Why the Song Isn't Called 'Secret Agent Woman'

BY KATHLEEN O'BRIEN c.2005 Newhouse News Service

A father and son are in a car accident. They are rushed to the hospital. The father dies on the way, while the son is taken to the operating room.

Later, the doctor comes in and says "I can't operate on him because he's my son."

How is that possible?

Do you remember the answer to this riddle that used to make the rounds?

Of course, it's this: The doctor is the boy's mother.

The riddle is designed to reveal one's assumptions about gender. And yes, I'm embarrassed to say it tricked me too the first time I heard it.

Perhaps women have entered the field of medicine in such numbers that the riddle no longer works.

Bet it would still work if the occupation were CIA operative.

Hear "CIA," and I don't know about you, but I picture men. Manly men, perhaps not quite in the James Bond mode, but still lone wolves, smart, sneaky and capable of the occasional violence when necessary.

I certainly do not picture a forty-something mother of twins.

This makes me wonder: Could one of the missteps in the dust-up about the leak of a CIA agent's name be that both leaker and leakee assumed a woman couldn't be a real agent?

Shoe-on-the-other-foot time:

What if the agent were a man? Surely no man's name would have been leaked with such casualness. (The columnist who reported it said he learned of Valerie Plame's identity in "an offhand revelation.")

It would've been assumed that his work might well have some top-secret cloak-and-dagger danger to it. In the case of poor Plame, She Who Must Not Be Named, it was assumed that her work didn't.

Say what you want about the changing role of women: We've yet to see a "CIA Barbie."

You can almost hear the assumptions at work: Yes, she worked for the CIA, yes, her field was nuclear proliferation and other weapons of mass destruction, but probably she was just some pencil-pushing desk-jockey.

In fact, she had been in the CIA since she was 22, and traveled abroad to both assess information and gauge the suitability of new agency recruits. No actual cloak, no actual dagger, but serious stuff nonetheless.

In short, she was no lightweight. And although the aspirations of She Who Must Not Be Named are low on our totem pole of worries -- far below national security -- we also know that no man would have been dealt a career-ending injury so cavalierly.

By all accounts, she had fooled everybody -- friends, neighbors, her own brother-in-law, even some fellow employees of the CIA -- with her cover story of being an energy consultant.

And she was able to fool them precisely because they couldn't imagine a covert agent being the mother of preschool twins.

This was a terrific arrangement: It took the sexist assumptions most of us have about "CIA agent" and used them to help her acquire information about a very dangerous world out there.

It is nice to know the CIA is savvy enough to tap all the brainpower out there, not just the male half. (In case you hadn't noticed lately, we need all the help we can get.)

Unfortunately, when the long knives came out, those very assumptions may also have been her -- and by extension, our -- undoing.

July 26, 2005

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