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

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“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).

Young adult fiction has female spies galore. Like many YA books, these spy stories allow teenagers to imagine that, under different circumstances, they, too, could be a hero. In Jennifer Lynn Barnes’s Perfect Cover, Toby, a quiet, shy high school sophomore is recruited to the cheerleading squad, which is actually a cover for teenage spies (duh!). When she passes the tests, the captain describes the squad to her as “Charlie’s Angels meets James Bond meets Bring It On…We’re the best of the best. We’re pretty, we’re smart…we’re in perfect physical condition, and best of all, we never get caught. After all, who’s going to suspect the cheerleaders?”

Girl spies flourish when female authors write them into existence. Ally Carter, Robin Benway, Shannon Greenland, Jennifer Lynn Barnes, Kat Carlton, T.A. Maclagan, Annabel Monaghan, Laura Pauling… the list goes on; these eight women are just a sampling of authors who have written contemporary YA books featuring female teenage spies. And the amount of them should not be surprising, yet I am still taken aback by the dominance of women in the genre.

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 Times Best-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 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.

This idea that “women are the victims, never in control” reverberates throughout contemporary spy fiction; the ladies who do exist are femme fatales—or martyred. Male authors rarely write female protagonists (something that is not unique to espionage stories). That’s not to say men cannot write female characters or that female spies do not exist in the works of male spy writers; females take the reins in William Boyd’s Restless and Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth. But the default of spy fiction is (white) male. Natasha Walter explains in The Guardian, “despite its richness, I have often felt alienated by spy fiction because it has often seemed so rigidly masculine.” The female characters in traditional spy fiction, as Walter writes, are characters who are “subsumed into the needs and desires of the male hero.”

So why don’t the teenage spies grow up? Perhaps because teenage girls are less threatening to the “rigid masculinity” of espionage. One may find it easier to imagine a cheerleader taking down the bad guys—because it’s so implausible—than to think a woman could be the CIA’s best agent. The fantasy element of teenage spies is key. Of course teenage spies don’t exist, and since they don’t exist, sure, they can be female. And this fantasy is at the heart of the power of YA fiction: escapism. As Meghan Lewit writes in The Atlantic, “The stories and the genre itself represent a world of limitless potential. As a young reader, I didn’t comprehend that the opportunity to disappear into the lives and adventures of strong-willed young women represented a kind of feminist victory.”

Hopefully, contemporary spy fiction catches up with its YA counterpart. Even though YA spy fiction has its own problems—the protagonists are overwhelmingly white and straight—it’s remarkably gender equal. A good start is Rosalie Knecht’s Who Is Vera Kelly? Knecht, unlike her female spy writer peers, has no intelligence background (…that we know of). The novel could be defined more broadly as literary fiction than spy fiction—yet it is a classic spy story. The titular Vera Kelly, recruited by the CIA, is sent to Argentina in 1962. Kelly navigates understanding her sexual identity, her strained relationship with her mom, and finding any KGB sleeper agents in Buenos Aires. The story follows her from her troubled teenage years to how she eventually got recruited by the CIA. She’s the teenager who grew up that the spy genre needs.

Image: Flickr/CLAUDIA DEA

Misogyny and Other Occupational Hazards of Women Sportswriters


In a world that embraces the pervasive myth that women are not sports fans, one where “throwing like a girl” is lobbed as a critique, women who write about sports face immense challenges. While women sportswriters may not necessarily write about female athletes, they still face the bias—that has been disproven time and time again—that women aren’t sports fans. As the Women’s Sports Foundation found, there is “no research that shows boys are more interested in sports than girls.” It’s a “lack of opportunity” and “lack of peer group support” that leads to girls dropping out of sports at a much higher rate than boys. Same goes for women sportswriters. Institutional and gender biases propel the belief that women aren’t sports fans and therefore women can’t write about sports. But: this is all false (obviously). Of course women are sports fans! Obviously, they can write about sports! This shouldn’t be a revolutionary idea, yet here we are.

Enter Amy Bass and Karen Crouse, two authors whose sports books were released in 2018. Bass’s One Goal: A Coach, a Team, and the Game That Brought a Divided Team Together tells the story of the Maine state soccer championships alongside the story of Lewiston, Maine, a town that has seen a large influx of refugees from Somalia since the 1990s. Crouse’s Norwich: One Tiny Vermont Town’s Secret to Happiness and Excellence is about the amount of Winter Olympians this small town in Vermont has produced.

Women sportswriters face unique challenges. Not only do they face violent threats on social media, many readers doubt their ability to report on sports. Bass explained that “it’s assumed [women] can’t talk about [sports] as well as men because we don’t have the experience playing it. Which, you know, there’s very few sportswriters out there, men or women, who were athletes themselves. So that’s not generally a requirement for being a writer.” Imagine having to be skilled in what you were reporting on—journalists would never cover the Olympics, or any sporting event. In Bass’s essay “Women Who Write About Sports, and the Men Who Hate Them,” published in the AllRounder in March 2015, she writes, “women taking flack for opining on sports is part and parcel of how women have to live their lives every moment of every day. It is part of the same world in which women battle against domestic violence and sexual assault and the wage gap. It is part of the same machine that sees male politicians trying to legislate female bodies, corporations firing women for breastfeeding on the job, and male professors receiving better teaching evaluations than their female counterparts.” Essentially: women writing about sports face the same misogynistic world that the rest of us do.

Out of all genres, female sportswriters have it particularly bad. In the Women’s Media Center report on the status of women in media in 2017, they found that men receive 62 percent of byline and other credits in print, Internet, television, and wire news. In sports, that number jumps to 89 percent. As Safia Ahmad pointed out in “Sexism and Racism Continue to Dominate Sports Journalism,” “Female sports journalists remain the least represented in all types of journalism today.” No wonder it’s so difficult to find sports books written by women; so few female sports journalists are getting book deals because they barely exist.

Jessica Luther released her debut Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape in September 2016. In it, she exhaustively covers the issues of rape on college campuses and writes about the importance of “de-centering the athlete” in stories of sexual violence and athletes. Essentially: amplify the other voices, because, as she writes, “de-centering the athlete is not only more fair to women who report, it is more fair to the players, as it draws attention away from the individual and instead forces us to interrogate the system itself.” When I had the chance to speak with Luther, she explained “it’s not only an issue in sports, [but] we as a society tend to worry much more about the ruin of someone whose been reported than about the harm done to someone that’s reporting.” She went on to discuss a study the Women’s Media Center released in 2015 (“Writing Rape: How U.S. Media Cover Campus Rape and Sexual Assault”), where she tells me with regards to sports media, “when male sports reporters cover [a story], they mainly talk to men as sources. Whereas, women sports reporters who cover it, tend to 50/50 [their sources]. So, female sports reporters tend to have a wider set of sources they’re talking to.”

Luther, a prominent sportswriter, explained that because sports media is so dominantly male, when you think about the “sort of hoops you have to jump through as far as convincing a publisher you’re marketable” in order to get a book deal, many female sportswriters are “climbing uphill.” When pitching her book, Crouse tells me, “three publishing houses expressed interest—all three were represented by female editors. This is a sweeping generalization but I can’t help but wonder if the women ‘got’ the essence of my book in a way that sort of went over the heads of the men who just couldn’t see the value of a book about a town built on relationships. Maybe that keeps more women from being published, I don’t know. But I don’t think it was a coincidence that I had a female agent and a female book editor.”

Luther is the co-host of a feminist sports podcast, Burn It All Down, with Shireen Ahmed, Amira Rose Davis, Brenda Elsey, and Lindsay Gibbs. On Burn It All Down, the hosts make a point of amplifying the voices of women, gender non-conforming and non-binary people. As Luther explained to me, “we made a pact at the beginning that if we could find a woman or a non-binary person, then we would start with them.” And over 49 episodes, they’ve found those people. While Burn It All Down is not a book, it’s one step towards the badly needed diversification of the sports media landscape.

Needless to say, sports journalism is a deeply male-dominated field. Shockingly, however, both Bass and Crouse made it clear to me that they don’t really agree with the idea that there aren’t any sports books written by women. Bass pointed out that sports writing is not unique; most genres (with the exception of a few) are largely male-dominated. And, to compound the problem, “sports is not an outlier in terms of being an overwhelmingly male-dominated industry.” Crouse concurred, pointing me towards a plethora of female journalists who have written sports books (Sally Jenkins, Liz Clarke, Joan Ryan, Christine Brennan, Liz Robbins, Selena Roberts, Ann Killion, Molly Knight, Mary Pilon, Kate Fagan, to name a few).

When I read Crouse’s Norwich and Bass’s One Goal, Luther’s concept of “de-centering the athlete” stuck with me. Bass explains that even though the story of the Lewiston Blue Devils—the high school soccer team made largely of refugees from Somalia who captured the state championship—has “everything you want in a classic great sports story,” what made it so powerful was that it’s not just a story about a great season of soccer. But the story of “refugees writ large.” Although the young athletes shine through on the page, Bass makes a point to constantly contextualize their story. Same goes for Crouse. As she wrote the stories of the Olympians who came out of this tiny Vermont town, her editor kept reminding her that no matter who she was writing about, “the main character of this book was Norwich,” and every story she told was through that context. De-centering the athlete makes for powerful stories on greater trends in sports.

De-centering the athlete to focus on the community shines in Alexis Okeowo’s story of a women’s basketball team in Somalia, an excerpt of her 2015 book A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Woman and Men Fighting Extremism in Africa. In the essay, she tells the story of Aisha, a young woman playing basketball in Mogadishu, Somalia, but transforms her story into a larger look at Somalia’s growing Islamic extremism and the institutional barriers keeping female athletes from succeeding. But, in expanding the focus of her essay, Okeowo doesn’t ignore Aisha; Aisha forms the emotional core of the narrative, and it’s her compelling sports story that gives readers an entry point for understanding the larger socio-political climate in Somalia.

Female sportswriters do exist. And they are leading the way to create space for female voices in sports journalism. When Crouse started working for the Savannah News-Press in 1986, she was the first woman in the sports department. She recalls, “The first time I went out to interview a high school football coach, he felt the need to explain to me that the quarterback is the person who lines up behind the center. It was the first time I realized there were people in this world who would not be supportive of my life path, who would question my legitimacy because of my gender, who thought I was overstepping my bounds for no reason other than my sex.” The New York Times hired Crouse in 2005, where she has worked since. Yet, she tells me, “to this day, even with three decades of experience, I can never assume that people will accept that I belong where I am or deserve to be doing what I do.”

To encourage more female sportswriters, who will eventually write books, Luther tells me, it needs to begin with hiring. Those in hiring roles at media companies “have to be way more conscientious of their own biases.” Crouse recalls, “A few years ago, I remember asking the then sports editor at Yahoo! why there were no women on his staff. He said that when making a hire, he consults with his staff, so it’s a collaborative effort. And I pointed out, if he consults with his staff and his staff is all-male, that’s pretty much the definition of an old boys’ network.”

In her acknowledgements of Norwich, Crouse writes, “this book was yoga for my soul, the writing equivalent of a forward bend after what amounts to the long and deep back bend that is my daily existence in the relentlessly male sports journalism world.” Both Bass’s One Goal and Crouse’s Norwich— and Luther’s Unsportsmanlike Conduct, and many other sports stories published before 2018— are much needed entries into the genre of sports writing.

Image Credit: Flickr/catherinecronin.