It’s an odd coincidence of timing that right when Australian politics has been embroiled by the most intense debate about the treatment of women in political life that I can remember, our cinemas are welcoming back that most reliably sexist of public servants, James Bond. Skyfall, the 23rd ‘official’ Bond, opens next week with Daniel Craig, Judi Dench and Adele channelling Shirley Bassey on the soundtrack.I can’t imagine commentators objecting to the ‘misogynist’ label being applied to Bond – or Ian Fleming, for that matter, especially if we use the broader definition freshly endorsed by the Macquarie Dictionary, where it means ‘entrenched prejudices against women’ rather than hatred. Even M herself has used the label in 1995’s Goldeneye, when she tartly observed that Bond was “a sexist, misogynist dinosaur. A relic of the Cold War”.
And fair enough, too. In the early Bonds, women are there to be pursued, and to inevitably yield. Oh, and to be given some of the most absurdly suggestive names ever given to fictional characters, like Holly Goodhead, Kissy Suzuki, Honey Ryder and, worst of all, Pussy Galore (here’s a fuller list).
Admittedly, Ian Fleming was distressingly literal with men’s names too – unsatisfied with calling his gold-crazy villain Goldfinger, he based his first name, Auric, on the Latin ‘aurum’ into the bargain – but it’s extraordinary how long this cartoonish approach to the series’ female character has endured. Only a few Bonds ago, Denise Richards was cast as a nuclear scientist (yes, really) called Dr Christmas Jones so that Pierce Brosnan could quip – brace yourself – “I thought Christmas only came once a year”. Seriously, that line would make even Prince Philip cringe.
And while there’s the occasional female spy, like Tatiana Romanova in From Russia With Love, but she is duped from the beginning by SPECTRE, and her presence allows Bond essentially to win the Cold War with his gonads.
They’ve upgraded him somewhat since the Connery and Moore days, not least because the brilliant casting of Dench as M has made the ultimate authority in Bond’s world female. And in more recent years the producers have tempered Bond’s machismo with a range of powerful female offsiders, like Michelle Yeoh – here’s a compile of her taking out five villains – but nevertheless, Bond remains the ultimate Hollywood alpha male.
It’s not just the sexism, either – his casual regard for violence is also disconcerting. Nobody else in the history of cinema has coolly dispatched so many bad guys, and in some of the early movies, he even hits women. Unless you’re Vladimir Putin, James Bond is exactly not the greatest role model.
So why, then, have his movies endured for fifty years, longer than any other movie series? (Full credit to the Carry On series, which tallied up an astonishing 31 instalments, but unlike Bond, their sexism wore thin after a few decades.) And why am I, as somebody who’s generally fairly averse to sexism and violence, extremely excited about going to see Skyfall?
Bond is everything I’m not, with the exception of British. I’m very glad that there aren’t really villains building high-powered lasers on the moon (although we did recently put one on Mars, Curiously), because if it was down to me to stop them, the bad guys would pretty much vaporise everything. And I would never need a license to kill – I’d prefer a license to sit down for a coffee and a good old chat. So it’s unsurprising that I’ve always been fascinated by Bond to the point where I’ve read all of the novels multiple times. I even loved him in the cheesy Roger Moore era, that coincided with my childhood, although fortunately not to the point of wearing safari suits.
I grew up idealising Bond a man of action, who was always on the side of right. Men wanted to be him, and I was no exception, not least because fictional Bond girls wanted to be with him. Why couldn’t I have sexy silhouettes dancing abstractly through my title sequences, I wondered. And when I was first getting into cocktails, I even ordered, with no irony, a martini that was shaken rather than stirred, because I genuinely thought that if Bond had it that way, it must be the right way to have it.
The series’ producers have also struggled with the ethos of Bond in a world that’s made significant social progress since the 1960s. With Timothy Dalton, who took over for The Living Daylights in 1987, they tried to introduce a sensitive, new-age Bond, played by a serious actor who only romanced one woman per film. The problem was that audiences found him boring, and so they went back to a more dashing version with Pierce Brosnan. In his two outings as 007, Daniel Craig has grappled successfully with this dilemma by exploring the psychologically damaged side of the character – in 2012, it’s okay to be violent if you show the stresses that result from it. In Casino Royale we saw his Bond earning his license to kill, and struggling with his need to murder instead of wisecracking about it.
The difficult question with the Bond character, of course, is that sometimes our society needs cold-blooded secret agents. And never more so than during the Cold War, when espionage took the place of open hostilities. As unpleasant as that era was in hindsight, and extensive as were the moral compromises on both sides, it cost fewer lives than open hostilities.
The need for Bond-type figures has become apparent during the conflict with Al Qaeda, too – and indeed, the 9/11 Commission has highlighted the intelligence failures in the days before the attacks. If we learned anything from 9/11, it’s that sometimes the far-fetched mass-destruction scenarios from Hollywood movies can in fact come to pass, and we need people to infiltrate those groups and try to prevent attacks from occurring.
Whether or not bin Laden should have been assassinated in quite the manner that occurred in Abbottabad will probably always be a question of intense debate. I still wish they’d arrested him, but if indeed armed opposition was encountered, as was reported, I’ve no objection to Seal Team Six being given a license to kill. Furthermore, the success of that mission relied on people playing a dangerous double game on the ground, like the brave doctor who helped locate bin Laden.
Bond-style targeted assassinations are problematic, and are supposedly prohibited for the US Government by Presidential order – but few people would question the need for any security apparatus whatsoever, especially in places like the Middle East where intelligence is needed, and there are networks of activists who warrant our support.
The really scary thing, of course, is that the 007s of this world has to some extent been outmoded by airborne drones, who can kill from afar without endangering a highly-trained operative. Perhaps rogue drones should serve as the antagonist in the next Bond film?
I have seen Skyfall described as a Dark Knight-style re-evaluation of the Bond story, and I hope proves to be so. We know now that killing bad guys and shagging bodacious babes is far more morally complex than Sean Connery and Roger Moore made it seem. And while the early Bond books and movies can remain somewhat archaic pleasures, the character still has a place in a society that is still grappling with real threats, just as Fleming did during his intelligence career. With less preposterous villains, less one-dimensional female characters and, above all, fewer painful puns, there’s every chance that 007 might be with us for another 50 years.