Not many film franchises have the longevity of James Bond. Across 53 years and 24 films (plus 2 unofficial ones!), Bond has been a figure of action, danger, and excitement in cinema. His tropes are well-known and familiar, even to those who have never seen one of his films. The stylish cars, the martini “shaken, not stirred,” the intense action, the theme songs, the gadgets, the over-the-top villains, and, of course, the women.
Bond is very much known for his conquests, his “Bond Girls,” as much as anything else. They are the damsels in distress that he saves, and the femme fatales that he seduces for information. It’s all very much the quintessential male power fantasy and yet, it’s a series that I have a lifelong love for, despite very much identifying as a feminist. This may seem like something of a contradiction in terms. How can a feminist be a fan of one of the most macho, male-focussed, film series? Can someone be both a full-fledged feminist and a fan of James Bond? The short answer is yes. The longer one? Well, let’s see.
Ever since I was a very small child, I have been aware of the Bond films in some way or form. Growing up in England, it’s one of those elements of popular culture that’s hard to avoid, but for me it was always something a bit more. My dad used to drive for the production company and knew many of the people involved with making the films. As a result, my family was always invited to previews of the films, and this was how I saw the films from Tomorrow Never Dies until Daniel’s Craig’s Bond debut Casino Royale. I even met producer Barbara Broccoli on one occasion.
My main enjoyment of the films was purely on the action side of things, on the stunts and the fight scenes. I also always had a soft spot for the artistic opening title sequences. The Bond films existed for me in a kind of bubble, not quite reality, even when they were being their most realistic. They didn’t exist to be deep and thoughtful or anything else. They were simply Bond films and that was that to me. So, can it be argued that I cannot look at the series objectively because of this personal connection? Once upon a time, maybe, but I’ve grown up since then.
One of the key components of liking something, anything, is being aware when it is problematic. Nothing is without flaws. I’ve understood that Bond films are sexist for as long as I’ve known what sexism is, and it’s something that there’s no denying (even Daniel Craig has pointed this out in interviews). The women of Bond’s world are disposable, so much so that even the ones he ends the film with are forgotten by the next and never spoken of again. The exception to this in the old films is Tracy, the woman who would become Mrs. Bond only to be killed at the end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (spoilers for a film from 1969). In the newer films of Daniel Craig’s era, however, it is Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd that hangs over much of 007’s actions.
While Vesper does share the fate of many a Bond girl in meeting her demise, unlike her predecessors, her death actually does mean something for Bond, and is even present in his latest outing Spectre. I’m not saying this is an improvement, but it is a sign of a female character being given more narrative weight. There is of course also true of Judi Dench as M, who joined the series in Pierce Brosnan’s debut Goldenye. She has been a firm fixture of authority in Bond’s life and has had a very interesting dynamic, specifically, with Craig’s Bond, as there is a clear respect between the two.
Another classic Bond element is Miss Moneypenny, M’s secretary who only pops up for a couple of scenes of desperate flirting and mild sexual harassment. Now Moneypenny has been reimagined in Naomie Harris’ Eve, a former field agent. There is some flirting between her and Bond, but she helps him because it’s her job rather than because he’s been turning on the charm.
All this being said, there are still many issues in these modern Bond films. In Skyfall, we see Bond having surprise shower sex with a woman, Séverine, almost immediately after establishing she was a child sex slave. The shower scene is played for sexy, but as a result of this knowledge, comes off really uncomfortable and gross. Then she gets killed, of course.
In the lead-up to the release for Spectre, much was made in the media about the casting of Monica Bellucci. At 51, she is the oldest Bond Girl and was frequently referred to as being the “older woman,” despite only being four years older than Daniel Craig, who pointed out this particular hypocrisy in an interview. It seems that even James Bond is bored with James Bond’s behaviour towards women, so how can I look past these things and enjoy the films? Because I can acknowledge the issue.
Sometimes there’s something I can’t look past, like that moment in Skyfall, and generally it’s irritating, but just never enough to stop me watching. Also, I watched the films for the very specific brand of action that the Bond films provided, and that was still there for me to enjoy. I understand completely that this is not something everyone can do, and that’s alright. What one person can look past will just be too much for another.
Spectre is very much the classic Bond formula with a modern thriller gloss. We’re away from the Bourne-inspired realism of Casino Royale and back to the wry humour, the bombastic action, and a Bond who can shrug off situations that would leave most of us mere mortals in the hospital. We’re also treated to a very well-done opening sequence in Mexico City during Day of the Dead which features a helicopter stunt that is so dangerous the filmmakers had to get one of the only two people who can legally perform it. It is all very entertaining (personally I enjoyed it more than Skyfall) in a way that’s very comfortable and old school.
There are also little welcome shake-ups to the status quo, but they mainly do not involve female characters. My favourite part of Spectre was actually that which focused on Bond’s “back-up” team: Q (Ben Wishaw), Moneypenny and M (Ralph Fiennes). Usually those characters will show up for maybe a couple of scenes, but have next to nothing to do with the main plot. Here, they are part of the action in dealing with possible issues in British Intelligence and the shady C (Andrew Scott) while Bond is busy tracking down the mysterious Franz Oberhauser (a very sinister Christoph Waltz).
Lea Seydoux’s Dr. Madeline Swann is also quite an interesting figure, having links to Bond’s recent criminal foes and possessing a level of competence that even sees her save Bond in a confrontation with henchman Mr Hinx (Dave Bautista). However, despite that there’s still a dialogue exchange between Swann and Bond that might as well have gone like this:
Dr. Swann: Well, I’m going to go.
Dr. Swann: Yeah, I need to go be kidnapped for the finale.
Bond: Are you sure? I mean, you’re probably still in a lot of danger.
Dr. Swann: Nah, we killed a few guys, I’m probably good now.
Bond: But we have a safe house and the mission isn’t over….
Dr. Swann: I’m just going to walk down this dark and surprisingly abandoned London street now! Bye!
I couldn’t help rolling my eyes at that one, and also at a line from Oberhauser that he’s been behind the deaths of the women in Bond’s life to torment him. Sigh. Bellucci’s character also ends up being little more than a sexy interlude for a quick bit of info and then is never mentioned again, a classic Bond element I wish we were done with but apparently not, despite her having better chemistry with Craig than Seydoux does.
Why we like the films we like is often hard to articulate, and I like the Bond films even with all their faults and am still very much able to call myself a feminist because I don’t disregard or endorse those faults. Then there are some feminists who will disagree with me entirely, who hate the Bond films, and I understand their point of view and will respect that, just as I would hope they’d respect my freedom to enjoy the films. It’s also not just Bond; there are many genres or films that draw criticism for how they use women, but that doesn’t have to come into conflict with a person’s feminist beliefs.
Spectre is very enjoyable in parts and I’m sure will meet or even surpass Skyfall’s records of being the most successful British film ever. While its classic Bond leanings are fun and give a comfortable vibe in places, in other ways, it shows that the series still has a long way to come. I know and I accept this and look forward to where Bond and his “Girls” go next.