Bond: Villain?

November 17, 2012 6:00 pm

It has certainly been a golden year for Bond. Sam Mendes’ ‘Skyfall’, released to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Ian Fleming’s 007 series, has not only become the biggest film of 2012 at the UK box office with profits of over £57m, but is also officially the UK’s highest grossing Bond film of all time. If this doesn’t convey the extent of the positive media coverage and general tuxedo-based hysteria, cast your mind back to the Queen’s casual topple from a helicopter at the opening ceremony of this year’s Olympics. He is the country’s most popular action hero; an icon ingrained into the woodwork of British culture. This being the case, is it wrong to hate James Bond?

While the popularity of 007 nation- (and, indeed world-) wide is indisputable, there remain those who find one aspect of Bond decidedly dubious: his attitude to women. The ‘Bond and gender equality’ ball began to roll in 1958, following Paul Johnson’s review of Fleming’s novel ‘Dr. No’ entitled ‘Sex, Snobbery and Sadism’, in which Johnson describes Bond’s dealings with women as ‘the mechanical two-dimensional sex-longings of a frustrated adolescent’. Certainly, the Bond girls who appear in the previous 22 films seem to be unable to get much further than either their spot on the bed with James, or their spot on the bed with their lungs filled with oil. ‘Skyfall’, it seems, does little to buck this trend.

Given the active roles of Daniel Craig and Judi Dench in highlighting gender-related issues in publicity for International Woman’s Day in 2011 (drag and all, in Craig’s case), it seems strange that the presentation of women in Bond remains such a grey area. Admittedly, the tone of Bond has changed. 007’s propensity to seduce up to four women during the course of one film (Roger Moore- ‘A View To A Kill’) has been replaced by focus upon his relationship with M, an incredibly strong female character who accurately describes James as a ‘sexist, misogynist dinosaur’ (‘GoldenEye’). While the centrality of a powerful female leader in an action film such as Bond undoubtedly indicates advancement in attitudes to gender roles, what should perhaps be considered is the extent to which M is allowed any sexual dimension at all. She is a widow, apparently with no children of her own; she has also never come close to any sort of romantic encounter with 007. Is it the case, then, that only senior, seemingly ‘sexless’ women are capable of holding positions of power? The scene in which Bond word-associates M with ‘bitch’ also suggests that while gender equality has advanced far enough to allow a female lead to hold a powerful central position in today’s Bond films, attitudes have not progressed sufficiently to quash the idea that an influential, willful woman must therefore be some sort of mother figure or a ‘bitch’.

What, then, of the other Bond girls? Naomie Harris, who plays MI5 field agent Eve, suggests that ‘Bond girls have to reflect the modern woman; the modern woman is very talented and very capable. They’re leaders in their field and they can do anything.’ Harris’ character does little to support these assertions, however, by opening the film with a girls-can’t-catch scene in which her inaccurate marksmanship results in Bond being shot. While, ostensibly, Eve manages to keep herself clear of James’s arms (although the shaving scene shows that she is clearly not unwilling), and also manages to survive until the end of the film, her fate remains, disappointingly, that of a Bond girl as she takes her position behind her desk as Bond’s secretary in the final scene.

The character of Severine is perhaps where ‘Skyfall’ falls the hardest. Having correctly identified Severine as a sex-worker and convinced her to divulge details of her enslavement within the sex-trafficking industry, Bond sees her suppressed terror and decides to help her. So far, no complaints. His decision to sneak onto her boat uninvited in order to give viewers the obligatory 007 steamy shower scene, however, may not have been the most thoughtful means of liberating a frightened and desperately unhappy woman from her forced life as a sex object. From here, unfortunately, things only get worse for Severine. The last scene in which she appears (and, incidentally, is mentioned at all) sees her tied up, with a glass of Macallan on her head, being used as a shooting target in a grotesque William Tell-esque game instigated by the villain, Silva (Javier Bardem). Needless to say, she does not survive. Bond, of course, is coerced into taking part in this game by Silva, yet his comment that Severine’s death was ‘a waste of good Scotch’ means that he is certainly not left Scot(ch) free. While those who choose to find fault with such a line may be perceived by some as being rather humourless, the unabashed portrayals of forced sex, extreme violence and Severine’s apparent dispensability convey a message far too serious to be dismissed by a joking remark by a gun-wielding alpha male in a well-tailored suit. One might even question Macallan’s decision to take part in the film’s product-placement programme in this scene.

So, where does ‘Skyfall’ score on the gender equality scale? Pretty low, it has to be said. The centrality of M provides a cursory glance towards the possibility that women can, in fact, be powerful leaders, but this is the extent of any divergence from the ‘Bond formula’. The Bond franchise needs to take its half-hearted murmurings about female empowerment further. Craig and Dench should be applauded for starting the ball rolling with their work for International Women’s Day in 2011; given the evident popularity of Bond and its capacity to reach a vast number of people, what better way to raise awareness of gender inequality could there be than to address such issues in the 007 series? Some would say that Bond would not be Bond without his chauvinistic dimension. Why not? Old ways are not necessarily the right ways. The film industry is too valuable an opportunity for sewing the seeds of social change to waste. Why not cast off the questionable messages characteristic of all previous Bond plots which are consistently laughed off, ignored or, worse, accepted, and instead craft those which might force the world to think again about the treatment of women and the need for gender equality? Bond is not only a powerful man, but also a powerful idea; there is valuable work still to be done.

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