The sexual politics of Get Smart

by John MacBeath Watkins

We are living in what may turn out to be the golden age of free media, the time between "information wants to be free" and the discovery that those who provide it move on to other activities once it turns out they won't be paid.

One of the bonuses of this period is the availability of free entertainment in the form of shows we would formerly have had to rent from a video store of by watching commercials on television.

And one of the pleasures I've enjoyed recently is watching old episodes of Get Smart, a situation comedy about an inept secret agent.

James Bond drove rare and fast cares, Ferraris and the like. Maxwell Smart drove sports cars on the economy end of the scale -- a Sunbeam Alpine, Volkswagen Karmann Ghia, and Opel GT.

The beautiful women who populated the Bond films were either Bond girls who fell under his spell and had sex with him, or villains who were less impressed and tried to kill him, only to be defeated.

Bond was the super-competent, super-masculine hero. Don Adams (born Donald James Yarmy,) who created the Maxwell Smart character, actually had the backstory a Bond actor should have had. He joined the Marines in World War II, hit the beach at Guadalcanal, was was wounded and invalided out with blackwater fever, which almost no one survived, and after kicking that, became a drill sergeant whipping Marine trainees into shape.

After he mustered out, he went into show business. He was short, ordinary-looking, and had a funny voice, so he became a comedian, and created the character of an inept house detective.

Mel Brooks and Buck Henry had the idea of turning that character into a secret agent comedy. They selected the lovely, obviously intelligent, and somewhat taller Barbara Feldon to play his love interest and partner, Agent 99 to his Agent 86.

Many old shows are time capsules for the culture they were designed to appeal to. Amos & Andy has become an embarrassment, and many old programs represent a culture long gone.

This happens in literature as well. Lady Chatterley's Lover was shocking for its sexual frankness and breaking through class lines. Now, it seems rather tame.

The Bond  franchise moves on, in part by going back to its roots in Ian Fleming's novels, where Bond's love of women was as much a weakness as a display of masculinity, giving him hostages to fortune.

But Get Smart was part of the sexual revolution just as much as Midnight Cowboy or I am Curious (Yellow). While other shows were giving us displays of sexual freedom, Get Smart showed a future with more equal relationships between sexes.

It is still part of its time. Smart, as the man, is supposed to lead, and defeat the bad guy. But he's inept. He has the good fortune to be paired with the more competent 99, and both are aware of his ineptitude. 99 understands that Smart gets by on good intentions and good luck, and chooses to help him. They fall in love in the chaste manner of 1960s prime-time television, not the quick fall into bed of the Bond films, and they have twins.

99 does not give up her work. Smart becomes a nappy-weilding secret agent, 99 at his side (the twins seem to require remarkably little care.) Of course, Smart is not the feminist's dream -- neither character is seen doing housework, but the assumption seems to be that it's 99 doing it.

Don Adams had a working wife as well. He was married to Adelaide (Dell) Efantis, a singer who performed as Adelaide Adams, and he took his last name on stage from her stage name.

99 never gets a name, but that appears to be a humorous device to keep emphasizing the incongruity between the dehumanizing aspect of "givin' you a number and takin' away your name," as the lyric for the them song of the show Secret Agent said, and the affectionate relationships and domestic happiness of the character Barbara Feldon played. The character in Secret Agent inhabited a different identity in every episode, and viewers never knew his name.

 Actually, the theme song for that show, performed by the ragin' Cajun, Johnny Rivers, has proven more enduring than the show. It encapsulates everything Agents 86 and 99 lampooned.

Secret Agent theme song:

There's a man who leads a life of danger.
To everyone he meets he stays a stranger
With every move he makes,
Another chance he takes.
Odds are he won't live to see tomorrow.

Secret Agent Man.
Secret Agent Man.
They've given you a number.
And taken away your name.

Beware of pretty faces that you find.
A pretty face may hide an evil mind.
Ooh be careful what you say.
Or you give yourself away.
Odds are you won't live to see tomorrow.

Secret Agent Man.
Secret Agent Man.
They've given you a number.
And taken away your name.

Swinging on the Riviera one day
Layin' in a Bombay alley the next.
Oh don't let the wrong word slip.
While kissin persuasive lips.
Odds are you won't live to see tomorrow.

Secret Agent Man.
Secret Agent Man.
They've given you a number.
And taken away your name.