"See that ambassador over there? I'll sleep with him tonight, and the next morning, he'll tell me all his secrets." "And if he won't tell them?" "Well, at least I'll get laid." —Folklore
Espionage has long been depicted as a glamorous and exciting profession. The same depiction goes for its practitioners. Only relatively recently however did the concept of a beautiful young woman charming male officers into revealing military secrets with her feminine wiles appear.
Named after Mata Hari (Margaretha Zelle), an exotic dancer from The Netherlands during and before World War One who was a courtesan to many high class officials, politicians, and military officers. She was actually a spy for the French, but she was convicted of being a double agent for Germany and eventually was executed by firing squad by the French. Her life was later fictionalized into a story of her being an irresistible master spy, and the idea stuck— although unlike their unlucky inspiration, most Mata Hari templates are very good at what they do.
To qualify as this trope, the character must be a young attractive female who uses her "charms" (sexual, emotional manipulation, or both) to work in a capacity for espionage specifically under a guise of innocence. She can be a member of La Résistance or The Empire, be idealistic, motivated by revenge, or simply in it for the money and personal gain, as long as it's an attractive female spy, it fits this trope. This trope however does not apply to females who are merely secret agents. There must clearly be incidences of fraternizing with the enemy as The Mole.
Despite its popularity in media, this trope is not usually Truth in Television for the reason that most political and military leaders know better than to blab state secrets to women they get to know in private company. Much more common is the case where a weak-willed political leader will reveal secrets to an ordinary prostitute who will then reveal it to the press or others, fulfilling the trope retroactively. That said, the biological basis for this trope is quite sound: orgasm tends to shut off the cerebral cortex, which is responsible for, among other things, controlling behavior and impulses, and even simple kissing releases oxytocin, which is known to make people more trusting. Lack of self-control + misplaced trust = Loose Lips.
Finally, one doesn't need to actually get the target to reveal secrets directly; photographs or other embarrassing evidence of the encounter can be used to blackmail the target into giving you what you want (the classic Honey Trap).
See also Gentleman Thief, Classy Cat-Burglar, Honey Trap, Femme Fatale, The Vamp and Spy Catsuit.
For the Mata Hari Pinball by Bally, click here.
The Grey Spy in Antonio Prohias' Spy Vs. Spy strips is a glamorous young woman who always plays on the Black and White Spies' sense of chivalry in order to defeat them both. Prohias eventually phased her out of the strips because he couldn't bring himself to have the Spies hurt a woman, but the comics were too predictable if she never lost.
The Black Widow was this in her early appearances as an Iron Man villain: a Russian spy sent by the KGB to romance him while stealing his secrets. She also initially manipulated Comic Book/Hawkeye in order to get him to help her.
Mockingbird did this at least once when she was Bobbi Morse/Agent 19. She went undercover and become engaged to a man SHIELD suspected was involved with AIM so that SHIELD could gather information on him (he was involved with AIM).
X-Men villain Mystique isn't above playing this role from time to time. Being a shapeshifter helps.
In Spy Boy, Bombshell uses "Marta Hari" as her school-going alias.
Jet Dream and her Stunt-Girl Counterspies all fit this trope.
Bridget von Hammersmark from Inglourious Basterds may qualify. She relies more on her fame from being a movie star than her sexual charm, though. In fact, Tarantino may have been hinting that he did intend for her to be seen as this kind of character; in the same scene, a group of German soldiers (whom she had been sitting with earlier) are playing a kind of celebrity guessing game, and Mata Hari herself is one of the answers.
In Mars Attacks!, the Martians send out a Martian in an Uncanny Valley woman suit to infiltrate the White House and try to assassinate the President. It almost works because of the Idiot Plot.
Claire Romely (Saffron Burrows) in Enigma is suspected of being this but you only find out at the end of the film if she is.
Alicia Huberman in Notorious is asked by the US government to seduce (and eventually marry) a Nazi agent in order to have someone with inside access to his house who can look out for the illegal activities the US government suspects are going on in there. When told the nature of her assignment, Alicia even mentions Mata Hari, saying, "Mata Hari, she makes love for the papers."
Barbie ends up playing this role in Toy Story 3. She did love Ken before realizing what was really going on at Sunnyside and then rejected him. She played this role well enough to push him into a Heel-Face Turn, and they end the movie Happily Married.
Jane Wooliston, Mary Alsworthy and Teresa Ballinger all employ this trope in the Pink Carnation Series. Jane Wooliston however also uses many other disguises and methods in her quest to prevent the Napoleonic invasion of England. She is the Pink Carnation after all.
Comes up quite a bit in BattleTech fiction. One detailed example can be seen in the novel Close Quarters, in which a disguised Cassie Suthorn manages to work her way into the confidence of the Duke of Hachiman by playing on his chivalrous impulses and allowing him to "rescue" her from the supposed minions of the "abusive" Chandrasekhar Kurita (actually her regiment's current employer) after a party. They never get physically intimate, the Duke being quite sympathetic to her alleged plight and too much of a gentleman to take advantage, but the general principle still holds.
Rook and occasionally Amara from Codex Alera. The Cursors and Bloodcrows play for keeps.
Kushiel's Dart is a rare example of a Mata Hari as protagonist.
The North Korean spy Joyce Kim in The Big Bang Theory tried to obtain military secrets from Leonard, who was working under a DARPA contract at the time. She couldn't put up with Sheldon though, and abandoned her attempt.
Irene Adler from Sherlock, the BBC series, where she's a dominatrix instead of an opera singer.
Fiona from Burn Notice has played this role occasionally. Although she generally prefers the More Dakka approach.
Karen is sent by the Overlords in Falling Skies to play this role in order to get Ben away from the 2nd Mass.
In eight season JAG episode "Dangerous Game", Chegwidden tells Rabb that a new attorney, Lieutenant Commander Tracey Manetti, on the recommendation of the new SecNav will work at JAG, Rabb quips "Mata Hari in our midst". It later turns out (in a later episode) that she actually was assigned there as the Secretary's pair of extra eyes and ears.
Elizabeth in The Americans seduces a KGB defector in order to facilitate his kidnapping.
In the world of Warehouse 13, Margaretha Zelle was much more successful as a spy and seductress than in our world. While wearing Zelle's stockings, a woman has the power to enslave the mind of any man who has touched the stockings.
Subverted in the 1979 mini-series A Man Called Intrepid. David Niven's character objects to a beautiful woman being used as a spy because "anyone who saw her would never forget her". Because she's highly qualified she's sent into France anyway; sure enough a German sentry remembers her face and it leads to her capture.
Mentioned by name by The Real Roxanne in her Answer Song to UTFO's "Roxanne, Roxanne".
"You said your name was Gary, didn't choose to call you Barry, didn't care if your name was Mother Mata Hari."
Belleza from Skies of Arcadia. She's a General, but she poses as a belly dancer to gather information on the party for The Empire. Rare, in that she's both a villainous version of this trope and motivated by idealism.
The adventure game Mata Hari is based on her. Reviews have been mixed, but the general consensus is it's So Okay, It's Average.
In Dragon Age: Origins, Orlesiannote A Fantasy Counterpart Culture of France Bards fill this roll. Party member Leliana also doubles as a Naughty Nun and has trouble reconciling the two polar aspects of her being, since she enjoyed her former career as much as her newfound faith. She does this by the time of Dragon Age II, by becoming a spy for the Church.
Zevran is a male version. In the 'verse, the genders are equal and homo/bisexuality is seen as a mere fetish rather than a taboo, thus making male Mata Haris almost as effective as the ladies.
Ada Wong of Resident Evil is first introduced as this, seducing an Umbrella employee in order to gain access to company secrets. Doesn't hurt that she's also a Dark Action Girl and a world-class Femme Fatale.
Katrina Leung worked as a double agent for China and the FBI. She seduced several FBI employees including her FBI handler which got her information of use to China
Cheryl Bentov (aka Cindy) was an American Mossad Agent who persuaded a former Israeli nuclear technician who had disclosed nuclear secrets by posing as an American tourist, becoming his lover, and persuading him to go to Italy with her... where, naturally, he was kidnapped and smuggled back to Israel.
In 2006 a British Defense Attache in Pakistan was brought back to the UK after it emerged a girlfriend/lover of his was a Pakistani Intelligence Officer. There are sources which say his actions compromised Western operatives and operations in Pakistan but the British government denies this.
A North Korean woman, Wong Jeong-Hwa, was imprisoned in 2008 after she admitted seducing South Korean military officers in exchange for classified information.
A US diplomat was photographed in a "compromising situation" with a Polish woman in 1961 and was blackmailed into revealing secrets.
A US Army NCO who worked at the US Embassy in Moscow either had drunken sex or was made to believe he had sex with a Soviet Agent because he was too drunk to remember. He was later told she was pregnant and that his wife would be told if he did not cooperate with the Soviet Authorities.
This was apparently a very common tactic used by the Soviets. Smart victims of this plot would refuse and immediately contact the American embassy.
In 1987 a US Marine Sergent embassy guard in Moscow called Clayton J. Lonetree was convicted of spying against the United States for handing over documents he was assigned to after being honeytrapped and blackmailed by a female Soviet officer.
Anna Chapman, who pled guilty to acting as a agent for a foreign government, has been described in the media as a "modern day Mata Hari" and a "honeytrap" for obtaining a British passport by marrying a British man and allegedly having affairs with prominent businessmen.
She, at least, appears no more competent than the real Mata Hari, having been caught by U.S. authorities and extradited back to Russia via Prisoner Exchange. With her cover thoroughly blown, she's been capitalizing on her looks and notoriety to become a media personality and TV host.
Alleged Russian spy Katja Zatuliveter, who worked as a researcher for the BBC and a politician's PA, has been labeled a honeytrap and "blonde temptress" by the UK press, who strongly imply the MP in question hired her out of lust and didn't do the proper background checks.
During the Cold War, British Secretary of State for War John Profumo was accused of putting national security at risk by having a sexual relationship with alleged call girl Christine Keeler, who was reputed to also be sleeping with Eugene Ivanov, a senior Naval Attache at the Soviet Embassy in London.
M15 sent out a 14 page document to British banks, businesses and financial institutions warning about the danger of Chinese intelligence services blackmailing Western businesspeople over sexual relationships.
Spy Sylvia Rafael has been called a Mossad honey trap.
British MP Ian Clement admitted he was seduced by a woman in Beijing he suspects of working for Chinese intelligence.
Russian model Ekaterina Gerasimova was allegedly employed by the Kremlin to seduce at least half a dozen of their high profile critics to destroy their reputations and for blackmail purposes.
WW2 American spy Betty Pack used her feminine wiles to get an Italian naval attache to give her the Italian Naval Code book (some say he gave her fake codes but the Italian fleets movements were predicted much more accurately suggesting he didn't) and seduced the French Embassy's press attache who gave her information to use against the Nazis.
A Taiwanese Army Major General Lo Hsien-che was drawn into a honey trap set by a "tall, beautiful and chic" Chinese agent and supplied her with top secret information in exchange for sex and money in what has been described as the worst Espionage case in Taiwan for 50 years
Rose O'Neal Greenhow. She was a Southern socialite and spy for the Confederacy during the American Civil War. She was hugely successful because men seemed incapable of refusing her anything. On multiple occasions, she seduced Union officers and politicians to where they were willing to betray their duty (and left a few suicides in her wake).
And the eponymous Trope Namer herself Mata Hari. She subverted the trope in Real Life by being a very incompetent spy, gullible as a child, as modern research has proven.