Why is the spy trade so white and male? (and RIP John Le Carre)

Why is the spy genre — in nonfiction history and journalism as well as in fiction — so male and so white?

I found myself wondering this recently while reading Broker, Trader, Lawyer, Spy: The Secret World of Corporate Espionage (2010, Harper Collins), by Eamon Javers. It’s a good book: generally well researched and well written, with a nice balance between historical contexts and contemporary journalism. The title of the book is a nod, of course, to the great espionage fiction writer John Le Carré and his classic novel, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974).

The latter is about over-the-hill British spies from the Secret Intelligence Service sorting through post-WWII Cold War plots and networks in order to identify a mole among their generation (and it’s loosely based on the real legacy of the Cambridge Five and the ultimate insider/traitor, Kim Philby). The former, Javers’s book, focuses on the U.S. tradition of private investigators and hired tinkerers, which had its origins, according to Javers’s genealogy, in the 19th century with Allan Pinkerton and the Pinkerton National Detective Agency.

The comparison between Le Carre’s spy fiction and U.S.-based corporate espionage is interesting, for several reasons beyond the scope of this post and blog, but one thing to notice here is the “boys club” tradition: a semi-sacred trust circle of (mainly) white men who hire each other, spy on each other, and repeat.

[But seriously, RIP John Le Carre! 2020 brought too many deaths and so much heartache, and I think losing this pinnacle of the spy genre is an additional symbolic marker of the death of a kind of cultural era. That era was Cold War and Post-Cold War international crime orchestrated by state powers and the shadow people they employed and exploited to run around the globe. What we have now, is, as the book covered in this post describes, an evolution of that: the same, but different. More online. Less “official.” All crime. All the time.]

What stands out in Javers’s recent book is the insularity of the spy business in the U.S. context, which is, unapologetically, a white boys club. And it’s not just that there is a rotating door between military, FBI, CIA, and the law firms, lobbying firms, and private eye firms that maintain the secrets for the political-investor-criminal complex — though that is an important finding of Javers’s book.

For me, reading this book and thinking about the spy genre in general, it hits me hard that (white) women only exist as bait or victims in this world, and Black people  . . . just don’t exist.

And Javers seems under the spell of this boys club, too — the book’s New York Times reviewer notices his fawning over his subjects who really only “say little that they wouldn’t publish in their marketing brochures.” Does Javers just want to join this club, after all? The spy-thriller genre has been, and continues to be, a haven for (white, male) fantasies about power and sex.

Even though power and sex in the political, business, and cultural realms have managed to shift white, heteronormative men from their seats (hello: welcome Madam Vice President Kamala Harris!), the spy genre seems to be a final frontier where white men feel safe in their trust circles.

I am not the first person to wonder about this. In a 2016 article for The Guardian, after there was a brief social media flurry over the possibility of Gillian Anderson being cast as the next 007 lead, Natasha Walter wrote:

Despite its richness, I have often felt alienated by spy fiction because it has often seemed so rigidly masculine, and nowhere more so than in the escapades of the evergreen Bond. Reading or watching spy narratives can feel claustrophobic when it means entering a world in which it is so often men who see and women who are seen – and seen as sexualised bodies above all.

In 2018, Emily Burack wrote about this issue as a critique of the publishing industry and the dearth of women writers of spy fiction in adult fiction, as opposed to YA fiction (where women writers and “girl spies” dominate):

The “great authors” of the contemporary spy genre are men who typically place male protagonists at the center of their novels. As Paul Vidich describes the genre at Electric Literature, “the spy genre, perhaps more than any other genre, has been the province of men, often men who once served in the intelligence community.” In “Bias She Wrote,” a 2010 analysis of the New York Times Best-Seller List, Rosie Cima found that authors of spy/politics fiction best-sellers were 97 percent male and 3 percent female. Wikipedia’s list of notable writers in spy fiction includes 124 authors—only six are female.

Burack’s research points to the very thing that is my big take-away from Javers’s history of corporate espionage: it’s a self-perpetuating problem that’s not even seen as a problem for those “inside” the club, or for those hopefuls lingering just outside it, like Javers.

In the imagined world of teenage spies, however — the realm of YA literature — it makes sense that girl spies are prevalent, and not just because women are writing the stories. Junior high schools and high schools are not free from gender cruelty and other kinds of “clubs” that gatekeep, but girls are there, and in large numbers. It’s feasible that information networks and the individuals that manipulate them might lean girl because there are just more “girls” than “boys” in school, statistically.

But the adult professions that are relevant to the spy genre — government, armed services, corporate executives, law firms, and so on — are still dominated by “white men.”

(Shout out to Lauren Wilkerson’s genre-busting 2019 novel, American Spy, which is not only written by a Black woman, but centers one.)

Cover art for American Spy, a novel by Lauren Wilkinson

(And shout out to Electric Literature for making this list of spy novels with women leads (I can’t vouch for these yet, just passing along the list, but I do notice a hemispheric/ethnocentrism reflected in the novels, if you know what I mean.)

Scene still from TV show Veronica Mars
Remember Veronica Mars, that teen “private eye” television series from the first decade of the 2000’s?

Thinking about Javers’s focus on the business of corporate espionage, however, makes it a bit clearer that the social identity categories of “woman” and “black” are dependent on the market: the differential valuations of lives, knowledge, and experience as constructed through the institutions that rely on capitalism. And this helpfully demonstrates that these things are co-constructed and self-perpetuating.

The white men who dominate the ranks of the FBI, for example, literally create their own private network of private eye’s when they retire by maintaining a secret “directory” that is inevitably the bible for securing lucrative contracts for/with each other in the private eye business, as Javers’s book reveals (the death of the publisher of this directory, the “Trapline,” in 2017 led to the creation of an alternative FBI directory, which seems to be co-edited by two former FBI agents, including a woman. And yet . . .).

Learning about the various subtle and not-so-subtle ways that the professions and institutions of power (and crime) maintain a white-male normativity makes it that much clearer to see that social issues such as sexism and racism aren’t just personal experiences that an individual creates or perceives. Rather, these social practices (of sexism and racism) are a function and result of specific economic traditions and opportunities. We don’t have to start with the question, “what is the experience of the person who identifies as a woman/Black woman” as if the “problem” begins and ends with the Black/woman. Instead, just start with the institutions and follow the transfers of authority (and money):

Who is in the meeting in which a new investigation agency is formed? Who makes the hiring decisions? Who has given these people authority? With whom do they share this authority? Who is getting access to talk to these agents/PI’s? Who is securing the contracts with companies/firms/government officials? Who is designing strategies at the agency/firms? Who is writing the briefs that profile the targets?

This last question is so ridiculously illustrated in one of the first stories in Javers’s book. In the first chapter, “Code Name Yucca,” Javers relates the blown operation of a U.S. based investigation firm made up of former CIA and British Intelligence spies making big bucks infiltrating financial and corporate networks on behalf of various international investment and political interests. In this case, they were looking for accounting records that might expose a certain Russian honcho for conflicts of interests and potentially scuttle a pending high stakes communications deal (they were working for a Russian firm). That’s not the important part here. What will stick with me is the detail about the brief the spy firm drew up for their operative to cultivate an informant in an offshore accounting firm.

According to the official brief, the target should be either a twenty-something fraternity type dude whose “patriotism” to either U.K. or U.S. could be manipulated in order to secure information, or a forty-something single (read: spinster) woman, slightly overweight or unattractive, whose resentments and insecurities about sexual appeal (read: baby-making potential) could be manipulated.  Those two stereotypes, those two tropes, say so much about the lasting cultural narrow-mindedness of the spy genre and the power networks it deals with.

That world is made up of useful frat boys who are always (potential) “patriots,” and useful women who are always (resentful) baby-making-machines. And all of them are white.

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