TV's female spy problem

From "Alias" to "The Americans," female spies are a fantasy about how women can balance family and work

Published June 27, 2014 11:00PM (EDT)

Maggie Q in "Nikita," Keri Russell in "The Americans," Jennifer Garner in "Alias"   (CW/FX/ABC/Salon)
Maggie Q in "Nikita," Keri Russell in "The Americans," Jennifer Garner in "Alias" (CW/FX/ABC/Salon)

I don’t trust a woman who’s never wanted, in some fantastical part of her heart or mind, to be a spy.

Which is to say, one who has never wondered what it might be like to lie to everyone she loves, who never wanted to be so skilled at a roundhouse that she could take down a man twice her size. Or has never yearned to steal and cajole and use sex appeal to distract a simple mark, and more importantly, has never wanted to have good reason to do these things, some heroic motivation. This woman probably hasn’t watched the recent proliferation of TV shows that star a whole range of female spies, from the ditzy to the intense. In the last decade these shows have ranged from sensationalist soaps to writerly dramas, populating post-9/11 screens with unilaterally black-clad, fast-talking women.

And more are on the way: Both ABC and NBC have announced new shows about female government agents for this fall. As gender issues claim magazine covers and newspaper features, inquiring whether an equal marriage can allow room for sex, why women lack confidence, and if ‘it all’ can ever be had, the female spy runs laps around premium cable, regular cable and back to network TV.

The female spy always has the upper hand; she has better tools, one of which is being a woman. A female spy relies on her intellect, charm, strength, and resilience. She embodies the things that women want to be, but in isolation, because part of a woman spy’s life rests alongside and apart from the people she loves. On television, at least, that segment of her existence is the vital chunk in which she truly lives. It’s the secret segment of her life that justifies deceit, disobedience, arrogance, and a raft of impulses on which “good women” don’t act. And yet on TV shows like “Alias,” “Covert Affairs,” and “Homeland,” along with NBC’s forthcoming “State of Affairs” and ABC’s “Agent Carter,” female C.I.A. analysts and operatives keep us safe.

Love, family, and domesticity prove essential to the lives of TV’s female spies, because they reflect an unattainable ideal. Sydney Bristow’s bosses murder her fiancé in the first episode of “Alias,” which began in 2001; her love for him and her anger over this ultimate isolation — he was the only person she told of her double life, who accepted her for who she truly was, dual identity and all — propels the action of the series. She discovers that she has not, in fact, been working for the C.I.A., as she had patriotically thought, but for a terrorist organization. She becomes a double agent, and resolves to avenge his death with its dismantling.

Annie, the protagonist of “Covert Affairs,” lives at first with her sister, to whom she is loyal and loving, and her children, who offer domesticity in just the right dose. She lives in the guesthouse of their suburban home in the first seasons, hiding passports and guns under the floorboards; when her sister learns of her deceit, she expels Annie from Eden. “Homeland”’s Carrie Mathison, too, has a sister and nieces whose adoration and innocence reminds her of why she fights to keep America safe from terrorist attacks. She spends just enough time with them for her instincts to ping, and then she’s off to work again. Home life, romance, a fridge full of unrotten food — these acquisitions pale in importance compared to her job. And home life offers both disguise and temptation for the Russian spies under deep cover in the DC suburbs on “The Americans.” What began as a prop marriage grows into true emotion, providing the show’s central tension; in the first season, try as she might to remain professional, Elizabeth’s husband and children prickle with the threat to turn her against her mission, so happy are they as faux Americans.

Though domesticity may function within the worlds of these shows as cover, motivation, and temptation, it’s not a meaningful part of the woman spy’s life: stability and its trappings, marriages and homes, expel her. Yet in the infrequent instances in which she cleans up or folds laundry, she enjoys the action because it satisfies her own occasional yearning for something normal. The lady spy hangs up her clothes, luxuriating in the quiet; she scoops wine glasses off a table, happy for the momentary lull. She puts on a Miles Davis record as she changes her sheets before returning to her TV to monitor a suicide bomber; she drives kids to school, after which she will seduce and coax state secrets from an unwitting bureaucrat. Her career choice and its lofty goals place her above bending to the dreary realities of home life. Having thus dispatched with their weight, shows may use the routine tasks of home — dishes, laundry, carpool — as small feminine reminders of the drama and violence and high stakes that await her outside.


It’s worth noting that TV does not generally ask men to make such frequent, frantic transitions between domestic and professional selves. Their male protagonists are often more straightforward and resolute: On “Alias,” male characters show no guilt over lying to their wives about their professions for decades, successfully leading two entirely separate lives; on “The Americans,” Philip firmly knows that his family is above Mother Russia on his list of priorities. This matches many headlines of today’s feminist movement, which tell us that the unifying trait of contemporary womanhood is the endless strain of the effort to balance our roles and the reproach if we choose one over the other. We are writers and mothers and lawyers and girlfriends and whatever else we decide to be, frantic labels we list on Twitter profiles to offer public proclamations of our varied roles without hinting at the private anxiety their cacophony creates.

The female spy offers a solution to this reality: she can literally become other people. Wigs and lipstick and hair dye cocoon her. She goes on to face situations — hit men, double agents, gangsters — representative of the petty saboteurs, liars, and pessimists of our workplaces and schools and love lives. The female spy shunts aside the needs of herself and her family, leaves them for later, and steps outside of herself when it comes time to work.

J.J. Abrams famously said that Sydney Bristow, Jennifer Garner’s “Alias” protagonist, was born of the urge to make a “Felicity,” the innocent student of his prior hit show, who was not what she seemed. Duplicity, the overt knowledge that the person seen is not the person contained within, was her character’s central trait. Sydney turned on her dimples and toned her body not for coquettishness or sex appeal but to thoroughly kick someone’s ass. Shonda Rhimes, creator of “Scandal” and “Grey’s Anatomy” and their often complex, contradictory women, invoked this idea last year when she said she wanted to write a female spy protagonist, “a woman carrying a gun and kicking people’s butts.” Men have a rich history of characters, from Michael Corleone to spandexed superheroes, who use ass-kicking and deceit to sympathetic ends. But for women, it's mostly the spy.

Sydney, the prototype of the contemporary female TV spy, was able to blend softness with a perfect roundhouse kick from a perfectly high-heeled foot. But her fiancé had to be dispatched before she could be taken seriously as both dangerous and sexy, an opening situation mirrored precisely by Katherine Heigl’s forthcoming character on “State of Affairs.” And not just dispatched — murdered brutally, his bloodied body stretched out before her eyes.

“Covert Affairs” is spy TV cotton candy, all black leather gloves and gun silencers and cleavage, slow-motion elevator doors opening to emphasize the gunshots that will fly in opposite directions. Beautiful Annie’s blonde hair flies in slow motion over her shoulder every fourth scene, curler-perfect wave by curler-perfect wave. Scenes show Annie in bed, two good-looking people on white sheets, a post-coital trade of classified tidbits; cut to an empty diner at night, talk of things “falling like dominoes,” files and damning photos passed across a table as rain ribbons down the windows to the gloomy parking lot. At some point the viewer’s soft spot for female-centric spy shows seems the butt of some drawn-out chauvinistic joke. "Homeland" seems smarter, Carrie more sympathetic, yet she toggles between being characterized as a savant and a workplace slut of the most high-stakes sort. She ignores orders in the blank cubicles of the C.I.A. and in the field, leaving her male superiors furious; she is often right, yet they persist in not believing her.

Sex appeal, instincts, singularity of mission: the necessary traits of a female spy on TV. And another characteristic unites these shows: They are male-generated worlds populated by women conceived of by men.

The male-drawn women of TV spyland seem to point toward a singular, blunt perspective on the debates dominating American feminism today. No, they say, you can’t have “it all.” Yes, they say, you will be forever swapping hats, though by occasionally dipping into the “simpler” pleasures of domestic life, you may find relief. Yes, you will be expected to be beautiful. These characters are television clichés, but they are also feminine clichés, bundled together and then pulled apart piece by piece: they can’t be controlled or entirely understood, they are electroshock-therapy-crazy, dangerously seductive, a collection of body parts to be ogled.

Many of these shows carry subtexts about women’s power, its acquisition or lack thereof, and especially power and sex. Fiancés die to allow women to invest fully in their own lives, and subsequent love interests are thwarted to allow action to continue. Annie can be dismissed from the room, so perfectly does she fit the mold of the one-dimensional, male-drawn sex symbol. Carrie, as TV critics have pointed out, lives a lonely existence in which she makes terrible decisions for the men — man — in her life, which spirals ever more out of control. Elizabeth Jennings must be convinced that love holds worth and that sex is more than a mere tool for manipulation and control.

In most of these shows, a central character’s womanhood and how she navigates it provides necessary conflict and drama; tension either deflates or grows ridiculous after a few seasons. In some, protagonists’ fatal flaws rest in reserves of stereotypical femininity: Sydney couldn’t feel close to a man without telling him the truth about herself; Carrie hides her bipolar disorder, shorthand for an excess of emotional ups and downs, from her superiors, then alienates them and endangers herself by sleeping around. Would a female spy drawn by a woman have a loving stay-at-home husband and children and show no remorse for keeping half of her life separate from them, like Dixon, Sydney’s male partner? Might she be calm and circumspect and uninterested in workplace sex like Saul, Carrie’s boss, without being labeled a prude?

Perhaps she’d take after real-life spy Valerie Plame, a beautiful, devoted wife and mother of twins equally skilled with languages, women's health activism, the handling of AK-47s, keeping her kids’ schedules organized and maintaining her cover, until it was blown in a political scandal. Or Virginia Hall, the American WWII spy who led clandestine efforts against the Germans in Europe, married a former OSS officer, and worked as a C.I.A. analyst in the post-war years. These women’s stories hardly sit, collecting dust: Naomi Watts played Plame in a film adaptation of her 2007 memoir, and Hall is the subject of “Wolves at the Door,” a show currently in development from Nancy Hult Ganis, executive producer of ABC’s short-lived “Pan Am.” These real-life female spies — their duplicity, heroism, compartmentalization, resilience, violence; their devotion to their families — are fact, not fiction. Yet somehow TV hasn’t made the leap to representing them, or inventing their fictional equals.

The two upcoming shows likely won’t differ so very much from those that already exist. Both “State of Affairs” and “Agent Carter” list women among their executive producers, though their creators are also men. I’ll probably watch them all the same, at least for a while. I don't trust a woman who hasn't wanted to be a spy, however far-fetched her desire — who doesn't have a contradictory relationship with her own sex appeal, with domesticity, with compartmentalization and duplicity and violence — and I like that complex relationship refracted back to me onscreen.

Julia Cooke is the author of "The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba." She has written for the New York Times, Virginia Quarterly Review, Condé Nast Traveller, and "The Best American Travel Writing 2014" anthology, among many more.  She tweets at @juliaccooke.

By Julia Cooke

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