Secret Agent Woman
Why are there so many female spies on television?
Spy shows aren’t popular on account of their realism, though. Today’s TV Mata Hari is a superhero who appeals to both men and women—a toned and well-trained young woman who regularly outwits and outscraps brawny dudes. It’s hard to imagine a TV cop busting out her Krav Maga moves and coming out alive, but female spies are almost indestructible, even if their social lives aren’t.
The current crop of small-screen spies display great emotional range, wobbling weekly between toughness and vulnerability. In Homeland, Claire Danes’ Carrie Mathison is a CIA operations officer so devastated by the agency’s failure to prevent 9/11 that she is endangering her life by self-medicating rather than admit her brain chemistry is wonky and risk losing her job. She has also sacrificed her social life—when another character asks why she hadn’t married, she replies, “It just hasn’t felt right quite yet … or as important as what I do for a living.” That makes for an isolating and lonely existence.
It’s odd that Carrie’s atypical brain chemistry might render her ineligible for service in the CIA, since its main manifestation is excessive commitment to her work. (Well, that and insufficient impulse control.) At Covert Affairs, Corman and Ord, who, it must be noted, strenuously resisted my efforts to lure them into gender generalizations, said that spies are typically seen as cold-hearted and manipulative—indeed, that froideur is the defining trait of characters like James Bond or the Saint. Annie Walker, on the other hand, is emotional, intuitive, and empathic; she sees the good in people, and struggles to balance that with the parts of her job that require her to be manipulative. The show’s creators argue that’s not necessarily because she’s a woman—Auggie, her male handler, is also optimistic and emotional. And indeed, TV spooks of both sexes seem to be a monogamy-loving, emo bunch: The eponymous hero of Chuck and Burn Notice’s Michael Westen have been mooning over their great loves ever since their shows debuted.
It’s female spies in particular, however, who seem to have a much better chance of being killed by a terrorist than of dating a decent guy. (Occasionally, they find a way to risk both events at the same time—on Homeland, Carrie was so determined to keep her eyes on a suspected al-Qaida operative that she jumped into bed—and the back of a car—with him.) Not only must the ladies of Langley deal with some serious trust issues—is he cute, will he cheat, is he deep undercover?—but some men are absolutely off-limits. Annie is often reminded that she can’t date foreigners, and on Chuck, CIA agent Sarah Walker’s early feelings for the everyman protagonist were complicated by workplace considerations (she was his handler—a position of power) and the unwritten rule that spies can only date other spies. In the end, though, Sarah turned out to be the rare agent who found her perfect match, albeit after four seasons of quirky trials and tribulations.
The Covert Affairs showrunners told me that, especially since real spies often trade on sexuality, they’ve decided that “it’s OK to acknowledge the sex appeal of our characters.” But as opposed to the creators of the short-lived, syndicated She Spies, at least they’re equal-opportunity objectifiers—just as likely to show buff male characters unencumbered by shirts as Annie in a skimpy outfit. They also play with viewers’ expectations: On this week’s episode, Annie seduced a handsome Israeli spy—but just as things were getting serious, she zip-tied him to the bed, thus preventing him from undertaking a suicide mission. It was sexy, and it was smart spycraft—and the viewers will still respect Annie in the morning.
*Correction Nov. 17, 2011: This article originally and incorrectly stated that Alias’ Sydney Bristow wore a pink wig in the series’ first episode. It was a red wig.
June Thomas is a Slate culture critic. Follow her on Twitter.