James Bond marathon - a reflection on sexism, patriarchy and rape culture
© Eon Productions
As the release of the latest James Bond got moved to November 2020, there was an opportunity to watch all 24 of them before the release of the new one. It took me two weeks of consistent watching to get through all of them. Watching all of them back to back allows to see how society evolved (or not). James Bond depicts the society of its time and every James Bond incarnate the male ideal of the time. It is the fourth highest grossing film series of all time which means it is quite likely to influence at least some of its audience.
Before the film properly starts, I noticed that the opening credits title sequence. The opening credits title sequence puts women in the position of objects. They are the naked ones here to be looked at, to give pleasure to the male spectator but not here to act or have any kind of significance. Mainly they are faceless silhouettes. Countless close-ups on body parts are made to arouse the male audience but it also transforms women's bodies in an object and denies women to see their body as a whole and independent from the male gaze. Most of the time, the face is very blurry and not identified. They have no proper identity. The only title sequence without naked women is Casino Royale which proved that it could be done and it's the most interesting one because it focuses on Bond's character and works like a preview of what's to come. If you would like, you can check it out for yourselves by watching the title opening credits of the 24 films here.
The opening title sequences are like a preview of what to expected on the treatment of women in the James Bond saga. The women are objects part of the decorum just as they are in the opening title sequences. The female characters are mainly commonly referred to as "James Bond Girls". They do not exist outside of their relationship to James Bond. By being called James Bond Girls, it is implied that they are his property. He has some kind of right on them - and the character has been depicted as such in many films.
Some have even no name and even if they do, they are sometimes not mentioned during the film. Some of their appearances would be to kiss / flirt / sleep with James Bond and then magically disappear. The names of the female characters remembered in pop culture are innuendos - Pussy Galore, Honey Rider or Octopussy. The women are sexualised before they even appear or say a word.
Also they are denied their status of "women" by being called "girls". They are sexualised but also infantilised. By being called "girls", the women must not be over a certain age. The Bond Girls are typically in their early to mid-twenties. In 2015, Monica Bellucci makes history for playing a James Bond Girl at 50 in Spectre (2015) replacing Honor Blackman who played Pussy Galore when she was 37. In comparison, Sean Connery played James Bond from 32 to 53 years old. George Lazenby was 30. Roger Moore was 46 for his first Bond film and 57 for his last. Timothy Dalton was 41 and 43. Pierce Brosnan was 42 and 49. Daniel Craig was 37 and 52. The article on James Bond actors and their age when they played the secret agent can be found here.
There was is one body type promoted in the films to this day : mainly white (with two exceptions), mainly blonde, slim, tall, young, sexy. When James Bond is played by actors in their forties and fifties not looking like super models, it is a bit rich to only have one body type and such little diversity in the Bond Girls roles. I mean, Sean Connery did not have any abs. He did not fall into the physical standards for such a role but he still got it. The main difference is that he is a white man, like all of the Bond actors. Therefore, the standards and requirements are more flexible since they are part of the same group than the head of the production companies.
While it is clearly designed for men to feel like they can seduce anyone and especially targeting the ones in their mid-life crisis, it is extremely insulting for women to reduce them to objects whose sole role is to fulfill a man's desires. The first James Bond opens on James in a casino flirting with a woman who ends up in his room the next day. James Bond does not consider women as anything else but ways of getting sex. Only in Doctor No (1962), 7 women are on the cast list and the only name we hear on screen is Honey Rider when they all have names on the cast list.
The first characters to die are mainly women. The whole plot of Dr No (1962) relies on the secretary dying. In Goldfinger (1964), the woman dies covered in gold to send a warning to James. In Quantum of Solace (2008), the accountant dies choked by oil. There was no need for her to die. There is something in the James Bond female treatment that reminds me of horror slasher where the girl with active sexuality dies and the virgin survives. It is a little bit the same because they never die before sex but always after as if their sexuality was a threat. If men die fighting or because of their actions, women mainly die because of their relationship to James Bond. They are used as bait or victims to murder to make sure Bond has an incentive to catch the bad guys. A good James Bond Girl is a dead one.
Even Vesper for whom he has feelings dies to make sure Bond keeps being a spy. It happened once more in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969) where James Bond marries Countess Tracy Di Vicenzo. Of course, she dies as they drive off after the wedding. The women have to be removed from his life to make sure he is not blinded by feelings. It is insulting and extremely sexist because women are treated like commodities and not people with their own lives and goals. Their lives are shown to be worthless.
The only James Bond Girl that returns is Madeline Swann who has appeared in Spectre (2015) and will appear in No Time To Die (2020). She is part of the contemporary James Bond era. Mostly the James Bond Girls are nameless and here for James Bond to seduce and have sex with and then he can forget about them. Films like that encourage men to think women are objects made to satisfy their desire. It needs to change.
One of the problems comes from the violence of Bond towards women. In two films, the secret agent tries to kiss a woman who rejects him but he insists and kisses her. Somehow, in the middle of the kiss she changes her mind. Make no mistake, it brings some huge consent issues and promoting rape culture. When James Bond is recovering after an injury, the woman in charge of performing health services says to him as he is tied up on a machine that this is the safest she has felt all day. It is made as a joke in the film but for women it is not. How many of us have not felt safe with men around because they might not take no for an answer ? If you are a man, ask around. You will be surprised.
When women very clearly say no, there is no reason for James Bond to still kiss them. It sends the message to men that it's okay, they will give in. Men do not have any rights on women's bodies and none of them owes them sex.
In several films, he also slaps women. If the woman in question would have been in the middle of a fight scene and presented as his equal, I would not be making this point. Sadly, most of it would happen in interpersonal interactions. They do not behave the way he wants to or do not give him the information he wants. It is promoting violence and dosmestic abuse.
These films are regularly released in special DVD editions and show on big screens but nothing is said about how the majority of the saga promotes sexism, abuse and violence towards women. I do not think it is difficult to include something telling people that this kind behaviour is not okay anymore and that it was never acceptable to begin with. For the 50th anniversary of the saga, a book about the Bond Girls came out but nothing about the sexism in the films. Several documentaries were made about the making of the various Bond films, TV programs with interviews of the producers and various people involved in the making but nothing about the treatment of women. Nothing to say that it needed to change. I guess it is not so surprising coming from an industry dominated by white old men but it should be done anyway. How can we go forward as a society if not everyone understands that some behaviours are inappropriate ? How can we fight for gender equality if women are still pictured like sexual objects ?
It took until The Living Daylights released in 1987 for James Bond not to have sex with a woman before the hour mark. Timothy Dalton's Bond is the first Bond to have feelings for a woman and not treat her as only a body. It took until 1987 to have a Bond focused on his missions and not on getting laid. Daniel Craig's Bond is in the same category as Dalton's Bond. Casino Royale (2006) is the first time that Bond falls in love. It is the first time a Bond Girl's name will come back. It is the first time it will affect him so much. In Casino Royale (2006), there is no sex and no hints at it until the hour and a half mark. When most of the Bond film will feature a kiss or a sex scene in the first 20 minutes when they don't start straight with Bond already in bed with another, it looks like a massive improvement.
Also in more than 50 years, there was no active British female agent on screen. Across the 24 films, we meet Russian female agents, American female agents, Chinese female agents but no Mi6 agent. The closest one was Moneypenny in Skyfall (2015). Even Moneypenny gives up on field by agreeing with Bond "that field work is not for everyone". Given that she is the only female active agent and the first one giving up on field work, it sounds more like "it's not work for a woman". Of course, unsurprisingly, she can still be a secretary. No male agent has ever walked away from field work in a Bond film.
If it was not already obvious, this proves there is a disparity in treatment based on gender. In the US, 94.6% of secretaries and administrative assistants were women in 2016 according to the US Department of Labor. In 2013, 77% of administrative and secretarial workers are female in the UK according to the Office for National Statistics. In April 2018, 2,542,651 women were working in administrative and secretarial occupations for only 817,185 men according to the ONS. The numbers for women are 3.1 times over the men's. The saga should have had Moneypenny stay as an agent and give her a male secretary to be truly groundbreaking. Also, why as soon as she becomes secretary she starts wearing high heels and tight dresses ? Why can't she wear pants and suits ? She is already a stereotype coming straight from the 50s even if Skyfall was released in 2012, she does not need to look like one too.
In the Desmond Llewelyn's Q era, we regularly see women in his department but every time he calls them it is to bring coffee or assist Bond. We see one female nurse or medic and even her purpose is to have sex with Bond and let him convince her to lie on his evaluation. When Pierce Brosnan's Bond needs to defuse a bomb in The World is Not Enough (1999), the doctor in nuclear physics is a woman wearing a crop top and a short when everyone else is wearing pants and long sleeved shirts.
Quite surprising there is no female villain in 24 films. There are plenty of hench women but none as a criminal mastermind. Just as for agents, the creatives behind James Bond assume women are only good to play subordinates. Even Octopussy is not a villain, the real villain of the film is her henchman who tries to double cross her. She is also unable to resist Bond during their first meeting and ends up in his bed. In The World Is Not Enough (1999), Elektra is manipulated by her kidnapper Renard and suffering from Stockholm Syndrome.
© Eon Productions
Overall, whereas it is as villains or agents, Bond films fail to represent women with power.
Any woman who does not fit the submissive Bond Girl mold is a woman who does not have her place. When Judi Dench takes over as M in GoldenEye (1995), her character is surrounded by male officials who do not think she is competent. It continues in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) where Navy officials overturn her decisions. For two whole Bond films, her position and decisions are constantly questioned. When M was played by a man whereas it was Robert Lee or Bernard Brown, he was never questioned and his orders were respected without discussion. Even Ralph Fiennes's M did not need to prove himself as much. The only film when M is brought in for questioning in front of a court is Skyfall (2012). If over more than 50 years, the only time M has authority issues is when M is played by a women, it is very telling about our society. Sexism is so well-integrated that even a competent woman at one of the highest positions in the country would be contradicted by men in lower positions.
Behind the scenes, it is also a male dominated world. Looking at the credits, there are no female director, no female screenwriter, no female cinematographer. In the Sean Connery Bond era, the only woman on the crew list was the script girl. There was no female producer until Barbara Broccoli came in. Given her views, it does not improve much for women's representation and treatment in the Bond saga.
James Bond is undeniably a big part of the British culture and a huge success all over the world. These films are entertainment but they also represent our society, the standards, the way we treat women and minorities by representing them on screen or not. It would be irresponsible to say they have no influence on their audience which is why it should be raised that women's representation in the James Bond films is unacceptable. To have such small changes in 2020, especially after MeToo, is insulting to all women. Having these films with no context and nothing to make people understand that the behaviors they see on screen are inappropriate is unacceptable. To achieve change in real life, change needs to happen on screen too. James Bond must not be a representative of the patriarchal society going forward. If the saga wants to stay relevant, it needs to include more gender equality and diversity in its narratives.