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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Not just a pretty face

CW’s Nikita has strong female lead, troubling portrayal of beauty

Published: September 17, 2010
Section: Arts, Etc.

The CW’s new serial spy drama “Nikita” features talented actors playing strong female characters, but in the end the show reveals and is an example of what is problematic with society’s portrayal of beauty in media.

“Nikita” focuses on a shady covert government agency operating under the vague moniker “Division.” The agency trains juvenile delinquents to commit assassinations under the pretense of protecting the United States’ interests.

Maggie Q’s character Nikita, an assassin gone rogue and out for revenge against the Division, kicks butt during the first few minutes of her time on-screen. In a clever fight scene, she breaks her target’s neck with ease and takes out a nearby bodyguard with the perfectly aimed throw of a dagger. Nikita is strong and not afraid of using her fists to achieve her goals.

She does all of this while wearing a tiny red bikini. Maggie Q’s beautiful and the show capitalizes on her looks. The camera spends a lot of time scanning her body. Later on in the pilot episode, for no reason whatsoever, Nikita walks around her hideout wearing a flimsy robe and black underwear.

The network has advertised the show with the tagline “Looks do kill” and this theme of beauty entwined with violence is something that is hammered into the viewers’ heads ad nauseum. On one hand it’s empowering to watch a strong and beautiful woman physically out-perform her male rivals, on the other hand the emphasis on Maggie Q’s looks is almost exploitative.

The theme of beauty and violence can’t be ignored because it is so integral to the show’s premise. The Division purposefully recruits young men and women as assassins because they are beautiful. They transform them by teaching them to walk, talk, apply make-up and kill people. District agent Amanda (Melinda Clarke) promises a new recruit that she will help her “embrace your beauty.” Then she gives the recruit a makeover.

Beauty is treated as a tool for assassins because it allows potential targets to underestimate their would-be killers and because it distracts. In the opening fight scene, for example, Nikita was able to get close to her target because the target viewed her as simply a sex object.

Yet Nikita is not just a pretty face, she’s smart too. During the pilot she evades capture, gathers intel and sabotages an attempted assassination of a foreign diplomat. What’s most impressive is that all of these actions are part of Nikita’s scheme to take down the agency that trained and ultimately betrayed her. Maggie Q does a good job at maintaining a veneer of icy intelligence that lends credibility to the show’s premise. One of the most entertaining aspects of the show is that the viewer is presented with the challenge of attempting to guess Nikita’s next move and what her ultimate endgame is. For the most part Nikita is a step ahead of the CIA operatives and the viewers. The last few seconds of the episode are such a surprise for the viewers that they fundamentally change the show and provide incentive to keep watching.

While the show clearly displays that Nikita is a smart, forceful woman, the Division and the show are perpetuating society’s obsession with beauty. The Division treats beauty as a strength because of society’s assumption that it indicates vulnerability, but ultimately what the show reveals is that beauty equals strength. This is not in itself a bad thing, but it is a theme that has already been to oprevalent on television with “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Alias,” “The Sarah Connor Chronicles” and (most recently) “Covert Affairs.” Another show about a sexy dangerous woman doesn’t seem so empowering anymore. It’s time for other types of women to have their time onscreen.

Of course, the network’s focus on Maggie Q’s beauty could just be a tactic to hook viewers to the show and could be something that could be treated more subtly as there are more episodes.

Despite quibbles regarding the show’s portrayal of women, the show is interesting, fun and thrilling. It smartly switches between the actions of a disillusioned and bitter Nikita to the training of the new recruit Alex played by Lyndsy Fonseca. Fonseca’s performance is fun to watch because she brings a biting edge to her character. The only false note in casting is Shane West as a Division handler. West, known for his role opposite Mandy Moore in a drippy teen romance and for his ongoing role on ER, seems out-of-place in this world of espionage.

“Nikita” is definitely worth watching and as more episodes are shown maybe the network will de-emphasize the show’s preoccupation with beauty.