by Elizabeth Amisu
Shaken, Stirred, Sexist: Is there room for modern women in Bond?
Fifty years ago, James Bond, code named ‘007‘, first came to public consciousness with the novel Casino Royale. Flashforward forty-two years to the 2012 release of Skyfall: Ian Fleming’s books have spawned 23 films, which have been around for so long that they permeate the consciousness of popular culture.
But Bond is not only an synecdoche of Britishness; he’s clearly a patriarchal symbol of the British psyche and the British representation of itself to the rest of the world.
Bond is Britain. A Caucasian man of few words, with a stiff-upper lip, who is stalwart, highly intelligent and adept at out-manoeuvring all manner of dilemmas or antagonists.
In the latest Skyfall movie we see a shift in these ideals, towards a representation of the austerity that Britain has experiencing for the last few years. Skyfall also embraces the beauty of austerity, which can inspire innovativeness and ingenuity.
An American production model may have produced a much flashier, epic narrative. However, in Mendes’ newest offering, Bond performs amazing feats with very limited resources, which was just as exciting for global audiences.
So: Bond is a man. Bond is British. Bond makes austerity cool. But with all this, does Bond still remain one of the most sexist franchises in popular consciousness?
We should not kid ourselves that society has given us an even playing field between men and women. In the United Kingdom, despite making improvements in our employment laws, women in the professional world still do not earn as much as men do in many fields.
If that’s not a sign of who has the most power in the country, I don’t know what is. So what does Bond have to say about it?
In Tomorrow Never Dies, The World Is Not Enough and Die Another Day, we saw women move to the forefront in Bond: an unexpected but very positive change. Pierce Brosnan’s Bond films were ostentatiously American, though, arguably going against the archetypical British style shown in the new movie.
In early Bond movies, many of which teeter on the Austin Powers spoof of ridiculousness, with characters like Pussy Galore, women are viewed simply as sexual objects for Bond to acquire.
Take, for instance, the poster for For Your Eyes Only, in which the major focus is on spread legs and buttocks with nothing else to distinguish the model. This is a depiction of a woman disembodied by the camera, in what film theorists Laura Mulvey and Andrea Dworkin describe as the male gaze.
This old-fashioned portrayal is not limited to the older Bond films. It is very present in Skyfall, too. That women are very much objectified in earlier Bond films is a symptom of society’s dated views of women in those times; women did not have the social power that they do now.
But what’s our excuse now?
Of course, there are opposing arguments. For instance, in Casino Royale, there was an interesting subversion of that famous Ursula Andress-emerging-from-the-sea sequence; we instead saw Daniel Craig emerging from said sea in particularly tight swim trunks. The style of framing shows an attempt to appeal to a more female/gay demographic.
In the new film, the makers still manage to cling to sexist stereotypes. This time, however, it is in the name of authenticity or paying homage to the original ideals and societal views which gave us Bond to start with. Women in the new film are reduced to a backseat role as secretaries or, after a last gasp, eventually completely erased from the picture.
It has taken a long time to shoehorn strong women into the Bond films. Over and again we have fallen prey to the “Twilight Effect”: weak and popular female characters depict women who are simply window-dressing for a masculine narrative and often, these women are actually superfluous to the plot, little more than glorified props.
So, is Bond sexist? Definitely. Director Sam Mendes attempts to tie many key strands of the narrative: austerity Britain, a crumbling empire and a strong but aging matriarch in the twenty-first century. The first two he got totally right, the last one definitely needs a little work.
But hope is not lost. There is room in Bond for modern women and we are definitely on our way to a time where Bond heroines like Judi Dench and Halle Berry will be the norm and not the exception.