Right now, two of the most compelling characters on the big and small screens are female spies: Maya (Jessica Chastain) in Kathryn Bigelow's new film Zero Dark Thirty, and Carrie (Claire Danes) on the insanely addictive TV show Homeland.
Zero Dark's Maya certainly doesn't share any characteristics with alluring sexpot Mata Hari. But even though she's a formally trained spy who doesn't dress up in sexy undercover costumes or appear to leverage her sexuality at all, she's still intriguing nonetheless. Maybe it's because female spies are operating within what's still very much a man's world. When we first meet Maya in Zero Dark, she's observing her fellow intelligence officer, Dan (Jason Clarke), torture a prisoner to extract information.
All of Maya's feminine characteristics -- her long red hair, her delicate face and her curves -- are obscured by a bulky cloak and mask. At one point, Dan asks her if she'd like to sit out the next round, something he presumably wouldn't offer a male counterpart. Maya has to work extra hard to prove herself, and that may be one of the driving forces behind her successful quest to find Osama bin Laden. That, and her well-above-average IQ, an impeccably refined BS detector and total lack of a personal life.
Maya isn't like the other female spies we see portrayed most often in film and TV. She doesn't run around in stilettos seducing sources like we've seen done by the leading ladies of Covert Affairs, Alias and Nikita. She doesn't rely on her feminine wiles to get what she needs. Instead, she leverages her considerable smarts and a lot of good old-fashioned hard work.
As refreshing as Maya is, that doesn't mean I have anything against the familiar female spy tropes. After all, who doesn't like watching a badass lady spy going undercover in amazing outfits and seducing secrets out of (invariably attractive) sources?
With that in mind, I've compiled this very mixed bag of my top five fictional lady spies.
1. Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) on Homeland. Carrie just might be one of the most complex characters I've seen on TV -- ever. She's brilliant and beyond competent one day, and completely unhinged the next. It's fascinating to see her at work. She's by no means a sexpot, but she isn't afraid to use her sexuality to pry information out of targets. Especially if they happen to be tall, handsome red-haired targets.
2. Agent 99 (Barbara Feldon) on Get Smart. Isn't Agent 99 the best? As her bumbling counterpart, Maxwell Smart (Don Adams) is busy talking into his shoe phone and deploying his laser blazer, she's foiling bad guys and delivering witty one-liners in her distinctive sultry voice. I'm not the only one who loves me some 99 -- this guy put together a tribute to her on YouTube.
3. Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) in Inglourious Basterds. Kruger speaks three languages flawlessly (German, French and English), so it was really only a matter of time before someone cast her as a spy. In Quentin Tarantino's hands, Kruger is mysterious, glamorous and badass all at once. She definitely holds her own against the menfolk.
4. Emma Peel (Diana Rigg) on The Avengers. Emma Peel was way ahead of her time. The sexy 1960s TV heroine kicked some serious ass, and wasn't a stranger to saving men in distress. She looked damn fine doing it, too, in her signature leather cat suit.
5. Rachel Singer (Jessica Chastain/ Helen Mirren) in The Debt. How could a character shared by Chastain and dame Helen not be totally amazing? The Mossad agent puts herself in incredibly vulnerable positions to nab bad guys -- even the gynecologist's chair! Now that's dedication to your job.