about Christie Love, an undercover police detective. (There was also Police Woman (1974 - 1978), but that was a show I did not watch.)
  • There was The Bionic Woman (1976 - 1978) who proved that it wasn't just a six million dollar man who could be implanted with bionic parts and then used as a government agent.
  • The Invisible Man (1975 - 1976) featured a husband and wife team where both were scientists and both were agents.
  • Nancy Drew of the Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries (1977 - 1979) was a teenage amateur private detective and a hero of mine in books and then on TV.
  • Battlestar Galactica (1978 - 1979) where Lieutenant Sheba was a Viper pilot the same as Apollo and Starbuck.
  • Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979 - 1981) with Colonel Wilma Deering, a starfighter pilot who often saved Captain Buck Rogers.

Growing up, Saturday morning TV was not bereft of female action heroes for me to watch..........

  • There was Isis (1975 - 1976) about an archaeologist who found an amulet that gave her the power of the goddess Isis which she used to battle evil.
  • Electra Woman and Dyna Girl (1976 - 1977) --- A female caped crusader and her teenage sidekick.
  • There was Space Academy (1977) set sometime after the star year 3732. This academy to which the best and brightest were invited to train featured girls alongside the boys.
  • Land of the Lost (1974 - 1976) where the teenage Holly held her own in a world of dinosaurs and lizard people.
  • Dr. Shrinker (1976 - 1977) -- Evil scientist shrinks three teenagers, two boys and a girl. This one I'm not sure about, but I think it was on this show where the girl was the one who always came up with the idea that saved the day (though the two boys would pretend they didn't hear her and then announce the same idea to my and the girl's great frustration).

Even in syndicated TV there were female action heroes and had been even before the 1970s........

  • The Avengers (1961 - 1969) with multiple female action heroes including the incomparable Emma Peel, smart, sexy and deliverer of judo-chops. (It's possible that it's the anthropologist and judo-expert character of Cathy Gale (played by Honor Blackman from 1962 - 1964) who may be the character who actually holds the honor of being the first female action hero on TV......British TV at least as The Avengers wasn't shown in the US until 1965 and those were the Mrs. Peel episodes. But I wouldn't attempt to make a definitive claim of Cathy Gale as TV's first female action hero as I'm no expert on 1950s and 1960s television even in the US much less in the UK.)
  • The Big Valley (1965 - 1969) had the female equivalent of Bonanza's Ben Cartwright in Victoria Barkley the widowed matriarch who ran a ranch and multiple business enterprises with her adult children. Victoria was strong, capable and knew how to use a gun when she needed to. (Growing up The Big Valley was my favorite of the "old" Westerns and you should be able to guess why.)
  • Get Smart (1965 - 1970) -- How I admired the oh-so-competent Agent 99.
  • Batman (1966 - 1968) where I loved best the episodes that had Batgirl.
  • Mission: Impossible (1966 - 1973) had women along with men as IMF agents.
  • The Mod Squad (1968 - 1973) -- Three "hippie" undercover cops, "One black, one white, one blond," with the blond being a female.
  • Space: 1999 (1975 - 1977) where the alien Maya would save the day with her shape-shifting abilities.
  • The New Avengers (1976 - 1977) with the long-legged Purdey as Steed's new martial arts dealing, expert marskman partner in spying for the British government in this update of the classic show.
Those are just the shows I can remember watching. I'm sure there are other shows I've forgotten. And then there are the shows I never watched that featured a female action hero, shows like Honey West (1965 - 1966), the ocelot owning private detective, and The Protectors (1972 - 1973) with the elegant, sword-wielding Contessa Caroline di Contini.

With my admittedly limited knowledge of 1950s and 1960s TV, if I had to choose the first female action hero on American TV, I would suggest the eponymous lead character of Honey West. (Incidentally, Honey West was produced by Aaron Spelling. It was only the second TV series he ever executive produced and he chose to feature a female as an action hero. Spelling later went on to produce two shows from this list, The Mod Squad and Charlie's Angels among his many shows. He was a producer who was never afraid of having strong female characters.) Honey West premiered in September 1965 (31.5 years before Buffy the Vampire Slayer) though the character of Honey West debuted in an April 1965 episode of Burke's Law. Honey West (played by Anne Francis) was the lead not a sidekick. With her marksmanship and judo skills, she was an action hero. Though the TV character was influenced by the female agents of The Avengers (in fact, Honor Blackman was first offered the role of Honey), but, unlike The Avengers, Honey was the star of her show and without Honey West there could be no Honey West.
But the point is from the 19th century to the 25th century and beyond, from superhero to cop to private detective to military officer to spy to ordinary girls trapped in dangerous situations there was an entire range of female action heroes on TV long before Buffy Summers was ever around.

1970s female strength
Addendum, May 6, 2014 --- With further reading I've learned about two earlier TV series that starred females in roles that might qualify as the first female action hero on TV:
  • Decoy (1957 - 1958) -- Starring Beverly Garland as an undercover New York City police officer. This was the first TV series to focus on a female police officer.
  • The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong (1951) -- Starred Anna May Wong in the first starring role for an Asian-American actor on TV as she played Mme. Lui-Tsong an art gallery owner who was also an amateur(?) private detective. (I put a question mark after amateur because that's the impression I get from the brief descriptions I've read of the series. All of the footage of the series was destroyed, so it's not possible to see it.)
For more pop culture pieces there's "When Good TV Shows Are Going Bad...Signs a Show Has Jumped the Shark," "Immortal Death Wish," "Dune, Evil and the Bene Gesserit," "The Real Ending to Tarantino's "Death Proof"," and "Double Identity -- Distinguishing Actors and Their Roles."

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