Why we’re obsessed with the killer female leads in the latest spy shows.
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This outdated trend is finally succumbing to quicksand, however.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.