by James Douglas & Huy Nguyen
It’s no secret that leading roles in hero narratives have largely been taken up by men. In many cases, women have only been included in supporting roles, and further, sexualized on screen through the perspective of a straight male gaze. A commonly viewed example of this is the recurring role of “Bond girl” (or “Bond woman”). Aside from the verbal downplay of this role alone (insinuating that their value is inherently tied to their relationship with Bond), many of the on screen portrayals have objectified or sexualized the characters themselves. From the shameless titles (like “Octopussy”) of the old 007 eras, to the progressively multidimensional supports of more contemporary films, the series has developed the role to be more tasteful for developing audiences, yet in many ways, still retains form.
The Bond girl role has become so iconic and central to the 007 identity that talks of women portraying any of Britain’s other operatives, in leading roles at least, has proven to be enough to spark outrage among some fans, and even Daniel Craig, the latest actor to pick up the role, has expressed disapproval of the character’s behavior. The role has become so iconic it’s even been satirically imitated in films like Austin Powers, but the concept of a Bond girl has also done a lot to shape the expectations of what a spy flick is, and has largely placed barriers on how women can be portrayed in such: as less resourceful, as a secondary to lethal men, as an object of desire, and (oftentimes) as a dependent victim.
In order to critically dissect the role, it is important to start with the origins and early depictions of Bond girls. The characters first appeared in the Ian Fleming novels that inspired the films, but the novels pretty much treated them the same and their big screen depictions were what really introduced them, and Bond, to larger audiences than the books ever reached.
The first ever filmed Bond girl appeared in Dr. No (1962) under the moniker of “Honey Ryder”, the first in a string of absurd names that includes Mary Goodnight, Dr. Holly Goodhead, and the aforementioned Octopussy (yep, it was a title and a character’s name).
Honey Ryder was introduced to the audience as a bikini cladden beachcomber. Her role throughout the film is a bit less dimensional than Bond’s. Not appearing until halfway through the film, they meet on a beach, then at some point she helps him and his associate (Quarrel) escape from Dr. No’s henchmen, upon which she reveals her backstory: her father died at an early age and she was on her own, then at some point a local landlord raped her (because for some reason Ian Fleming wrote it in the literary narrative and the filmmakers thought it’d be good to include in the screen adaptation), and of course she got revenge by placing a black widow spider in the landlord’s mosquito net. It bit him and he died.
Aside from that, no other concrete details on her backstory were disclosed. The rest of her involvement in the film includes her and Bond getting captured while Quarrel is conveniently killed off, the villain giving them luxury suites at his island hideout before the big reveal, they then meet Dr. No and he almost immediately has Ryder taken away off screen, then James kills him, escapes the island with Honey Ryder, and they eventually have sex on a boat.
Concurrently, many “femme fatales” were depicted as supports for the male antagonists as well. In Dr. No, the villain’s secondary was given the mildly racist name, Miss Taro. Miss Taro is portrayed by a white actor despite being written as a character of Chinese descent, but it’s also such a messy role altogether, who knows if anyone wants to claim it. Among her duties in the film, she is introduced as an object of desire and is approached by Bond from the start.
She is a counter operative that at one point distracts James by having sex with him, and upon having sex he realizes she is a counter operative. How? Bond insists they call a cab and get some food, but she says she’d rather stay in, and from this he deduces that she has laid a trap for him and is definitely a criminal spy. She was, but an investigation leading to that reveal might have been a bit more realistic. Nevertheless he calls a cab, but it’s no ordinary cab, it’s the police, in a cab car. She is promptly arrested by the authorities, and never appears on screen again. One can assume that British intelligence is holding her for questioning.
In considering all this, it is equally important to remember that during the events of the film, James has a girlfriend named Sylvia Trench, who is given virtually no role at all. She introduces herself in the opening scene as “Trench. Sylvia Trench,” to which the protagonist mimics by introducing himself as “Bond. James Bond,” giving way to another, less harmful tradition for the series and genre as a whole. That said, the running butt of the joke was that James would be called away on a mission everytime a disagreement occurred between them, where he would effectively escape the warranted judgement of his partner by traveling to exotic locations to cheat on her and kill people along the way.
This on screen depiction of emphasized femininity has been carried across the entire Bond series: spanning 26 films in counting, many novels, and several inspired video games. Within each new era of the classic role, the women are often diminished in ways that are just acceptable enough for the target markets of the time.
Emphasized femininity is a term created by R.W.Connell to analyze the ideal image of women in society to be counterpart with Hegemonic masculinity (2009, 188). They are the women whose outlooks are beautiful and sexual. She has to be white, cis-gender and dependent on a male. Into the modern days, the Bond girls have been again playing support roles with several characteristics of Emphasized Femininity to invite the violent actions from James Bond. They were from the last four movies in which Daniel Craig has played the role of James Bond since 2006.
As the previous Bond girls, they were white women, cis-gender, thin and beautiful as a model. In this case, the male gaze is utilized again to depict them though several frames showing their bare bodies or the gaze of Bond. For example, in the movie Casino Royale, Vesper, a Bond girl, stepped into the pocker stage with a sparking prom dress which attracted several gazes from male audience, even Bond himself. Matthis affirmed that when he told her a half of people playing on the pocker stage were looking upon her.
Being pretty is not enough to stand with Bond, a perfect man. To be worthy with them, the Bond girls have to prove their intelligence and bravery. It is when the quick and confused conversations come to play. The pace of the conversation is so fast compared to normal one to impress the audience by overwhelming their minds. The content of conversations is usually from out of nowhere, and reasonings are used to extend the length and trickly heighten the formal. Absolutely, these conversations are not seen in normal life, and people who can perform them leave their strong marks in the audience’s mind: smartness and alienation.
Although the formal conversation seems to be a good spot to place Bond girls equal to Bond, the director always includes emotions to them as a traditionally-perceived weak point of women. They are the depressing moments of the Bond girls which require Bond’s reactions to take them out. These moments create a contrast between Bond girls, inconsistently emotional and devastated by reality, and James Bond, an experienced and professional assassin. This contrast supports the image of a “true men” in Bond: a place on which women depend on both emotionally and physically.
Dependency is labelled a sign of weakness, and it is also attached to Bond girls. To show it, the director frequently puts them into danger at the very beginning. The kidnapping scenario is used on every Bond girl because it achieves both purposes: the danger in which the Bond girls were and the reasons to justify the Bond’s violent actions to rescue. An interesting contrast is created here when Bond girls cannot rescue themselves and have to rely on Bond completely, while Bond can magically escape from the dangerous scenes himself.
The dependency of Bond girls is depicted differently. In the movie Casino Royale and Spectre, the Bond girls, Vesper and Swann, are emphasized with their purity. Vesper shocked with the violence when Bond killed two intruders bloodly. She retreated into the bathroom and cried until Bond came to comfort her. Swann, in other words, used white clothes while she companies with Bond two times. M, a leader of MI6, in Skyfall is a special case because her dependency is justified by her aging, not from her performance. The proof is that she was the leader of MI6 and while preparing for the final battle, she created some sort of DIY smoke bombs to cope with the intruders. On the other hand, the dependency of Camille in the movie Quantum Of Solace came suddenly and burstly when the nightmare of the night in which her family was massacred. The firing scene directly suggested it and awakened the unspoken scare in her which makes her body suddenly frozen and unable to move. Luckily, Bond came on time to rescue her from the collapsing building and her nightmare itself.
In conclusion, the adapted characteristics of 007 have persisted for over fifty years. With Daniel Craig’s persistent critique and disapproval of the character, the introduction of female operatives who were never reduced to sexual partners and the late prospect of a woman taking up the 007 mantle (which again, is a British secret service designation that isn’t exclusive to Bond), women may one day take up a more complete espionage role in the series, perhaps even in the very next addition. But as it stands, the Bond girl identity, while improved upon, has more room to develop, and women in film have yet to be portrayed in a position as iconic as Bond’s, for 007 films, or the spy flick genre as a whole.
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