Earlier today I stumbled across a brewing kerfuffle in response to The CW’s decision to cut a female masturbation scene from one of its shows. As Tracy Clark-Flory wrote over at Salon,

“We’re thoroughly comfortable with women’s bodies being sexualized — but not so much with women being sexual. That is not to mention that we’re still unaccustomed to depictions of female desire that emphasize sexual longing as opposed to manipulation or a narcissistic want to be wanted.”

I’m completely on board with that characterization and its underlying critique, with one small exception: that “still” in the second sentence. Because it’s my sense that we’ve actually moved backwards in that regard.

A weird and slightly personally embarrassing case in point:

Television viewers of a certain age and inclination may vaguely remember “Remington Steele,” a not-particularly-significant private eye show that ran on NBC from 1982 to 1987. In it, Stephanie Zimbalist played a female detective who had invented a fictional male figurehead for her agency, and Pierce Brosnan played the mysterious con man who wound up assuming the figurehead’s identity. Hijinks ensued for four and a half seasons, Brosnan parlayed the role into a brief stint as Bond, and that was pretty much it.

I somehow wound up thinking about the show a few days ago. I remember it fuzzily but fondly, and as one does these days with everything that one remembers fuzzily but fondly, I googled it. Turns out it’s on Hulu, for free, so I fired it up.

The pilot episode is the origin story, and in the second we see Zimbalist and Brosnan as colleagues for the first time. In their first scene together in that ep, they argue over Steele’s role in the agency:

Zimbalist: We have a deal. I do the work, you take the bows.

Brosnan: We make such a winning combination. Let’s enjoy ourselves and allow our passion to erupt into something outrageously fulfilling.

So far, so formulaic, if we manage to get past the atrocious scripting of Brosnan’s upper-crust Brit patter. It’s Sam and Diane before Sam and Diane — the repressed all-business lady and the libidinous horndog dude who knows what she really wants. Blah blah blah yawn.

But wait! Look at her reply:

Zimbalist: You mean hop in the sack?

Brosnan: A little crude, but to the point.

Zimbalist: Love to.

Brosnan: Well then?

Zimbalist: I can’t.

Brosnan: Why not?

Zimbalist: It’s tough enough pulling off this little charade without that kind of complication.

And scene.

Later in the same episode, Zimbalist’s female assistant catches her mooning over a photo of Brosnan, as one does.

Zimbalist: Who is he? What was he before he was Remington Steele?

Assistant: Who cares? He’s here, you’re here, go for it.

Zimbalist: Then what?

Assistant: Depends on what you’re looking for… Me, I’m all partied out. But if I were in the market for a heart-stopping, teeth-rattling, eye-rolling fling? Pow.

Zimbalist: I’m probably the only woman he’s ever met who didn’t tumble into bed with him.

Assistant: Not a bad way to break the ice.

Zimbalist: [grins] Yeah. But I can barely keep him in line now… I’ve worked too hard to risk everything just to get my teeth rattled.

Assistant: So where does that leave you?

Zimbalist, lewdly: Itchy.

Okay, not great literature. But Zimbalist’s Laura Holt is no Diane Chambers. She’s not repressing her interest in Steele, or pining for a romantic relationship with him. She’s got him pegged as a good fuck and not much more, and the only reason she’s not availing herself of him is that doing so would give him a professional upper hand she can’t afford to concede.

And this aired immediately after Knight Rider.

Remington Steele wasn’t a show about sex, and Laura Holt wasn’t a nympho sidekick. This was a run-of-the-mill network caper show, and Holt was the smart, level-headed female lead. She was competent, straightforward, and take-charge, and those characteristics were reflected in her sexual persona.

I don’t think you’d see that characterization in that kind of a tv show today.

Update | Apparently NBC has greenlit the pilot for a Remington Steele reboot/sequel. So I guess I may get to find out whether I’m right.