Movie Mix  
comments_image Comments

Honeytrap Lies and Women Spies

Female spies have been the subject of cultural fascination since Mata Hari, but the realities they face are quite different from fiction.

The stage is dominated by a statue of Shiva. As the lights go down, a woman emerges from the wings dressed in oriental costume; veils, a metal breastplate and elaborate jeweled headdress. She dances for Shiva, writhing around the statue in a suggestive and impassioned manner. A young soldier in the audience is entranced, while his older colleague looks on disapprovingly. This is a pivotal scene in George Fitzmaurice's 1931 film Mata Hari , where we and the hero (Alexis, played by Ramon Navarro) get our first sight of the titular character and star, Greta Garbo.

Garbo was not the most obvious choice to play such an exotic role, but Hollywood in the 1930s seemed to regard any foreign star as representing a whole range of "other" nationalities, and so we have Garbo's oddly unerotic dance sequence -- at times almost stomping round the statue. What makes the scene even stranger is that this is a Swede playing a Dutch woman pretending to be a Javanese dancer.

This movie sequence, with its confused account of cultural and racialized identities, is a good example of the manifold mythologies surrounding women spies. There are many accounts of Mata Hari in fiction and in film. Her name itself is a byword for betrayal. The real Mata Hari was barely a spy, and accounts of her putative career in what many have called "the second oldest profession" only serve to establish that she was not very successful.  

The real Mata Hari was a Dutch woman, Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, who spent some time in the East Indies before her marriage to a Dutch colonial army captain twenty-one years her senior finally came to an end. Divorced and impoverished (her ex-husband refused to pay her any settlement) she tried a number of avenues before arriving in Paris in 1904 to reinvent herself as Mata Hari, drawing on memories of dancers she had seen in Java and Sumatra. Initially she was a great success, touring the grand theatres and private salons of Europe. As she got older, however, her celebrity began to pall. She tried unsuccessfully to redesign her act before finally seeking employment with the French secret service during the First World War. In this final attempt to sustain an income, Margaretha was betrayed by her own employers who, even as they signed her up, were convinced that she was a double agent working for the Germans. The compelling public image of Mata Hari effectively proved the downfall of its creator, who was shot on October 15, 1917, following a trial that most now regard as barely legal.

The potent myth of Mata Hari's exotic sexuality has shadowed most fictional accounts of women spies that followed. When we think of the woman spy, the image that most often springs to mind is that of the enemy agents who are featured in Bond novels and films. While their official mission may be to seduce, distract, or deceive Bond, their narrative function is to endorse his phallic masculinity by submitting to his charms so that he can seduce, distract or deceive them. Yet Bond has rarely been portrayed as a "honeytrap" agent -- From Russia With Love is the exception rather than the rule.

Bond remains the epitome of an idealized and exaggerated modern British masculinity; it is women spies who are the tricky ones. It seems that the cultural stereotypes surrounding femininity are hard to shake, with pejorative accounts of women as devious, deceptive, and dishonest feeding into the mythology of the woman spy as a seductress, an Eve-like figure, a Mata Hari.

See more stories tagged with: