I have been reflecting on why I felt the need to write this book. The simple answer would be, I decided I needed to write again, so I participated in NANOWRIMO and then went from there. But that doesn’t answer the question of why I decided to spend the better part of the last two years with Misha Campbell or why I’m not done thinking about her yet.
Life is full of choices, and I have made so many big and small decisions that have led me to a life I didn’t know could exist. That’s great, but it also left me feeling unprepared for where I want to go next. When I asked the recesses of my mind for help, it introduced me to Misha. She took me by the hand and told me that our path would be full of intrigue and danger, I was not entirely surprised.
Part I: Enter Bond. James Bond. And Wonder Woman
I love spy stories. James Bond does the craziest things, goes to the most exciting places, all the women love him, and he always gets it right (well mostly, he does take a few hits from time to time). Never mind, that he stands for a cis-gendered brand of masculinity that I can’t quite picture myself in unless I want to be the femme fatale. So, I set out to imagine what Bond would be for me if he were a woman now. Very quickly, Bond’s world was different. I couldn’t have Misha sleep with all the cute guys in the novel, it wouldn’t feel the same. Maybe that was just me, so I started to think through some of my favorite spy movies featuring a lead female. Let me start by saying I have watched most of these films a lot. I love spy movies, but there is something very socially gendered in many of them:
- Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) in Salt – Everything Salt does in the film is motivated by her love for two men: her proxy father and her husband. The KGB took Salt as a child and molded her into a spy. She doesn’t have much agency in the film, other than who she is most aligned with: father (fatherland) or husband (adopted country). It’s still a fun movie to watch, but it lacks some of the layers other spies get.
- Jane Smith (Angelina Jolie) in Mr. & Mrs. Smith – Mrs. Smith, must choose between career and her husband. For some inexplicable reason, she suddenly finds herself in love with her husband and ready to die for him. This is less a spy movie and more a comedy about a broken marriage.
- Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) in Red Sparrow – This spy is forced into the business by an evil uncle and a bad situation. She does have sex with many men who are not her cis-gendered heterosexual partner, but she hates it. Then she has sex with an American CIA agent, falls in love, and risks it all.
- Charlie’s Angels (varies) – These movies are more comedy than spy movies. However, I think I need to talk about them because of Elizabeth Banks’ reboot. First, Banks is killing it as an actress, director, and producer. Second, this reboot offers stories of talented women who have impossible jobs and navigate internal biases to create a better team. I should also note that this spy movie came out in 2019 and includes nods to nonbinary women, women of different backgrounds and skin colors, and the range of sexual orientations. It was a huge challenge to send a love letter to women like this, and I hope we get to see more.
- Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) in Atomic Blonde – There is nuance here. Broughton is clearly a complex and compelling character. The story starts with Broughton getting an assignment to find out who killed an agent that happened to be an ex-lover. Her focus is on her job and investigation. She does have an affair in the story, but it is hard to pinpoint if it was for fun, interest, or for work.
There is a lot to unpack from this sample of five movies. I want to acknowledge that in four out of the five films, the lead female is a white woman, and the directors and screenwriters are white men. There are more diverse voices needed in writing and portraying this type of story. As I say this, I am again reminded of what a powerhouse of will Elizabeth Banks must be, and I hope she brings up as many women as possible.
Wait, what happened, one second, I was telling a story about writing a novel, and now I’m ranking female spy movies? I am focusing heavily on cinema here, though Red Sparrow is also a book, and Atomic Blonde is from a comic. With that said, I haven’t read many spy novels where women are central characters, and I like movies. Often for books, if I want to see a strong woman role that is spy-like, I need to slide on over to detective stories or historical fiction. I’m not as interested in forensics as I am in high tech gadgets and complicated systems. I figure these five movies were all I was going to get unless I wrote my own.
I noticed something else about the portrayals of female sexuality. In the moments where the women were dominant in sexual situations, they were frequently portrayed as Wonder Woman, BDSM specialists, or at least rope tying enthusiast. I suspect it might have something to do with shifting power dynamics or the role communication would have in these situations. Or maybe that women can be seen as powerful sexually if it is for play. Side note: if seeing Wonder Woman next to BDSM in a sentence is new to you, please consider reading The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore. But I digress. Lead women in spy movies are very devoted to one man and driven into action by their love for him (if they have any agency or depth). And when the director wants them to look in control, there is a suggested BDSM scene in precisely the opposite way of James Bond. He is doing a job and happens to have sex along the way. Women might bring different versions of sexuality to him, but he is always the same, and that is enough.
So who would Misha Campbell be? Was she going to follow a man accidentally into the CIA? Or was she a rope-tying enthusiast who could get people to tell the truth? Maybe a little from column A and a bit from column B, but this story wasn’t there yet.
Part II: Writing about strong women during #metoo
I started reconsidering a piece I was working on back in 2003 when Mr. Brightside by The Killers came out. I was trying to imagine what the man in the song would do when and if he ever confronted his lover about her infidelity. In the song, it seems like the hero follows his lover and is watching her make love to another man. That’s a considerable commitment to confirm infidelity. In the lyrics, the narrator is “choking on your alibi, but it’s just the price I pay.” I always wondered why that price, why not break up? My imagination ended the story with him clinging to the pain of it to justify an act of unfitting revenge. Why would I go there in my imagination, presuming the worst of this jilted lover? I’m so glad you asked: because of revenge porn, domestic violence, and the #metoo movement.
So, what could this story have to do with a spy? Well, I think being a spy as a woman has dangers that exist simply based on gender (and race, religion, sexual orientation, ability, etc.). These are considerations that James Bond never has to make. I could make Misha Campbell an agent doing her job without gender being a factor (if I could imagine it). Still, in the end, I didn’t want to recreate the world so I could have my Bond-esque adventure. In the end, I decided to have Misha walk through fire.
Misha Campbell loses the life she had because an ex-lover wrote a book slandering her in a very public, sex-shaming way. That, however, is the spark that sends her further away from who she saw herself as in society. Misha has to decide who she wants to be, and the identity she chooses could be the difference between life and death.
Part III: There have always been strong women
Here comes the literary dessert. I couldn’t use my love of spy literature to give Misha the tools to come out on the other side. I went for models from nonfiction where women have used their wits and instincts to do amazing and unimaginable things. The strength Misha finds as she grows in this book is based on women who outwitted their foes and created unbelievable networks to save lives, the women of the OSS and SOE. The Office of Strategic Services was the precursor to the CIA, and it was full of women who did daring things, many of them under the title of “secretary.” These are the women I wanted in my movies and books all along. If you haven’t, consider reading Women of the OSS: Sisterhood of Spies by Elizabeth P. McIntosh. Also, if you don’t know who Noor Inayat Khan is change that immediately. She worked for the precursor of MI-6 in the Special Operations Executive, and there are so many people alive today who wouldn’t have been without her immense bravery.
I can’t tell you much about the motivations of these women. I am guessing it wasn’t because they accidentally followed their menfolk to the front line. These are the women I didn’t learn about in school. The ones overlooked as we were learning that women dressed as Rosie the Riveter and couldn’t wait for the men to return so they could go back home. And these are the women I wish to emulate in Misha Campbell, women who find a way to do something extraordinary because something inside them says they have to.
In the end, Misha Campbell benefits and suffers from my experience of spy stories. I have questions about how to be a woman in the public eye when so many women around me have struggled for not being virgin saints. Misha can survive only if she can use her brain and her heart to find a path through for herself and find her strength again. Back to Bond, he was strong, and he saved the world over and over again through his raw will. Misha can save the world too, but it will be different. If she saves the world, it will be through perseverance and finding a new path. That gives me a lot of hope that the world might be shown one story for a long time, but then one might sit down and decide to write a new one.
This post is running long, but I wanted to share one other thing about the book with you. There is a reason the book is named Boardroom M, and it doesn’t solely rest on the plot. During World War II, the British military in charge of handling the German officer POWs decided the best way to get information off them wasn’t to torture them but to play into their egos and make them comfortable. When people feel good, they have a tendency to talk too much, and the British had the POW rooms bugged for just such a case. They called the listening room the “m room.” With Misha, I found myself often wondering about the money we spend in the USA on the military in terms of weapons, lives, and damage. If we pulled people closer instead of pushing them down or away from ourselves, what could we learn, and what could we save?
Check out Boardroom M on Amazon