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The women raised to be spies in Black Widow, Alias, and Hanna

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Mar 24, 2020, 6:00 PM EDT

What makes a good spy?

An ability to adapt or blend in no matter what scenario is thrown at an agent is paramount, but movies and television have a long history of portraying spies with innate abilities. Espionage is in their blood ... literally. Whether they were trained to possess deadly skills from a young age or even genetically altered in the womb to make them the best candidate, the notion of early indoctrination is a theme captured in a variety of female spies on screen.

From Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) in Alias to the forthcoming Black Widow origin story, these narratives are often rooted in Cold War tensions, with each side dreaming up new ideas to gain the upper hand. A weapons race isn't simply relegated to bombs, fighter jets, and chemicals; those pulling the trigger are just as important. Even though James Bond is the world's most famous fictional spy, the centering on women in the "raised to be spies" trope reveals a lot about the depiction of female covert agents and the historical undertones.

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The role of women in World War II wasn't only performing vital work in the factories and fields back home, they also fought on the front line as spies. In a recent episode of Doctor Who, the contribution of Noor Inayat Khan was highlighted, showcasing how dangerous it was for the women who went undercover to aid allied forces. Khan was not alone in performing these duties. The character of Miss Moneypenny — created by IRL spy and James Bond author Ian Fleming — is rumored to be based on several women who performed vital covert acts during the war.

It is, therefore, no surprise that a character such as Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) was such a vital part of Captain America's origin story. In the sadly short-lived TV spinoff Agent Carter, the origin of Natasha Romanoff's (Scarlett Johansson) training program was portrayed in the Season 1 episode "The Iron Ceiling." Dottie Underwood (Bridget Regan) is far more deadly than her sweet persona would suggest, which Peggy discovers the painful way. But unlike Peggy, Dottie's spy start began before she hit puberty, ensuring she is the best in her field as she switches effortlessly between sweet, sexy, and deadly.

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Flashbacks to 1937 indicate just how brutal the Red Room training program is, revealing young girls handcuffed to the beds they sleep in. Dottie's benevolence is immediately retracted when she is shown snapping the neck of the friend she broke bread with that morning at the behest of the instructor. Even fun activities like movies are full of subliminal messages to give the subjects a killer instinct, such as the fact that weakness will not be tolerated. Ballet is another endeavor that goes beyond showcasing the arts as a means to implement both discipline and strength.

The horrors of the Red Room stretch far and wide, which include real people used as target practice and sterilizing agents so children cannot become a distraction. Whether acting as a honeytrap or an invisible presence in a patriarchal society — underestimated for what power they might possess — it is clear why women are targeted by these types of sleeper agent systems. It's the Madonna-whore complex come to life; a female spy can wield her sexuality or her sweet essence to successfully complete a mission. Being able to switch between the two ideals is one way to score whatever intel a man might provide.

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The extremes the KBG goes to in order to build the best assets are matched by the CIA in Alias and Hanna. Neither side is clean in this invisible war for global domination. Children are utilized in these depictions of top-secret operations, showcasing the moral lines agencies are willing to cross. Upping the dramatic stakes, it is highly unethical but very effective to train a child who already displays an aptitude for problem solving as a sleeper agent. In Alias, Sydney Bristow finds out in Season 2 that she didn't become a spy of her own volition; she was part of a CIA program called Project Christmas, which focused on training the next generation of agents from an early age.

Going one step further, the titular Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) was literally born to be a spy. Her mother was recruited at an abortion clinic, becoming a participant in a trial that changed the DNA of a fertilized embryo to turn them into super-soldiers. However, when the project was shut down, Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett) destroyed all the evidence and test subjects that proved its existence. Only Hanna and her surrogate father, Erik Heller (Eric Bana), escaped. Out of necessity, Erik trained her to become the best assassin she could be. When she finally had contact with a teenage girl her age, her social awkwardness reveals a huge hole in his lessons. Hanna can fight better than anyone, but she lacks the ability to blend as her counterparts do.

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In each case, these young girls are trained to become an asset to their country, which sees them learning skills that far exceed anything you would learn at a regular camp or Girl Scouts meeting. The Red Room elite program is fictitious, although reading Svetlana Alexievich's excellent nonfiction book The Unwomanly Face of War — in which she gathered first-person interviews with women who fought in World War II for the Soviet Union — underscores how tough it was to be a young girl in Russian during this time of warfare.

"At 19 I had a medal 'For Courage.' At 19 my hair was gray. At 19 in my last battle I was shot through both lungs," one woman explains. Another notes that at 15 her father enrolled her in a nursing course and within a year she was serving on the front. Small anecdotes about something as normal as a growth spurt further emphasize the age of those who aided the war effort: "We were so young when we went to the front. Young girls. I even grew during the war. Mama measured me when I got home … I grew four inches." There is a toughness within these pages, but emotions are not banished. These are real teenagers, not children trained since they were 6 to become cold assassins.

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But what those movies and TV shows lack in historical accuracy, they capture in the essence of the women who put their lives on the line in their roles as covert agents. Dottie is so effective in the first season of Agent Carter because she fools everyone around her thanks to her flirtatious skills and a girl-next-door smile. Shedding further light on the practices of the Red Room, the Black Widow origin story will likely add credence to why this covert agent strategy is one cinema keeps returning to (see also, Red Sparrow).

The insidious nature of stealing a child's innocence to wield them as a future weapon is an image that hits harder when a woman is the one brandishing the gun or using her body. But as these extreme characters and their real-life counterparts prove, you should never underestimate the power of a woman — no matter her age.

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