"The Most Powerful Weapon You Have"
Warriors and Gender in La Femme Nikita

Laura Ng

An abridged version from
Frances Early & Kathleen Kennedy, eds. Athena's Daughters: Television's New Women Warriors
(Syracuse, NY: Syracuse Univ. Press, 2003)

[To acquire the full essay, see link, to left, to purchase book from Syracuse University Press. LFNForever has no connection whatsoever with Syracuse University Press and profits in no way from the purchase of the book]

Nikita is just one of the new woman warriors who recently have been receiving high ratings on prime-time television. At first glance, it seems simple enough: beautiful blond woman defeats the terrorists and saves the day. However, it is never that simple. The idea of the woman warrior is one surrounded by debate. Key questions in this discussion are, Can a woman hold both positions of woman and warrior, or does one role necessarily negate the other? The territory of the warrior has long been the domain of the tough guy. He is the one society sends into danger, the one behind whom everyone rallies. Women have been waiting for him either to come home or to come to their rescue. With a decisively female sheriff in town, more questions arise: How does a woman navigate this traditionally masculine field? What changes does a woman bring to the role? What tensions and obstacles must she negotiate?....

Within academics, most criticism of La Femme Nikita is focused on the French and American films that preceded the television program. At first, reception of the series appeared hesitant, as exemplified by Susan Isaac's reluctant assignment of hero status to the television status. Isaacs argued that the ambiguity surrounding both gender and the moral markers of right and wrong in the series makes that assessment difficult for her. This ambiguity has both plagued and stimulated critics. In "A Pygmalion Tale Retold: Remaking La Femme Nikita," Laura Grindsraff concludes that although Nikita does rebel against the social order...she is trapped within it and cannot escape. As compelling as her point is, Grindstaff fails to realize fully the power of ambiguity on the designation of the female warrior and the resistant agency these gray areas grant the woman warrior.

In the dark world of covert operations and professional lies, Nikita takes strong, aggressive, and violent actions in order to create her own role as warrior. Along the way, in order to retain her power, agency, and identity as one of the new women warriors, she deftly confronts backlash stereotypes associated with aggressive women and threats of victimization.

As Jean Bethke Elshtain explains in Women and War, the male warriors are "avatars of a nation's sanctioned violence." They are the ones who protect and inscribe the order of the society they defend. Because they fight for the values placed at the center of society, in the eyes of society they are untouched by the negative associations of the violent action. They are in the trenches fighting for Mom and apple pie; it is part of the hero's job description. The violence is seen as a necessary, although perhaps distasteful, part of the role....This view, as Elshtain points out, is far too simple and misleading, a willful social blindness to the dark aspects of violence embedded in the role of hero. It is these aspects, however, that the television show La Femme Nikita brings to the forefront. This show problematizes the easy validation of the warrior hero by obscuring those clearly marked moral boundaries typically used to validate him.

Nations possess a core set of values to which systems of religion, society, and government are bound. These values, whether termed patriotism or morality, are what warriors ideally fight to uphold. Many critics have commented on the way the morally ambiguous premise of La Femme Nikita slips away from these easy moral markers. Susan Isaacs comments: "So while I admire the boldness of La Femme Nikita, the moral compass of the main character spins too fast for me to consider her a brave dame." The clear boundaries of morality used for a simple judgment call of either hero or villain are obscured in the murky darkness of Nikita's world.

Section One, the group for which Nikita works, presents itself as an antiterrorist organization; however, it strays from the path of socially acceptable action by inflicting violence on the innocents whom society desires to protect. In the episode "Into the Looking Glass" of season four (2000-2001), threats to arms dealer Dante's unborn child prove to be the point of needed persuasion. While Madeline (the lead strategist for Section One) questions Dante, she shows him the stressed heartbeats of his girlfriend and unborn offspring....By threatening the same innocent life that society values, La Femme Nikita also threatens the role of the warrior. Madeline, charged with protecting society, is ignoring mainstream society's drive to protect an innocent life and instead threatens the unborn child in order to defend the society against a terrorist threat. One must ask if the show has fallen so far from the moral core or if it is merely revealing the dark facts of a reality that the audience does not want to acknowledge.

Presented vividly are the harsh means used to produce the just end. Although in theory society protects the innocent, the series brings to light the darker side of justice. When can one life be spared at the risk of losing many? The myth of [the] democratic majority is torn asunder by the realization that where there is a choice, a minority may be silenced or sacrificed. The simple breakdown of warrior-hero versus terrorist-villain often works to obscure the hostile choices and frightening actions taken to preserve the nation as a whole. Society utilizes a willing belief in the rightness of the hero's actions to ignore the darker parts of justice. However, La Femme Nikita brings the sacrifices and choices to the viewers' attention....It displays the hard choices on which survival may hinge.

In other nuanced ways, the show deviates and defies traditional value systems embodied by the ideology of the warrior. Its physical representation of the world is often unclear. The backgrounds and landscapes for the conflicts are not marked by any recognizable monuments....This absence of geographical marking keeps the audience from associating Nikita and Section One with any direct political or national allegiance that might be used to redeem them and thus place them into the ranks of the heroes. Patriotism cannot be used to rescue Nikita's actions from moral questioning. This same stark landscape ironically keeps the audience from abandoning Nikita. As Edward Said astutely notes in Culture and Imperialism, most societies project their fears on the unknown or the exotic other. This barren land, where the viewers are kept disoriented, is threatening. It is a place between the familiar and the foreign, like part of a dream or vision that one cannot remember clearly. There is always a sense of a lurking danger from which the viewers need protection. Nikita provides that sense of protection.

However, the blurring of morality does not mean there are no villains in Nikita's world. Section One fights against many terrorist organizations, but none is as powerful as the Collective in the...final season. The similarity between Section One and the Collective is striking. In "The Man Behind the Curtain," the Collective attempts to destroy an important factory. Section One's objective is to prevent the destruction. As both sides work to achieve their goals, the camera switches from Section One's headquarters to the Collective's command center. What stands out in these scenes are the similarities. Both sets of control centers are dark, allowing light to flow from the screens of computers and other forms of identical technology filling the stark rooms....Thanks to Michael, Nikita's lover and former Section One operative, both associations even use similar strategies. He left Section One and sold its plans and protocols to the Collective. As the camera cuts from one base to another, the dominant impression of the scenes is one of sameness. The technology is the same. The orders issued are similar in direction and nature. The drive to succeed at all costs is the same. The goals are the thin difference between the two groups, a slim line in an ill-lit world.

To complicate matters further, Section One has no clear-cut hero. The carefully crafted group of agents is not united by the martyrlike drive to die for the protection of the culture. Rather, Section One is marked with suspicion, paranoia, and power plays. The actions it undertakes often have less to do with conducting antiterrorism operations than with securing power for the individual plots unfolding from within the organization. Paul (the leader of Section One and better known to fans as "Operations") and Madeline constantly battle Nikita for control over the lives of the agents and the direction Section One will take in the future....The often brutal power struggles keep the audience from unconditionally accepting any of the characters as the clearly defined and fully sympathetic hero.

In "Up the Rabbit Hole," Paul and Madeline engineer the death of a supervisor named George to protect Section One and their own agendas. Even the protagonist, Nikita, is embroiled in power plays. In "Four Light Years Farther," the audience learns that Nikita has been spying on Section One for a superior, Mr. Jones, who is head...the Center. All learn that three years of friendships, conflicts, and missions have been recorded and related to the mysterious Mr. Jones. There is more concern for the personal rank and file of power than for the nation Section One was designed to protect. This focus on the internal dysfunction of Section One undercuts Nikita as a hero. The audience, like weapons designer Walter,...begins to wonder how much of the agency's operatives shared past experiences have constituted a true bond and how much has been a performance to gain information. Is Nikita the hero we see? Or is she just another version of Paul, waiting to use her information to break the last resistance to her plans for gaining power?

In this murky world where the markers of the warrior are destroyed, how does Nikita fit into our quest for discovering the just woman warrior? Psychologist Michael Ventura finds this ambiguity a redeeming aspect of La Femme Nikita. He feels that it is this uncertainty, this escape from sharply defined categories, that the audience finds attractive about the show. The lack of a rigidly defined social process of validation leaves open doors of possibility. It is in these possibilities that Nikita the warrior may be found. La Femme Nikita avoids the conflict with the land of a male warrior by removing itself from mainstream society's domain. On the border, it creates a new order.

Gloria Anzaldua offers a clear and versatile definition of borders and borderlands. "A border is a dividing line, a narrow strip along a steep edge. A borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by emotional residue of an unnatural boundary. It is a constant state of transition. The prohibited and forbidden are its inhabitants." Section One and the world of La Femme Nikita exist in this nebulous, untamed border region. As Ventura aptly phrases it, "Nikita lives in hell." The key is the lawlessness of the situation. Where there is chaos, the familiar rules of the world can be left behind. Does this mean there is no ideal, not great moral truth to reach for? On the contrary, the show displays the compromises that occur when the moral codes of society are not applied in the lawless land of the border.

With the removal of the overarching moral construction society uses to validate the warrior's violent actions, the fringe area exposed is a ground ripe for transgression. The obscuring of the clear boundaries gives those transgressive characters on the fringe the ability...to construct their own codes. Nikita is such a character. Her actions, beliefs, expectations, values, and agendas become the standard the audience uses to measure good and bad, success and failure....

....The idea of the female warrior becomes problematic if one views a woman as essentially nurturing and passive. Nikita then is either an abnormal monster or an androgynous figure, stuck between the biological and behavioral makeup of masculine and feminine. She thus is limited in her transgressive power. Her genetic makeup dictates behavior and may prohibit her utilization of violence in aggressive ways. This essentialism, then, works only to diminish Nikita's agency and does not account adequately for her existence or the existence of other women warriors....

...[T]he image of a violent woman brings additional social fears to the forefront. As Ann Jones documents in Women Who Kill, the idea of even abused women engaging in violent actions creates the backlash fear of an "open season on all men," with the underlying fear of a lawless, unconstrained, uncontrolled woman....

Nikita defeats this backlash connected to her violent actions through cognitive dissonance.Through the first two seasons of the show (1997-98 and 1998-99), she is forced to consider her violent escapades as well as her emotional and psychological well-being. In episodes such as "Choice" and "Charity," she explores her own soul and the question "Am I still human?" This emotional exploration allows viewers to empathize with her and keeps them from easily dismissing her as an immoral killer. Nikita is not necessarily apologizing for her actions or begging for redemption. Instead, she takes the "reality" in which she is trapped and studies the effect it has on herself. Viewers can hold Nikita up as their protagonist because she can feel pain and still has a loose concept of right and wrong. Though they may not always approve of Nikita's choice and actions, they find it is easier to deal with them because of the ambiguity permeating the show.

In "Half Life," Nikita decides to reveal the identity of the bomber, knowing that Michael's connection to the bomber will be revealed and that her revelation will force an emotionally painful and potentially deadly confrontation for Michael. The bomber, Rene, knew Michael when they both were idealistic...student protestors in the 1980s....Her actions show the compromises she must make to survive. Her mental agonizing also works to display her control. She is not the untamed, irrational monster woman. She is calm. As she weighs each of her choices and the possible outcomes, she displays her considerable control and rationality. Nikita is an individual who is trying to navigate an extraordinary world, where right and wrong are not clear and where most choices become a question of who should suffer.

Whenever there is violence, there is usually a victim....Nikita, however, artfully avoids woman's traditional role of victim in the violence equation. Scattered throughout the show are many opportunities for victimhood into which Nikita might escape, thereby alleviating her angst. The victim potential begins in the first episode, "Nikita." The television Nikita, unlike the French film Nikita, did not commit the crime she was imprisoned for originally. Based on society's unjust and incorrect condemnation of her, she is forced into her life at Section One, with the promise of death if she tries to escape. This premise and Nikita's innocent origin work to invoke sympathy from the viewer and to provide Nikita with a possible way out of accepting responsibility for her violent actions. If the situation is to kill or be killed, Nikita might absolve herself with the obvious answer, "They made me do it. I did not want to." However, along with absolving herself of the responsibility of her actions, this choice also absolves her of her agency's. Once she relinquishes to Section One the repercussions of her actions, she admits to herself and to the audience that she has no power. She then becomes a tool and a victim.

Instead, Nikita acknowledges these events, but in carrying out her own agendas she refuses to allow circumstances to take away her agency and to render her a victim, as implied by Laura Grindstaff's analysis of the television show. She accomplishes this goal by implementing her own plans. At times, she must act as the conduit for the power of Section One...but she often undercuts that power. In "Four Light Years Farther," she is forced to evaluate the Section One operatives. Although passing judgment on Operations and on Madeline instills in her a sense of justice or at least revenge, it is the sentencing of her lover, Michael, to death that provides the pivot point for Nikita's agency and the audience's empathy. Nikita does issue the "cancellation" order for Michael.....but she later rescues Michael from his death sentence and provides him with a window of escape from Section One. These later actions help to illustrate that however often she is maneuvered into undesirable situations, she refuses to relinquish her power and acts only to uphold her own desires. Like all events in the series, though, even forms of agency are compromised.

In the series finale, "A Time For Every Purpose," Nikita appears to have achieved the ultimate form of agency by being made leader of Section One. This appearance, like most features of the show, is deceiving. Her freedom and power are still limited by her inability to leave behind the violent world of Section One. Her personal goal to make Section One a better place for the agents is formulated incompletely. She is still caught in the paradoxes marking this covert world.

Another element lessening the threat of victimhood for Nikita is the fact that all of the residents of Section One are potential victims. Michael, Birkoff, and Walter are subject to the same death threats as Nikita. All will be killed if they try to escape. Nikita is not singled out because of her gender. She is equal to her colleagues. This aspect of equality also forges a bond between Nikita and her Section One comrades.

On a strictly American level, Nikita's position as the besieged and the besieging underdog strikes a resounding chord. America has long had a special love for individuals who work against oppressing systems. The very roots of the country are entwined with the myth of the rebel. Seeing Nikita as a light struggling against an overwhelming dark draws on this cultural currency for American viewers. Being designated the rebel grants Nikita culturally recognizable role on which to build her identity, while at the same time garnering for her the audience's patience and understanding. It is one of the few readily recognizable mainstream symbols represented in La Femme Nikita, where otherwise little is clearly identifiable.

Nikita's one incontestable attribute is her biological sex. It is impossible to escape her physicality....Nikita's body is a central focus in this particular show. Her looks are emphasized from the very beginning...with Madeline's purr, "they are the most powerful weapons you have." Nikita is the only blond primary character on the program....This fact is emphasized by the settings on the show. They are often dark, cast with shadows, and inadequately lit with pale lights. The characters are clothed in black or equivalent dark colors and blend into the shadowed background. In contrast, [Peta] Wilson's golden hair always manages to gleam. It catches the light and makes her noticeable and distinct among the shadows. Even when Nikita wears a cap or hat, chunky strands of her bright golden hair stick out or trail from behind in a ponytail -- a visual bright spot drawing the viewer's attention. Nikita's clothing plays a part in juxtaposing her...gender and the role she acts out for Section One. Her outfits are usually tight around her torso, displaying her athletic figure. It is not unusual for her undercover wardrobe to be low cut across the chest. This focus on Nikita's...body...might threaten to underscore all of society's potential problems with the woman warrior, but Nikita once again turns the factor in her favor.

Paired with this emphasis on her body is Nikita's use of her own physical beauty to distract the potential target of her mission. In "There Are No Missions," an underwear-clad Nikita attempts to distract Michael with kisses and a provocative display of skin, while she covertly reaches for her gun. When Michael escapes before she can shoot him, she chases him out into the street still in her state of partial undress. This emphasis on her body does contain a threat to reduce Nikita's power. As Laura Mulvey notes in her essay "Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema," images of women often are constructed to pander to the male gaze of the audience. Therefore, the woman exists only to represent and gratify the masculine construction of the feminine. On the other hand, the one who does the constructing controls the power. It is Nikita who is presenting her image to Michael. She controls what he sees and how he sees. In constructing herself in a specific way and by carrying out the alternative agenda of attempted murder, Nikita clearly is the one using the power of the gaze, not Michael or the audience. Her body is no longer a potential hazard; it is a tool she presents and utilizes for her own designs.

In an examination of the power struggles in which Nikita engages as she drives herself to remain in control, it becomes clear that she is most certainly a woman warrior. Society is largely sidelined in the battles, leaving her free to construct herself and her power as she can in the dangerous world of Section One. Her own agendas often place her in direct confrontation with the orders that structure her job and existence in the section. However, her ability to subvert Section One's aims and outmaneuver with other agents pitted against her is a testament to Nikita's power, status, and ability.

The figure of Nikita as a woman warrior reflects a breakdown in traditional gendered social roles in which the man is the hero and the woman is the faithful sidekick or damsel in distress. Although the woman warrior's role may seem designed to uphold mainstream social norms with the imposition of order upon the criminal fringes, it brings to light the power found in the borderlands of society and allows the woman (such as Nikita) to protest these norms. This protest also reveals the instability of such roles and is a step toward new role models for women. Flickering on the small screen is the image of an empowered woman. However, Nikita is also a warning. With this new, violent role come the issues of responsible use and abuse of authority that will not disappear simply because the hero is an empathic woman...