Alias: always fall back on your sex appeal

One thing I don’t like about Alias is that it asks us to assume when all else fails – or even before – Sydney can always use her sex appeal to flirt her way out of a situation. The only exception is when she’s dealing with men who know who she is and are tasked with stopping her.

In the planning missions where Sydney is tasked with flirting with some guy to steal something from him, there’s a chunk of dialog absolutely required for me to take this seriously:

Boss: “…and then you’ll use your feminine wiles to get that thing from him.”

Sydney: “And you’re sure he’s into women? Is he faithful to anybody? Does he have a specific type?”

Because, seriously, no matter how hot you are: if you’re going to risk your life based on your ability to appeal to a man, are you not going to ask a few questions? There are men who only lust after men. Men who have an almost fetishistic fixation on certain hair colors, looks, races, sizes. Men who are in love with someone and therefore avoid attractive women who seem to be hitting on them because they know the best way to avoid becoming unfaithful is to avoid temptation. Men who are obsessed with something – their work, for example – and find cute girls flirting with them an annoyance. It’s not going to matter how cute you are if the man you’re supposed to distract with your sex appeal just isn’t interested (or is studiously disinterested).

Nor does Sydney ever attempt to ply her charms on a man who turns out to be completely unimpressed. Nor does Sydney ever flirt with a woman who’s into women to get her way. This leads me to three disturbing observations:

  1. There’s not a single queer person in the whole run of the series. There may be one or two people I’ve forgotten about whom it’s hinted they might be queer, but there isn’t one character, however incidental, who is explicitly queer. In real life, there’s no way you could live in L.A. and travel all over the world for five years and never run into so much as an openly gay coffee shop barista. This is such a glaring omission, I can’t help but wonder if it’s deliberate.
  2. In the world of Alias, all men are attracted to a woman who encapsulates the media’s current beauty standard. This is the sort of subtle message that creates and perpetuates the myth that there is one single look that captivates absolutely everyone.
  3. In Alias, all men are stupid. Because if you’re an average guy who’s got a valuable item with you and you know powerful people would steal it if they could, and your first thought when a really cute girl flirts with you is, “She wants me” and not “I bet she’s trying to steal the Microchip of Raspberry Flavored Doom that I have in my attache case”, there is something wrong with your brain.

Comments

  1. says

    Some quick thoughts-

    I assume that the higher-ups wouldn’t have picked Sydney for these jobs if she wasn’t eminently qualified. As for why we don’t see scenes of Sydney asking the tough questions, well there are probably several reasons. One, these are her superiors and she’s a soldier. Two, it was probably just understood that the reason Sydney was picked for this mission was that the higher-ups had already deemed her to be the best candidate.
    It seems that Sydney was constantly changing her look, each time she had a new mission. This was probably based on her superiors’ assessment of what Sydney’s best look would be for each mission.
    I’m sure if she wasn’t the woman for the job they would give the job to someone else. The reason we don’t see those other missions? Because this is Sydney’s show.
    I have to imagine that if they ever needed to schmooze a gay man they would just send Vaughn.

    Just some thoughts.

  2. scarlett says

    There’s a Matt Damon interview from about a year ago which I found interesting and I’ve been trying to find ever since. He’s asked how come his character has no interest in his wife, played by Angelina Jolie. Damon’s answer is that a) he thought the character was never attracted to that type of woman – opinionated, sexually aggressive (in the pre-WW2 era) he just got her pregnant from a one-night stand and did teh right thing and married her. The explaination made sense and the wording interested me because it sounded like he was getting pissed off at being asked the same question from reporters and journos who couldn’t grasp that not every man in the world finds Jolie to be insanely sexy.

    Same with Alias. Surely with all the men Syd’s run into, a fair chunk of them just don’t find her attractive. I’m sure there are plenty of men out there who find Jennifer Garner to eb nothing special looks-wise (more, I’ll wager, than find her insanely sexy.)

    I think the attitude that all men MUST be attracted to women who look like Jolie and Garner is actually detrimental to men, because it doesn’t leave any room to respect that liking an OTHER type of women is perfectly normal. I’ve known several men who’ll drool over every redhead woman on TV (my ex used to make me come over the nights Charmed was on so I’d have to watch it at his place and he’d ‘have’ to watch it while he was doing other things) but that’s considered to be a ‘fetish’ or ‘fringe’ taste, not a ‘real’ one. And by saying Garner and Jolie are standards of sexiness but Rose McGowan is a fetish is marginalising those men and who, exactly wins?

  3. scarlett says

    OK, my last comment got lost, I’m hoping it’s just in moderation because it was a long one…

    John, Syd often asks for details about how things are supposed to work – what happens ifplan a falls through, how Marshall’s latest gadget works. That she would ask about a man’s sexual preferences to see if sexual behavior was one option seems like a natural extention of that.

  4. says

    There are men who only lust after men. Men who have an almost fetishistic fixation on certain hair colors, looks, races, sizes. Men who are in love with someone and therefore avoid attractive women who seem to be hitting on them because they know the best way to avoid becoming unfaithful is to avoid temptation. Men who are obsessed with something – their work, for example – and find cute girls flirting with them an annoyance. It’s not going to matter how cute you are if the man you’re supposed to distract with your sex appeal just isn’t interested (or is studiously disinterested).

    This is an excellent point. That would be cool if they did an episode where she tried this trick again and the guy just happened not to be interested. ;)

    I think part of the problem is the usual “it’s easier to repeat the formula than think of something new.” But also straight men (this show is written by men, right?) don’t have first-hand experience flirting with men, so they don’t have the same sort of feel for the range of reactions and responses one gets.

    In my relationship experience I’ve seen a tremendous variety in terms of romantic and sexual attitudes, feelings, and responses. But even straight guys with a lot of relationship experience naturally don’t have that much knowledge of how other guys are different from themselves. Typically either they project and assume other guys’ sexuality is just like their own or they assume that other guys want any sex they can get all the time (therefore one’s own girlfriend, sister, daughter must be protected from other males at all times).

    Personally I have the opposite blind spot — I’m not as aware of the range of female sexual romantic/sexual attitudes, feelings, and responses and how they differ from my own (since I have less relationship experience in this direction). But I’m aware that I’m missing this perspective, and I’m working on trying to understand other women better rather than just projecting and making assumptions based on my own responses.

  5. harlemjd says

    OK, I don’t watch the show, so I can’t criticize or defend, but what % of her missions involve flirtation as a professional technique? From the post and the comments, Alias is sounding like a years-long demonstration of the episode of Scrubs two posts down – the patriarchy values sex (and very little else) from women and so Sydney’s bosses jump right to that when planning her missions.

  6. says

    John, what Scarlett said. Sydney doesn’t follow any order without question, and she doesn’t always follow orders.

    Scarlett, that’s interesting about Matt Damon. Because Jolie has such a distinct look, people tend to either think she’s gorgeous or wonder what all the fuss is about.

    CL, exactly. I think this was a case of male writers not realizing they had a blind spot to compensate for.

    Harlemjd, I’d say maybe 3% of her missions really depend on her being appealing to a man (and I’m not counting ones where she pretends to be the woman an escort service sent over, since I would assume if he wanted a specific type, he’d have said so when he requested the service). But in a good 25% of missions, things happen and she ends up on relying on her sex appeal at some point, and it always works.

  7. Patrick says

    The points about men not being attracted to a single “type” is very true. For example, while I do find Jolie and Garner attractive, the women that I do find “insanely sexy” tend to look more like Alyson Hannigan or Audrey Tautou.

  8. scarlett says

    To expand of your comment, Patrick, surely there are a lot of ‘types’ which other men drool over but leave you completely cold? (Ie, Brad Pitt does nothing for me and never has.) I don’t imagine there’s any one woman who’d have as high a success rate as Syd does using sexual behaviour to get what she wants because I don’t think such a high percentage of men find Garner to be that insanely sexy that they’d be distracted like that. And to take that further again (and I spologise if I’ve completely lost the sentiment of your comment here) I think it’s insulting to men to assume that one type of woman can have so much success with men in general.

  9. scarlett says

    Scarlett, that’s interesting about Matt Damon. Because Jolie has such a distinct look, people tend to either think she’s gorgeous or wonder what all the fuss is about.

    Well, what interested me was that Damon seemed to be getting fed up with being asked why his character wouldn’t be sexually attracted to someone who looks like Jolie. The reasons he cited in regards to his character made sense and the fact the question kept coming up made me think about this idea that society has collectively that there are certain types that every man on the planet would find insanely sexy just based on looks, and by extension, that society collectively can’t grasp that there are a fair chunk of men out there for whom a particular type of woman leaves them cold, even replused. I think incorporating sexual behaviour into an agent’s bag of tricks wouldn’t be particularly effective because everyone has their own taste and what one person finds sexy enough to distract someone else might just find irritating.

  10. Patrick says

    To expand of your comment, Patrick, surely there are a lot of ‘types’ which other men drool over but leave you completely cold?

    Oh, absolutely. The Hugh Hefner ideal – tanned white skinny blonde with lots of cosmetic surgery and heavily manicured fingernails – does nothing for me. I remember some years ago some silly pop culture thing referred to Britney Spears (before her tragic breakdown) as “every sixteen year-old boy’s celebrity crush.” I found this incredibly bizarre – like every sizteen year-old boy is supposed to have the exact same tastes? When I was sixteen, my celebrity crush was Oksana Baiul.

  11. scarlett says

    Who? Well, my sisters and I have a crush on someone from All Saints who everyone else reckons is on the good-looking side of average, and my boyfriend can’t stand those Charlize Theronesque statuesque blonds – thinks the look is so common, there’s nothing special on it.

  12. SunlessNick says

    I’ve been watching season 5 for the first time (I’d been unenthusiastic about it as I knew they undid some of the more interesting characterisation of Irina Derevko and Arvin Sloane) and a scene with Renee Rienne struck me in just this way.

    She and Dixon have to interrogate an ex-Alliance operative, and to get a hold of him, she poses in miniskirt and fishnets on the bonnet of his car, distracting him while Dixon came up behind him. It completely broke the mood for me, because it seemed like such a bad tactic; this guy was in the profession and would surely interpret this as a potential ambush – more than if she’d been standing there normally dressed.

    (A particular shame because I’m finding her to be the best thing about season 5: intelligent, decisive, determined, a good shot; actually, I like her better than Sydney).

  13. DM says

    Sydney: “And you’re sure he’s into women? Is he faithful to anybody? Does he have a specific type?”

    This makes me think of the beginning of “Cradle 2 The Grave”, where they send in the chick to seduce a security guard, who turns out to be more interested in his hunk magazine than boobs in his face. So they rush in emergency plan B, a dude who flirts up a distraction on the fly. And even then it’s acknowledged that the guard has a significant other, but indulges in a little flirting anyway for fun.

    It was all played for laughs (and I could have done without the “teehee fabulous” act Plan B put on and the dimwittedness it takes to not know something might be off when two different people try to pick you up in less than ten minutes), but still, it’s clear all the ways assumptions can make a seduction plan backfire, and that it was just lucky the guard found Plan B attractive and that they only needed a momentary diversion.

    *edited for clarity

  14. says

    Nick, that scene bugged me too. And I do love Renee.

    DM, I’d have happily settled for a scene like that in Alias, imperfect as it is.

    Hmm, you just put me in mind of a WKRP episode waaaay back when: the radio station has a problem, and Jennifer volunteers to go see the powerful man who can fix it. She dresses up, saunters into his office… and discovers he’s blind. She stammers and starts to leave, figuring if he can’t see how gorgeous she is, it won’t work. But he asks about her perfume, and the next thing you know they’re connecting on other sensory levels, and then mental levels, and eventually they discuss the problem like adults. Really priceless episode on several levels.

  15. Audra says

    Chiming in on another old thread, because I think an important theme in Alias is being missed here–gender masquerade. It’s significant that Sydney looks like a normal (though gorgeous) woman when she’s not on assignment–simple hair, not much make-up, plain suits–not someone who draws attention to herself as super “feminine” or sexy. But when she goes out on jobs, she dresses up like the “sexy woman” so no one sees her as threatening. People are so conditioned to sexualize a beautiful female that no one suspects how insanely intelligent, talented, and competent she is. She can wear high heels and still kick your ass, and then have plenty of time to disarm a bomb and save her partner. The whole point is that her femininity is a performance, not real, and men are dumb enough to fall for it again and again. She uses sexism to her advantage. Sure, in real life men have different tastes, and it probably wouldn’t work (though I imagine mostly it would). And I certainly agree about the absence of gay characters being annoying. But it’s camp–Sydney is almost like a drag queen, undercutting gender norms by exaggerating them and thus calling attention to how ridiculous they are.

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