Male spies are usually portrayed as suave gentlemen with expensive habits, while the women get to wear military uniforms and nervously rifle through nazi safes. This article may not correct this, but may list some other fantasy scenarios.
What makes a spy anyway? Is it eavesdropping on important meetings, stealing documents or assassinating inconvenient persons? While all of these may be required in that line of work, the most essential part is of course reporting back to your employers. Otherwise you're most likely not a spy, but a thief or a pervert. To be sure, that would actually help in this profession, but is not strictly required. A spy needs to be a little more than a government-endorsed voyeur to be truly successful, and the only way to measure success in clandestine undertakings is the ability to not be discovered (or if discovered, to make sure that no one else gets to hear about it).
Female spies have never been uncommon, but they are not discussed as often as the men. Maybe because it's been considered shameful for men to be tricked by women, and the exploits of the discovered ones have therefore been stricken from record? And the undiscovered ones have been eager to stay that way and therefore not spoken up? Or maybe it's just plain chauvinism, like the way all famous chefs seem to have been men, despite women doing about 98% of the world's cooking? No matter. We are here to look at the best female spies, but let us do so in terms of entertainment value.
Since Mata Hari got herself disqualified for being found out and executed, and no one wants to read about how the tides of war were turned by a single sheet of paper tucked away in a book in the local German commandant's bookshelf, we must probably look to the small screen to find enjoyable examples. For some reason, this subject has always been a television favorite while mostly neglected on the silver screen (except in cases of "based on a true story" flicks, which brings us right back to that commandant's bookshelf). So, straight on to a quick "top five" rundown:
Despite being featured in just one production (S*H*E, intended as a television pilot but failing to secure viewers and financing), this lady managed some amazing feats. I'm not talking about the run-of-the-mill made-for-TV action sequences, the trite plot or the fact that it was actually released. No, I'm more impressed with seeing the normally unflappable Omar Sharif look more uncomfortable to appear in this than he did inside the recycled sedan in Top Secret!.
"So? Have you never heard about compact cars?"
And not only did the heroine have a name straight out of James Bond fanfiction, her attempt to emulate the great spy's trademark tuxedo may not have come off as as classy or sophisticated...but at least she could have gone successfully undercover at any disco of the early 1980's.
"A Dry Mojito, shaken, not stirred. With a little umbrella in it."
But what truly set her apart as great spy is that, despite the obvious setup of having some backstory and personality quirks like only falling for the bad guys, she managed to disappear completely from the public eye after just one appearence. Take that, so-called superspies of many movies and TV seasons!
The animated adventures of three high-school girls in color-coded jumpsuits may not seem very spy-like to the untrained eye, but as we have alredy defined spying as "finding out dangerous secrets without getting killed in the process" this show totally fits the bill. And while keeping secrets from evil organisations may be difficult, try doing the same to teenage girls - the protagonists get extra credit for not being found out by their classmates either.
Can you guess who's supposed to be the brainy one, who's the pretty one and who's the athletic one? Neither can we.
And just as in any spy fiction, they have a mission controller, colorful (polite-speech for weird) enemies and enough gadgets to make even Mr. Bond raise a sardonic eyebrow. Sure, the latter are of the decidedly non-lethal variety, and enough of them seem to be based on chewy candy to suspect a bubblegum fetishist on the loose in the writing team, but still totally useful. Oh, and the show itself does a very good job of disguising itself as an American production, when it actually is a French one. Totally sneaky, huh?
Without these, number 4 on this list would likely not have existed, and the godawful movies with the same name would most certainly not. But long before Cameron Diaz, Lucy Liu and Drew Barrymore were embarrassing themselves in the motion picture remakes, the TV show featured a few other young ladies who did not look quite as foolish running around in improbable disguises and getting in and out of all kinds of distress.
The original angels, having cleverly deduced the culprit.
Whether this was because of A. better writing, B. better acting or C. it being the 70's and comparable shows were Wonder Woman and The Six Million Dollar Man may be open for discussion, but few other shows have been showing women as capable of being BOTH very resourceful and total ditzes (often simultaneously). This may have been the most realistic aspect of the show, which otherwise relied heavily on big hair and small swimsuits for viewer appeal. And the angels had a very good success rate, which puts them in a solid third place.
That, and Cheryl Ladd of course.
While being a very capable agent with many talents, wit and intelligence to boot, this lady will forever be remembered for just one thing. If you happen to know who she was, I want you to close your eyes and picture her in your mind. Then describe what she is wearing.
It's the leather catsuit, isn't it? Admit it!
Yeah, this one.
While Diana Rigg wore A LOT of outfits in the role (there's even a page about it), this is the most fondly (or solely) remembered one (with the possibly exception of the one-shot dominatrix disguise). It is also very handy for covert operations - not only does it offer you certain invisibility in total darkness, and a freedom of movement only limited by your limbs being practically glued into place by it - it has the additional bonus of making any alerted guards unable to look at anything else, allowing your partner to sneak in and rob them blind while they watch you. It basically turns you into a walking hypno-beam, something even the Q department has so far been unable to produce.
The downside is of course that it would hardly work on a homosexual man or a straight woman. This is why you should make sure to team up with a man named "Steed". Ironically, the catsuit (or versions thereof) wasn't used much at all in the actual show - probably because the creaking drowned out all attempts to record dialogue if Ms. Rigg happened to move.
OK, so real life sometimes tops fiction. Like many fictional spies though, Miss Hall's family was well-to-do and she was well educated and travelled. Starting out as an international diplomat, when World War II broke out she became an undercover agent in occupied France, helping coordinate the resistance and supplying them with guerrila training. She also made maps for the British, sent them a steady stream of classified information and joined forces with American saboteurs when they finally caught up to where the action was. The Gestapo considered her to be the most dangerous of all the allied spies, even though she just was known to them by a code name or two. She was never caught, either, and after the war she kept working for the CIA until retiring at the age of sixty.
Miss Hall, being either decorated or felt up by an official.
Oh, and did I mention she did all this with only one good leg? Her lower left leg was amputated after a hunting accident in the 1930's, and to be able to do all the stuff above wearing a pre-war prosthetic limb AND being female (while their traditional role still was taking care of the cooking, cleaning and children) takes badassery to a whole new level. Make no mistake - this was the original Bionic Woman.
The hunting wound was self-inflicted, though, making her codename Artemis (the greek goddess of the hunt) slightly ironic...or just about tongue-in-cheek enough to be perfect for any pulp paperback.