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. There are many accounts of Mata Hari in fiction and in film. Her name itself is a byword for betrayal. The real Mata Hari was barely a spy, and accounts of her putative career in what many have called “the second oldest profession” only serve to establish that she was not very successful.
The real Mata Hari was a Dutch woman, Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, who spent some time in the East Indies before her marriage to a Dutch colonial army captain twenty-one years her senior finally came to an end. Divorced and impoverished (her ex-husband refused to pay her any settlement) she tried a number of avenues before arriving in Paris in 1904 to reinvent herself as Mata Hari, drawing on memories of dancers she had seen in Java and Sumatra. Initially she was a great success, touring the grand theatres and private salons of Europe. As she got older, however, her celebrity began to pall. She tried unsuccessfully to redesign her act before finally seeking employment with the French secret service during the First World War. In this final attempt to sustain an income, Margaretha was betrayed by her own employers who, even as they signed her up, were convinced that she was a double agent working for the Germans. The compelling public image of Mata Hari effectively proved the downfall of its creator, who was shot on October 15, 1917, following a trial that most now regard as barely legal.
The potent myth of Mata Hari’s exotic sexuality has shadowed most fictional accounts of women spies that followed. When we think of the woman spy, the image that most often springs to mind is that of the enemy agents who are featured in Bond novels and films. While their official mission may be to seduce, distract, or deceive Bond, their narrative function is to endorse his phallic masculinity by submitting to his charms so that he can seduce, distract or deceive them. Yet Bond has rarely been portrayed as a “honeytrap” agent—From Russia With Love is the exception rather than the rule.
Bond remains the epitome of an idealized and exaggerated modern British masculinity; it is women spies who are the tricky ones. It seems that the cultural stereotypes surrounding femininity are hard to shake, with pejorative accounts of women as devious, deceptive, and dishonest feeding into the mythology of the woman spy as a seductress, an Eve-like figure, a Mata Hari.
Like the real Mata Hari, however, real women spies are rarely such exotic figures. Women have been employed by the British secret service throughout its history, albeit often in backroom roles. During World War I the Postal Censorship Branch of British intelligence employed 3,500 women, while MI5 (the intelligence division concerned with internal security) used a trained team of Girl Guides as messengers. By the Second World War women were taking more active roles—most notably in the Special Operations Executive, which sent agents into occupied France. Women such as Odette Churchill and Violet Szabo were remembered after the war in films such as Odette (Herbert Wilcox, 1950) and Carve Her Name With Pride (Lewis Gilbert, 1958). While such films commemorate the part that female agents played in wartime, they also bear witness to changing views, which were just beginning to regard women as capable of taking on professional roles once solely the province of men.
British intelligence has now had two female directors: Dame Stella Rimington, who was head of MI5 from 1992 to 1996, and Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, the current director of MI5. Rimington was exposed as the head of MI5 by the British press but then used her public profile to introduce a more open and accountable era for the secret services. Since her retirement she has published her memoirs and several novels about espionage. Manningham-Buller was appointed deputy director general of MI5 in 1997 and became its director in 2002.
Both women have changed the public face of the secret service, just as women doctors, lawyers and academics have changed those professions. This is not to say that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Women and men are not equal in the workplace, despite legislative efforts to make them so. The Fawcett Society notes that in Britain: “Women working full-time earn, on average, 17% less an hour than men working full-time. For women working part-time the gap is 36% an hour. 11% of directors of the UK’s top 100 companies are women.”
While changes are taking place, most professions are still male dominated at the higher levels.
This makes the woman spy a very suggestive figure. Historically, she has been sexually suggestive but I would propose her as a politically suggestive figure in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The changing roles of women spies in fiction and in the “real world” track changing gender roles in Western economies, as political and legislative movements take effect. Yet the woman spy is also a useful allegory for the woman in the professional workplace; she is a double agent. Not quite one of the boys and still often having to prove herself as better than her male peers in order to attain the same level of achievement, the female professional is that odd creature: a woman and a doctor/lawyer/teacher/professor. Spies, doctors, actors, poets, and artists are seen as predominantly male in the West, hence the woman doctor and the woman poet. In this fashion women remain spies within Western culture—still added-on as a prefix to distinguish us from the “real” doctors, the “real” poets.
British and American cultures still struggle to make room for women. Women are still forging roles for themselves within the public arena; the calls for universal childcare in the feminist movements of the seventies have not been heard, and women entering a male-dominated profession often find themselves subject to abuse. 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.
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.