The se­cret

Why we’re ob­sessed with the killer fe­male leads in the lat­est spy shows.

ELLE (Canada) - - Radar - By Kather­ine Brod­sky

have you ever tried to ap­ply lip­stick while jump­ing out of an un­marked mov­ing van? En­gage in hand-to-hand com­bat with­out break­ing a nail? It’s not easy.

Yet it seems like ev­ery time I flip to a new TV chan­nel, fe­male spies are cracking safes, driv­ing faster than the Road Run­ner, charm­ing as­sets, in­ter­ro­gat­ing sus­pects, prac­tis­ing Hou­dini-ri­valling sleight of hand, dis­play­ing an un­canny flu­ency in mul­ti­ple lan­guages and, of course, kick­ing ass—usu­ally in high heels. Take the re­cent on­slaught of pop­u­lar TV shows like Burn No­tice, Covert Af­fairs, Home­land and The Amer­i­cans and new­com­ers like AMC’s Turn, which takes a peek at Amer­ica’s first spy ring (Heather Lind por­trays one of the first of­fi­cial fe­male spies), The Black­list and In­tel­li­gence (with Meghan Ory). This fall, CTV is even pre­mier­ing Marvel’s Agent Carter (she of the Cap­tain Amer­ica fran­chise fame).

In real life, fe­male field agents are no slouches. They have been praised by agencies like Mos­sad for be­ing h

killer at multi-task­ing, role-play­ing, de­ci­pher­ing sit­u­a­tions and keep­ing their egos in check. How­ever, in pop cul­ture, women spies were of­ten bet­ter known for their abil­ity to se­duce and for play­ing sec­ond fid­dle to their mas­cu­line coun­ter­parts. (Con­sider Bond-girl names like Pussy Ga­lore and Honey Ry­der.)

This out­dated trend is fi­nally suc­cumb­ing to quick­sand, how­ever. Take Car­rie, Claire Danes’ char­ac­ter on Home­land: Whether she’s up or down, no one can deny her par­tic­u­lar bril­liance. (Has she ever been wrong?) On The Amer­i­cans, El­iz­a­beth, Keri Rus­sell’s Rus­sian sleeper spy, is as­tute and ded­i­cated, re­main­ing calm and in con­trol in the scari­est of sit­u­a­tions yet not afraid to get her hands dirty. She man­ages to be both dan­ger­ous and sexy. These women are em­pow­ered and in charge. As the role of women in so­ci­ety evolved, so did the ap­petites of pop-cul­ture con­sumers of both sexes—and TV writ­ers are writ­ing much more com­plex char­ac­ters.

Our es­ca­lat­ing in­trigue with spies is also a re­flec­tion of an in­creas­ingly volatile po­lit­i­cal land­scape and a lack of trans­parency. In the wake of dis­cov­er­ies of hid­den spy rings in North Amer­ica, Ed­ward Snow­den’s rev­e­la­tion that Canada has played a ma­jor role in set­ting up spy posts for the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency (NSA) via the Cana­dian Se­cu­rity In­tel­li­gence Ser­vice (CSIS), our Anti-ter­ror­ism Act, the frag­ile sit­u­a­tion with Rus­sia and ac­cu­sa­tions of ma­jor es­pi­onage by our na­tional elec­tronic spy agency Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Se­cu­rity Es­tab­lish­ment Canada (CSEC), we are look­ing to catch a glimpse into the in­ner work­ings of the govern­ment’s most covert op­er­a­tions, even if it’s just their fic­tional coun­ter­parts.

Shows that deal with es­pi­onage speak to our own fears, doubts and para­noia. The life of a spy is an ever-grey zone that of­ten cuts through the le­gal and bu­reau­cratic red tape, chal­leng­ing no­tions of truth, power, loy­alty and pa­tri­o­tism. It is as treach­er­ous and dis­con­cert­ing as it is ex­cit­ing. And while we may feel help­less in our real lives as we watch the head­lines roll by, watch­ing fic­tional char­ac­ters grap­ple with these same is­sues and take charge on­screen lets us live vi­car­i­ously from a safe dis­tance and re­gain some sense of con­trol. n

This sum­mer, there are plenty of nar­ra­tives to fol­low within the cloak-and-dag­ger world of es­pi­onage. Covert Af­fairs re­turns, The Black­list has been picked up for a sec­ond sea­son

and—if you’re will­ing to wait just a lit­tle longer— Home­land (right) re­turns for a fourth

sea­son in Oc­to­ber.

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