thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

I Spy a Mom: Motherhood and Femininity in “The Debt”

In gender on September 16, 2011 at 8:06 am

Sarah Todd

Secret agents are people too, as spy movies like to remind us. The gun-toting, building-leaping, parachute-plunging protagonists of espionage movies often have spouses, children, parents, friends, pets, and partners. They make scrambled eggs for breakfast (foreboding scrambled eggs), take their dogs for runs in the park, and drop their kids off at school. Even James Bond falls in love sometimes, for a while. These personal details remind audiences of our heroes’ humanity, and of what they have to lose.

There are three spies in The Debt—Mossad agents Rachel, David, and Stephan. But only Rachel, played by Jessica Chastain and Helen Mirren in her younger and older incarnations, serves as the film’s emotional anchor and moral compass. As a young agent, she’s incredibly courageous, but her expressive face reveals every moment of self-doubt, fear, fury, and sadness. As an older woman, she’s more reserved and composed, but no less central to the film’s exploration of the ethics of espionage. Her fellow agents are interesting and appealing—David a tragic, thoughtful figure, Stephan all swarthiness and ambition (Marton Csokas, what are you doing later?). But their primary functions are as angles in The Debt’s love triangle. The film’s story is told through Rachel’s eyes, and crucially her perspective is repeatedly characterized as a distinctly feminine one.

More specifically, the film distinguishes Rachel as a sexually desirable woman, mother, and daughter. Each of these roles relate both to her work as a spy and to her personal life.

In order to identify and capture the monstrous former Nazi Dieter Vogel, who now practices gynecology in Berlin, Rachel pretends to be a patient having trouble conceiving. Although she is single and childless in reality, her alternate identity is as a wife (she and Stephan pretend to be married) and hopeful mother.  These assumed roles are crucial to her mission, providing her with the necessary alibis to face down Dieter Vogel. She holds hands with Stephan each time she leaves Vogel’s office, breaking their clasp only when they are out of sight from the building. In his office, she must put herself in an extremely vulnerable position before a man who has committed unspeakable atrocities.

Whereas Angelina Jolie’s role as a spy in Salt had little to do with her gender (she took over a part that had originally been written for Tom Cruise) Rachel’s work in the mission has everything to do with the fact that she is a woman. A man could not infiltrate Vogel’s practice as a patient.

Rachel is just as physically capable as her male-counterparts; we see her efficiently defending herself in a practice session in their shared apartment. Her courage is equal to theirs, if not greater. But her femininity is never forgotten, either by Stephan and David, who are both attracted to her, or by Vogel, who knows her first as a woman trying to get pregnant and then, after the mission goes awry, as a strange blend of captor and nurse.

Forced to spoon-feed him his meals while he remains bound to a post in their apartment, Rachel is clearly disgusted and dismayed by having to undertake this maternal action toward someone so viciously hateful, bigoted, and unrepentant. However, unlike Vogel, Rachel does not, and cannot, ignore the humanity of others. When Vogel inquires pleadingly whether his wife is alive and safe, Rachel—who is not supposed to talk or respond to him—tries to ignore his questions. Eventually, however, her compassionate nature compels her to give him a small nod before exiting the room. Her compassion in this moment speaks volumes about her character, but it’s difficult to imagine David or Stephan responding in the same way. Both of them are hardened against Vogel; Vogel’s cruel anti-Semitic taunts may infuriate them, but his pleas would never move them. And by the film’s logic, this difference seems to have more to do with gender than with individual personality.

The film takes the gender roles Rachel assumes while undercover to a new level by transposing her status as a wife and mother to reality.  She gets pregnant during the course of the mission and marries Stephan off-screen shortly afterward. In the present-day scenes, Rachel’s role as a mother constitutes a large part of her character’s motivation. Her daughter Sarah grows up to become a journalist, and writes a book about her parents’ mission, dedicated to her mother. But Sarah doesn’t know the truth about what really happened on that mission (for the sake of preserving the film’s suspense, I won’t address that here either). Rachel acts to right past wrongs out of a sense of responsibility toward her daughter. She wants to be a person her daughter can be proud of.

The Debt also leads us to understand that Rachel’s connection to the mission is deeply personal as well as political; her own mother was murdered in a concentration camp during the Holocaust. Accordingly, she relates to her work from her respective positions as a mourning daughter and proud mother, as well as from additional perspectives as an Israeli, as a Jewish person, and as a Mossad agent.

Why is Rachel’s femininity so central her characterization, and to the film’s plot? There are several possibilities. The filmmakers may have wanted to foreground her femininity in order to emphasize that it is not in conflict with courage and action. Rather than suppress or mask Rachel’s femininity in order to play up her ability as a fighter, the movie shows that she can be a mother and an attractive, sexually active woman while remaining a highly capable spy.

However, a less optimistic possibility is that the film foregrounds her sexual desirability, femininity, and fertility because she is a woman—in other words, because The Debt cannot imagine a female Mossad agent without including those characteristics. In these terms, the film might assume that a spy who is also a beautiful woman must necessarily be romantically involved and connected to motherhood and must have a compassionate and caring nature. It should be equally possible to tell a more emotionally involved, personal spy story with a male hero instead of a female one, but most films don’t.

One of the strengths of The Debt is that it’s comfortable with ambiguity, which means that I’m not sure which interpretation is correct. Fellow filmgoers, what do you think?

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  1. Also seems like Rachel’s femininity is thesis an indirect, but at times quite challenging, exploration of a woman’s ambivalence about her socially assigned feminine roles. Lots of jarring imagery in the scenes between Rachel and the Nazi doctor evoked mother-child interactions: the Scene when she first tranquilized him looked like a horror-movie version of childbirth; scenes in which she fed him after he spit, struggled, and yelled at her male colleges were a monstrous person of terrible-twos; her panicked despair at being trapped in the house are familiar to many stay-at-home moms (and dads). There were also scenes between them that evoked and critiqued husband-wife interactions.
    From this perspective, “The Debt,” is an exploration of the, “obligations owed,” by wives/mothers/daughters, the resentment, horror, guilt, and self-betrayal women can feel in these roles, and a challenge to break-through.

  2. That’s a really interesting point — I think you’re spot-on about the way those scenes evoke mother-child interactions, and what they might mean about the film’s take on motherhood and women’s roles in the family…

  3. The young and the mature Rachels are treated differently, possibly reflecting gender and/or age bias. Although Rachel appears to be a more fully realized character than David or Stephan during their time in Berlin as Mossad agents, she is less fully developed in the later chronology of the film.
    As the mature Rachel, we know her as mother and divorced wife. What is omitted is telling. We do not know whether she continued to work for the Mossad after returning to Israel from Berlin, whether she went on to a new career or whether she worked at all. We are left with knowing her in her roles as a young, accomplished and beautiful 25 year old and later as an ambivalent wife, devoted mother and grandmother, independent divorcee, and reluctantly drafted government agent when the hunt for Vogel is revived by Stephan.
    In contrast, we are more fully informed about Stephan’s and David’s experiences and motivations in the world outside of their intimate relationships after the trio returns from Berlin. Stephan is shown to be ambitious and working for the government in a high level position. David is said to have devoted his life to his private quest for Vogel, the Nazi doctor of Birkenau. He suffered over the cover story of their performance as agents and was institutionalized for an unnamed mental health condition.
    To summarize, we are explicitly given the details of Stephan’s and David’s lives outside of their personal relationships after Berlin. We are never informed of the shape of Rachel’s later life other than in terms of her personal relationships with her daughter, Stephan and David until her ex-husband insists that she track down Vogel.

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