**Warning. This article contains spoilers for the James Bond film SPECTRE!**
With the most recent instalment in the James Bond franchise hitting our screens this week, Klaus Dodds, James Bond Expert and Professor of Geopolitics at Royal Holloway, delivers his verdict on the super-spy’s latest adventures.
In the midst of Royal Holloway’sWomen Inspire Campaign, and off the back of my recent contribution entitled ‘”It’s Not For Everyone”: Fieldwork, James Bond, Miss Moneypenny in Skyfall (2012)’ to an edited anthology entitled For His Eyes Only, I went to see the latest Bond film, SPECTRE. Unlike many critics, such as Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian, I left disappointed. It is not a great film and the role and scope of the female characters does not reflect well on the Bond franchise.
If you go to a James Bond film expecting a subtle and intersectional analysis of gender, race, sexuality and class then you might be in for a bit of disappointment. James Bond’s literary creator, Ian Fleming, argued that his novels were intended for ‘warm blooded heterosexuals’ waiting at train stations and airports for their onward mode of travel. His books and the subsequent films have often been found wanting in terms of how women were treated by Bond and other male characters such as villains and henchmen.
But let us also be fair to the James Bond franchise. The representations and agencies of women vary from Halle Berry’s portrayal of Jinx in Die Another Day to Mary Goodnight in The Man with the Golden Gun. While both women end up being lovers of Bond, Jinx proves to be adept with weapons and capable of fending off adversaries as a highly trained US agent. Goodnight, in comparison, is a figure of fun whose sole purpose is to be portrayed, at the end of the film, as a damsel in distress armed with nothing more than her bikini. What made the more recent Bond films interesting, from Goldeneye onwards, was having Judi Dench playing the first female M and Samantha Bond playing a Moneypenny who was perfectly capable of answering back to James Bond’s quips and flirtatious behavior. Over a series of films stretching from Goldeneye to Skyfall, Dench’s role as M in particular made the relationship between Bond and his boss more interesting, as they explored the limits of their professional and personal relationship.
Skyfall, however, served as a warning. By the end of the film, M was dead and the first women of colour to play Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) ends up going from a field agent to being relegated to the office. One of the final scenes of the film affirms that MI6 is now in the hands of two middle aged white men – Mallory as M and a rejuvenated Bond. Even the office, which was a chic modern affair under Dench’s M, returns once more to a dark wooded panel office closer to the original M’s office in the 1960s and 1970s James Bond films.
So what does the Bond franchise have to offer us in terms of SPECTRE and the place of women? Not a lot I would suggest. There are three main characters. First, let us take Moneypenny as the best-known female character. Her role in SPECTRE is smaller than in Skyfall. She delivers things to Bond at his home and walks with him around the MI6 complex. In the finale, she accompanies Q, Bond and Mallory on the pursuit of a corrupt head of British intelligence C. But she does not get to hold a weapon. She does not get to show off any of the skills she clearly had as a former field agent who was judged to be a suitable colleague to accompany Bond on a mission in Istanbul. My sense is that she is still being ‘punished’ for her mistake of accidentally shooting Bond while being urged to take a difficult ‘shot’ by Judi Dench’s M. If anything SPECTRE is all about Q (Ben Whishaw) and the development of his role and operational scope.
The second character of note is Dr. Madeleine Swann, the daughter of Quantum member Mr. White. She is the third female character in Bond to have a PhD (Dr. Godhead and Dr. Jones in Moonwalker and The World is Not Enough) and Bond discusses her credentials when he meets her at a clinic she runs in Austria. Later she proves herself comfortable with gun handling and willing to help Bond fend off a potentially murderous assault on a train heading towards the SPECTRE secret base in Morocco. Without her, Bond’s mission would have been curtailed. She saves Bond from subsequent torture at the base after they are captured. However, as the film progresses her agency becomes less assured and in a classic Bond twist she ends up being tied up by adversaries. Inevitably Bond has to rescue her and thus his role as male protector figure restored.
Finally, the weakest female character is the widow of an assailant Bond killed in Mexico City. Played by Monica Bellucci, Lucia Sciarra gets very short screen time. She meets Bond at her husband’s funeral in Rome and her only role appears to be seduced by Bond. She survives an assassination attempt thanks to Bond moments earlier and then as an act of gratitude (perhaps) reveals something important regarding the meeting place of a criminal organization, SPECTRE. Thanks to her and later Madeleine Swann Bond is able to continue his unsanctioned mission. But the net effect is to trivialize the role of Lucia and reaffirm early in the film Bond’s heroic credentials by disempowering female characters.
What SPECTRE does, overall, is provide further nourishment to the idea that Bond is a white middle-aged fantasy. Three white British men, Bond, Mallory and Q end up saving MI6 and by extension Britain. Women get killed off, get tied up and seduced by Bond after he has proved his male protector status. The recent Bond films were infinitely more interesting when we had empowered women (for example M, Moneypenny, and Jinx) challenging, unsettling and recalibrating white male privilege. SPECTRE feels to me to have retreated away from that cultural territory.
The next time I hear Sam Smith singing ‘The writing is on the wall’, I might well think he is referring to the future of the James Bond franchise itself.
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