The Prisoner: Accusations of Misogyny

‘Be Seeing You’ – Rachel Herbert as Number Eighty-Four

When Rachel Herbert took the dais at the end of Free For All, transitioning from Number Eight-Four to Number Two, she became the first woman to take charge in the Village, albeit for only a couple of minutes.
Only three other female Number Two’s followed her. One appeared onscreen for, literally, two seconds in It’s Your Funeral, another, like Herbert, was only revealed in the closing seconds (no spoilers), leaving Mary Morris, in Dance of the Dead as the only female Number Two to be billed as such, and to act with authority.
And she was a late replacement for Trevor Howard, for whom the part was written.
All of which, and more, leads many fans of the series to accuse it of misogyny. After all, doesn’t Number Six say, in the afore-mentioned Dance of the Dead, “Never trust a woman, even the four footed kind.”
How you approach that claim depends, in large part, in what you define as being misogyny. For me, it’s present when women are devalued and demeaned simply because they are women. It need not be actively expressed: there are many men (and not a few women) whose misogyny is subtle and hidden (often from themselves) but can be identified from what they do, rather than what they may say.
But when investigating an historical work, we do have to distinguish between active misogyny and what merely reflects the times. The Prisoner was made some years before the active feminist movement came into being, and reflected attitudes towards women that were fixed by history, and the traditional denying women of opportunities to demonstrate themselves as capable in so many fields.
With refreshing, but very rare, exceptions (such as Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise) thrillers were an exclusively masculine pursuit. Women could be victims, distractions, enemies and assistants, but the prevailing mindset did not admit them as heroes and initiators in their own right. Ultimately, they were there to be rescued.
And the Prisoner isn’t there to rescue anyone but himself. Though Number Six does, in Revolt episodes, act in an altruistic manner, it is generally for the preservation of the community, or to prevent the development of an idea with negative implications for the future. The only exception to this is in Hammer into Anvil, which is in response to a damsel in distress: the basic stereotype.
On that level, The Prisoner is a misogynist show, just like nearly everything else around it.
The Prisoner being a thriller, it might have expected that Number Six would become involved with at least one woman who might be on his side, and in The Chimes of Big Ben he does, temporarily, appearing to be ‘courting’ Number Eight. But it’s increasingly obvious that he is using her (albeit chivalrously, in that he is getting her out as well) and that he finds Nadia’s increasingly romantic attitude to him irritating.
With that coming as quickly as the second broadcast episode, and with Nadia revealed as the agent of a complex and far-reaching attempt to entrap him, Number Six’s heightened paranoia towards everybody is enhanced and thus he rules out any further stories on that topic, almost from the start.
Indeed, for the rest of the series, there are only two women with whom Number Six enjoys any kind of friendly relationship: Alison, in The Schizoid Man, towards whom he adopts a somewhat avuncular aspect, until she betrays him, of course, and his fiancée Janet, who he actually kisses in Do Not Forsake Me, O My Darling. But he’s wearing Patrick Stock’s body at the time: McGoohan himself would never have done it.
It’s grist for the misogyny mill that, without fail, all the women in the series (except Janet, who is outside the Village) betray Number Six. On the other hand, with very rare exceptions, everybody betrays the Prisoner, so we shouldn’t read too much into that.
One of those rare exceptions is Number Twelve in The General. But it’s important to note that the other is the Watchmaker’s Daughter in It’s Your Funeral. Though she’s manipulated by the Village to draw in Number Six, she is unaware of this. She’s a Village rebel in her own right, and she assists him throughout. So that’s one woman at least who doesn’t betray.
That there is so little of feminine wiles being used to entrap Number Six can be put directly down to Patrick McGoohan. Happily married, with children, the fervently Roman Catholic McGoohan was noted in being a Sixties male sex symbol who avoided sex of any kind. He had already turned down the role of James Bond, before it was offered to Sean Connery, because of the character’s ‘immorality with women’ and on another occasion he went on record about what he saw as television’s responsibility, as a visitor to the home, not to expose children to immoral behaviour.
McGoohan, who had at one point trained to be a priest, was so adamant on this point that he had it written into his contract that, even for the first series of Danger Man, that he would not be required to do any kissing.
Women do take prominent roles in The Prisoner. There’s a strong, influential female presence in all but a handful of episodes, but the most prominent example of an absence of female involvement in the story comes in the final two episodes, when the conclusion of the drama is worked out.
Finally, let’s return to our sole active Number Two, Mary Morris.
Needless to say, perhaps, the role was not written for her. Originally, Trevor Howard was intended to play the part, in which he would have appeared in a Jack the Ripper costume in the episode’s fancy-dress sequence. However, Morris plays the role exceptionally well. Dressing her as Peter Pan exemplifies a certain impishness to her performance that never detracts from her implacability as Number Six’s enemy.
And Morris, a veteran actress, makes use of her harsh  voice and her wizened, wrinkled appearance, a look that ought to suggest homeliness and grandmotherly charm, to demonstrate an absolute ruthlessness, especially in the episode’s jarring conclusion. Morris’s age removes even the remotest sexual element from the relationship (one suspects McGoohan could accept her only on that basis). She’s superb but I can’t escape the conclusion that, like Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in Alien, it’s because the role was originally written for a male character.
Overall, and I admit to being biassed by my love for the series, I don’t find The Prisoner consciously misogynistic. I think it’s a reflection of the times in which it was made, albeit heavily influenced by McGoohan’s Roman Catholic beliefs. But there have been reports that McGoohan was genuinely uncomfortable in scenes requiring him to get close to any women on set.
But it cannot be denied that The Avengers, especially during Diana Rigg’s years in the series, did portray Emma Peel as an independent-minded, forthright, strong character in her own right, and I am well aware of the Hellfire Club episode when I say that.
The case against The Prisoner is strong, but not, in my verdict, overwhelming.

2 thoughts on “The Prisoner: Accusations of Misogyny

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