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The Honourable Woman: Upending the Sexy Spy Drama

The Honourable Woman: Upending the Sexy Spy Drama

After watching the first episode of The Honourable Woman (SundanceTV) last week, I tried to put my finger on what felt so unfamiliar to me about it. It wasn’t just star Maggie Gyllenhaal’s British accent (which sounded pretty solid, at least to my amateur ear), but the entirety of her character, businesswoman Nessa Stein, who aims to use her late father’s gun-running fortune to foster Israeli-Palestinian peace.

And then it hit me: At no point in the premiere episode of this BBC drama did Nessa use her feminine wiles to advance her agenda. Sure, she’s not a spy in the conventional sense – though we’ve been warned that “everyone has secrets,” and considering the entire opening credits consists of Nessa pondering whom one can trust, we can safely say there’s more to her than we currently know.

But I simply cannot imagine an American version of this show’s first episode that wouldn’t have Gyllenhaal cozying up to some oblivious business contact at some point in order to convince him to do her bidding. Crossing her stiletto’d legs in the foreground as a signifier that she’s willing to do whatever it takes to get the mission accomplished.

Instead, we get one scene in which she’s wearing a goddamn turtleneck. And not a form-fitting one, either. This may seem like a shallow detail, but hear me out: I’m so tired of otherwise three-dimensional female characters being shoehorned into fuck-me clothes. In another scene, Nessa’s in her House of Lords robes, being sworn in as a Baroness, and looking a bit like a schoolboy.

If I were better at Photoshop, I’d put together some shots by comparison of our American-show female protagonists sporting pixie cuts and drapey outfits. Somehow I can’t see it happening.

Because what we’ve come to define as empowerment in the spy-intrigue genre is sex appeal plus blunt or at-gunpoint force, occasionally spiced up with mental illness or codependence. As long as our female action lead can eventually do violence to, or otherwise apprehend, her target, we’re absolved of putting her in a skimpy outfit and drooling as she makes her way toward us in slo-mo.

Alias really brought this practice to the fore; Jennifer Garner’s character had a neverending series of assignments calling on her to don wigs and stripper garb undercover. Sure, she always got to demonstrate her crack martial arts skills eventually, but almost always had to suffer through some humiliating objectification first.

But that was back in the 90s, you say. We’ve come a long way since then. Like on The Americans, you mean?

Or Nikita, which ran until last year, with the actual motto “Looks can kill.” Maggie Q’s assassin character was deadly, but what good would it have done her without being able to rock a tiny bikini?

Even when a character isn’t playing dress-up, she’s still expected to use sex as a weapon if necessary. On Homeland, Claire Danes’ Carrie never has to go full stripper, but she initially sleeps with Damian Lewis’ Brody to get closer – then falls in love with him and becomes a victim of her own emotions, to say nothing of the affair’s effect on her already-prevalent bipolar instability.

On Covert Affairs, Piper Perabo’s CIA agent character may be good at what she does, but she’s not all business. Watch her use her job as role-playing material here.

This is not to say I hope Gyllenhaal’s character is sexless; from the little I’ve seen in trailers, she clearly isn’t. But judging from one advance review, she has more agency in these exchanges than most American female characters: there’s “the reveal early in the second episode that asking ‘Who do you work for?’ of a sex partner isn’t just silly pillow talk on Nessa’s part, but a legitimate question. (At the end of the scene, she sassily sends her compliments to MI6 for picking more enticing honeypot bait than in previous operations.)”

Nessa is clearly a complicated figure; she’s lonely and constantly vigilant (she seems to sleep in some sort of fortified isolation chamber) and, it seems likely, deeply damaged from her eight-years-earlier kidnapping we see in brief flashback. But she mainly appears deeply capable and dispassionate in her business dealings, which has raised the claim in another review that, “emotionally inert, she’s a human riddle waiting for an answer, or at least evidence of a beating heart.”

Personally, I don’t think her character – who demonstrates great if obsessive love for her family members in the first episode – seems heartless, but in any case I’m not sure a “beating heart” is the novelty I’ve been waiting for from a female character in a spy drama. What I’m optimistic about is her fully-functioning brain.

I don’t think I’m alone in having a certain amount of confidence in the show simply because of Gyllenhaal’s involvement. More than most female actors, she has a track record of choosing progressive-minded projects that don’t fall into stupid gender clichés. The fact that this is her first foray into television also speaks well for The Honourable Woman, which advances the notion that finite miniseries are the best thing on the small screen these days.

Episode 2 airs this evening on SundanceTV.

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Peter Gooch

We have now seem this remarkable series on DVD as we live in Europe. it is really is quite remarkable made all the more so by the performance of Maggie Gyllenhaal, who I am told, had a remarkable English coach in the shape of Emma Thompson
I should warn that some of the episodes you have yet to see are very depressing as the pressure mounts on Nessa Stein


I thought your comment about Nikita's character was a bit presumptuous, because if you notice that scene that is depicted of her wearing that red bikini is actually a nightmare, and you find out later in the series that it is related to a previous mission she experienced. As well as throughout the show she uses seduction sparingly, even advising against her protege' from using it all, you see her come up against many men either by sheer brute force or other ingenious maneuvers. Nikita's character was abused, and through her subsequent division training instilled with a sense of morality that often is highlighted throughout the series, showing Nikita's darker side. I'm not sure if you watched that series in it's entirety because it showed multi dimensional women who could be both caring and cruel, kind and nasty, and warm and cold, sexy and shut off, and unapologetic for it.


I absolutely agree with you! The character Nessa is so complex, and Maggie is simple mesmerizing. She's so deeply damaged and for 8 years she's hid a defining moment in her life from the people that she loves. There is no real happiness behind her eyes, it's a huge sense of duty that she carries because of her name and who she family is …. I am glad that she not overly sexualized but Maggie herself exudes certain amount of sex appeal in the way she talks, and moves that its simply not needed and I'm glad the writers are aware of that. The entire cast is superb! I will say this, with the Middle East being a sensitive subject matter for some Americans, I'm happy that we're trying to bridge the gap by telling stories about their culture, however my only issue would be authenticity, I do think that The Honorable Woman is close to an accurate depiction, and cultural references, than Tyrant but both are great shows, and we need we need more shows like these that will foster more conversations about culture inclusiveness. Anyway I digress… great article!

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