"Ideologically, none of us should like the Bond films. They are sexist, heterosexist, xenophobic, everything that is not politically correct." (Professor James Chapman)
He was the flamboyant antithesis to the sober, conflicted British real world working class spooks embodied by Harry Palmer and George Smiley and Tom Quinn. Bond, that is. James Bond. Not so much a spy but a superspy, but really, The Superspy. With an iconography that has exploded and calcified into its own self-contained rubric. Every James Bond film had a status quo to safeguard, from the voluptuous tremolo of its theme music to the softcore chic of its credit sequences, but it would also include at some point an ungainly, often unfortunate fondness for silly sight gags and sillier tech. At some point, Bond had become this jokey anachronism, a cash cow still but coasting on nostalgia more than anything else. Johnny English was having a go at James Bond, of course. But Bond, at least in the films, eventually became his own Johnny English, a caricature of what was vaguely one already.
Dean Martin’s Matt Helm was having a go at Bond, too. Having a go, specifically, at the lothario in him. Bond slept around, sure. That singular trait almost superseded every other facet of his character. But much as the Bond films did objectify women to a point, one can argue that it isn't any more sexist than that laptop wallpaper of Ryan Gosling with his shirt off. Kingsley Amis generously described Bond's attitude toward women as “Protective, not dominating or combative.” But Alan Moore, who appropriated the Bond character under a thinly-veiled disguise in his League of Extraordinary Gentleman comics, says otherwise: “The overriding factor in James Bond's psychological makeup is his utter hatred and contempt for women.” And there is a sinister thrill in re-visiting the series with a firm grasp of this particular, and rather subversive, kink in his persona. Bond Girl is the collective by which these women are known, and they have in common, if nothing else, a latent exotica and a double entendre name, with Honor Blackman’s Pussy Galore from Goldfinger being the juiciest of them all. “My name is Pussy Galore.” she tells Bond, who retorts “I must be dreaming.”
But it’s Ursula Andres’ Amazonian Honey Ryder from Dr. No whom the world regards as the sovereign Bond Girl. And there’s no denying the charge of that first time we see her, emerging from the ocean in nothing but a white bikini. “What are you doing here, looking for shells?” she asks Bond. “No” , Bond quips, “Just looking.” Oddly enough, the Bond Girl never did adhere to this look. In the next film, From Russia With Love, Danielle Bianchi‘s Tatyana Romanova was neither as robust or statuesque, and was in fact, almost aggressively feminine, her strength being her demeanor, less of a co-dependent damsel in distress but more a pro-active ally.
The films pulled back on the history of sexual violence the Bond Girls shared in Ian Fleming’s novels. Pulled back almost to the point of ignoring it, their film counterparts having less turbulent backstories. Significantly, too, in the first two films, both the swashbuckle and the promiscuity were also pulled back, not yet succumbing to the pulp tendencies and the tongue-in-cheek, outlandish vibe, nor to the alleged misogyny and xenophobia and sexism. The clause we sometimes unwittingly invoke to take pleasure in the Bond films without qualifiers was that they were espionage fantasies as fetish cartoons, that they were not to be taken that seriously. Because, seen one way, the Professor was right. And so was Paul Johnson, whose scathing review of the Dr. No novel, boiled Bond down to “the sadism of a schoolboy bully, the mechanical two-dimensional sex-longings of a frustrated adolescent, and the crude snob-cravings of a suburban adult.” Still. Drives fancy cars, has a battery of science-fiction gadgets at his disposal, sleeps with every beautiful woman he happens to run into. Being Bond, even for a day, is the ultimate male power fantasy.
But if we persist in the argument that he was a remorseless Casanova, who only saw women as a means to an end, as necessary collateral damage to getting the job done, then we can break the Bond Girl down to two types. Those who succumb to his wiles and often seal their doom when they do, like Solange from Casino Royale or Shirley Eaton in Goldfinger or Andrea Anders from The Man With The Golden Gun. And those whose wiles he succumbs to or the ones where he meets his match, like Michele Yeoh’s Wai Lin from Tomorrow Never Dies , who not once felt she needed Bond’s help to save the day.
There are gray areas, the Bond Girls that are neither one or the other, and are consequently the least interesting ones, if only because they were passive, a little ditzy at times and amounted to little more than eye candy, with Denise Richards’ Christmas Jones from The World Is Not Enough being the most vacuous of the lot. Jane Seymour’s mysterious Solitaire from Live And Let Die does tend to fall into this limbo but she gets a reprieve out of how she seemed to genuinely throw Bond on a loop. Grace Jones’ May Day in A View To A Kill started out as a foe, one who could power lift a grown man and parachute off the Eiffel Tower, and finished up on Bond’s side but suffering for it, becoming quite possibly the only Bond Girl to embody both types. Like Pussy Galore, except Pussy Galore managed to get out unscathed. They were both, of course, henchwomen. Sophie Marceau’s Elektra King from The World Is Not Enough was, significantly, the one calling the shots, the first, and so far only, female evil mastermind in the entire franchise, and canny enough to know what would break a man like Bond and almost did.
Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale was the bolt from the blue, the smite of no return for Bond. The Daniel Craig reboot was revisionism by risk management, sure, but it also meant to prop the sag in the franchise by realigning it with the real world, with its powderkeg urgency, with its existential angst, with its apocalyptic melancholia. With its Jason Bournes and Jack Ryans, really. Gone was the suavity of Connery , the cheekiness of Moore, the earnestness of Brosnan, and in its place was something a little darker, a little wounded, a little more vulnerable. Craig played Bond as brash, brutish, and verging on everything they tried to pin on him all these years. And the chink in the armors of men as fortified as he is here is always love At one point, he tells Vesper “I have no armour left. You’ve stripped it from me. Whatever is left of me, whatever I am, I’m yours.” and that he intends to quit and run away with her. She, of course, sees to it that it never happens.
If we go by the chronology of the films, rather than the novels, Vesper is not the first girl Bond falls in love with. That honor belongs to Diana Rigg’s Teresa Draco in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the only girl Bond went so far as to marry. Their wedding is quite possibly the most joyous sequence in a Bond film ever. And in the penultimate scene that comes after, as the newlyweds drive off to their ever after, you get to feel something you rarely feel in a Bond film, a genuine sense of empathy and a genuine sense of threat. Here is Bond. The misogynist, the xenophobe, the heterosexist, the superspy. Rehabilitated by love but also made impervious to harm by it, just before he is ultimately destroyed by the only thing that could: a heart broken in half by true love and an assassin's bullet.
*Originally published in Vault