In the early to mid-2000s, the coolest main character was a female spy. TV brought Alias’ Sydney Bristow to young adults and Kim Possible to kids. Charlie’s Angels was rebooted for film. And in games, Joanna Dark became the heroine of Perfect Dark, the spiritual successor to GoldenEye 007. The era was swimming in female James Bonds. Even Die Another Day got in on the trend, introducing Halle Berry as Jinx, Bond’s NSA counterpart.
The genre was open for reimagining, at a time when representations of women on screen were moving away from damsels in distress and into action heroines and protagonists. We recently spoke with some of the key figures involved to find out more about how the trend came about, and how its legacy has continued.
Polygon is diving into the world of espionage throughout fiction and pop culture history with Deep Cover, a two-week special issue covering all sorts of spy stories and gadgets.
Jeff Pinkner, writer and executive producer on Alias, credits the moment the show was in more than anything else. Although he says the Alias writing team didn’t set out to make a show about female empowerment, he points to a media shift happening after the male-centric spy stories of the ’60s and ’70s.
“It was overdue,” says Kim Possible co-creator Robert Schooley. With a few decades of distance from the peak of Cold War-era espionage media, the team was keen to subvert their old tropes. The over-the-top, fantastical villain schemes, like shark tanks and mountain lairs, could stay, but Kim, as a fresh face for a new generation, wouldn’t be shy about saying how played out they were.
“We looked at the spy and hero characters [we had] when we were growing up and it was the ‘Jims,’” says Schooley. In other words, alongside James Bond, Star Trek’s James T. Kirk and The Wild Wild West’s Jim West were the blueprint. Schooley and co-creator Mark McCorkle were also tasked with creating a series for the Disney Channel, whose audience was primarily female. (The show’s blend of action and comedy ultimately made it popular among boys as well, boosting the Disney Channel’s overall male audience.)
“[Our daughters] didn’t have that kind of character where the action part is ludicrously easy for her,” says Schooley. In gender-swapping the classic hero, they wanted to create a girl who could do anything, but to keep it grounded away from supernatural abilities. “The spy genre dovetailed nicely,” says McCorkle.
In particular, the action-oriented, espionage-in-name-only antics of James Bond became the basis for many of these early-2000s properties. Kim Possible’s cartoon nature and younger target audience allowed it to be more comedic, but Pinkner says Alias, too, avoided emulating real spycraft. It was “meant to take place 3 feet off the ground,” he says.
As for why this Bond-inspired revival included so many women, the 2000s were an era when the landscape was beginning to open up beyond Bond girls or femme fatales. As McCorkle puts it: “The world was just sort of ready for female characters that could kick butt.”
Both Pinkner and Schooley bring up Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which premiered in 1997 and had a huge influence on pop culture in multiple ways. A major one was the wave of evil-fighting heroines that followed in Buffy’s wake. The show was a direct influence on Kim Possible, according to Schooley, while Pinkner says it opened the door by directly being about “female empowerment.” Although Buffy may not have been a spy herself, the path was paved for the action-oriented female agent.
Buffy was also notable for its grounding in its heroine’s emotional life, and there was a similar move toward focusing on these spies’ interiority. With Kim Possible and Alias, the high school and college settings respectively allowed for an exploration of the spies’ personal lives. In Kim Possible it also played into the subversion of the earlier spy media. Everyone at Kim’s school knew if she had disarmed a nuclear bomb over the weekend — she didn’t need to keep it a secret, but equally, it wasn’t going to earn her any social cred. “They treat it as no big deal,” says McCorkle.
On the other hand, Sydney’s double life in Alias and the connections between her family and her job allowed for a nuanced exploration of her character. “I’m shockingly, incredibly capable, and valuable, and important,” says Pinkner, summarising the character’s arc, “[but] I’m a person who’s not in control of my own life.” Digging into that tension gave Alias its emotional center.
In games, too, there was the idea of giving female heroines more complexity. In an interview with Eurogamer, Perfect Dark animator Brett Jones said the team was trying to create a less “two dimensional” Lara Croft. And it circles back to the reimagining of James Bond — Rare’s earlier game, GoldenEye 007, didn’t exactly need to give Bond much emotional depth.
Female spies continued to pop up after the mid-2000s and may even be going through a resurgence in film now, thanks to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s fleshing out of Black Widow in the past few years, along with stand-alone movies like Atomic Blonde and Red Sparrow. But as Pinkner points out, Alias was “notable” at the time for its female lead — something that is now “just part of the landscape, which is as it should be.”
The sudden concentration of female spy characters was something of a “lightning-in-a-bottle” moment, says McCorkle. “Sometimes storytellers have that idea that happens to scratch an itch that the audience didn’t know was there. […] For those of us who benefited from [the trend], you can only call it a happy accident.”