Jennifer Egan’s “Black Box” seems to comment on the role of women in a number of ways. First through her contrast of the agent and the “beauties” of the story, and also by revealing the circumstances of the agent, making the reader question whether or not her service is purely a self-motivated act of patriotism.
We find that in this world the purpose and goal of women is “to be a lovely, innocuous, evolving surprise” (16) Using the mask of gender, the narrator is able to go undetected in the highly patriarchal society, and more importantly to her “Designated Mate.” While she is initially portrayed as a subject, all the other beauties are objects, referred to by a quality of appearance and not personality or thought.
Egan may be revealing that underneath the appearances, all the women are much more than meets the eye, but her comment on society seems to dig much deeper when the reader considers why she is on the mission in the first place.
Through a number of context clues we can find that her ‘voluntary’ service may be motivated by more reasons than personal victory or sacrifice. For one, during intimate encounters, she repeats “Remind yourself that you aren’t being paid”(7), and she reflects that “America is your husband’s chosen country, and that he loves it”(15). Her husband is a high level engineer, creating a lot of the tech for this mission. This is indicates that she might have been persuaded to go, instead of really wanting to. Additionally, she mentions that she waited to have children until after the mission, causing me to wonder if that was her decision, or a trade-off that she has go on the mission before her husband will have kids with her.
Another important detail is that her father is a famous movie star who never knew she existed. Listing the reasons why she cannot die, she writes “You need to tell the movie star that he has an eighth child and that she is a hero”
“Reflect on the many reasons you can’t yet die:
You need to see your husband
You need to have children
You need to tell the movie star that he has an eighth child and that she is a hero”20
Thus, the reasons why she is going on the mission are for her husband and her father – two men. She is being used by the MALE/female power dynamic, and despite her crucial service for her country, she is still seen as and object and an expendable means of gathering information.
In this way, she is just as much a “beauty” as all the other women.