Archive for the ‘Mother of Invention’ Category

Slide1I’m fairly certain I understand what it takes to make great entertainment: a well-written narrative, good casting, and compelling characters, but the current trend of the Anti-Heroine in the Spy Dame genre is really starting to tick me off and sends a bad message about women in the biz.

It started with Carrie Mathison, the CIA analyst from the popular TV series Homeland. Carrie is a talented analyst aided by her bipolar disorder, when in full-force, enhances her ability to see patterns where others fail. However, her erratic behavior and general prickliness makes her really unlikable as a person.

Then we are followed up by another CIA analyst, Maya Lambert from the Oscar nominated movie Zero Dark Thirty. No apparent mental health issues, but again, the near combative, and constant bullying behavior was overwhelming throughout the movie, and at times, very much unwarranted and out of place.

Now we have the new TV show The Bridge with Sonia Cross, a detective in the El Paso, Texas police department tracking down a serial killer who also has Asperger’s Syndrome, which limits her ability at times to accomplish her job without ruffling more than a few feathers, and apparently also makes her a pretty bad driver.

Maybe these writers think that making these women exceptionally quirky somehow makes them more exciting, lovable, or endearing. Mostly it just makes them aggressively annoying. I love the “procedural drama” because I like to understand how the proverbial machine of investigation and analysis work, but putting the disfunctional character archetype first and foremost really undermines and even derails that genre as a whole.

Now this is not to say that there are not women out there doing the job with these circumstances. But this twist of character doesn’t even have a base level by which to jump off from. A base level where are just women doing The Job. So here’s my bigger problem: It’s not enough that a woman can be a real and normal human being with all the real and normal issues that accompany that, but that she also has to be decidedly single with a mental illness-disorder-awkwardness-whathaveyou, and in many cases, just plain damn unlikable sends the message that dames can’t get the job done unless they delve just enough into a big bag of crazy, or conversely, any woman successful at her job must somehow be a loon on some level. And frankly, at the end of the play, I think it’s a cop-out to cover the fact that writers can’t develop a strong female character without a plot device.

Plenty of amazing fictional Spy Dames didn’t need this malarky: Kate Burroughs, the illustrious M, hell, even Sidney Bristow – Queen of SpyFi – got along just fine with her overly-developed sense of patriotism that almost always resulted in her being a pretty darn positive person…impending Zombie Apocalypse and mad scientists aside.

So I find myself waiting, patiently, for the Happy-Go-Lucky-type SpyDame to appear on the screen, big or small. They’re out there. And if writers had even some sense of a clue, they would write about her.

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I did not post much last year, and while I feel massively guilty over this fact, it is tempered with the reality that such is the life of the PhD student. However, given that is is January, I resolve to be a better blogger…we’ll see if this holds…because I am due to defend my dissertation this year…

But despite my bad blogger-ing, I did notice a heartening trend, particularly in the closing of the year. I noticed that the media was actually giving credit to the women of the trade in ways that did not involve perceived princess-ness, beauty, or even sex.

Wha-wa-wah!? you say? Women actually being noted for their competence? Skill? Tenacity? Dedication? Talent? Is this Backwards Land? Did I slip into a wormhole? Did the media actual wake up in 2012 and not the Groundhog Day existence of the 1960s that reporting on women in Intelligence has been perpetually waking up to since, well, forever?

Let’s run it down:

It began last September when a former Navy Seal, Matt Bissonnette, who took part in the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden (yeah, I know, Usama-Osama, tomayto-tomahto, whatever – dead), reported the existence of “Jen”, a CIA agent whom he credited with tracking down the infamous OBL. Though I didn’t much care the descriptions of her being “feisty”, I certainly appreciated the use of the term “wicked smart”.

So, while terrific and all, a gal getting her due, what was more interesting was in what followed this initial reporting; reports of not only the existence of wicked-smart “Jen”, but of other women, equally talented, who work among the ranks of the typical white-male patriarchy that has plagued the Intelligence filed for so long.

Quickly on the heels of this reporting, follows the film “Zero Dark Thirty” a film about the hunt for OBL featuring the said-same “Jen” in the form of “Maya” (more on her in another post), a CIA agent working tirelessly for years in the hunt of the world’s most famous terrorist. The story of Maya is not about her being a broad in the field, but a tough, frustrated and determined agent who is often pretty difficult to like, especially when she is right, a trait which is normally heralded in a man and disparaged in women.

And of course, given the awards-circuit dominance of the Claire Danes playing Carrie Mathison on the TV show “Homeland” (more on her in another post – yes, I know, I’m behind), we start to see a trend – the portrayal and reporting of complicated, tough women doing the job, doing it right.

All of this makes for great fodder in the media particularly when there is a new spin to put on the story. Women are no longer just preternatural bombshells practicing “sexpionage”, but are a “new breed of agent” described as “secret weapons“. Something new. Something innovative. Something not ever seen before.

And here’s where I call shenanigans.

It is again a case where men and media fail to learn their history. In the said same reporting it is discussed how women served as the best “targeters” for capturing senior al Qaeda leaders immediately following 9/11, especially Jennifer Matthews, an agent key to the capture of Abu Zubaydah in 2002 (although later scapegoated for larger Agency failures). And, ahem, let the record show this article is written in 2012 – a full decade later the fact. So these women are hardly new to the scene.

And of course, this again denies the existence of women who have served in Intelligence all along as engineers, mathematicians, cryptographers, agents, operatives, etc – all dedicated, tough, talented, and relentless in their pursuit of a more secure nation.

So it is during this time that we note the passing of Jeanne Vertefeuille, a long-time CIA analyst largely responsible for uncovering the country’s most dangerous mole, Aldrich Ames, in 1994. Of course, Jeanne worked alongside a team of talented women, who have come to be known as The Sisterhood, that despite being hired in the CIA during a time when women were not exactly appreciated, still performed brilliantly, establishing careers and performing feats that anyone – men or women – should aspire to achieve.

I mention Jeanne in this post, not because she stands out above a few centuries of women in Intelligence, but because in light of the reporting of “Jen”, and “Zero Dark Thirty”, and the not-so-new-breed of female agents and analysts, Jeanne Vertefeuille received her full due in the national media, and is hailed as a hero for her service to her country.

Just as a lot of other women should be.

For me, 2012 ended on a high note: Women being recognized for their great work in national security. Granted the facts are hardly right and the historical interpretation is not exactly sound, but still, all said – I’ll take it.

Here’s hoping the men folk and the media keep it up.

I will be perfectly honest in saying that I had zero interest in Haywire and potentially seeing yet another film exploiting the sexed-up-killer-fembot stereotype that plagues modern Spy-Fi; but with the illustrious Steven Soderbergh at the helm, and not to mention an absolutely killer (pardon the pun) cast, there was no way not to see it. Result? Color me impressed.

Mallory Kane, former marine and private operations specialist, is at a cross-roads. She hates her boss/former lover, wants to quit her job, and move on with her life. However, when an op goes south, and by south I mean she is set-up to be taken out, she decides to put on her whoop-ass pants and open her big bag of tricks on those who have transgressed her.

Of course, this being a Soderbergh film, you have no sense of the plot until about 2/3 into the film; whereby the narrative starts somewhere in the middle, goes back to the beginning, and revisits the middle before plowing through to the end.

So here’s what to love about the character Mallory: she isn’t an angsty, girly, conflicted woman. She is an operative who contemplates her life goals and career, makes highly calculated decisions, and then goes about her business of assassinations and generally kicking ass in some of the best and most realistic fight scenes I have ever seen on film.

Here’s what’s to love about the actress, Gia Carano, who plays Mallory: she’s a champion mixed-martial artist with a body, and muscles, and who not only knows how to take a hit, but gives it back in spades. There’s a reality in that if you take a hit from a 6’5 guy, chances are you’re gonna feel it. This movie doesn’t shy away from Mallory taking an ass kicking. There’s also the reality that Mallory isn’t  a 90lbs fembot in stilettos with jutting ribs taking out guys 4 times her size and weight with a roundhouse kick (which by the way Hollywood – ISN’T. REMOTELY. POSSIBLE). But all that being said, I could have done without the Rambo-style make-up job at the end of the film.

Here’s what to love about the film: the back story. Covert Ops is a business. There are contract negotiations. Clauses. Addendums. Payment plans. Attempted poaching of employees. Jerky co-workers and territorial bosses. Operation specialists are not lone wolves. There’s a tedium to wet-work that necessitates team work and these teams come with a messy web of infrastructure supporting their every move. Mallory is keen on this end and makes sure to conduct some back door dealings of her own, not just running amok killing everyone who ruined her day.

This is a film about loose ends. Normally, loose ends are the bits of fluff in our life we mere mortals need to tie-off, but this being the movies, and one about assassins, means that loose ends are not tied-off as much as they are macheted. Mallory has to make a clean and permanent break with her past which invariably comes with quite the body count.

Definitely not a spy, but this monarch held an even better title, one of “Spymistress”.

Americans tend to have this idea about England, where the country seems to preternaturally have its act together, however, not many Yanks know that at one time, The Great Empire once existed in a state of near chaos.

Queen Elizabeth I of England (1533-1603) was the second daughter of the notorious King Henry the VIII, the chap who had a penchant for food and executing his wives, and the only child of Anne Boleyn, the King’s second wife who had her head lobbed off when Elizabeth was but a toddler.

Tons of intrigue and no small amount of scandal later, Elizabeth ascended to the throne at the age of twenty-five. She inherited a country with a warring feudal system, a slew of relatives who would possibly like to see her dead, a state of enmity with the Catholic Church that definitely wanted to see her dead, poor relations with neighboring countries, and empty coffers (i.e. England was close to being broke if it wasn’t already). The country, quite simply, was a mess.

Enter Elizabeth, young, beautiful, female, single. We all the know the story: the young queen must marry appropriately, secure a male child, which in turn secures the line of ascension, and preferably said marriage should be with either a Spaniard or a Frenchman so at least one of those countries would be off England’s back.

However, Good Queen Bess wasn’t having it. Whether it was the sterling example of her father, the rumored romance with a certain Lord Robert Dudley, the rumors of her being a man, or whatever, Elizabeth married herself to England and blazed forth what would be known as England’s Golden Age.

And the Golden Age really came about because QBI was exceptionally good at threat management and maintaining stability. Forces within France and Spain saw England as weak while forces within her country saw her as weak.  Ireland and the Catholic Church quite simply saw the queen as a threat to salvation and agreed she had to go. The task at hand, holding  England together, was a lot like juggling and Elizabeth certainly had a lot of balls in the air. She wielded the very idea of marriage like a tool of both domestic and foreign policy. She brought some semblance of organization to the Anglican church by firmly aligning it to the Protestantism. And she certainly kept close tabs on her foes through her excellent appointment of advisers.

Elizabeth’s inner circle helped her manage both domestic threats and threats from abroad. William Cecil, Baron of Burghley ran a tight financial ship and was responsible for bringing Sir Frances Walsingham, the father of modern-day intelligence practices, to the queen’s court.

With Walsingham in place, the queen was able to acquire the necessary domestic and foreign intelligence for decision-making. Walsingham infiltrated the Spanish military, secured the evidence for the execution of Elizabeth’s greatest rival, Mary Queen of Scots, and foiled any number of plots instituted by nasties within the realm.

All the while, Elizabeth and Walsingham had quite a contentious relationship. He was plain-spoken to the point of being blunt, a literal man of action, and while she had her hide to protect, Walsingham on more than one occasion offended her royal sensibilities.  But he did his job and did it well. It’s very hard to dislike a man who saves your neck day-in to day-out.

All this risk management allowed the queen to enjoy nearly a half-century on the throne. Quite a feat considering that at the end, Elizabeth died an unmarried woman, England’s future secured and a smooth transition of power to King James VI.

George Washington often stands out as the historical figure who best managed the spy trade, but he certainly never had to deal with the level of difficulty, treachery, nor had as many enemies painting targets on his back as Elizabeth had. Under close scrutiny, Elizabeth’s reign was not a rousing success, but in an era where it was exceptionally easy to die on the throne, managing to keep your enemies at bay for 45 years certainly says something about a dame’s, pardon me, queen’s acumen.

I could be really teed off at this broad for dashing my hopes of what I thought would be a kick-ass thesis by accomplishing it first, but I am too in awe of her massive mental abilities, and as such, have decided to profile her instead.

Judee-doll was born in Ames, Iowa in 1948. A fairly normal upbringing ensued and resulted in classic mid-western dame. Judee attended Iowa State University where she earned a degree in both Speech and English minored in both Social Studies and Education. She quickly went on to earn a Masters in Speech Communication and a PhD two years later in Communication and Educational Psychology.

So let’s tally this up before proceeding:

  • Speech: verbal communication
  • English: written communication
  • Social Studies: ability to learn about people in context
  • Education: ability to teach people
  • Communication: a hefty blend of all of the above
  • Speech Communication: a further blend of speaking about all of the above
  • Educational Psychology: how people learn in educational settings

I’m not going to lie here: I expected her head to be size of mutant watermelon. I mean really, that is a heck of a lot of knowledge for one brain in such a short amount of time, but I Googled her and her head seems well-sized. So let’s continue:

Judee bounced around academia teaching in Florida, New York, Michigan and finally settling in Arizona where she is firmly installed a the University of Arizona. Her teaching and research interests according to her website read:

My primary teaching and research interests center on nonverbal and relational communication, with emphasis on such interpersonal communication processes and outcomes as expectancy violations, deception, nonverbal relational messages, conversation involvement and dominance, and dyadic adaptation patterns. I also have a subsidiary interest in mass media uses and evaluations.”

So you might be asking yourself:  Why does this dame deserve a post on this site? Simple, because she performed research  in something that I predict will become massively important in years to come: automated detection of deception

Long story short, aside from the usual verbal and non-verbal cues people provide when trying to deceive, Judee and her team developed a tool called “Agent 99” (named after the female Get Smart characterlove it!) that can detect (not always but there’s always room for improvement) deception in text messages.

Wow, wow, and more wow. In a world where Twitter informs the public of a major revolt inside a seemingly closed society, or is used as a tool of communication and deception in a government experiment, or is used to proffer information during a natural disaster , sound decisions making is going to depend on the ability to separate the wheat from the chaff, the noise from the signal, the mayo from the baloney. So this Agent 99 tool? Pretty damn useful.

And Judee exemplifies what I love most about women and their contributions to Intel: they come from where you least expect it.

This, of course, still means I am stuck in search of a thesis topic…