Friday, November 16, 2012

Bye Bye Boys Club

When two out of three peer reviews (as in my peer's reviews, and not actual scholarly reviews) came crying out against the misogyny in James Bond, my inner feminist got confused.

You see, I love James Bond. Golden Eye hooked me, but years later, I have a soft spot for riding cellos down mountains, and creepy Christopher Walken villains. But we knew the schmultz had to go. Pierce Brosnan was both the saviour of the franchise, in 1995, but also saw one of its darkest moments at the helm with Die Another Day.

But I do blame Quantum of Solace not just for ruining my image of James Bond films, but also for setting Scott's and my second year of our relationship off to a rocky start. Minor food poisoning and a bad film just make for a terrible anniversary date!

Between the misogyny claims and the utter disappointment from the last movie, I went into Skyfall with some anxiety. While I could easily love a misogynistic Bond from the 1960s, would they take it too far in their attempt to reboot the franchise?

Simply put, no.

Perhaps I was looking too hard for the classic misogynistic trends of the Bond movies -- witty names reducing females to solely sexual objects, the sacrifice of the sexual interest as a body shield etc -- but when I came out of the theatre, I did have to ask Scott where the misogyny lay. Once he pointed out to me, I could see the argument, but I also feel that it discounts 50 years of film history, the mandate of the franchise and the character of James Bond.

Please note this review will contain spoilers, so do not read any further if you don't want me to ruin it. 

1. The Shot Glass Girl
It's true -- she functions as nameless piece of eye candy for Bond, and he uses her as an excuse to get to the villain. However, we are not given enough information to make any judgements as to her current predicament. She is the helpless female; however, there seems to be no more romantic or sexual interest between her and Silva than Silva and Bond (which is a whole other story -- I do appreciate that we have reached a point in society that we can make reference to the homoerotic overtones of James Bond, with him even alluding to the potential for bisexuality. However, having it primarily be at the hands of the villain made me a little worried that homoerotic was going to become homophobic). Does she die because of her involvement with Bond? I would actually note her death as a sign that Bond has grown from his sexist ways.  Silva's strategy for winning the game is vaguely reminiscent of the attitude the older Bonds had towards females. Bond doesn't go for the kill and the win.

2. The Loss of M and the return of the Old Boys Club
Judi Dench is a treasure, and I still remember the shock and wonder I felt when I saw her first step onto the screen in Golden Eye.  The idea of a female being at the head of a major "Boys Club," as it always had been, was revolutionary. In 2012, not so much. While there are certainly still glass ceilings, we have certainly reached much more equality in many areas in the last 17 years. And yes, you read that right. It's been 17 years with Dench at the helm of MI6. She has appeared in 7 Bond films - the same number as both Roger Moore and Sean Connery have starred as James Bond himself. The only longer running actor would be Desmond Llewellyn, the infamous Q, who appeared in 20 Bond films. It was inevitable that, like Q, the matriarch would have to pass the roll onto someone else. It also shows a movement away from the cliched franchise as it was through until the end of Brosnan's era. Any weakness seen in the character of M should be attributed to her age (mentioned many times throughout the early portion of the movie), and not her gender. In fact, the one thing that is frequently pointed out as her supposed weakness through the movie -- her attachment to her spies -- is perhaps the strength of the her character, her gender and necessary to the plot. The female M is as much Mother England as the country itself is. Were it not for Bond's affinity for M, he could have remained off the map for the rest of his life.

3. Moneypenny's subjugation to the role of receptionist
Moneypenny can certainly be seen as the stereotypical weak Bond girl. She doesn't have the guts to ram the Jeep into the escaping villains car with any serious force. She is relegated to desk duty quite early on. Oh ya, and she is a bad shot and spends the rest of the movie being bugged for shooting Bond. However, she seems perfectly aware of the implications of sleeping with Bond - we highly doubt she expects a phone call, and there is little negative tension between the two at each reunion (with the exception of the one following that time she almost killed him, but you'd be awkward in that situation, too).  I think that her early weakness shouldn't so much be a conversation on gender dynamics, but on the dynamics between agents. James Bond likes to be in control. Male or female, he would have grabbed the wheel from anyone to do what needed to be done. While taking an active agent who happens to be female and having her admit she doesn't have what it takes to remain active is a very tough line to cross, it was an important move for the franchise, and you can see that in the final scene. She is literally on equal level with Bond when saying she has taken a desk job. They descend, together, to the office, where they finally formally get acquainted. What makes this scene most remarkable is not simply setting up the missing character of Moneypenny, but the act of naming is important. We do not get a female name in the movie up until that point. In past Bond movies, as I have mentioned, the names were double entendres that reduced females to sexual objects. By ending the movie with a clear enunciation of identity, the franchise seems to be moving in a direction which will place females on more equal footing with males...

... just not on the same footing as Bond.

At the end of the day, Bond will stand above everyone else, male or female. Part of this is the 50 years of film history behind him. As Scott phrases it, Skyfall casually speaks the language of misogyny. But I also see the potential for growth in the ideals of female equality within this franchise that I don't see in others, like The Avengers, for example. With Colbie Smulders being a waste of screen time and Scarlett Johansson's super power being... her boobs?  Skyfall is no more misogynistic than any other movie within the Action Film genre. To single it out simply because of its cliched sexual dynamics in the past negates the strides that have been made over the 50 years, both within gender discussions in movies, and within these discussions in society.


  1. Brilliant analysis. I, too, have wrestled with being both a Bond fan and a lifelong feminist. Those apparently-contradictory impulses can be reconciled with deep thought and recognition that these films are, first and foremost, entertainment and, secondly, fantasy wish-fulfillment for their audience. Yes, cinematic portrayals can have real-world effects but let's not get too serious about them, particularly if it's at the expense of fun. That sounds like moms who withhold Barbie dolls from their young daughters.

    I applaud your conclusion in the penultimate sentence. And I share your admiration for Dame Judi Dench.

  2. I mostly agree with your post here. I didn't feel that Skyfall was as misogynistic as Courtney did, but also conceded that I cared less about the franchise in general and in particular, didn't feel as strongly as she did that Vesper in Casino Royale was this "huge leap forward" for women in Bond films. I saw that movie twice when it first came out in theatres, but couldn't even remember the character's name until Courtney reminded me of how central the love story was to Bond's development in that film.

    That being said, one factor that is at least, troublesome when you think about it, is that it's established that (character whose name I don't remember but who you call "Shot Glass Girl")was identified as having been enslaved in the sex trade at a very young age. It's also either implied or stated outright (which, I cannot remember) that she is still involved in the sex trade, and that she is owned by Silva.

    So, this woman who has a history of abuse and enslavement by the sex trade, becomes the subject of sexual objectification by both Bond and the film's viewers. As you noted, she is a piece of "eye candy," who is there more for the viewers of the film than for Bond or anyone else. I'm not even going to get into the orientalism issues here, I'll leave that to someone more versed in Edward Said. I will say this though, it's pretty damn reprehensible that Bond, knowing this woman was a sex slave, still decides to creep into her shower, initiating the film's only real "love scene."

    On the surface of it, I agree with your argument. There are no Octopussies or Pussy Galores, and I more or less agree with your statements regarding M and Moneypenny. Nevertheless, I find the implications of the sex scene between Bond and the former sex-slave Sévérine (thanks, Wikipedia!) to be disturbing on a deeper level than say, the casual sexism of the early Bond films.

  3. I have to admit, I was pretty pissed off with this movie. I love M and I really wanted to see her be the tough woman she is and go out on a high note, rather than getting relegated to the pile of dead female bodies in Bond (which made defending her pretty pointless). As far as I remember, I don't think we see Q die...if I'm remembering correctly, he pushes a button and goes through the floor. M should have at least had the opportunity to retire honorably once the conflict was resolved.
    My other problem with the movie (besides Severine, which Christian covered) was Moneypenny. Maybe I took her position too personally because I work in a boys club as a glorified receptionist but even so, it would have been nice to let Moneypenny be bad ass, as well as the unattainable mystery she has always been. If they really wanted to update her for 2012, then she would have stayed in the field. She wouldn't have been Bond's partner, because he is a notorious lone wolf, but she would have added a nice aspect of fantasy wish-fulfillment for the women out there who love Bond and want to be an agent instead of a dead victim.


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