The heroine of Kathryn Bigelow's controversial new movie Zero Dark Thirtystands out for her weapon of choice when helping to run down Osama bin Laden – a quick and ruthless mind.
Unlike other female spies portrayed in US popular culture, "Maya" – who is closely based on a real-life and unidentified CIA operative – does not use sex to seduce her enemies or, like Angelina Jolie characters, attempt to prove she can kick ass harder than men. Instead, it is Maya's drive, ferocious determination and keen intellect that bags the most wanted man on the planet.
It is a portrayal that has struck a chord with someone who should know: the high-profile former CIA agent Valerie Plame. "In popular culture, female agents are usually either highly sexualised or hugely physical – it is either using a sequinned dress or a gun. But actually the most important weapon you have is your intellect," says Plame, an undercover operative whose exposure by Bush administration officials in 2003 caused a major political scandal linked to the build-up to the Iraq war.
Zero Dark Thirty, which has inspired a blizzard of publicity in the lead-up to its release across America in January, is the dramatic account of the operation that led to the shooting of bin Laden in his Pakistani compound in 2011. The film, which has already attracted controversy over its graphic portrayal of torture, is a hotly tipped Oscar favourite and Jessica Chastain, who plays Maya, has already been nominated for a Golden Globe. But Maya is not alone in America's cultural landscape at the moment when it comes to savvy female spies. In the hit television series Homeland, the heroine, Carrie Mathison, played by Claire Danes, is renowned for her sharp analysis.
There is also Covert Affairs, a hugely popular TV show on the USA Network that features a young CIA female trainee whose cover is that she works at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC. "These are starts to getting the public used to the idea and concept that women can be significant players in the intelligence field," says Plame.
Of course, that is no surprise to Plame herself. She had a highly successful career, including long periods undercover, that only ended when her cover was blown in a row over a CIA investigation that seemed to contradict official descriptions of Saddam Hussein's weapons programme.
Plame says women have brought a lot to the real world of espionage. "Women can be more attuned. Women read body language better and sometimes the subtleties are really important," she says.
In both real life and fiction, it also seems female agents have to contend with sexism – they must fight their own bosses, as well as the enemy. The Washington Post has reported that the agent who inspired the character of Maya has been passed over for promotion. In Homeland, Carrie is undermined by her superiors and drummed out of the agency. That strikes a chord with Plame – and no doubt women in other fields too. "Of course, some dinosaurs still roam the halls at CIA headquarters," she says.
Plame, in fact, is going to add to the new fictional world of female spies with a novel, called Blowback, set to be published next year. "I was so frustrated with how female operatives are portrayed. I thought: 'I could do better'," she says.
Yet the role of women in the intelligence service is still too often hidden – perhaps explaining the success of Zero Dark Thirty and Homeland. Indeed, Bigelow admitted last week that she had been surprised to discover how important women were in espionage. "You don't think of women being at the centre of that kind of hunt, for the world's most dangerous man, so I think that was kind of a bit of a surprise and a great one at that," Bigelow told Time magazine.
But in fact women – and not just the real-life Maya – were key to that operation, even before the 9/11 attacks. Last week, former CIA agent Michael Scheuer, who ran a unit hunting for bin Laden, revealed that he had deliberately selected a strongly female staff. "[Women analysts] seem to have an exceptional knack for detail, for seeing patterns and understanding relationships – and they also, quite frankly, spend a great deal less time telling war stories, chatting and going outside for cigarettes," he told CNN security journalist Peter Bergen.
Not that women at the CIA are chosen for the gentle touch. In the film, Maya is brutally focused on her job, highly aggressive with her colleagues and sits in on a session in which a detainee is physically abused – a scene that has sparked renewed debate in the US over torture.
In real life, the CIA agent behind Maya's character was reportedly so annoyed that colleagues got awards after the bin Laden operation that she sent an email to many of them suggesting that only she deserved any recognition.
That story perhaps shows that while women are invaluable at the CIA, no one should be too surprised that they are every bit as ambitious and hardline as their male colleagues. "They are alpha types, both male and female. Women are capable of having egos too," says Plame.