James Bond made his silver screen debut in 1962 played by a then unknown Sean Connery. Connery became a benchmark in a franchise that continued with last year’s 24th entry, Spectre. The conventions of a Bond film are a never ending source of joy for many, but they can also be a source of eye rolls and head shakes for some. Perhaps the most popular convention of the Bond films is “Bond Girls.” I sat down with Emily Deering Crosby, a Ph.D. candidate in Communication and instructor in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies, to discuss “Bond Girls” and their function in these films.
The Bond Franchise is over fifty years old. It’s in its sixth decade. Outside of the Bond Franchise, in western culture, how has the representation of women changed over this time?
Emily Deering Crosby: You have some significant things happening in the 1960s where women were starting to recognize how media was portraying them in particular dehumanized ways- as props, as figures-never really a part of the plotline, but more so props to the male protagonist. And with more recognition of equal rights, gender representation, racial representation, you get a lot more diversity and you get the upswing of genres like Blaxploitation films, but with that comes recognizable backlash in some forms of representation. And women in media today, you see a lot more potential in T.V than you do in movies, because the movie industry is very much geared toward young white men, 18 to sometimes 25 or 34, so you see a lot of the highest grossing films fulfilling that need. So like this year the top films were Furious 7, the Age of Ultron, American Sniper, and so many of them are sequels. There just recycling these same narratives that really resonate with young men, because they’re the ones who are predominantly going to these movies. So it’s very consumer driven. You can think about it that way. There’s not as much room for women to star or write their own movies, produce their own movies, but you are seeing huge franchises that are changing that, like Hunger Games.
What stands out to you about the Bond Girls in what you’ve seen?
I find the camerawork of the Bond Franchise fascinating because it is routinely from the point of view of Bond, or pictures of Bond sexualizing the women. You never get the point of view of the Bond Girl, so she just becomes the object of our visual gaze. And more so in the earlier ones, I find the the issue of consent very interesting, because sometimes we get this notion of no means yes with women and Bond is so enchanting. That offers confusing narratives in regarding romantic exchange between men and women, especially when we have the powerful main character of James Bond who sort of represents the euro-centric or even anglocentric take what you want, it’s yours. You’re entitled to it.
That’s why I think the character of M in the most recent films has been fantastic, because she’s sort of an asexual female who’s a maternal figure but also a leader, so I think she offers a lot of complexity that we don’t get to see very much in film.
I can’t remember which film it was (Live and Let Die*), but there’s one with Roger Moore where he tricks a female character using a stacked deck in to sleeping with him. I don’t know if that would pass today.
Exactly. There’s kind of this notion that the Bond Girls were sort of all body, no brains. Kind of ditzy. When talking with a student who’s read the books, he actually said that he took a picture of a passage in Casino Royale. It was talking about Vesper and how she needs to stay with the pots and pans. She’s going to slow me down. It’s embarrassing that they would send a woman for a man’s job. And really hurtful and sexist remarks that hopefully you see don’t fly today. But there’s sometimes that engrained bias that why on earth would they send a woman to do a man’s job. And you see repercussions of that in the business world where people don’t take contract negotiations as seriously when a woman is sent to do it. Oh, they must not value me as a potential partner because they’ve sent a woman, when it’s in fact, they’ve sent their top person. It just happens to be a woman.
This is kind of a facetious question, but do you see anything in the Bond Girls beyond the superficial?
In the more recent installments with Daniel Craig, I see a lot more, but more so in the Vesper character the most because she’s a part of the narrative, and she’s not just the damsel in distress trope which we see in the two most recent ones Skyfall and Quantum of Solace. You see these ambiguously racialized women, whether they’re South American, Eastern European, it’s not very clear, but he has to save them because they’re beautiful, sexy. The character Moneypenny (Skyfall) is a little more complex because she is clearly a black women who has agency. Who has a role within the narrative, but still it’s not something that’s as developed as it could be. There’s a lot of potential in the recent ones, but still the audience knows what it’s getting with James Bond.
I remember my first experience watching a Bond film. It was Goldfinger. I remember there was a particularly suspenseful scene where you have your damsel in distress in a situation where I’m wondering how Bond can possibly save her, and he just doesn’t. He fails to save her and then moves on. I remember this being shocking to me. What is the appeal of this aspect of Bond?
I think in general, action films promote life as very expendable. It’s more shocking to us because we are so familiar with the damsel in distress notion that he’s going to have to save her and sometimes, he recognizes the sort of fleeting timeline of life and he just walks away from it. And I think that’s why sometimes James Bond is very relatable and likeable, because he’s a flawed guy. He has sort of a darkness to him. He’s ruthless.
I’d like to talk about a few specific Bond Girls: first Pussy Galore, a lesbian converted by Bond.
Of course. I think it hopefully shows our progress in regards to rights for the LGBT plus community. In regards to lesbians don’t just need a good man for them to arbitrarily change teams, but that it’s a larger issue than that. But you have to think, who benefits from that narrative? Potentially men watching the film who think, oh, all lesbians need is a man. They haven’t met the right man yet. Or lesbianism is okay as long as it serves men in a fetishized notion of sexual performance. I think that’s really tough. But they’re also constrained by their context of history. What year was that?
’63. So you know that’s before even really the second wave of feminism and notions of LGBTQ rights even were on the docket. It’s just kind of a limitation of its time.
Halle Berry as Jinx in Die Another Day. She talks about the role as being empowering.
I think Halle Berry fills a very unique role just in contemporary pop culture where she’s able to diversify the visual of a movie where unfortunately, she’s black but not too black, and many scholars talk about how to traverse that very difficult line between racial representation and assimilation. And I do think there are empowering elements of her portrayal and I think it’s great that she herself found it empowering. But her famous scene walking out of the water is a great teaching tool in regarding the male gaze because I as an audience member may not have that perspective. But I’m encouraged to look at her first as this sexual being and then maybe as an empowered agent or empowered figure later.
Eva Green as Vesper in her introductory scene is sized up by Bond which we’re used to, but then she returns the favor.
It’s very reciprocal (her relationship with Bond) which you don’t see often because she introduced in a way where she’s his intellectual equal, or at least a sparring partner which shows nuance to her beyond just her looks. But then you argue, she’s the first women to be really an intellectual equal, is that why he falls in love with her? Is she only represented in respectful ways because he loves her where if he were to find her expendable, maybe we wouldn’t get to hear her speak?
How do you feel about the term Bond Girls?
I think historically girls is a term to dismiss women’s potential. It’s infantilizing, but when you look at 1990s feminism and the riot girl movement, you see the recycling of the term girl as a form of empowerment. So like rebel girl, guerilla girls, the way they’re taking a term that was historically used to dismiss women and reappropriating it into a powerful term. But historically girls has not been the best term for grown women.
What do you see happening with the names given to the female characters in Bond films? They are always at least exotic, and often pretty ridiculous. Anya Onatopp, Dr. Goodhead, Pussy Galore.
I think that shows the origins of the pornification of media. By pornification I mean how we can turn seemingly respectable, important figures into nothing more than fetishized objects for men. And even when Sheeler and Anderson in their 2013 book Woman President talk about the pornification of women in politics, where you’re taking some of the most powerful, arguably hardworking and educated women on the planet and really looking at them through the lens of porn and how ubiquitous it’s become. You know the porn industry is bigger the Amazon, bigger than google combined. It’s huge. So James Bond was the first franchise to introduce that in not so subtle ways.
Growing up watching Bond, I feel like I’ve allowed myself to be kind of a hypocrite watching these movies because there is a lot about Bond that I would despise in a real person, and yet there’s also a part of me that would like to be Bond. Is this something you’ve thought about at all, or examined?
Absolutely. I think that any cultural critic or media critic struggles with this notion of I understand there are so many problematic things about this narrative, but I also find it really entertaining. I do hope that the Bond Franchise is listening to contemporary issues in regarding representation and taking that into account.