Published: March 1, 2013 By

[1] Writing an enthusiastic mid-series review of the cult action-adventure series Alias (2001-2006), Charles Taylor made an unusual comparison between the show’s heroine, good-girl spy Sydney Bristow (played by Jennifer Garner), and the protagonist of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  The earnest, fresh-scrubbed Sydney “suggests what Mary Richards might have been as a spy,” Taylor mused.  “She just might break them after all” (3).  Mary Richards, as Bonnie Dow reminds us, “saw her job as a career rather than a stopgap on the journey towards marriage,” and thus became a path-breaking representation of the female professional on the small screen (34).   Over three decades later, promotional posters for Aliasfeatured different iterations of a bewigged Sydney against the boastful tagline “I can be whoever I want to be.”  At the turn of the twenty-first century, it was implied, women like Sydney stood on Mary’s shoulders, at the frontier of endless and available life choices.

[2] It is this very word “choice” which is both at the heart of Alias’ narratives and at the heart of post-feminist rhetoric.   “Choice for women” is the concept trotted out in post-feminist culture as the major accomplishment and legacy of feminism; however, it is most often invoked either to level out – and thus render meaningless – women’s occupational options, or to revivify traditional paths.   In this essay, I examine how Alias resists these meanings of “choice feminism” in narratives about Sydney’s occupational, lifestyle, and reproductive dilemmas.  It does so, however, by invoking a well-worn motif of mother/daughter generational tension.  Sydney’s professional dilemma is not work/family balance, but rather a choice of maternal dis-identificationthat allows her to survive in espionage.  Alias further deploys the post-feminist rhetoric of style as choice in its visual packaging.  While it seems to celebrate elaborate identity-switching changes, the show simultaneously critiques this impulse by positively contrasting a congruent, always-recognizable Sydney against her mother Irina, whose endless reincarnations render her fatally unstable.  Finally, Sydney is first the subject of a mystical abortion parable in which she refuses forced maternity, and later a mother by choice.  These reproductive narratives also juxtapose the successful Sydney with her failed mother.  Consistently chafing at the idea that “choice is feminism,” but often doing so in confounding ways, Alias has much to teach us about the contradictory pleasures of post-feminist television.


[3] Alias premiered on ABC soon after September 11, 2001.  A genre bender, it drew on melodrama, thriller, magical realism, soap opera, and comedy.  Creator J. J. Abrams remarked that he “wanted to create something that was an amalgam of everything I love, something that had action and special effects and was funny and depressing and emotional” (Cotta Vaz 17).  Its plucky heroine Sydney Bristow was an English graduate student by day, globe-trotting American undercover agent by night.   Possessed of a flashy aesthetic, the program utilized thumping music, frequent costume changes and exotic locales with abandon in its first few years.  One of several series to sympathetically portray American intelligence services after the fall of the Twin Towers, Aliasnonetheless largely eschewed 9/11 references or Middle East politics, maintaining traditional Cold War storylines (see also Kantor).

[4] In fact, issues of family often took top billing.  Sydney Bristow’s fellow agent was her estranged father Jack; the family tree grew with the revelation that her presumed-dead mother Irina (a Russian master criminal who had masqueraded as an American) was alive.   Alias also invoked supernatural mythology with a storyline about a medieval prophet “Rambaldi” whose deterministic end-game involved Sydney.  Yet the program’s dense, cliffhanger structure was streamlined (at the network’s request) into more episodic form in later years.   The fifth and final season of Alias found Sydney pregnant with a daughter and battling danger, ultimately losing both parents.  In the ending sequence, the happily-married Sydney, her family and her CIA partner strolled hand-in-hand down a beach, suggesting a rare moment of harmony between family demands and the life of the globe-trotting spy.

[5] Invoking Alias as post-feminist television is risky, given that post-feminism as a concept is still largely undefined and unevenly accepted.  I offer here a relatively simple definition:  post-feminism is a popularly understood discourse, growing in voice since the 1980s, which believes that gender equity has been fully achieved, and consequently that feminist activism is neither necessary nor desired.  Feminist ideas are in fact vital to post-feminism: some are accepted, while others are disputed as being “too extreme,” or selectively recast - for instance, the retrospective version of second-wave feminists as uniformly ugly and non-sexual (See also Projansky; Gamble; Gill; Tasker and Negra; McRobbie; Genz and Brabon; Negra 2008; Radner; Gill and Scharf 2011).  

[6] In television, as in other spheres, the post-feminist landscape is a vexed site.  Women on prime-time are still not represented in diverse ways.  Most heroines are – as is Sydney Bristow – white, middle-class, and heterosexual.  Yet in recent years female protagonists have gained in stature and critical mass overall in television.  Amanda Lotz notes that “a profound increase in programming explicitly targeting women occurred on U.S. television at the end of the twentieth century.  Specifically, a particular television form – dramatic series centered on one or more female characters – multiplied to an unprecedented degree” (6).  The plethora of women’s programming is partially attributable to feminism’s expansion of roles for women, but Lotz urges us to also value the impact of network television’s fracture in the 1990s, and the subsequent rise of “narrowcasting,” which covets a particular demographic subset (such as young women) rather than overall ratings.   Narrowcasting allowed programs like Alias – demographically attractive to advertisers but middling overall in the Nielsens – to flourish. 

[7] Alias belongs to the most identifiable sub-genre of female-centered television: the “woman warrior” dramas of the 1990s and 2000s (See also Inness 1999; Helford; King & McCaughey; Early & Kennedy; Heinecken; Inness 2004; Mainon and Ursini; Schubart; Stuller, and Brown).  Within this genre, highly physically adept, linguistically “sassy” white, middle-class heroines undertake supernatural quests (a frequently-commented upon limitation of the genre is its conservative racial politics, which feature only a few television heroines of color.  See also Ono; Chin; and Fuchs).  Mixing melodrama, martial-arts, and highly feminized self-presentation – think Xena’s breastplate or Buffy’s lip gloss – these dramas explore complex questions of gender in a format that often sheds the shackles of reality.  Many critics have analyzed the contradictory messages of self-sufficiency and traditionalism that exist within these narratives.  Patricia Pender cautions us that much criticism of women warrior programs cleaves to a kind of feminist litmus-test; Buffy, for example, “can either be a feminist or a femme; there is no middle ground” (38).  Operating from the premise that, as Merri Lisa Johnson says, today all television programs “contain a mixture of feminist, post-feminist, antifeminist, and pseudofeminist motifs,” I want to show how choice itself operates in the text of Alias – and just what this might mean (19).

“I Choose My Choice!” Nation and Occupation in Alias

[8] The idea of “choice” remains a powerful vehicle for students to access feminism.  In classroom after classroom, my students have identified this word as either representative of feminism, or as its most important social legacy.   Foremost, they speak of vocation, and of how second-wave feminists opened walks of public life once reserved only for men. It is my contention that in post-feminist rhetoric, the framing of choice with regards to occupation is undergoing a significant shift in meaning.  Being able to choose your vocation, while still important, is being nudged aside in favor of the idea that a choice between career and family is inevitable.   This argument is certainly not new, but it is distinctly post-feminist in its rhetorical framing, which contends that feminism tried and failed to create a world in which women could “have it all.”  Subsequently, the post-feminist world must regroup, and give renewed emphasis to a revivified domestic sphere.   As a workplace drama that is literally inseparable from family melodrama, Alias confounds trends in post-feminist film and television that fetishize domesticity.  Yet it too is subject to the constraints of generational thinking that runs throughout post-feminist television.  Sydney Bristow’s occupational dilemma is not between job and children, but between parents.  Because Alias is a Cold War allegory, Sydney’s choice (quite deliberately enacted) to model her identity upon her American father helps her to negotiate a position as a trustworthy feminine agent of the state.    Consequently, she must disavow her Russian mother, Irina, in a move that serves the series’ geopolitics, but more importantly enacts the mother-daughter tension so central to the post-feminist aesthetic.

[9] Choice has historically been an occupational wedge word, squeezing between “career” and “family” on the presumption that, for women, only one may be successfully sought.   Phoenix-like in its cultural power, the “Mommy Wars” plays out in newspapers and blogs throughout America.  It uses the rhetoric of choice to divisive effect, demonizing women as either insane careerists or desperate housewives.  As many scholars have pointed out, the idea that most women today have the economic privilege of deciding whether to seek professional work or full-time parenting is fallacious (See also Bolotin; Belkin; Hirshman; Richards; Wurtzel; and Slaughter).  One framing of the “family balance” issues avers that feminism has, perhaps unwittingly, “sold women a bill of goods” by extending the promise that they could “have it all.”  Danielle Crittenden’s What Our Mothers Didn’t Tell Us (1999) argues that feminism has failed to transform the world for “women who are hoping to do everything – work, children, marriage – only to ask ourselves why the pieces haven’t added up the way we’d like or why we are collapsing under the strain of it all and doing everything badly” (21).  More recently, Anne-Marie Slaughter’s readership-breaking Atlantic Monthly article, provocatively entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” begins with the revelation that “Women of my generation have clung to the feminist credo we were raised with, even as our ranks have been steadily thinned by unresolvable tensions between family and career.”   The phrase ‘you can have it all,” she adds, is “simply airbrushing reality” (#7).  Rebecca Traister points out that feminism emerges as the villain in “having it all” narratives.  This sets “an impossible bar for female success and then ensures that when women fail to clear it, it’s feminism – as opposed to persistent gender inequity – that’s to blame” (#5).

[10] In response to the perceived “failure” of feminism to deliver all opportunities to all women, two discourses have gained traction.  The act of choosing itself has become reified as feminist, and traditional choices (such as domesticity) have taken on a new sheen.  “Who can possibly take feminism seriously when it allows everything, as long as women choose it?” complains Elizabeth Wurtzel in a recent essay.  When choice is positioned as the end goal of feminism, Linda Hirshman points out, there is a peculiar leveling effect.   “A woman could work, stay home, have 10 children or one, marry or stay single. It all counted as ‘feminist’ as long as she chose it,” she notes (#22).    Elspeth Probyn famously coined the word “choiceoisie” for this this re-framing of feminism as a smorgasbord of politics-free options.  Distinguishing between the concepts “by choice” and “for choice,” Probyn characterizes the latter as the current logic dominating representations of feminism.   This for-choice discourse, she argues, “reproduces a normative delineation of choice, whereby in the end all choices must be made to signify the same thing” (265).  

[11] Of course, some narratives of “choice” are written with a certain ending in mind.  Probyn, for instance, casts a disparaging eye on the way traditionalist magazines like Good Housekeeping position professional life as an overwhelming “tough world,” and advocate for the comforts of domesticity (130).  In Lisa Belkin’s “The Opt-Out Revolution,” an oft-cited piece on affluent and powerful women downshifting towards home, the trajectory is mapped as both eminently natural and revolutionary.   ''I think some of us are swinging to a place where we enjoy, and can admit we enjoy, the stereotypical role of female/mother/caregiver,'' one interviewee admits. ''I think we were born with those feelings.'' (#55).  Belkin herself wonders if the feminist movement has not “failed” but been “reborn” by professional exodus (#50).   In the cultural sphere, Diane Negra has termed such tales of affluent women setting aside career ambitions to return to their hometowns or otherwise take up fulfilled domestic lives “retreatist narratives.”  Contemporary films, particularly romantic comedies, can be read as dramas of “‘miswanting’ in which the heroine comes to realize that her professional aspirations are misplaced” (95).

[12] The oft-cited television series Sex and the City (1998-2003) examined both the idea of choosing as inherently feminist and the drama of miswanting in an episode titled “Time and Punishment.” After quitting her job at her husband’s insistence in order to be a stay-at-home-wife, Charlotte (the most conservative of the four women) deflects her friends’ concerns by shouting that "the women's movement is about choice" and defensively parroting the phrase “I choose my choice! I choose my choice!” Beth Montemurro notes that Charlotte “co-opts feminist ideas in order to suit her purposes, and liberal feminism's simplistic premise unfortunately lends itself well to such appropriation.” (2). Charlotte, of course, has an unacknowledged economic advantage enabling her to leave the workplace.

[13] Alias addresses the conflict between the heroine’s personal and professional desires in a unique way.   Work is central to the narrative; Sydney is shown working in the vast majority of the program’s scenes.  Rosie White argues convincingly that one of Alias’ projects is to glamorize and romanticize white-collar labor, adding that Sydney is “clearly an aspirational figure, a hyperreal account of what women in the professions should be, could be, or would want to be” (50).  What is equally striking, however, is the extent to which the show intertwines the heroine’s professional and private lives.  At work, Sydney is surrounded by her father, mentor and foster father, boyfriend, sister, mother, aunt, and even her infant daughter!   Allowing for the pragmatic advantages of such a scenario (greater utility of the characters, fewer sets), the completefusion of work and family is nonetheless startling, and suggests that the claims of domestic life and professional success need not be framed as exclusionary or adversarial.

[14] Sydney refuses to enact the retreatist narrative so common to post-feminist storylines.   She can take her family to work – but there she faces another, starker choice.  The show aligns parental loyalties with Cold War ideologies, pitting the reliable American father against the treacherous Russian mother.  Because the conventions of the spy genre threaten to label Sydney as always already traitorous (both as a woman, and as her mother’s daughter), she must emphatically assert her trustworthiness.  This is accomplished both via dis-identification from her mother, and by reinterpreting her father’s often cruel actions as protective acts of love.   Interestingly, while the gender politics here are conservative, the impact of Sydney’s choice in terms of genre is radical.  Michael Kackman has observed that “as in television narrative, so too in public discourse – it is remarkably difficult to imagine a feminine agent of the nation” (185).  By fashioning herself as a competent and unfailingly loyal female spy, Sydney strikes new ground within the espionage mode.

[15] Historically, the spy oeuvre has manifested resistance if not antipathy towards women.  It remains easy to name iconic male agents – George Smiley, James Bond, Mike Hammer, even Austin Powers – but, Emma Peel aside, it is much harder to remember females.  Women in the genre are most frequently portrayed as destructive, sexualized Mata Hari types.   The sexy woman of ambiguous loyalty is a staple of the James Bond franchise, and is memorably parodied in the Austin Powers films as a “fembot” (a comely robotic female who shoots bullets from her breasts).   In Alias, an agent tells the startled Jack Bristow that “more secrets have been revealed through pillow talk than through torture. If there’s a prostitute or a stewardess out there you think may have heard you talking in your sleep, I need to know about it” (2.10).  The Mata Hari figure is successful because she can go where no (straight) man can go – into the company man’s bedroom.  Her treachery is exquisitely personal, and thus devastatingly effective.  In Alias, Mata Haris marry and even bear children for their hapless marks.  Their actions violate both national security and domestic security; by masquerading as loving wives and mothers, Mata Haris affirm a male anxiety that all women have a “secret agenda” that exceeds domestic fulfillment.

[16] The contemporary case of “outed” CIA operative Valerie Plame [Wilson] exemplifies these fears.  To clarify, Plame is not a Mata Hari figure in the strict sense - there have never been suggestions that she utilized her sexual allure for career gain.  But profiles written about Plame always express shock at the incongruity between her domestic persona and her agent work.  Richard Leiby and Dana Priest’s Washington Postarticle “The Spy Next Door” depict Plame as “preparing chicken for a cookout and arranging red, white and blue napkins” while monitoring the activities of her twin toddlers (#1).  She is further described as “a busy mother with an unflagging smile and a classy wardrobe” who “talked a bit about the joys and challenges of twins, then faded into the background” (#3).   A friend of Plame’s “briefly contemplated the image of Valerie Wilson slinging an AK-47 assault rifle.  ‘I can’t imagine her holding anything other than a spoon, or a baby,’” the friend says (#24).  Plame’s domestic bona fides, it is suggested, provided a strategic advantage in the world of espionage.   The Post article wonders darkly if there are other female agents out there who “might look as harmless as she herself does now as a mom with a model’s poise and shoulder-length blond hair” (#15). 

[17] Alias takes up this anxiety in its portrayal of Irina Derevko, Sydney’s mother, and her assault on domesticity.   Irina’s anti-maternal sentiments are on display from her first (adult) introduction to Sydney, where she reveals that she considered infanticide.  Irina again reiterates her disgust for domestic life while attending her daughter’s own labor and delivery, labeling Sydney “such a terrible mistake” and telling her she preferred to “fail at being a mother” than to fail as a spy (5.11).   The Irina prototype is echoed in several minor characters, most notably Lauren (the treacherous wife assigned to marry and dupe Vaughan, Sydney’s ex-boyfriend).  Confronted with this ongoing vision of feminine duplicity, Sydney chooses conscious identification with the masculinized, American values of her father.  By so doing, she reaffirms her loyalty as an organization woman, and synchronizes her personal and political goals.

[18] It is not enough for Sydney to choose to declare herself an American daughter, however – she must do so repeatedly, for the logic of the show (in concert with the logic of the spy genre) always drives towards collapsing the difference between the women.  Frequently, Sydney and Irina’s actions are paralleled onscreen.  A shot of Sydney tucking her hair behind her ear in the therapist’s office is immediately juxtaposed with Irina making the same gesture in CIA headquarters; in a later episode, Sydney is brought into a cell, hooded and shackled, in a sequence that is nearly a shot-by-shot remake of an earlier scene involving Irina.   Characters also sometimes mistake the two – in a second-season episode, Sydney encounters a dying man who looks at her and shrieks, “Irina!” (2.6).    Framing the women as visual doppelgangers underscores Sydney’s moral vulnerability.  “Your mother was a traitor,” says an internal affairs agent questioning Sydney about a mission.  “A woman who appeared to be one thing but actually was another.  Your mother.”  The unspoken allegation – “and so are you” – lies heavy in the air (1.17).

[19] Sydney can choose to be her father’s daughter by disavowing her mother.   The concept of generational dis-identification has been a major emphasis in American feminist theory over the last decade or so.   As many scholars have pointed out, the reduction of the history of feminist activism to “waves” of time is deeply problematic – yet the idea that 1990s and 2000s third-wave feminists reject the political identity of their mothers is one that has become fixed in popular accounts.  Astrid Henry remarks in “Feminism’s Family Problem” that, for many young women, this rejection seems to be foundational to self-creation.  She writes that  “it is only by refusing to identify themselves with earlier versions of feminism – and frequently with older feminists – that young feminists seem to be able to create a feminism of their own” (215, emphasis added).    Popular works like Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards’Manifesta (2000) affirm the generational divide, advising older feminists that “If our message were to be boiled down to one bumper-sticker-sized penseé, it would be: ‘You’re not our mothers . . . Now you have to stop treating us like daughters.  You don’t have the authority to treat us like babies . . .” (233).

[20] As I will explore later, Alias complicates the representation of the second/third wave dyad by assigning Sydney and Irina roles that depart from the typical wave characterizations.   But while the program’s emphasis upon mother dis-identification is important for its feminist implications, it is also vital to the program’s political interests in framing Sydney as an effective feminine agent of the state.   The treacherous mother is progressively excluded from the family by the increasing, mutually exclusive bonds that form between the two remaining Bristows.   Sydney begins to re-evaluate her father’s neglectful and abusive behaviors.  For instance, she learns that Jack helped brainwash her into espionage training as a child.  “I thought it was my responsibility to teach you how to think strategically, to see through people’s lies, to be as strong as you could be in an environment where one mistake could cost you your life,” Jack argues (2.6).  While Sydney rejects this logic and expresses anger, the episode ultimately proves Jack’s point by placing the duo in a scenario (emergency surgery, concocting homemade bombs and hotwiring an elevator) that requires extreme skill mastery.  This is precisely the treacherous environment of which Jack speaks, and Sydney learns to re-interpret her own hyper-capability as the result of her father’s wise tutelage.

[21] Alias’s refusal to choose between the familial and the professional marks a departure from choice discourse and in particular the “going home” narrative in post-feminist television.    But in its emphatic choice of parent – and in the manner through which this is accomplished, via disavowal of the mother – it remains shadowed by generational thinking.   The insistent contrast between mother and daughter rears its head again in the context of self-presentation, or “lifestyle choice,” in the show.   Characterized by a dazzling proliferation of costumes and exotic locales,Alias appears to be an exemplar of post-feminist style – but what lies beneath the mask may be something unexpected.

Embodying Choice in Alias

[22] “Choice feminism” is closely bound up with lifestyle politics; brands have become symbolic choices, constructing an identity for the wearer.   Diane Negra points to the “heightened emphasis on celebrity consumerism” in the contemporary landscape as a key element in popular culture’s “fantasies and fears about women’s ‘life choices’ (2).   Angela McRobbie argues that the powerful “rhetoric of the confident female consumer forecloses on the re-emergence of feminism in favour of apathy and de-politicization” (42).   Lifestyle choice, it seems, has become the feminist inheritance in the popular imaginary.

[23] The resurgence of traditionally feminine (or hyper-feminine) style in post-feminist culture has been a frequent topic of analysis (see especially Gill; Tasker and Negra; McRobbie, Radner; Gill and Scharf; and Harzewski).  Most criticism focuses upon the limitations of “free choice” discourse, which under-acknowledges how societies construct, as Clare Chambers puts it, “their sense of what is possible or appropriate” for women (7).   Certainly, generational stereotypes are also at play in the renewed emphasis upon feminine self-presentation.   The masculinized stereotype of women of the second wave has passed into near-mythological status.  Susan Douglas’ characterization of such a woman as “a hairy-legged, karate-chopping commando with a chip on her shoulder the size of China” is the most succinct rendition (163).   This physical stereotyping is linked to an argument about second wavers’ tough, humorless methodology.  Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards – self-identified third-wave feminists – maintain that today’s hyper-feminine “girlie” aesthetic, which reclaims traditionally feminized items as “knitting, the color pink [and] nailpolish,” represents today’s women who “are reacting to an antifeminine, antijoy emphasis that they perceive as the legacy of Second Wave seriousness” (80).

[24] Much has already been written about the woman warrior genre’s tendency to cleave to hyper-feminine forms of style (besides the references above, see also Fudge, and Helford 2002).  Alias too frequently presents its heroine in sexualized forms of disguise.  The show’s tagline “I can be whoever I want to be,” is reinforced by the various aliases, which serve as visual depictions of stylistic choice.   Yet it is a well-noted conceit of the show that though her accents and attire are often outlandish (bee-keeper, nuclear lab worker, blue-haired club-goer), the character of Sydney Bristow remains consistent.  The “joke” about Alias, Charles Taylor suggests, is that “beneath all of her costume changes – she always looks like Sydney” (para. #7).   Joyce Millman agrees that “despite her constantly shifting aliases, Sydney is never a stranger to us, or to herself.  She remains sweet, good Syd” (7).   (For a negative critical reception of this “sameness,” see Heffernan).  Sydney’s masquerades on Alias theatrically impersonate femininity.  The notion of masquerade, of course, has been useful for psychoanalytic dissections of femininity, theories of film’s female spectator, ideas about gender performativity and drag, and more.  Sydney’s over-the-top aliases do not radically question gender, but they emphasize that the glittery feminine style preferred in post-feminist culture is performative, not inherent.  By amplifying the alias’ theatricality, and contrasting it to an “authentic” Sydney Bristow, the show tries to contain genre anxieties about the female spy’s shifting loyalties, and to further dis-identify Sydney from her mother Irina.   In so doing, it resists the simple linkage of choice and feminism.

[25] Rosie White is one of many critics to note the frequent sexualization of Sydney’s alternate identities, observing that “missions inevitably involve Sydney going undercover in glamorous locations” while “dressed in body-skimming outfits” (53).   Witness the show’s 2002 famous post-Super Bowl episode, where Sydney struts to the beat of Aerosmith’s “Back in Black,” cradling a whip and donning black, then red, lingerie sets for the pleasure of a drooling mark.    Rather quickly, Sydney uses the whip to disarm both the man and the audience of its voyeuristic pleasures, muttering about the indignity of it all.   Sydney’s alias identities perform hyper-sexualized versions of femininity in order to neutralize her targets, but Alias keeps viewers assured that there is a congruent, “real” Sydney underneath it all via the use of consistent visual codes in terms of her dress and style.  “Real” Sydney wears clothing that can be described as comfortable and casual (frequently, running gear and sweatpants) or unremarkably professional (drab business suits at work).    Additionally, as the series moves forward, the reliance on plots featuring her alternate identities slows considerably.  This gap between Sydney’s homogenous, visually simple style and the glamourized aliases emphasizes that the latter is a performance, staged in order to acquire espionage-related information or resources.

[26] Joan Rivière, whose influential 1929 work “Womanliness as Masquerade” posited femininity as a theatrical mask to be taken on and off for effect, ultimately collapsed the line between seeming and being female.  “The reader may ask . . . where I draw the line between genuine womanliness and the ‘masquerade,’” she commented.  “My suggestion is not, however, that there is any such difference; whether radical or superficial, they are the same thing” (Doane 104).  Mary Ann Doane observes that masquerade here works as “a decorative layer which conceals a non-identity” (138).  That statement could also describe Alias’ Irina, the ultimate identity-hopping subject.   I have already discussed the dynamics of dis-identification operating in the program, and the genre anxieties about women and espionage which they manage.  I have also mentioned that Alias taps into the rhetoric of generational rebellion, which traditionally understands daughters as “free” to adopt feminized lifestyle choices in contrast to their puritan mothers.  Interestingly, Alias reverses these stereotypes; Irina is far more overtly sexual and independent than the daughter.  She frightens because she is dangerously free; as Jack says ruefully, “No one can hold on to Irina Derevko for too long” (4.22).  She holds no alliances or obligations; she feels free to aid or betray her family, the KGB and others with equal élan.

[27] Catharine Tunnacliffe analyzes the character’s sexualization, writing that “Irina’s scenes with Sydney are far more akin to a long seduction than a getting-to-know-you encounter between a mother and daughter” (33).   Irina’s sensual nature is emphasized on a mission to Bangkok.  She convinces her target to play a game in which he quickly passes a knife through her digits.  “You know me – I love games,” she purrs.  The camera work is explicitly sexual, moving at a faster and faster clip and emphasizing the downward thrusting knife, the man’s ecstatic face and Irina’s coy smile.  When the music climaxes, Irina grabs the knife and penetrates the man’s hand with it in an orgasmic splash of blood.

[28] Irina’s sexual freedom is linked to her ethos of individualism.  “Ultimately you do what you want,” she tells Sydney sharply at one point.  “That’s what free will is all about” (2.22).  This sounds like “choice feminism,” but the audience is meant to understand the drawbacks of Irina’s philosophy.   She lives without national, local, or familial bonds (although Irina is Russian – a fact central to the Cold War politics of the show – she abandons nationalism in later seasons, working solely for her own ends).   The fatal, series-finale confrontation between Sydney and Irina pronounces judgment on the sins of the mother.  Rejecting her daughter as a “complication in [her] life” that she cannot afford, Irina strangles Sydney.  When Irina stumbles onto a glass surface that will not hold her weight, her daughter extends a hand.  The mother turns away, pursuing an object of desire on the glass.  Because she has literally nothing to ground her, she crashes to her death.   Irina, the ultimate free woman, is in actuality closer to the sensibility claimed by much third-wave and post-feminist writing.  Yet in the preferred textual reading ofAlias, Irina is demonized rather than embraced.  Villains can, of course, be deeply captivating (Irina is indeed a cult-favorite among internet fans), but the narrative clearly rejects and punishes the mother with startling violence.  Since Irina’s sexual freedom and individualism are at odds with the ideologies of espionage, she is cast out.

[29] As that spectacular ending demonstrates, Alias’ packaging is at odds with its content when it comes to the embrace of visual choice.  Despite the sumptuous feast of alternate identities paraded weekly before viewers, ultimately there is a yearning in Sydney’s character for an easily identifiable and congruent self.   It’s possible to read this as conservative ire that women today dither over having “too many choices.”  We might also see disingenuity in the way the show obviously foregrounds the pleasure and fun of identity-switching (particularly in promotional materials) while arguing the opposite in its narrative.  Diane Negra comments that action heroines like Sydney are simultaneously “hyper-mobile” and “framed in bleak, beleaguered terms,” as if to suggest the series mourns the inability to slow down within the frantic, globalized post-feminist promise (36).   Yet I would argue that a progressive reading ofAlias might envision Sydney’s rejection of constant identity-switching as a critique of the popular canard that “choice is feminism/feminism is choice.”

“I Don’t Believe in Fate”:  Reproductive Choice and Alias

[30] Alias engages choice rhetoric once more in a reproductive narrative.  Today, most people are familiar with thinking about women and choice in terms of the abortion debate.   In 2003, leading abortion-rights organization NARAL, which stood for the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, changed its name to NARAL Pro-Choice America.  "The essence of America is the right to determine the course of one's own life, to make one's own choices and shape one's own destiny," NARAL proclaimed of the change (Avni para. #3).   Reproductive rights historian Rickie Solinger has pointed out that the social discourse of abortion rights has not always featured the word “choice.”  “Many people believed,” Solinger observes, “that ‘choice’ – a term that evoked women shoppers selecting among options in the marketplace – would be an easier sell; it offered ‘rights lite,’ a package less threatening or disturbing than unadulterated rights” (4).

[31] Alias invokes the reproductive resonance of choice in its third season, when an amnesiac Sydney learns that she was kidnapped and nearly forced to be impregnated with the child of the medieval prophet Rambaldi.   Sydney goes to extraordinary lengths to avoid forcible maternity and, in one of the most riveting sequences of the entire program, violently destroys the remaining embryos.  Though it is couched in mysticism, this storyline is, in its own strange way, an abortion-rights parable expressing anxiety over female sexual autonomy – one startling to find in the landscape of post-feminist television.

[32] A Da Vinci-esque seer of the fifteenth century, the prophet Rambaldi threatens Sydney’s choice-making.  His followers label him transcendent and divine, and his power spans the globe.  Sydney becomes directly involved in this world when an ancient picture, supposedly of her, surfaces with the prophet’s warning that she will destroy civilization.  Subsequently, she is imprisoned, stripped of her civil rights, and actually compared to the devil by a fellow agent.  Though this plotline exemplifies the conflict between individualism and determinism in Alias (a key theme also addressed in the ongoing Cold War narrative), the relationship between Rambaldi and three women (Sydney, her mother Irina, and her half-sister Nadia) is also highly gendered.   Irina is his sycophantic descendent, Sydney is his intended mate, and Nadia is his scribe, communicating his thoughts via automatic writing.   Rambaldi is the omniscient master, and the women are, to varying degrees, his “vessels” of creation.

[33] The third season of Alias begins with a post-traumatic scene.  The camera pushes in on Sydney in a fetal position; she is wearing rumpled clothes, and her face and hair are streaked with grime.   Clearly, something ominous has happened.  The audience soon learns that Sydney has been “missing” for two years.  Later in the season there is a dream sequence in which Sydney wakes up on an operating table, puts her hand to her pelvis and reaches inside, pulling out yards and yards of bloody plastic tubing (3.7).  The sequence combines gynecological and technological panic, suggesting that someone or something has invaded and manipulated Sydney’s body.  In amnesia narratives, Wendy Doniger suggests, dreams serve as a place that “like the body, seems to preserve memory even when it has been erased from the mind” (111).  Sydney’s dream - of reproductive manipulation - turns out to be accurate.   She is told that Rambaldi fanatics believe there will be a second coming of the prophet via a child.  “That’s why they cut me open!” she cries.  A confidant confirms the forced harvesting of her eggs for compulsory maternity.

[34] Rape is “regarded as a trauma sufficient to explain either the forgetting of a part of the self (a fragmentation or displacement into split personalities) or the forgetting of the whole self,” Doniger observes (95).  The forced harvesting of Sydney’s eggs is a sexual assault, and her path to the recognition and processing of this trauma shares similarities with other rape narratives.  She must piece together hazy snippets of remembered trauma and defeat her own self-protection mechanisms (significantly, in one dream sequence about her memories, Sydney fights a version of herself who refuses to let her pass further into the past).  Ultimately, Sydney is able to resist the threat of compulsory maternity by destroying the eggs in a fantastical sequence during which the government launches a military operation to stop fertilization.

[35] The language of contraception is usually framed in defensive terms (such as “barriers” which prevent the penetration of sperm).  Here, viewers are presented with a guns-blazing offensive tactical operation.   “Here’s the big picture,” Chief Kendall snaps at a crew wearing ski masks and all-black attire.  “At 21:00 hours you’ll be dropped 10,000 feet over Patagonia.  You’ll hit the ground one-quarter mile from the target area.  We have minimum intelligence on this facility, but we believe that fertilization will happen tonight” (3.11).   The facility’s interior is a kind of sacred space.  A wide-view camera angle frames the workers, pouring liquids on a long central dais, as priests on an altar.  Their duties are interrupted by what is, by Alias’ standards, an extreme gunfight.  Sydney and her cohorts come armed with grenades and bazookas; they open fire and the guards fall, blood-spattered, in slow motion and intense close-up.  Sydney and her partner Dixon approach the “altar,” where they encounter a row of test tubes marked “BRISTOW, SYDNEY.”  Dixon withdraws to allow Sydney a moment of privacy.  Her jaw jutting out defiantly, Sydney sprays the altar with fire from her gun while choral music soars loudly in the background.

[36] The visual and aural excess of this scene is striking.  Significant national resources, including CIA personnel, aircraft and firepower, are deployed for the purpose of stopping what is usually the ultimately private act.  We can look at this use of military forces in order to stop fertilization as part of what Lauren Berlant argues is a post-Reaganite approach to citizenship.  Contemporary ideologies of citizenship, Berlant writes, aim to convince American citizens that “the core context of politics should be the sphere of private life” (3).  She points to the increasing discourse of regulating sexual practices, sexuality and reproduction on political platforms, and the centrality of fetuses and children as American icons as central to “a world of public intimacy” (1).  Sydney’s private reproductive drama is indeed a spectacular event to which the world is invited, suggesting that in a post-feminist digital age, women’s intimate lives are becoming publicly traded commodities.  At the same time, though, Sydney utilizes all the resources at her disposal – including federal ones – to retain her privacy, rejecting Rambaldi followers’ efforts to make of her a mythic “world mother” to a future prophet.  In this moment, Sydney usespublic display to reaffirm her private citizenship.

[37] I also stress the scene’s importance because television still provides few examples of abortion-related drama.  The classic instance remains 1972’s two-part episode of Maude, where the titular protagonist, unexpectedly pregnant at 47, decides to have an abortion.   Over the decades, there have only been a handful of programs addressing such narratives; these include the dramas Six Feet Under (2003) and Grey’s Anatomy (2011).  Much more often, the protagonist conveniently miscarries, or is persuaded to continue the pregnancy.  Eleanor Barkhorn reminds us that pragmatism factors in these decisions; “an abortion can carry a single episode,” she writes, “while a baby provides fodder for seasons’ worth of material” (2).  Yet the under-representation – even if only for an episode – of abortion remains striking.  “Four decades after Roe v. Wade, are we ever going to be able to talk about abortion on television and have more to say than, ‘Maude had one?” Mary Elizabeth Williams wonders.  Television “still can’t confront a legally acceptable procedure that 40 percent of American women experience” (2).

[38] Alias’ particular reproductive drama occurs on a supernatural scale, which may provide a sort of narrative cover for the topic.  Additionally, the program highlights Sydney’s suffering, which is also significant.  In their ethnographic research analyzing how different women’s focus groups reacted to abortion depictions, Andrea Press and Elizabeth Cole describe middle-class subjects articulating “an ideal derived from therapeutic constructions of the person.”  These subjects “looked to the ‘suffering individual,’ the person in anguish, to guide their decision making . . . they measured the legitimacy of a decision according to the anguish the woman suffered in making it” (134).  Alias too emphasizes the heroine’s suffering; not only did Sydney have no willing participation in the creation of this potential life, but the trauma displayed in the medical-nightmare flashbacks and the firefight scene reinforce the extent of her victimization.  By portraying her as a suffering individual, the program taps into a major legitimizing discourse of abortion on television.

[39] Sydney chooses emphatically to discontinue the prophet’s planned pregnancy.  Two seasons later, she embraces motherhood with her fiancé Vaughan.   In each scenario, she controls her reproductivity by choice, which is, as Elspeth Probyn writes, a more promising concept for feminism, since it assesses any choice against a field of possible alternatives rather than proposing that “all choices must be made to signify the same thing” (265).  After her baby is born, Sydney continues to work by choice, telling her daughter that “I’m just – trying to make the world safer, so you can grow up and have a regular life.  . . Mama’s got to go to work” (5.12)   Her successful combination of professional and maternal success is a final rebuke to the bad Irina, who views her daughter as “such a terrible mistake,” and repeatedly admonishes her that she cannot have both family and career (2.1).


[40] Post-feminist rhetoric tends to venerate choice-making itself, and to value narratives of “miswanting” in which traditional positions like homemaking and childbearing are re-recognized as the most fulfilling options.   Alias creates interesting oppositional narratives to this trend – for instance, its installation of the family in the office, and its spectacular refusal of forced pregnancy.   Yet it seems bound to other traditional elements of the post-feminist aesthetic.  Heavy is the shadow of generational thinking on the program; Sydney’s choices are consistently framed in (positive) contrast to her mother, the apotheosis of selfish duplicity.   “I can be whoever I want to be,” asserts the text accompanying many promotional print materials for Alias.  The selfish mother Irina insists on being whoever she wants to be (with reckless disregard for family and nation), while the dutiful daughter can disguise herself as a punky redhead or sultry brunette, but only does so for strategic reasons.  Skeptical of the post-feminist promise of “choice” as endless freedom, Alias suggests much about the pleasures and contradictions of women’s television at the start of the new millennium. 

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