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Heroines of Cinema: Can you be a Bond Girl and a good feminist?

Heroines of Cinema: Can you be a Bond Girl and a good feminist?

When Barbara Broccoli claimed in 2008 that the early Bond Girls were “very progressive” – describing them as career women and sexual predators who gave as good as they got – her comments were met with derision in some quarters. Writer Kathy Lette retorted that Bond Girls were “little more than a life-support system to a pair of breasts”, while Fay Weldon maintained that the films were “attempts by men to keep women in their place and ensure they ironed their shirts”.

Who was right? This week hands us a chance to reassess in the form of “Skyfall”, the new Bond film released in the 50th anniversary year of the franchise. With its two new Bond Girls, played by Naomie Harris and Berenice Marlohe, it proves that certain characteristics of Bond Girls remain unassailable. But how these relate to the question posed in this article’s title remains up for debate. (CONTAINS MILD SPOILERS)

What do you mean by a “good feminist”?
In essence, a woman who is the equal of the men around her and who is not defined or constrained by her gender. My admittedly untechnical term is not intended as a judgement on the behaviour of any Bond Girl in question. For example, one of the current cohort, Berenice Marlohe, is portrayed as a trapped sex slave – and it is not for me to weigh in on the feminist credentials of any of such a character’s actions or tactics. I am more interested in whether the Bond Girl as a recurring trope does a credit or a disservice to the female gender and its position in the world. And I can only find myself leaning towards the latter.

You think Bond Girls do a disservice to women?
I wouldn’t put it so bluntly, but that very terminology points to one of the inherent problems of the phenomenon. Bond Girls are forever girls, never grown women – and the distinction has implications. The very framework of the central heroic male and the sidelined supportive female reinforces the patriarchal order to some extent. And that’s without looking at the qualities of the role.

But Bond Girls have brilliant qualities. They are feisty, sexy, and they give as good as they get.
It’s true that there have been some Bond Girls who have demonstrated wit, skill and intelligence, and made for highly appealing characters. But let’s start with the essential quality that unites all Bond Girls – sex appeal.

READ MORE: Heroines of Cinema: The Life Cycle of an Actress

You can’t have sex appeal and be a good feminist?
Of course you can, and I do think Barbara Broccoli had a point – some of the Bond Girls of the sixties and seventies were permitted sexual agency and desire in an era when that was not exactly commonplace on screen. But it was hardly in the name of an honourable cause, and even Broccoli admitted that “the later girls weren’t as good”. The problem comes when Bond Girls are defined by their sex appeal – reducing them to little more than sex objects.

But Naomie Harris’s character in “Skyfall” is an intelligent, talented MI6 operative.
Fancy job titles don’t fool anyone. We learned that the day Denise Richards appeared in hot pants and a tank top as the nuclear physicist Christmas Jones in “The World is Not Enough”. But as Pierce Brosnan throws her such zingers as “I thought Christmas only came once a year” and, on a balcony in Istanbul, “I always wanted to have Christmas in Turkey”, it becomes quite clear why Denise Richards was cast – and it wasn’t because she looks like a girl who can split an atom in her sleep.

But Naomie Harris doesn’t even sleep with Bond.
That’s true. And she’s certainly the stronger of the two Bond girls in “Skyfall”. However, I can’t help seeing her feistiness as a bit of a charade. Let’s not forget that a) in her opening scene, Bond mocks her driving skills, b) in her one true bite of the action she makes a mistake with disastrous consequences and c) she ultimately retires to a desk job after deciding she’s “not cut out” for field work. Sure, she has dignity and class and intelligence. But ultimately, all these qualities are compromised because we know she’s only there to prop up a hero, and that she wouldn’t be getting a minute of screen time if she wasn’t flirting her socks off.

You don’t like watching men and women flirt?
It’s one of the great pleasures of Bond films – even when the dialogue hits “Christmas in Turkey” levels of cringe. But such banter is at its most scintillating when man and woman are equal sparring partners. The Bond Girls are rarely Bond’s equal, and are rarely afforded the chance to show another side to their personality – unless they are revealed as a duplicitous femme fatale.

How does M fit your theory of patriarchal order? She’s Bond’s boss.
I loved Judi Dench’s role as M in “Skyfall”. It is surely the first time that a woman in her late seventies – Dench turns 78 next month – has figured so prominently in such a high profile action blockbuster. There’s a scene in which her character, M, goes head to head with a female politician, played by Helen McCrory. Two powerful, intelligent but flawed women, getting on with the business of running a country and protecting its population. But both characters remain firmly suited and – for most of the film – in static positions.

You’d rather see a Dame of the British Empire riding a motorbike over a rooftop in Istanbul?
No – Dench’s role works perfectly. My point is that I don’t think there needs to be such a divide between a character like M and the roles that Bond Girls typically perform. It is true that M and Bond have a relationship that one could describe as flirtatious. But imagine how much more thrilling the sexual power games that ignite so many Bond films might be if Bond’s sparring partner were a female character granted as much agency and power as M.

So it is possible to have a feminist Bond girl?
I think Judi Dench proves that it is possible to be a female supporting character in a James Bond film and do your gender proud. And there have been plenty of examples – Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd being a recent personal favourite – of Bond Girls getting their teeth more firmly into the narrative than they do in “Skyfall”. But as a long-running mainstream franchise, all Bond films have to walk a tightrope between flourishes of originality and delivering the story that audiences want and expect. And what they expect from Bond Girls remains somewhat limiting.

Then why not go all the way and have a female Bond?
James Bond is a character with a long history and a personality informed by his gender. Rather than advocating for a female 007, I would like to see a world in which it is possible to have a female equivalent of Bond – an action heroine with male love interests in supporting roles (putting aside the issue of heteronormativity for another week).

Jennifer Lawrence in “The Hunger Games” is a great start, but Angelina Jolie and her market value in the action genre remains an anomaly. Personally, I do not see any reason why a mass worldwide audience could not enjoy an action spy film with, say, Kristen Scott Thomas as the lead. And rather than neutering any stereotypically “feminine” qualities, why not exaggerate them – for once let’s have an action hero who’s a mother, and attuned to her emotions and compromised by the prospect of violence… because how much more dramatically exciting is that?

Matthew Hammett Knott is a London-based filmmaker and writer and contributor to Indiewire’s Lost Boys blog. Follow him on Twitter.


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