Spy Games:
Alias, Sydney Bristow, and the Ever Complicated Gaze

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Spring 2007, Volume 6, Issue 1

Molly Brost
Bowling Green State University

The camera focuses on a red, unopened door at the end of a long, black and red hallway. The opening notes of AC/DC’s “Back in Black” begin to play as the camera creeps closer to the door. After a moment, the door opens, framing a beautiful woman decked out in black lingerie, a riding crop in her hand. The camera slowly pans up her body, and she begins to walk, slowly, like a runway model making her way down a catwalk. The camera moves once to catch her from behind before she reaches her destination: an overweight man with a pockmarked face who sits eating shrimp drenched in cocktail sauce. As she stands before him, he orders her to “try the red one,” and though a brief look of what looks like challenge or annoyance flashes in her eyes, she obeys, leaving him briefly to change into red lingerie and begin the catwalk again.

A television viewer flipping through channels during the first minute and a half of Alias Episode 2-13, entitled “Phase One,” would see the same thing they have seen on many other television shows in the past: a highly sexualized female performing for a fully clothed male. Watch for even a minute more, however, and the viewer will see something different: the sexualized female taking control, pinning the male to the bed, and demanding what she wants – which, by the way, is not sex, but access to his computer. The woman is Sydney Bristow, and she is an agent for the CIA. What’s more, Jennifer Garner, the actress bringing her to life, is the undisputed star of Alias, which premiered in September of 2001 and ended its five-season run in May of 2006.

In the 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey explains that the typical female character in a traditional Hollywood narrative is subjected to three “male gazes”: the gaze of the camera, which often only focuses on specific body parts, thus reducing her to an object; the gaze of the male main character, for whom she is usually the object of desire; and the gaze of the viewer of the film, who, through both filmic techniques and narrative structure is positioned to identify with the male main character and objectify the female love interest. Further, she states that “the determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness” (19). She goes on to state the following:

As the spectator identifies with the main male protagonist, he projects his look onto that of his like, his screen surrogate, so that the power of the male protagonist as he controls events coincides with the active power of the erotic look, both giving a satisfying sense of omnipotence. A male movie star’s glamorous characteristics are thus not those of the erotic object of the gaze, but those of the more perfect, more complete, more powerful ideal ego conceived in the original moment of recognition in front of the mirror. (20)

In the years since Mulvey’s article has been published, it has been widely anthologized and the source of much scholarly debate, largely because, as Brenda Cooper notes, “Mulvey’s articulation ignored any notion of a feminine spectator”; Cooper also notes that many scholars have additionally “rejected the argument that women identify with film narratives only within the masculine parameters suggested by Mulvey’s concept of male gazes” (418). Such scholarship suggests that even if a “male gaze” does exist, spectators do have the capacity to view the text in alternate or resistant ways. Other scholars have argued that being the object of the gaze might even be empowering; as Kathleen K. Rowe contends,

… visual power flows in multiple directions and…the position of the spectacle isn’t entirely one of weakness. Because public power is predicated largely on visibility, men have traditionally understood the need to secure their power not only by looking but by being seen—or rather, by fashioning, as author, a spectacle of themselves. Already bound in a web of visual power, women might begin to renegotiate its terms. (77)

Thus, the “male gaze” does not always or necessarily completely limit either viewer or “object.” For that reason, texts can no longer be examined simply to determine whether the “male gaze” is present; rather, scholars must ask how the gaze operates in a particular narrative, how a particular narrative text complicates, challenges, or utilizes what Mulvey has termed “the male gaze,” and what the implications of the way the text is employing the gaze are.

With that in mind, if we simply ask whether Alias’s Sydney Bristow is the object of the gaze or whether, like the traditional male hero Mulvey describes, her “glamorous characteristics” are “those of the more perfect, more complete, more powerful ego conceived in the original moment of recognition in front of the mirror,” we do neither Laura Mulvey nor Sydney Bristow justice. Instead, we must ask how Alias, in Rowe’s words, “renegotiates the gaze’s terms.” In this paper, I examine the ways in which Alias positions the viewer to identify with Sydney while simultaneously sexualizing and feminizing her; I further examine the potential consequences for the way the gaze is renegotiated in this particular narrative.

We must first note that on Alias, the way the gaze is employed is partly affected by the fact that Alias is a television show and not a film. A film is over in only a couple of hours, while a television series can stretch out over several years; this means that the viewer has greater opportunity to identify with characters. Further, Tania Modelski notes that some television genres ask viewers to identify with characters in an entirely different way than Mulvey notes that movie viewers are positioned to identify with characters; she states that soap operas, for example, do not ask the viewer to identify with a main male protagonist, instead asking the viewer to take on the role of “ideal mother: a person who possesses greater wisdom than all her children, whose sympathy is large enough to encompass the conflicting claims of her family (she identifies with them all), and who has no demands or claims of her own (she identifies with no one character exclusively)” (39). Nevertheless, the viewer is clearly positioned to identify with Sydney Bristow on Alias; this might have something to do with the fact that, as Charlotte Brundson, Julie D’Acci, and Lynn Spigel note, “genres that were once widely male identified” have begun placing females in starring roles (1). Thus, since Alias is part of the spy genre, which has traditionally been male identified, it makes sense that the viewer is positioned to identify with Sydney, as opposed to identifying with “no one character exclusively.”

In fact, the writers take multiple steps to ensure that viewers identify with Sydney, as opposed to other characters. First of all, viewers spend far more time with Sydney than with any other character. For example, in the previously mentioned episode, “Phase One,” the viewer sees Sydney out on missions, jogging, attending meetings at work, and out at dinner with friends. No other character is seen as often, or in as many different settings, and when Sydney is not in a scene, the action is still almost always related to her in some way. In one scene in the episode, Eric Weiss (played by Greg Grunberg) and Michael Vaughn (Michael Vartan) discuss Sydney and Vaughn’s burgeoning romantic relationship. In other brief scenes, we see Sydney’s father Jack Bristow (Victor Garber) captured and tortured. The producer presumably assumes that the viewer will care about this because Sydney cares about it; she is shown crying and acting upset about it. The scenes featuring Jack Bristow’s torture also set up Sydney’s eventual rescue of Jack; she kills his captor and frees him from his restraints, giving the viewer yet another chance to identify with her as the hero. No scene is provided simply to allow viewers to get to know characters other than Sydney better. Most scenes are intended to advance Sydney’s main storyline in the episode – the takedown of SD-6, the rogue spy organization Sydney has been working as a double agent to bring to justice. Other scenes advance other storylines within Sydney’s world, such as her romance with Michael Vaughn.

Viewers are also made complicit with Sydney by the fact that they are constantly learning plot details along with her. At the end of the show’s pilot episode, viewers and Sydney found out, together, that Sydney’s father, who she had always thought sold airplane parts, was also a CIA agent. In Episode 1-11, “The Confession,” Sydney, along with viewers, learned that her supposedly deceased mother, whom she had always believed to be a literature professor, had in reality been a KGB agent and the murderer of Michael Vaughn’s father. Finally, when Sydney woke at the end of Episode 2-22, “The Telling,” to learn that she had been missing and presumed dead for two years with no memory of the elapsed time, viewers were put in the position, along with her, of learning how the people in her life had moved on in her absence, as well as having to figure out the mystery of what had happened to her.

We might ask whether it is possible that some viewers, regardless of Sydney’s status as main character and the various techniques used to incite viewers to identify with her, might instead choose to identify with another prominent character on the show, such as Jack Bristow or Michael Vaughn; after all, scholars like Cooper allow for the possibility of resistant readings. However, identifying with a character other than Bristow would be difficult due to the fact that the other characters are seen primarily through Sydney’s eyes. Additionally, the fact that Sydney is constantly learning new things about the people in her life means that the viewer can never be quite sure how much they know about characters other than Sydney, or whether what they think they know is correct. At the end of the fourth season of the show, for example, viewers still knew little about Michael Vaughn other than that Sydney’s mother killed his father, a fact that was highlighted in the Season Four finale, which ended with the line, “My name isn’t Michael Vaughn.” Sydney’s identity is much more stable; if there is something about her that the viewer doesn’t know, it is likely because she hasn’t learned it yet, herself.

Viewers are further discouraged from identifying with the male characters on the show by virtue of the fact that the male characters are often asked to see the world through Sydney’s point of view. On a typical episode, Sydney goes on a mission either alone or with a partner (sometimes Michael Vaughn, sometimes her father, sometimes another character) while another CIA agent provides backup, talking to her from a remote location over a headset. For example, in the previously mentioned “Phase One” episode, the viewer, in the first scene, sees Sydney in lingerie, trying to get access to a man’s computer. The scene ends on a cliffhanger, with the man regaining consciousness and pulling a gun on her; he pulls the trigger, and the scene fades out to the opening title card, followed by an aerial view of a city during the day and captions that read, “Los Angeles, 24 Hours Earlier.” Later in the episode, the opening scene is replayed – this time from the point of view of Vaughn and Weiss, who are watching from a remote location. They are viewing the action via a hidden camera in Sydney’s earrings; thus, while in a traditional generic text, the male characters would gaze at the female character, in this situation, they are gazing with her, and therefore, put in the position of the ones being gazed at. Unlike Sydney, however, they are helpless to do much other than be gazed at – while Sydney can, and eventually does, physically attack the man gazing at her, Vaughn can only make the standard protective boyfriend comments (calling the man a “son of a bitch” when he asks Sydney to change into the red lingerie) and offer advice to her by way of the speaker she wears in her ear. It is Sydney who can choose to take or ignore the advice at her own discretion and Sydney who is responsible for carrying out the mission and getting herself out of the situation – which she does. So will the viewer – even the male viewer – take the viewpoint of Vaughn, who is helpless to do anything but give advice, or the man gazing at her (who is overweight, ugly, and is ultimately beaten up and eventually killed)? Far more appealing is the viewpoint of Sydney, who ultimately triumphs in the situation.

In Narrative and Genre: Key Concepts in Media Studies, Nick Lacey explains, “In most generic texts the function of the central female character is to be the ‘princess,’ who needs rescuing, and the reward (usually with sex) for the hero at the plot’s conclusion” (148-149). This begs the question, then – if Sydney is the “hero” in this story (as we have established that she is), does that mean that Vaughn, as her love interest, is fulfilling the narrative function of “princess” and “reward”?

Not quite. Yes, Sydney does often take the more active role in missions (though from the second season of the show on, it became more common for the two of them to work as partners). And, yes, Vaughn is occasionally sexualized, shown without a shirt or in a provocative disguise (as in Episode 3-18, “Unveiled,” in which a mission in a goth club required him to dress in head-to-toe leather, complete with eyeliner and a lip ring, or in Episode 4-4, “Ice,” where Vaughn was disguised as a “fallen priest,” of sorts, drinking and flirting with a young woman in order to get information from her). Yet, as Tom Soter, author of Investigating Couples, notes, stories in which a male and female work together are less likely to follow the conventions of a traditional “hero” story (in which the “hero” works to save the “princess”) and more likely to follow the conventions of a “screwball comedy” (25). As he explains,

In these comedies, there is a heroine who is either smarter than the guy, daffier than the guy, or colder than the guy. In the course of the movie, she will sequentially despise him (but still get entangled in his affairs), come to admire him (even as she fights with him), and finally realize that she loves him. In the process, she will also change from spoiled or cold or daffy to concerned or warm or slightly less daffy. Then there’s the hero. He’s either a surface cynic…or else hopelessly repressed and befuddled. In the first instance, the heroine brings out the romantic in the hero, as he comes to realize that there’s more to her than he thought. In the second case, the hero realizes that there is more to life than being straitlaced…The unlikely pair will find themselves thrown together…and then face various obstacles to their true love. (25)

This model best explains the roles of Sydney and Vaughn in Alias, with Sydney as the “cold” heroine who eventually warms up (though throughout his tenure on the show, he remained more likely to verbalize his feelings for her), and Vaughn as the “straitlaced” hero who loosens up under Sydney’s influence.

Thus, placing a female in the central role in a story does not necessarily mean that there will be a role reversal – nor does it mean that the female is any less likely to be shot parading around in her underwear, the camera slowly lingering over each curve of her body. It must be said, however, that though Sydney’s disguises are often – though not always – sexy and revealing to some degree, it is extremely rare for her to be clad quite as scantily as she is in the opening scene of “Phase One”; it is also rare for the camera to linger quite as provocatively over her body as it does in this scene. It seems quite important to note that “Phase One” originally aired on January 26, 2003, directly following that year’s Super Bowl, and that in commercial breaks during the Super Bowl itself, as Brian Hindo noted in the next day’s online edition of Business Week, “Frequent split-screen views of scantily clad Jennifer Garner…blended in with gratuitous shots of bikini babes for the All-Star Sunday football and ice hockey specials” (“Super Bowl Ads”). One must not forget, then, that though a show about a female CIA agent with a genius IQ who speaks multiple languages and can physically defeat virtually every opponent might be appealing to young female viewers on premise alone, young female viewers are not the only demographic the show is hoping to reach.

It is certainly not uncommon for a female character to be sexualized as a consequence of television’s need to appeal to as wide of an audience as possible. According to Dawn Heinecken, “images of female heroes are frequently contradictory” for this exact reason (23). As she notes in The Warrior Women of Television, “shows from the seventies like Police Woman, Get Christie Love!, Charlie’s Angels, and Wonder Woman departed from existing television representations of virginal white womanhood”; however, while they were positive in that “they did break barriers for women, placing both black and white females in leading roles,” they were also “part of a ‘jiggle’ phenomenon” (23). Thus, the women on such shows “simultaneously appealed to proponents of the women’s movement and served as eye candy” (23). The multiplicity of audiences that television is trying to reach, then, provides one explanation for Sydney Bristow’s sexualization.

Laura Mulvey would likely provide another. Under her model, Sydney, as a woman, “connotes something that the look continually circles around but disavows: her lack of a penis, implying a threat of castration and hence unpleasure” (21). Therefore, she might explain Sydney’s sexualization as “complete disavowal of castration by the substitution of a fetish object or turning the represented figure itself into a fetish so that it becomes reassuring rather than dangerous” (21). Cristina Lucia Stasia would likely agree; in her discussion of the 2001 film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, she argues that the title character’s femininity “functions to remind the audience that while she may fight men, Lara is still there for erotic pleasure. Clearly, this new female action hero is as titillating as she is threatening” (177). It seems that female action heroes, then – whether on film or TV – must be sexualized to remain appealing and non-threatening to certain audiences.

It is not just female action heroes who are sexualized for this reason, however; in Black Sexual Politics, Patricia Hill Collins notes that “WNBA players are sexualized in the media in ways that never apply to men”; during the 2002 season, a series of ads “aimed simultaneously to celebrate and ‘feminize’ their athleticism by showing women in action and showing their navels” (136). Something besides sexualization was done to make the players less threatening, however; the players were positioned “within traditional gender ideology concerning motherhood and the family” (136). With this in mind, we might note that similar measures are taken to position Sydney within traditional gender ideology. The show consistently places the primary emphasis on her relationships – both with Michael Vaughn and with her parents – as opposed to the show’s more action-oriented aspects. Furthermore, in the final season of the show, Sydney becomes a mother (albeit to accommodate Garner’s real-life pregnancy); the final scene of the show’s final episode skips ahead to show the viewers her future, in which she, while still involved with the CIA to some extent, is married to and raising a family with Michael Vaughn.

We might see both the sexualization of Sydney and the focus placed on Sydney’s relationships as attempts to make her less threatening and more appealing to male viewers, then. We might also see the emphasis on relationships, however, as something that sets the show apart from many other stories in the action genre – and one that makes Sydney Bristow more appealing to female, as well as male, viewers. Though Sydney might be sexualized and aggressive on missions, at home, she is not so different from many other women. She occasionally wears glasses. When getting ready for bed with Michael Vaughn, she is far more likely to wear pajama pants and a tank top than sexy lingerie. She makes plans for weekend getaways that never quite happen, thanks to her busy work schedule. In the last season, she is even shown, like many women, struggling to balance motherhood and career. She is, then, not so hard for a viewer to identify with – especially since, as Subhash C. Lonial and Stuart Van Auken tell us in the article “Wishful Identification with Fictional Characters,” “identification with a fictional character…is likely to be based on wishfulness (i.e., a desire to be like a hero or heroine) instead of similarity” (5). Thus, if a viewer isn’t quite as capable of defending herself as Sydney Bristow is, the “wishfulness” factor only makes her more appealing.

Sydney Bristow remains, then, a complicated example through which to further examine Mulvey’s concept of “the gaze.” As the hero of the story, she is placed in an atypical role for a female, at least as compared to the female described in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” and though she is often sexualized, she is always shown as remaining in control of her sexuality, using it for the purpose of completing CIA missions and casting it off when necessary. Her personal life and her relationships do not closely match the personal life and relationship of the typical male action hero; in this context, she and her romantic partner share a much more equitable relationship. We might argue that placing a female in the lead role makes it necessary to renegotiate how the gaze is employed, then. We might further argue that it is also necessary to examine why the way the gaze is employed has changed so drastically since the publication of Mulvey’s essay in 1975. A look at feminist scholarship can provide some insight on this topic.

One possible explanation is that the perception of women’s sexuality and femininity has changed – and is continuing to change. As Rebecca Munford notes in the 2004 essay “‘Wake Up and Smell the Lipgloss’: Gender, Generation and the (A)politics of Girl Power,” for many women, “‘femininity’ is not opposed to feminism, but is positioned as central to a politics of agency, confidence, and resistance” (148). Kristyn Gorton further notes that today,

Popular representations of feminism in the media sell: whether in music, film, or television, images of independent women appeal to a wide audience. One has to only look at recent chart hits such as Destiny’s Child’s “Independent Woman” (2000) or Kelly Clarkson’s “Miss Independence” (2003), films such as Charlie’s Angels (2000) or Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001), or fictions such as Bridget Jones’s Diary (1996) to appreciate that women’s “liberation” is a marketable commodity. (154)

Though the author’s decision to place the word “liberation” in quotation marks makes it clear that she feels the actual feminist potential of the works listed is questionable, the point made from the variety and number of examples is clear: women characterized as “strong” sell today, whether that strength is packaged in the form of a pop star, an action heroine, or a single woman looking for love. And while Gorton argues that “throughout these representations it is implied that women have achieved the goals of second wave feminism – financial autonomy, a successful career, sexual freedom – and, therefore, that the demands associated with the movement of the 1970s have been superseded,” she further notes that “the pleasures women take in these representations…suggest a continuing dialogue with earlier feminist concerns” (154-155). Thus, from the viewpoints of both Munford and Gorton, we can infer that though young women who enjoy such performers and characters as Kelly Clarkson and Lara Croft – and, for that matter, Sydney Bristow – have different ideas of what it means to be feminist than previous generations did, they still are interested in watching, listening to, and reading about women that they consider to be strong and independent.

Stasia agrees, noting that “although girl power, within mainstream hegemonic popular culture, is a severely diluted and over-simplified form of feminism, it is not necessarily anti-feminist. It provides a model of empowerment that has taught girls to say ‘girls rule’ and to see the joys of sisterhood instead of ‘I-want-to-be-a-Mrs-hood’” (182). Michele Byers sees television as a particularly potent potential tool for providing this empowerment:

Television viewing, certainly, has become very ritualized, and television has created a vast number of contemporary myths. Some of these myths have to do with the emergence of a new vision of girlhood and young womanhood that may not be explicitly claimed or coded as feminist but can be linked to feminist agendas that support and encourage girls and young women to be strong and independent (183).

Even with Alias’s 2006 cancellation, then, it seems that there is potential for television to positively influence young women to be strong and independent.
And, of course, to continue to challenge and complicate Mulvey’s notion of “the male gaze.”

Works Cited

Alias Episodes

“The Confession.” Dir. Harry Winer. Writ. J.J. Abrams and Daniel Arkin. Perf.
Jennifer Garner, Michael Vartan, and Victor Garber. Alias. ABC. 6 January 2002.

“Ice.” Dir. Jeffrey Bell. Writ. Jeffrey Bell. Perf. Jennifer Garner, Michael Vartan,
and Victor Garber. Alias. ABC. 19 January 2005.

“Phase One.” Dir. Jack Bender. Writ. J.J. Abrams. Perf. Jennifer Garner, Michael Vartan, and Victor Garber. Alias. ABC. 23 January 2003.

“The Telling.” Dir. J.J. Abrams. Writ. J.J. Abrams. Perf. Jennifer Garner, Michael
Vartan, and Victor Garber. Alias. ABC. 4 May 2003.

“Truth Be Told” (Pilot). Dir. J.J. Abrams. Writ. J.J. Abrams. Perf. Jennifer Garner, Michael Vartan, and Victor Garber. Alias. ABC. 30 September 2001.

“Unveiled.” Dir. Jack Bender. Writ. Monica Breen and Alison Schapker. Perf.
Jennifer Garner, Michael Vartan, and Victor Garber. Alias. ABC. 11 April 2004.

Brunsdon, Charlotte, Julie D'Acci and Lynn Spigel. “Introduction.” Feminist Television Criticism: A Reader. Ed. Charlotte Brunsdon, Julie D'Acci and Lynn Spigel. New York: Clarendon Press, 1997. 1-16.

Byers, Michele. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Next Generation of Television.” Catching a Wave: Reclaiming Feminism for the 21st Century. Ed. Rory Dicker and Alison Piepmeier. Boston: Northeastern UP, 2003. 171-187.

Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Sexual Politics. London: Routledge, 2004.

Cooper, Brenda. "Unapologetic Women, 'Comic Men' and Feminine Spectatorship in David E. Kelley's Ally McBeal." Critical Studies in Media Communication 18.4 December (2001): 416-436. Communication & Mass Media Complete, EBSCOHost. 1 October 2005.

Gorton, Kristyn. “(Un)fashionable Feminists: The Media and Ally McBeal.” Third Wave Feminism: A Critical Exploration. Ed. Stacy Gillis, Gillian Howie, and Rebecca Munford. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. 154-163.

Heinecken, Dawn. The Warrior Women of Television: A Feminist Cultural Analysis of the New Female Body in Popular Media. New York: Peter Lang Publishers, 2003.

Hindo, Brian. "Super Bowl Ads: Lots of Fumbles." Business Week 27 January
2003: 16 June 2005.

Lacey, Nick. Narrative and Genre: Key Concepts in Media Studies. Hong Kong:
Macmillan Press, Ltd., 2000.

Lonial, Subhash C., Stuart Van Auken. “Wishful Identification With Fictional
Characters: An Assessment of the Implications of Gender in Message
Dissemination to Children.” Journal of Advertising 15.4 (1996): 9-13.
EBSCOHost, Academic Search Premier. 17 June 2005.

Modleski, Tania. “The Search for Tomorrow in Today’s Soap Operas.” Feminist Television Criticism: A Reader. Ed. Charlotte Brunsdon , Julie D'Acci and Lynn Spigel. New York: Clarendon Press, 1997. 36-47.

Munford, Rebecca. “‘Wake up and Smell the Lipgloss’: Gender, Generation, and the (A)politics of Girl Power.” Third Wave Feminism: A Critical Exploration. Ed. Stacy Gillis, Gillian Howie, and Rebecca Munford. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. 142-153.

Mulvey, Laura. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Visual and Other
. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1989. 14-26.

Rowe, Kathleen K. “Roseanne: Unruly Woman as Domestic Goddess.” Feminist Television Criticism: A Reader. Ed. Charlotte Brunsdon , Julie D'Acci and Lynn Spigel. New York: Clarendon Press, 1997. 74-83.

Soter, Tom. Investigating Couples: A Critical Analysis of The Thin Man, The Avengers, and The X-Files. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2002.

Stasia, Cristina Lucia. “‘Wham! Bam! Thank You Ma’am!’: The New Public/Private Action Hero.” Third Wave Feminism: A Critical Exploration. Ed. Stacy Gillis, Gillian Howie, and Rebecca Munford. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. 175-184.


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