This week’s Danger Gal profile is on Annie Walker from the new USA Network spy thriller series Covert Affairs. Portrayed by actress Piper Perabo, Annie begins leading a double life when she is promoted from newbie CIA trainee to field operative in an effort to track down her former lover, Ben Mercer, who has gone rogue. World-traveler Annie speaks six languages and has excelled in her training, specifically in defensive driving.

Covert Affairs is part of a recent slew of new TV shows, such as Undercovers and the yet-again revamped Nikita, with an action heroine in the lead. If you’re a regular Danger Gal reader, then you probably know that this makes me giddy with glee. To quote Shannon Donnelly at the Sexy Beast blog:

“They’re tough, smart, ambitious, and can do everything Jack did—and they can do it in heels.”

What I Don’t Like About the Show

The number one thing that bugs me is that Annie Walker would probably not have been put in her current position if not for her love life entanglements. While Walker’s abilities are never questioned because of her gender and she’s qualified for the job based on her performance at The Farm, she still would likely have spent a couple years learning the ropes in another position first.

It seems, though, that the writers are laying the ground work to make the argument that such emotional entanglements make us better people and therefore better agents. We’ve seen on several occasions in season one how the job has cost former director Henry Wilcox all semblance of a heart. The notion is not lost on his adopted son, Jai Wilcox, portrayed by Sendhil Ramamurthy. The same argument is being made with the relationships between Arthur and Joan Campbell as well as Auggie Anderson and Liza Hearn. So, while this aspect of the show grated on me in the beginning, I think the idea will turn out to be a plus.

Two more issues bear mentioning:

  • Would someone in the costuming department please put some sleeves on Joan Campbell? The character is supposed to be one of the highest-ranking female agents in the CIA and is being groomed to take over her husband’s position as Director of the Clandestine Service Department. Her husband is always seen wearing a suit, but Joan has a penchant for tank tops. Really?
  • Do CIA newbies truly get asked to rate their previous lovers in lie detector tests when promoted from The Farm? Did Auggie get asked if the sex was good with Liza Hearn? I don’t think so.

What I Like About the Show

Walker isn’t always being saved by other agents in every other scene. Because she is a brand new baby agent, it stands to reason that Walker will make mistakes and need to be rescued occasionally. However, she rescues as often as being rescued. In “Communication Breakdown” Walker helps rescue Auggie when he sets out to protect his hacker ex-girlfriend. In the season finale, she rescues Ben Mercer in a physical fight.

I have noticed that Walker tends to use makeshift weapons and catch opponents unawares. She also is shown having to take more than one swipe at an opponent before getting an edge in the fight. Some reactions to this show are asking about how a woman could win a fight with a larger, presumably male, opponent. In researching the role, Perabo interviewed CIA agents. From the Daily Beast article:

[Valerie]Plame and Liman, who had CIA connections due to his previous spy movies, were able to get Perabo into Langley to talk to real female spies about the same age as Perabo’s character. The most surprising insight from these real-life Annie Walkers? How hard it is finding someone to date. “You can’t tell a guy what you do, you disappear for chunks of time, and you’re probably tougher than him,” Perabo says.

So many action heroines in the new TV line-ups have caused the Denver Post’s Lisa Kennedy to write the article Beauty meets brute force: Are tough screen heroines empowering, or do they send a dangerous message? In the article Kennedy examines what factors brought about the emergence of the strong heroine and what are the possible ramifications of society seeing them on-screen.

She quotes critic and self-described pacifist Jennifer Merin, president of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists:

“I’m concerned about teenage girls who go and see ‘Salt’ or go and see Lisbeth [Girl with the Dragon Tattoo] in action and then think they too have that kind of prowess…If young girls are being exposed to kick-ass queens and they think they can do that, there’s a danger that they’ll just get smushed.”

Yes, we might get “smushed.” But women have been getting “smushed” for eons whether we train to deal with it or not. I respect Merin’s pacifism, but I have to wonder if she’s also questioning the message we’re sending boys with characters like Burned’s Michael Weston, another USA Network TV spy. If she is asking those questions, then that’s fantastic. If not, then she’s doubting the ability of women to know the difference between fantasy and reality.

Rebuttals that speak to both issues include Kennedy’s article that goes on to quote Denver Roller Doll Bea Ware:

“If I’ve learned anything in the rink, it’s that I am constantly shocked and surprised at how much our bodies can take,” she replies when asked if she balks at on-screen images in which women fight back — and win.

“I think there’s something to our bodies as women that makes it possible to sustain what many people think we can’t,” she says. Of course, training helps…But could she take on a guy bent on hurting her?

“Sure, I absolutely think that,” she says.

“That’s why if I had daughters, I’d encourage them to be athletes. So much of it’s mental. Maybe even if that isn’t the physical reality — who knows what the scenario might be?

Perabo herself seems to understand how cathartic a fantasy can be:

“You work all day, you go to the grocery store, you have a family to take care of, the house isn’t clean… if an assassin came up behind you, God, wouldn’t it feel good to just head-butt him?” she says. “I think it would, anyway!”

Certainly many of the shows I’ve highlighted on this blog aren’t for children, who are forming their ideas of reality and might indeed find it difficult to separate reality from fantasy. However, strong characters, whether female or male, function as wish-fulfillment, sex objects, and role models for their audiences. The assumption is that these types of shows are meant to use the heroine’s sex appeal to pull in a male audience to the exclusion of wish-fulfillment and role models for a female audience. If this is true, then once again Hollywood is short changing women and themselves. After all, women control “over $20 trillion in consumer spending each year, potentially growing to $28 trillion over the next five years.”

That’s not a niche market.

UPDATE: Cinematical responds to the Denver Post article mentioned in this Danger Gal profile: Girls on Film: Strong Heroines are not a Dangerous Message.

“Strong women aren’t a scary thing, and I hope Hollywood keeps offering more of them so that this world of Salts, Salanders, and Hit Girls becomes the norm, and maybe strong women won’t seem like such a threat, and the world at large can stop thinking of women in strict, narrow, and stereotypical absolutes. Not every woman is weak, not every man is strong, and there are many wholly entertained and inspired by the strong women we’ve seen on screen this year. “

Other articles on Covert Affairs

Covert Affairs: A Hotty Who Kicks Butt
Extraordinary Dentition: Piper Perabo joins the CIA in the zippy Covert Affairs

Athletic Women:
The Action Heroine Returns to Television in Force
Reminder Covert Affairs Tonight

Collider: Interview with Piper Perabo and Christopher Gorham

Zap2It: Piper Perabo Doesn’t Need a Gun



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