NBC’s new series She Spies immediately begs two questions. First, what is this tough girl T&A fantasy doing popping up mid-season and in the middle of a blitz of reality television? And second, is self-consciously gratuitous T&A any better than jiggling breasts without irony?
The first issue is addressed in a recent New York Times article, which explains that network executives actively pursue niche audiences: “Networks don’t care if your grandmother hates Fear Factor. She can find her own shows.” (Caryn James, “Mixing High Brow and Low, TV Plays to the Bottom Line,” NYT, 28 July 2002, A1). In short, any one show doesn’t need universal appeal, just enough viewers to keep selected advertisers happy. She Spies, then, doesn’t need to be loved by everyone, only by enough people to make it profitable.
The second issue is murkier, as it has to do with how viewers understand televisual images, and how women are represented on television, rather than network finances and the bottom line. First, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that reducing women—or men—to body parts only is degrading and demeaning. And, for all its attempts to be self-aware and self-deprecating, She Spies remains caught up in just such reductions, as they are typically deployed within a limited genre: the Charlie’s Angels knock-off/parody. The syndicated series V.I.P. has already done this, better and with sharper humor. V.I.P., in which Pamela Anderson plays the official figurehead for a group of female bodyguards, is clever and campy in a way that She Spies only hints at. V.I.P., however, was not attempting to garner a primetime audience, and could take more risks, such as combining physical and emotional strength in the hard, voluptuous bodies of its principal characters.
One would hope that with 20 years of feminism extending between the ‘70s trio of sassy agents and the girls of the new millennium’s She Spies, there would have been some progress in how strong women are represented on screen. She Spies does more than fall flat; it actually recreates a pre-feminist scenario. Instead of jiggling boobies, we have a more up-to-date, jiggle-free version of hard-bodied breasts and cleavage. This is post-feminism at its worst, in which the women are represented not as making any choices, but as occupying an even greater number of stereotypes: ditzy, physically strong, and possessing Victoria’s Secret-worthy bodies.
Plus, the girls are discouragingly ruled by their male boss, who essentially pimps them out as secret agents, kind of like Charlie of Charlie’s Angels. You’d never catch the ladies of V.I.P. taking orders from a guy as mousy as Jack (Carlos Jacott). In She Spies, though, the girls are at the mercy of Jack, whose idea it was to pluck these lovely ladies from incarceration so that they could serve their government.
The story is that three felons (convicted for clever, white-collar crimes) have been plucked from prison as long as they are willing to serve as agents for a secret government agency. The first few minutes of the pilot episode, cheekily titled “The First Episode,” are promising. We are introduced to Cassie (Natasha Henstridge), D.D. (Kristen Miller), and Shane (Natashia Williams) in a rousing action scene, as the daring girls break into the upper levels of a tall building through the windows, whup some bad guy ass, and defuse a bomb.
During this adventure, we learn a little bit about the girls’ politics and personalities: we think that maybe, just maybe, they are strong, complex women with physical, mental, and emotional fortitude. The joke’s on us though, because it turns out this is all a training exercise and the girls haven’t even been sent on their first mission yet. They’re only playing, and their talking actually distracts them from their training exercises, showing us that these girls can’t think and act at the same time—and that had it been a real mission, they would have failed.
In fact, most of the action is not about action at all, or adventure, or solving the mystery. Instead, the action in She Spies is all about making fun of itself, trying so very hard to be self-referentially goofy that it’s as painful to watch as someone messing up the telling of a good joke. For example, the girls are on assignment on the television set of a sexist, blowhard talk show host; while in the television studio, the girls bump into the set of a show about three beautiful girl spies who have been taken from prison to serve a secret government agency, meeting their doubles… you get the picture. It’s just not that funny. And that’s the problem with this show: not funny, not exciting, and certainly nothing new.