Why Don’t Female Spies Grow Up? Women in Contemporary Spy Literature

From The Millions:

“A normal teenage girl…who is also a spy” was my favorite type of young adult fiction. The girl had to balance crushes and homework alongside solving international crimes and defeating bad guys. In this genre, authors emphasize the protagonist’s very normal teenage girl behavior juxtaposed with her super-sleuth espionage skills. For example: A few pages into the first book in Ally Carter’s Gallagher Girls series, I’d Tell You I Love You but Then I’d Have to Kill You, 15-year-old Cammie explains, “even though the Gallagher academy is a school for girl geniuses, sometimes the emphasis should be kept on girl.” Like, obviously! The protagonists were always super smart, highly trained in combat, and of course, also had to deal with their crush not liking them back. They were everything.

Nostalgic for these YA spy stories, I sought out contemporary spy fiction with female leads. The premise of Mick Herron’s This Is What Happened seemed promising enough: Maggie, the protagonist, is “just the kind of person MI5 needs to infiltrate the establishment and thwart an international plot that puts all of Britain at risk.” But as I started reading, about a quarter of the way through, it turned into not a spy story but an abusive-man-keeps-woman-hostage-and-gaslights-her-to-keep-her-prisoner-in-his-basement story. All I wanted was a strong female being sneaky, kicking ass, and thwarting the bad guys. Not another story of a victimized woman. Is that too much to ask? Not as a teenager.

Female spies populate young adult fiction and are nowhere to be found in contemporary spy fiction. This is for two reasons: One, female authors dominate YA—and female authors often write female protagonists. Two, YA spies are based on a fantasy (teenage spies don’t exist), not the reality of the intelligence world (as contemporary spy fiction draws from).

. . . .

Contemporary fiction does not have nearly the same number of women. The “great authors” of the contemporary spy genre are men who typically place male protagonists at the center of their novels. As Paul Vidich describes the genre at Electric Literature, “the spy genre, perhaps more than any other genre, has been the province of men, often men who once served in the intelligence community.” In “Bias She Wrote,” a 2010 analysis of the New York TimesBest-Seller List, Rosie Cima found that authors of spy/politics fiction best-sellers were 97 percent male and 3 percent female. Wikipedia’s list of notable writers in spy fiction includes 124 authors—only six are female.

Notably, among the few female contemporary spy fiction authors, there’s Stella Rimington. Rimington was the first female Director General of MI5 and held the position from 1992 to 1996 (she’s also rumored to be the inspiration for Judi Dench’s “M” in the Daniel Craig James Bond movies). After retiring, she began writing a fictional series about a female intelligence officer, Liz Carlyle; the first novel, At Risk, was published in 2004. Remington [sic] has now published nine Liz Carlyle novels. In 2015, Rimington told the Edinburgh International Book Festival that her goal was to “rescue spy stories from the blokes.” She went on, “When you think about it, all fictional spies are blokes, and spy writers when I started were chaps too. So I was certain that my character was going to be female. I wanted her to reflect accurately what a female does in my former service.” Rimington’s Carlyle is remarkable. In At Risk, she is at lunch with a rival and asks him why he joined the service. In response, he tells Carlyle, “Really, of course, it was the women. All those glamorous Foreign Office secretaries. I’ve always had a Moneypenny complex.” Carlyle coolly responds to his misogyny, “I don’t see many Moneypennys in here.”

Other female authors, like Gayle Lynds and Francine Mathews, worked in the field before turning to writing. Their intelligence backgrounds are notable; it is as if publishing houses only took them seriously in such a male-dominated genre because of their career experience. Mathews, who spent four years at the CIA before becoming an author, wrote in a blog post:

Women populate the clandestine landscape as thickly as men. But women are not always admitted to exclusive clubs, and even more rarely to the literature of spying. [John] le Carré‘s women are usually victims; [Ian] Fleming’s are always babes. They stumble in their high heels, arms outstretched, and die on the word James. Women are not the point of the safehouse and the glass of whiskey; they live on the fringe, in the bedroom and near the hearthfire. They are never in control. It’s hard to love spy fiction as a woman in America. The club doors are closed, and we’re all out in the cold.

Link to the rest at The Millions

Once again, PG is distressed to report on the misogynistic biases that have long permeated traditional publishing.

As he was considering the OP, PG wondered why the large number of successful female indie authors are not featured in articles and reports about women-owned businesses and women-friendly work environments.


20 thoughts on “Why Don’t Female Spies Grow Up? Women in Contemporary Spy Literature”

  1. back in the day, as in 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, Helen MacInnes was a wildly successful writer of spy novels. as in consistently NY Times bestseller list. Great yarns, too. Ms. MacInnes could do it in the mid-twentieth century, so the glass ceiling isn’t that dense. She never wrote an iconic character like James Bond, each novel had a new protagonist. That could be part of why she’s not quite so well known or remembered. She was no Graham Greene, but a lot better than Ian Fleming, imo.

    • I have to admit that I’d forgotten her until this piece reminded me but back in the day she was one of my four or five go to thriller writers whose every book ended up on my shelves. As you say, great yarns, and it looks like they all have Kindle editions.

      • Crazy as it seems, I’ve only recently discovered MacInnes, and she is quickly becoming my inspiration and idol. There is another female writer – Mary McMinnies – who wrote only two books, and they fit into the espionage genre in the same way a le Carre novel could be called a “thriller”, which is to say, it’s more complicated than that. I’ve just finished her second novel “The Visitors”, released in 1958, about a British couple posted in an Eastern European country. The female protagonist gets drawn in (somewhat naively) to the black market trade, with disastrous results. It is alternately hysterically funny and poignant, the characters are unforgettable, and the writing is every bit as good as le Carre. I’m eagerly awaiting the arrival of her other book “The Flying Fox” via Abebooks.

  2. Nostalgic for these YA spy stories

    I completely missed this genre. I didn’t know it existed. The closest I came were the stories of Betty Cavanna and Phyllis Whitney, about teenaged girls or young women traveling to exotic locales and solving mysteries. And there was that one Sweet Valley High where the twins are at a diplomatic ball. But straight up spies? That would have been cool.

    To be honest, I thought the spy genre began and ended with Fleming and LeCarre, with a bit of Lustbader thrown in. And apparently the author of the Jason Borne novels (only saw the movies). Lustbader has the distinction of writing such odd women that I wondered who he was hanging out with. But, his book kept me diverted at the airport in Miami. Which is more than I can say for fantasy author China Mieville, who I still haven’t forgiven for boring the hell out of me that day.

    So thanks, PG, for posting this. Perhaps I’ll find a new summer read.

    • The author of this piece must be 20-something, max. The YA genre (as a specific, recognized genre) isn’t old enough to get “nostalgic” about.

      I’ve always had a problem with teen spy stories anyway. I can really enjoy a YA fantasy story with a superhero protagonist because magic (or advanced science, if it’s a sci-fi). But spy stories are at least nominally real-world, most of the time, and simply can’t buy a regular teen being a super spy. Maybe if they were a one-in-a-billion prodigy and the super spy powers came with a serious problem functioning with other people their age (which would preclude the “regular teen is also super spy” trope the OP likes), I could get behind it, but pretty much all the “teen spy” stories I’ve ever seen (including Gallagher Girls and Alex Rider) are too unrealistic on a basic “humans don’t work that way” level for me to get into.

      As for the misogyny, I hadn’t thought about it, but I’m not surprised, considering how sexist Bond (the most famous spy) is, both the characters and the stories. I do have one spy story I think I may write eventually. Considering how non-misogynist it is, I guess it may not play well with the spy story audience. Not that I much care.

      • …are too unrealistic on a basic “humans don’t work that way” level for me to get into.

        The main reason I avoid most dystopian fiction. I suspect I might have liked the YA spy stories if I had seen them when I was a kid, but it’s more likely the factor you mention would interfere with enjoyment if I read them now.

  3. “As he was considering the OP, PG wondered why the large number of successful female indie authors are not featured in articles and reports about women-owned businesses and women-friendly work environments.”

    I suspect it’s because the purpose of featuring such stories is to enhance legitimacy in the mainstream–and indies are not viewed as legitimate in the mainstream.

    They should be, but aren’t. So, featuring an indie would be rather like featuring a porn star who owns her own production company–not the “right sort” of thing.

    • Perhaps those looking for a female spy will have to read independent female authors. I suspect they have gone where the trads haven’t.

  4. I devoured MacInnes back in the day. Still have her novels on my keeper shelf along with the few written by Anne Armstrong Thompson. In any case, I’m not sure it’s industry bias. It could simply be that men are more interested in writing the spy genre than women are.

    • Quite possible.
      Guys might fantasize about being Bond but the ladies wouldn’t necessarily fantasize about being “Bond Girls”.

      Right now the best known “female spy” is Natasha Romanova and she isn’t exactly a high visibility iconic or bankable figure.

      • Being a ‘Bond girl’ isn’t being a spy. Indeed, it’s not even being a fully realized character because the majority of ‘Bond girls’ barely had any personality beyond their hair colour and curves and their use as an accompaniment to Bond.

        • In most of the recent Bond flicks, the “Bond girl” is supposed to be a professional operative. They still cast eye candy. It’s part of the formula.

            • Didn’t we have a real-life example with the Anna Chapman saga a few years ago?

              Although, the handful of real-life female spies I know about didn’t play that part (one of them had a wooden leg).

      • Speaking of female fantasy and spy stories, I liked the comedy movie “Spy” right up until the end. It seems like part of the traditional (male) spy fantasy is getting the hot chick. In “Spy”, they ran right up to the point of the female MC getting the hot guy, then swerved past it with some “we’re powerful women and don’t need a man” BS. Which really felt like the filmmakers/studio expected audiences to be grossed out by the prospect of a fat lady “getting” a hot guy (despite the fact that fat guys regularly get hot ladies in all kinds of shows/movies, especially comedies). That ruined the entire movie for me. If you’re going to write a spy story, you’ve got to have all the usual spy story payoffs. Don’t lead right up to one of them only to deny it. When it comes to “getting” the hot love interest, this is *especially* important if you’re doing a feminist take on a traditionally very masculine (even misogynistic) genre.

  5. We might have to search for them, but they do exist. Try The Assassin’s Handbook series by Josie Brown.

  6. One could check out Greg Rucka’s excellent Queen & Country series, which includes both novels and graphic novels. The main character is a female spy.

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