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Impostor Syndrome Explores the Secret Life of a Woman in Tech

What does a spy look like? Rather than drawing attention to himself by being flashy, like James Bond, a good secret agent traditionally mutes his presence. “Obscurity was his nature, as well as his profession,” John le Carré wrote of his spy hero George Smiley, whose poorly cut suits allowed him to sidle through Europe’s capitals unnoticed. “The byways of espionage are not,” he continued, “populated by the brash and colorful adventurers of fiction.”

But that was a gendered axiom, it turns out, for those were the old days in intelligence aesthetics, when men fiddled with radios and women, to the extent they got to do anything, served as lovely secretaries or glamorous decoys (think of the skillful helpmeet Molly Meakin or the femme fatale Liese Worth in The Honourable Schoolboy). In 2021, by contrast, anyone with the usual array of social media accounts can live out multiple “real” identities online (one for work, one for family, one for the YouTube slime community, perhaps) without appearing even suspicious, and complex practices like catfishing have taken the place of manila-envelope blackmail.

Women and the content they create are at the center of this strange new information economy, and in her new novel, Impostor Syndrome, Kathy Wang proposes a new type of spy to reflect the new times we live in—an inspirational girlboss whose blonde locks and feminist rhetoric give her the cover to conduct a surveillance operation at the behest of Russian intelligence services. There is a security hole in the West at the precise spot where femininity and war overlap, and it looks like a Gwyneth Paltrow–esque executive. After all, to be a successful professional woman, Wang proposes, one has to act like a secret agent.

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