Secret Agent Woman
Why are there so many female spies on television?
Photograph by Ben Mark Holzberg/USA Network/© NBC Universal, Inc.
“The greatest thing would be if Felicity was recruited by the CIA,” J.J. Abrams once said about the protagonist of his late-’90s, coming-of-age campus drama. “[T]hen she could be going on these secret missions, living this life that she couldn’t tell [her boyfriends] about, dismantling bombs.” This quote, which I came across in a book by Entertainment Weekly’s Ken Tucker, reveals the genesis of Abrams’ follow-up to Felicity, the Jennifer Garner hit Alias. It’s also an excellent explanation for why there are so many female spies on television. The first scene in Alias’ first episode shows a red-wigged Sydney Bristow being tortured and interrogated by Chinese-speaking operatives.* Danger, deception, foreign travel, colorful hair—what’s not to love?
Clandestine operatives have been the stuff of hit films and thrillers for decades, and women like The Avengers’ Emma Peel and even Get Smart’s Agent 99 have always been part of the scene. But ever since Alias hit the airwaves in 2001, TV writers have been particularly fascinated with the female of the species. By my count, three current American TV shows—USA’s Covert Affairs (Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET), Showtime’s Homeland (Sundays at 10 p.m. ET), and the CW’s Nikita (Fridays at 8 p.m. ET)—focus on the lives of female spies. A pair of spy shows with male leads, USA’s Burn Notice (Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET) and NBC’s Chuck (Fridays at 8 p.m. ET), also feature prominent female operatives. If television is an accurate guide—and it probably isn’t—women are taking over the security services.
Matt Corman and Chris Ord, the creators and executive producers of Covert Affairs, told me they were drawn to spycraft because “it’s all about secrets and identity.” Those themes make for intriguing narratives generally and lend themselves especially well to television, where events have more time to unfold. Corman and Ord chose to base their show at the CIA because they wanted to look at Langley as a workplace, “a building where people go to work every day, the same way people go to IBM or McDonald’s. They face many of the same problems as people at other jobs … as well as some others that are very specific to being a spy.”
For a television showrunner, the world of espionage offers a host of advantages over other TV settings. An espionage show can make massive continuity leaps—a character who usually reports to work at an office park in Northern Virginia can zip off to Berlin or Bogotá, Colombia—with no more justification than “chatter on the wires.” Undercover work also permits a host of narrative shortcuts. Once the phrase read me in has been uttered, characters can spew out great globs of undiluted exposition. And no other genre makes it easier to turn a hero into a rogue—all you need to do is declare that she’s a double agent.
There are plenty of career paths for female TV characters who lack secret identities: police officer, doctor, lawyer, advertising copywriter, forensic anthropologist, inn keeper. Spycraft, though, confers the advantage of adaptability. In a single episode, Covert Affairs’ rookie CIA agent Annie Walker (played by Piper Perabo) uses the skills of a linguist, a bodyguard, an investigator, a psychiatrist, and a diplomat. Corman and Ord told me that flexibility wasn’t the reason they made Annie a spy, but they agreed that “it allows us more storylines than just being a cop.”
The ratings failure of NBC’s Prime Suspect reboot, I’d argue, suggests that female cops—rooted in the not-so-whimsical world of Miranda warnings—hold less appeal for viewers than flirtatious, scheming secret agents. While real-life members of the clandestine services typically spend their days digging through documents, their film and TV analogues enjoy a glamorous life of cocktail parties and high-stakes interrogations. When it comes to portraying the spy life, Corman and Ord say they strive to find a tone that’s “grounded in reality but gives all the escapism and fun you should get from a TV show.”
June Thomas is a Slate culture critic. Follow her on Twitter.