I really want to have a conversation about the James Bond franchise. Specifically, the way the Bond franchise treats women. Currently, many people are losing their heads about Sam Smith’s new song, ‘Writings on the Wall’, because it isn’t good enough to be a ‘Bond song’. Admittedly, it’s not one of the greatest songs I have ever heard, but I also reckon there are far more issues with the Bond series as a whole – and if you’re biggest worry is the latest song, then we probably need to sit down and talk about it. I am just going to make a small disclaimer at this point. I have not, and will not, rewatch any of the Bond films in order to write this post. I watched them far too many times as a kid, and basically I don’t really want to waste my time. Having said that, if you haven’t seen them – you should probably watch a few just so you get the general picture of the cocktail of misogyny, racism and homophobia. It’s quite something.
I grew up watching James Bond. It was a feature in my childhood, as a family we watched at least one film every few weeks. Despite my youth, I fully understood the appeal of James Bond. For men, he is someone to look up to, to aspire to be. Bond is the genuine article, the British hero. Suave, funny and intelligent, he charms women into his bed and uses his superior brain to foil even the trickiest villain’s plots. He’s the man which every young boy aspires to be – he refuses to toe the line, subverts authority but always always comes out on top. There are never any repercussions to his actions.
In addition to his heroic status, he is also embodies the notion of heteronormativity. For every Bond villain, there are several ‘Bond girls’, each of them succumbing to James Bond’s allure and many ending up six feet under at the end. Often, they are also intelligent (but never as intelligent as Bond himself) and always, they are beautiful. Every film has the same structure and each structure involves Bond’s entanglement with several women and usually one of them attempts to trap him. There is no discussion outside heteronormative conventions: in Bond’s world, men like women, women like men and they always end up having sex. There’s one slight deviation from this rule (slight) but I’ll go into that later.
So, what’s the issue? Well, there’s a couple of things I’d like to underline. Firstly, the fridging aspect to the Bond girl character. Apparently, a third of the women who sleep with James Bond end up dead. The Telegraph reckon that Bond sleeps with 51 women onscreen, and as many as 16 end up meeting their maker. They also point out that ALL of the women who sleep with Daniel Craig’s Bond have died. Coincidentally, it’s also the treatment of Vesper’s character in ‘Casino Royale’ that causes the most alarm. Whilst it’s true that many of the women are killed, Vesper’s death is the one which more closely resembles ‘fridgeing’: a trope whereby female characters are either kidnapped, threatened or killed in order as a catalyst to propel a male character’s own storyline. Generally, the women who end up dead in Bond films are former love conquests that serve little more to the narrative than titillation or sex. Vespar, however, is a woman depicted as a real love interest for Daniel Craig’s Bond. Not only does she have the potential to be a truly interesting character: she’s intelligent, funny and becomes a partner to James Bond, rather than a one time love fling. He seems to care deeply for her, and the two of them have emotional chemistry, based on their conversations rather than just how either of them perform in bed. It turns out that Vesper doubles crosses Bond, an act which only adds another layer of depth to her character, but is killed off shortly afterwards. Bond is portrayed as completely heartbroken, and his utter despair at losing Vesper (and being betrayed by her) seems to become the justification for his treatment of women throughout the entire franchise (‘Casino Royale’ is marketed as a prequel to the franchise as it stands). So instead of utilizing a fantastic character, one that has more depth than Bond by miles, the writers kill her off to give Bond an excuse for treating women like shit.
It’s not that violence against women shouldn’t be portrayed on-screen, of course it can be. There are plenty of films where women die at the hands of men (and women) and depending on the narrative and context, it can be entirely appropriate within a film. Often, it is. The main issue here is that in *twenty four* films, no woman ever comes out on top, no woman ever evades Bond’s charms (there’s even the insinuation that M finds him attractive, and hates him because she can’t sleep with him) and no woman is ever depicted as matching Bond in intelligence/skill. It’s pretty dangerous, not to mention reckless, to routinely depict women as passive sex objects. It’s potentially even more dangerous to depict the endgame of masculinity as fetishising women as sexual commodities rather than as actual people. This is all in addition to the fact that many of the Bond girls have back stories which involve sexual assault, human trafficking and abuse. Yet there’s no discussion of PTSD, and apparently a good seeing to in bed sorts all that out. Futhermore, the James Bond franchise only supports the idea that women are objects to be used and discarded when men are done with them. That their beauty is worth far more than their intelligence, and that they do not possess anything beyond that. It enforces and encourages the male gaze, to a point where we have a whole group of female characters and actresses who are referred to as ‘Bond girls’ – their gender suffixed onto the name of a man they slept with. It’s hard to imagine it the other way round. The franchise does nothing to tear down the double standard between men and women: positively hero-worshipping the man who seduces over 50 women, and killing off the women that dare to reciprocate.
The latest in Bond media though is the rumours of Idris Elba potentially playing the titular character in the next series of films. Not everyone is happy about the idea, however. Former James Bond, Roger Moore stated that Bond should be ‘English-English’ and that Elba would not be appropriate for the role. Apparently his comments were taken out of context, but that screams (at least to me) of an old, white man attempting to cover his racist tracks – the type of person who thinks only those with white skin can really be English.
The thing is though, it’s completely irrelevant. The fact is this: James Bond is a fictional character created many many years ago. He doesn’t exist, it is not the job of film-makers and screenwriters to ensure that an ‘accurate’ portrayal of the novels is exemplified through the films. In my opinion, it is their job to ensure that a) the best films that can be made are made, and b) that we uphold and encourage diversity within cinema. The base line is that there is nothing inherently within James Bond’s character that means he needs to be played by a white man. So why have there been only white men playing him? And why are people so upset about the notion of a black Bond? These are questions for another post, I feel, but the whole situation only adds to the mountain of questionable aspects to the Bond franchise.
I recently read an article entitled ‘Can You Be A Feminist and Still Love James Bond Films’. It raises some interesting points – mainly relying on the strength of the female assassins which Bond comes into contact with and that shot of Daniel Craig leaving the water in ‘Casino Royale’. In fact, many people refer to that shot as evidence of a developing Female Gaze within cinema. I, personally, am not convinced. The way in which the camera lingers over the women in Bond films treats their bodies like simple objects – on show to be bought and gazed upon. There is nothing in the camera movement that treats these women with respect or allows us to see them as characters the audience may aspire to be. Although Craig is partially clothed in the shot, it is filmed objectively – the camera doesn’t linger on his curves or his breasts. It shows him from a neutral standpoint. Despite being half naked, he is strong. He is the man that other men want to be. I don’t think there’s ever been a Bond girl that girls would aspire to be.
Spectre comes out on October 26th, and let’s hope it will surprise us all.