You Really Can’t Live Without ‘em: Women’s Evolving Roles in Classic Spy Television
By Diana Eloise Levy
American and British entertainment has been telling spy stories almost obsessively since the 1960s, ever since Sean Connery’s coup of the silver screen as James Bond. If that isn’t proof enough, there were also enough television shows about spies airing at the time to justify a declaration that it was the golden era for the genre.
Classics such as Mission: Impossible, The Avengers, It Takes a Thief, Get Smart, and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., all aired within a few years of one another, and their influence on the television spy genre and its growth, as well as the motifs that come along with it are impossible to ignore. Specifically, characterizations of the leading females in these shows reflected the country’s perspective on women: namely assistive, or at most a witty subordinate if they weren’t merely damsels in distress.
KoldCast TV’s latest foray into the spy genre, Spycology, turns the tradition on its head not by simply replacing our fearless hero with a woman, but by asking what traditional spy show gender roles would look like on a contemporary college campus. This isn’t Angelina Jolie blowing everything up in Salt, or even Sandra Bullock in Miss Congeniality. It’s more like The Odd Couple.
You are watching the Pilot Episode of Spycology
Jack is the “the world’s worst spy” and practically failing out of Spy College, the training academy where the show is set. He has no hope for making it until Quincy shows up, a beautiful new student whose very presence refocuses him. Quincy’s hot, but not “hot hot.” She looks unkempt, has an unflattering wardrobe and a snappish personality. In comparison, Jack’s brother’s girlfriend is incredibly beautiful, and plays a small supporting role.
Spycology’s Quincy, played by Chyna Linn.
It’s a comedic nod to the golden age of Spy TV, as we’ll call it, which set the stage for more modern fare. The Avengers, Get Smart, and later Scarecrow and Mrs. King not only explored the male-female odd couple dynamic, but their female leads evolved with American women’s own social evolution.
The Avengers, a British spy drama that aired from 1961-1969, was originally about a doctor and his assistant who set out to avenge the murder of his fiancée and receptionist. Patrick Macnee’s character, John Steed, had a sexy, intelligent assistant played by Diana Rigg, Tara King, and most famously, Honor Blackman. Honor played Dr. Cathy Gale and the chemistry on screen between her and Steed was palpable.
Yet, while it was exemplary of the times to have a beautiful woman as the assistant to the male co-star, the network had to be incredibly careful of how their relationship was portrayed on screen. Gale lived with Steed in his flat, but instead of paying rent, she had to run the house kitchen and cook for him. This was likely an acceptable living situation only because Gale was a widow. Nevertheless, having her live with another man and unwed was certainly a departure for modern women on television at the time.
Get Smart is one of the first examples of the odd couple matchup on American television. The show ran from 1965-1970, and featured agent Maxwell Smart, or Agent 86, who seemed to lack common sense, but was strengthened by the intelligence of his female counterpart, Agent 99. Steve Carrel and Anne Hathaway took on the respective roles in a 2008 remake of the 60’s classic that received mixed reviews.
While Agent 86 usually caused the trouble in the first place, he’s always the one who managed to save the day, usually due to dumb luck and the help of Agent 99, played by Barbara Feldon. She was gorgeous and smart, yet continued to love her comparatively useless counterpart. Inevitably, their characters marry and have children, but what makes Get Smart and Agent 99 stand out from the pack is that she goes back to work after the kids are old enough—a first for television at the time.
Feldon was a sexy supermom and spy savvy, ushering in a big change for audiences, who now had a revered female character to turn to that juggled the two spheres and still found success in what was purely a man’s domain.
Scarecrow and Mrs. King
A few decades later, 1983’s Scarecrow and Mrs. King, took a regular housewife, Amanda, and turned her into an accidental spy and sidekick to Lee Stetson. Amanda is divorced, living with her children in her mother’s house and ends up joining the spy agency in secrecy, with her dependent family none the wiser.
While in a way it was a step backwards for Amanda to hide her career from her family, she did it to protect them, much like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character in 1994’s True Lies would do (well before his truer lies came out late last year). Amanda’s character is an example of how women in television began to make their career a prime focus – even above family – mirroring the glass ceiling that shattered in the mid 80s.
It was also acceptable for Amanda to gallivant around the world with another man, without the need to be an honorable widow, unlike The Avengers’ Cathy Gale. Instead, she is simply divorced, along with many other American women at the time.
Spycology would not be able to achieve its level of layered comedy and subtle parody without the influence of its Spy TV predecessors. The female lead in Spycology, Quincy, is not traditional in the least, but a progressive, frizzy-haired intellectual, sporting a baggy suit and tie, and dry disposition.
While Quincy serves as a new incarnation of the traditionally sexy, dutiful women that began playing these roles, she’s also a typical Generation-Y woman: strong, independent, focused, and successful. Paired with Jack, who’s not exactly at the top of his class, they both progress and pay homage to the odd couple, spy and gal trope we’ve come to associate with spy TV staples.
Diana Levy just wrapped working for the showrunner of the Fox television show, TOUCH and has now moved into her dream world of comedy, working for the creator of the pilot TWO WRONGS. When she is not in the writers’ room, Diana is working on performing and acting. She is not only a student at the Upright Citizens Brigade, but she also is one half of the sketch duo, Yes, Girl, And, where she writes, stars and produces in sketches online. The sketches will be released in the spring, but for now, Diana can be followed at the tumblr, YesGirlAnd or on twitter as @dianaeloiselevy.