- Violent Femmes: Women as Spies in Popular Culture
The 1990s witnessed the rise of a new kind of female action hero, who brought into question many of the assumptions underlying feminist film criticism. By representing women as both sex objects and strong protagonists, television programs like Xena: Warrior Princess (1995–2001) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003) and films like Charlie's Angels (2000) and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001) challenged the notion that popular texts always represent women as passive spectacles and men as active agents. Over the last decade, there have been several academic studies devoted to this phenomenon, such as Hilary Neroni's The Violent Woman: Femininity, Narrative, and Violence in Contemporary American Cinema (2005), and the edited collections Reel Knockouts: Violent Women in the Movies (2001) and Action Chicks: New Images of Tough Women in Popular Culture (2004). Rosie White's recent book Violent Femmes: Women as Spies in Popular Culture similarly examines the ways in which female spies have been represented in popular culture, and it argues that historical shifts in the representation of female agents closely parallel the advances made by women over the course of the twentieth century. Indeed, the very notion of casting women as agents already suggests the potential challenge these characters pose to the notion of women as passive spectacles. Unlike many of the studies mentioned above, however, White is hesitant to celebrate female spies as feminist figures. While they often transgress "the boundaries of femininity," White argues that they are also "shepherded back to it by visual codes of beauty, whiteness and heterosexuality" (4). By offering a more subtle and nuanced look at contemporary female action heroes, Violent Femmes represents an important contribution to this growing field of scholarship.
White begins by describing two stereotypical ways of representing female spies in popular culture: the "femme fatale" and the "desirable girl" (3). While a spy like Mata Hari is demonized as an [End Page 874] "agent or resistance activist [who] throws into question the West's investment in passive femininity" (52), characters like the Bond girls or Edith Cavell offer "a more passive representation of . . . femininity" (48). According to White, these stereotypes went largely unchallenged until the 1960s, when a new generation of spies began to reflect the concerns of second-wave feminism. Characters like Modesty Blaise and Emma Peel, for example, "represent a 1960s femininity, which was physically active, intelligent and sexualised, and yet they were not demonised as femme fatales" (68). In other words, these women seduce and kill like the femme fatale, yet they are also "depicted as the protagonist in these adventures and . . . given a voice" (78). White adds, however, that this new "feminist sensibility" was limited by the characters' "über-femininity and sexual appeal" (79). This problem was even more pronounced in the 1970s, when characters like Jaime Sommers from The Bionic Woman (1976–78) and Purdy from The New Avengers (1976–77) were represented as "active, intelligent and (largely) independent professional women, but all these qualities were contained in a glamorous and marketable package" (83). White argues that these programs can only be interpreted as feminist texts if the performances of these characters are seen as "artificial versions of femininity" (98) that present "femininity as masquerade, as always already in disguise" (103).
In the last two chapters of the book, White examines how depictions of female spies in the 1990s reveal the contradictions between feminism and femininity. Films like La Femme Nikita (1990) and the American remake Point of No Return (1993), for example, depict espionage training as the process of gender socialization; as Nikita's transformation from street criminal to spy mirrors her transformation from asexual punk to "acceptable white femininity" (116). Like Jaime Sommers and Purdy, in other words, Nikita also potentially performs "femininity as masquerade" (117). These films also depict Nikita's eventual rejection of bourgeois femininity and her escape from the intelligence organization, yet in the television series based on these films Nikita's escape ultimately fails. This resolution would seem to undercut the feminist message that is implied...