Queer Icon Remington Steele

Try this for a deep, dark secret: the great time traveler Jane Titor? She doesn’t exist!

I made a post a while ago reflecting on my media consumption over the past year or so, and how my weakness for roguishly charming male heroes saving the day and getting the girl inevitably led me to develop an embarrassingly strong emotional attachment to international sex criminal James Bond. Since I particularly enjoyed the Pierce Brosnan movies, a friend of mine asked if I was familiar with Remington Steele, a TV show from the 80s which features a fresh-faced pre-Goldeneye Brosnan solving mysteries. I had in fact never heard of it before, but I figured that sounded like something I’d at least find mildly amusing—maybe I’d check out a few episodes to pass the time. What I didn’t expect was that, even more so than most of the other fictional men on my list of favourites, this dumbass detective would almost immediately steal my heart. (That’s a bad pun about how it sounds like “Steele”—exactly the level of comedy you’re in for with this series.)

The basic premise of Remington Steele is as follows: private detective Laura Holt had trouble getting her business off the ground in such a male-dominated profession. Things started to pick up once she came up with the idea of inventing a fictional male superior and giving the agency his name—but in the first episode, a con man who’s after some diamonds she’s been hired to protect figures out her secret and assumes the Remington Steele identity to his own benefit. Laura is furious with him at first, but when a bigger threat forces the two of them to work together, they develop an easy rapport and make a tentative agreement to continue working together in the future; “Steele” is free to reap the benefits of stepping into a ready-made successful career, as long as he plays the role according to Laura’s instructions and does what he can to keep her agency in business.

Art by Drazillion

With his suave playboy nature and knack for secretive missions, Remington Steele has a lot in common with the iconic role Brosnan would take on a decade later—but he’s also a fair bit sillier and more flamboyant. And while his criminal background and skill for social manipulation come in handy sometimes, he’s also kind of clueless and easily distracted, often leaving Laura—the real brains of the duo—to solve the Steele Agency’s cases. The two of them are also immediately attracted to each other, and they begin to develop a romantic relationship alongside their unconventional working one as the first season of the show progresses. But with Steele’s fear of commitment and aversion to open and honest communication getting in the way, there’s frequent tension about whether the two of them will be able to make something serious work out. I’m just starting the second season now, so the answer to that question is still a mystery to me!

In one of my favourite early episodes, “Thou Shalt Not Steele” (yes, almost all the episode titles are like that), the curator of an art museum enlists the Steele Agency to provide security for an especially valuable painting that’s at a high risk of being stolen before the opening of a special exhibit. As it turns out, one of the art thieves planning the heist is an ex-lover of Steele’s, and she becomes determined to seduce him back into a life of crime. Laura finds out, and wavers about whether she can trust Steele to do the right thing—what if he’s been conning her all along, just using the agency to look for his next big criminal opportunity? But Steele says on the straight and narrow path in the end, enlisting Laura in his own heist to steal the painting before the thieves can, and returning it to its rightful place in the morning. It’s exactly the kind of fun romp that I can see myself watching over and over again in the future.

Art by Drazillion

But beyond the compelling characters and their entertaining misadventures, there’s a deeper emotional aspect that kept me invested in this show. The thing is, part of the motivation behind my recent obsession with cool-handsome-guy-centered narratives comes from a personal journey of discovery about my own identity. I was supposed to be a woman once, allegedly, but I realized a while back that on some level, that label and its set of corresponding societal expectations doesn’t quite fit. And now I have to figure out what exactly that means for who I am, and how I want to define and present myself to the world in the future. So as questionable as some of my choices might be, I think that in a way, I’ve been searching for the male role models I never had—for some example on the screen to tell me how I can make myself seem interesting and attractive to others in a more masculine way than whatever the hell I was doing before. And what fascinates me about the character of Remington Steele is that, very clearly and canonically, he’s doing pretty much the exact same thing.

One of Steele’s defining character traits is that he’s an enthusiastic font of knowledge about old movies—especially film noir, and anything starring his hero Humphrey Bogart. While doing a background check on him in the first episode, Laura learns that several aliases he’s used in the past were ripped off from Bogart films, and throughout their time together he continually looks to his old favourites for inspiration about how to help their clients. There’s an episode where he gets so excited about a case reminding him of The Maltese Falcon that he adopts more of its protagonist’s mannerisms the more he works on it, peppering everything he does with references and speaking in an entirely different accent by the end. Just like me, he’s modeling himself after the fictional men he loves and admires. And despite Laura’s dogged determination to unravel the mysteries of his past, he staunchly refuses to give her almost any detail about it, never even giving her a straight answer about his real name. Whoever he might have been before, he’s Remington Steele now, and that’s what counts. So as unlikely as it may be to ascribe this interpretation to any intentionality on the part of the show’s creators, I can’t help reading a character like that as a possibly transgender man.

Art by Drazillion

And what makes all that even more compelling for me is that my own alias, Jane Titor, has a similar origin. As I mentioned in another recent post, it’s a name I sort of stole from someone else. John Titor was a mysterious man who claimed to be a time traveller in the early 2000s, and his story was adapted as part of the visual novel Steins;Gate, in which one of the main characters turns out to be using the name as a pseudonym. I took the name because I liked that character and I like time travel—and ironically in retrospect, I decided to feminize it from John to Jane because I was still trying really hard not to question my gender identity at the time. But even back then, without thinking about it, I named myself after someone who was most likely a fraud—who even in his fictionalized appearance in Steins;Gate turned out not to be quite real. Maybe that was how I saw myself.

Steele gives a beautiful speech in the late season one episode “Steele in the News” alluding to an unstable and unhappy childhood in which the escapism of the cinema was one of many ways he tried to find himself. When asked about how the story ends later in the episode, he responds that he’s still trying. And for now, so am I. I’m not entirely sure about how I want to describe or present myself in the future, or which of the names I’ve used in the past will still suit whoever the new me turns out to be. But I’m happy to have started this journey of self-discovery, as well as to have found both comfort and amusement in an unlikely place along the way. If you’re interested in a comedic episodic mystery series with a surprising amount of arguably queer subtext, I can’t recommend Remington Steele more. Give it a try, and maybe you’ll find that you see a bit of yourself in this mysterious and lovable fake detective too.

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