The stage is dominated by a statue of Shiva. As the lights go down, a woman emerges from the wings dressed in oriental costume; veils, a metal breastplate and elaborate jeweled headdress. She dances for Shiva, writhing around the statue in a suggestive and impassioned manner. A young soldier in the audience is entranced, while his older colleague looks on disapprovingly. This is a pivotal scene in George Fitzmaurice’s 1931 film Mata Hari, where we and the hero (Alexis, played by Ramon Navarro) get our first sight of the titular character and star, Greta Garbo.
Garbo was not the most obvious choice to play such an exotic role, but Hollywood in the 1930s seemed to regard any foreign star as representing a whole range of “other” nationalities, and so we have Garbo’s oddly unerotic dance sequence—at times almost stomping round the statue. What makes the scene even stranger is that this is a Swede playing a Dutch woman pretending to be a Javanese dancer.
This movie sequence, with its confused account of cultural and racialized identities, is a good example of the manifold mythologies surrounding women spies.
If spies are agents, then the woman spy is doubly transgressive because she crosses the line that ordinarily designates woman as object rather than subject. Women spies in popular fiction, film, and television represent an uneasy rapprochement between women spies as agents/subjects and as objects.
Depictions of female spies thus reflect upon women’s conundrum in twenty-first century in the wake of alleged equal opportunities: the doubled emphasis on work and on the work of femininity, that women be beautiful, make a home, have children, care for them. Where John Berger once asserted that “men act and women appear,” in the twenty-first century privileged white women are often required to both act and appear. Women spy-protagonists in popular fictions map this dynamic. Television series like Alias and films like Nikita show how women spies cross the boundaries of femininity and are shepherded back to it by visual codes of beauty, whiteness, and heterosexuality. They both break out and are contained, becoming an amphibious combination of radical and reactionary. In this way the woman as spy in popular culture tests the bounds of gender and is encrypted both as a cypher of social change and of resistance to change.
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