Jennifer Lawrence’s ‘Red Sparrow’ follows ‘Homeland’ and ‘Atomic Blonde;’ espionage thrillers starring Keira Knightley and Blake Lively in the pipeline
There’s a new kind of secret agent in town—and she’s no mere Bond Girl.
“Wonder Woman” grabbed the girl-power headlines at this summer’s box office, but another female-led film quietly thrived as many testosterone-driven sequels flopped. “Atomic Blonde,” a Cold War spy thriller starring Charlize Theron as a bisexual British agent, took home $51.5 million on a $30 million budget and scored a very respectable 76% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. According to the Hollywood Reporter, there’s now even talk of a sequel to the silver screen adaptation of “The Coldest City” graphic novel.
Women have fronted espionage dramas on television (Claire Danes in “Homeland” and Keri Russell in “The Americans”) and on the big screen (Angelina Jolie in “Salt”) before, but encouraged by recent success, there’s now a line of actress-led flicks competing to outdo Bond. On the heels of Theron’s red killer spikes is “Red Sparrow,” a March film featuring Jennifer Lawrence as a Russian spy trained to seduce for the Kremlin. Blake Lively has signed on for the movie remake of “The Rhythm Section,” which is co-produced by 007 franchise big Barbara Broccoli, and Keira Knightley is set to spy in a yet-to-be-named movie. (“Red Sparrow” is co-produced by Twentieth Century Fox, whose parent company 21st Century Fox shares common ownership with Moneyish publisher Dow Jones.)
Although the CIA and MI6 began their lives as gentlemen clubs, women have been fully embedded in the secret services for decades. Susan M. Gordon and Stephanie O’Sullivan, America’s current and former Principal Deputy Directors of National Intelligence respectively, are female. “Women have been there since the very beginning,” says Vince Houghton, curator of the International Spy Museum in Washington D.C., adding that a woman was a major player in the Culper Ring, an 18th century CIA that uncovered Benedict Arnold’s treachery. “It’s testament to how good they were with security that we don’t know for sure who she was.”
Hollywood has only recently begun paying attention. “It’s been industry logic for a long time that women will see action and spy hero movies with male leads, but that men won’t when women are in those lead roles,” says Elana Levine, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies gender and the media.
Millennials moviegoers are also demanding better gender representation in the films they watch. “Millennials are a gift to this country. They see pop culture as more than something superficial,” says Gayle Lynds, a spy novelist who most recently wrote “The Assassins.”
This, Lynds notes, is a sea change from the 1990s when a female publishing head turned down “Masquerade,” an espionage thriller she wrote that later became a New York Times bestseller, because readers supposedly didn’t want a spy novel written by a woman. “In the 90s, the Cold War was over and Americans didn’t want to look beyond our borders,” she says. “But the complexity of the world out there today [means] this has been a long time coming.”
Representation in espionage movies matters because, like superhero flicks, they tend to have an outsized impact on the popular imagination. Both the “James Bond” and “Mission Impossible” universes are among the most profitable franchises in movie history; the two series combined have grossed nearly $10 billion at the global box office. Movie spies “come close to being superheroes and offer viewers the same pleasures in terms of spectacle, while being slightly more based in reality,” says Levine. “Showing women in physically powerful roles offers everybody a picture of the possibilities.”
Still, when women are cast as spies, they’re often portrayed as if their primary method of information extraction is seduction. That’s largely due to Mata Hari, the Dutch exotic dancer and spy who captured the fevered imagination of generations of spy novelists.
“Because of pop culture sexing up things, that’s become the stereotype, though that’s rarely the case for female spies,” says Houghton, whose museum has a section dedicated to women who engaged in espionage at crisis moments like the Civil War. “Men see this and think if you’re an attractive woman who works for the CIA, that only means one thing. It’s problematic and not fair.”
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