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Elizabeth Renzetti: In London

The secret history of female spies: less femme fatale, more single mom Add to ...

The headlines have been particularly juicy this week: "Redhead under the bed," "flame-haired beauty allegedly part of bizarre Russian spy ring," "femme fatale wi-fi spy." British tabloids are practically baying with delight at the saga of Anna Chapman, the 28-year-old Russian arrested this week along with nine others in connection with an alleged espionage network in the U.S. Chapman spent five years in London, apparently hanging out with billionaires, dancing in small dresses and trying on an assortment of fetching hats.

That's the lifestyle presented in her Facebook and LinkedIn photos (and yes, I felt a sordid thrill snooping through her pictures, but these days we're all amateur spooks, aren't we?) There is Chapman in a bustier, looking coyly over her shoulder, and here she is in a tiara - the only way it could be better is if there was a photo of her throttling a bald man with her thighs or fashioning a radio transmitter out of a champagne bottle.

"Her youth, and the fact that she was attractive, would make her that much more valuable as an asset," former federal prosecutor Pat Rowan solemnly told ABC. An excellent deduction. Would we be so interested in Chapman if she looked like Ian Fleming's squat and hideous spy Rosa Klebb, with her dimpled knees and knife-tipped boots? If she looked like Julia Child - who worked during the Second World War for the outfit that became the CIA - would we now know that Chapman spoke four languages and had a degree from Peoples' Friendship University in Moscow? Did I mention the hair that is flaming?

A template exists in the public imagination for what a female spy should look like, and Chapman - whether she is involved in anything nefarious or not - happens to fit the leather catsuit. She doesn't look like Melita Norwood, the wee "granny spy" who was revealed, at the age of 87, to have spent a lifetime slipping British nuclear secrets to the Soviets. Spies don't drink tea and shuffle out to get the paper in their slippers!

No, they lounge around their penthouses, mixing cocktails, wearing evening gowns and occasionally answering desperate calls to serve their country, like Peter O'Donnell's camp fictional spy Modesty Blaise. Modesty set a high glamour bar for the female agents to follow: She was self-made, an orphan who rose to run a crime syndicate before turning legit, a beauty with a figure-8 body whose signature move was "the Nailer," in which she incapacitated her victims by offering a glimpse of her spectacular bosom.

No wonder a generation of boys (and men) turned to mush when they contemplated Modesty or her contemporary, Emma Peel, from the 1960s TV show The Avengers. Mrs. Peel, played by Diana Rigg, was both a wit and a fighter, as cool and resourceful as any male spy - and she looked much hotter in a pair of go-go boots.

The real history of female espionage is loaded with incredible tales, like the adventures of New Brunswick-born Sarah Emma Edmonds, who disguised herself as a man to join the Union army during the American Civil War - and then doubled her jeopardy by going to spy on the Confederacy.

But in fiction, you tend to get the ridiculousness of Modesty Blaise or the Angelina Jolie brand of spookery (see Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and this summer's Salt) in which a female agent runs around in snug combat gear or towering heels, leaping off bridges and wielding a gun so large it threatens the structural integrity of her teensy pencil arm.

You can see the appeal of the glamorous, "quip first and shoot later" lady spy: First, it nicely embodies the age-old myth that women are mysterious and unknowable (at least to their men). Second, it presents an ideal of someone unburdened by the need for emotional attachment, uninterested in domestic monotony. You don't imagine a female spy turning to her husband and saying, "Have you noticed the cat litter really smells and whose job is that anyway and do I have to do everything myself?" No, a female spy glides over to the drinks table in her Marchesa gown and says, "cocktail, darling?"

Of course, as we learned this week, the reality's a bit more humdrum, at least where accused Russian moles buried deep in suburbia are concerned: It seemed to be a lot of hanging around in the back yard, making sure the hamburgers didn't burn and occasionally reaching for the invisible ink. For women, the reality can be even drearier, especially when there are children around to muddy the waters.

Stella Rimington, the first female head of the British domestic spy service MI5 was named "Housewife superspy" in the press when she was appointed in 1992. A decade later, she told a BBC documentary that one of her greatest challenges was juggling life as a single mother and a spy chief.

Once, she was on her way to meet a potential defector when she learned that her daughter had been taken to hospital. Torn between obligations, she went to meet the agent at a safe house - and then borrowed money from him so she could take a taxi to the hospital.

Now Rimington writes spy novels about an MI5 agent named Liz Carlyle, who spends a lot of time looking at documents, interviewing people and doing computer research. As far as I know, Carlyle doesn't have a leather catsuit, or a tiara - but that might change if she ever hits the big screen.

 

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