14 May 2018

James Bond - The Phenomenon *REVISED AND REPUBLISHED*

"Bond. James Bond."

I once wrote a very glorifying post on this blog about the man of all men: Bond. James Bond.

It was to be the end of my 'Bond-craze' years and I was simply gushing. There seemed no end to my blind adoration. Or rather, something did nag in the back of my mind during my countless reruns of the spy films whenever Bond carelessly flung ladies and villains aside, never bothering about the consequences of his actions as long as he got the job done. Violently, apathetically, cynically. I knew it was wrong; these set of values he so shamelessly demonstrated, and that it was problematic how it was treated 'just for kicks' through the film media. His misanthropy was kitschy entertainment. No more, no less.

And yet, I worshipped him. The whole package.

Rereading that old 'love letter' of mine (which I have deleted, for various reasons, in favor of a more critical piece), I can forgive that somewhat naive, impressionable kid I was. After all, I am not the first one to swoon at Sean Connery-Bond's deliciously rolling brogue and glinting, mischievous eyes. Obviously. The Scottish vortex of charm so easily sucks you in.

Still, I have grown older and wiser. My eyes are opened and re-watching those iconic movies no longer brings me the same sort of thrilling adoration as it once did. Only silly nostalgia.

And I realized I had to revise my think-piece on 'Bond The Phenomenon' in order to clarify my radically changed standpoint and include the fact that James Bond is probably one of the most obvious subjects of gender-related film critique.

"Let's not forget that he's actually a misogynist," the latest Bond, Daniel Craig himself, said about his character. That pretty much nails it, I think.

No matter what one has to say for the man, Bond is a bastard. Sure, a charming, funny and even silly bastard, but nonetheless a bastard. One cannot look past his blatant male chauvinism and basic disregard for human life, especially the opposite sex whom he uses and discards as often as he changes that impeccable white shirt of his (symbolic much?). Not to mention, the way he is being outrageously self-assured and downright smug about his own sexual prowess aka. that time he 'manages' to 'conquer' Pussy Galore - when the woman's playing for the other team, for crying out loud, Bond!

The latter incident demonstrates the complete and utter arrogance of a certain
 straight male fantasy where lesbianism is only portrayed and used for heterosexual titillation; something along the line of the male believing himself so godlike - or rather that a certain part of him is so magical, he/it can turn gay women straight...! Pffft! Or, really, that anything about female sexuality has to do with the man or revolve around him.

True, nothing about the Bond universe should be taken seriously, perhaps. I mean, just look at the villains, the gadgets and those godawful double entendre names the women have!

And had Bond simply been a footnote in the entertainment industry, I'd agree. But I'd argue that his iconic status makes him a more ambiguous figure of 'worship' and one worth discussing instead of simply dismissing as 'pure silliness that is easily forgiven'. After all, Bond movies are still produced and watched by millions and thus his problematic imagery and values are kept alive. And thus the question is: Are the new movies aware of this? Are its audiences? And do the movies address it?

No, not really (to all three questions) because then the movies would most likely not be made or watched. To address the problems with Bond would be to take away much of his essence, if not everything. To dress him down to what he projects about the male fantasy and status quo of society in all its raw, horrible honesty. Craig has given us perhaps the realest version of that but it's still lacking the wider, critical awareness among the audiences, I believe: For them to fully come to terms with what Bond inhabits; something that should not be glorified or admired, because of its toxic emptiness.

Apropos, Laurie Penny wrote a terrifically accurate, to-the-point piece for the New Statesman on Bond; a little quote from it here:
"Daniel Craig has not been given enough credit for taking a character who was a cardboard throwback even in the 1960s and playing him straight: as a wall-eyed, traumatised thug, a protagonist who is two-dimensional precisely because he is empty inside.

Craig animates the automaton that is Bond by asking just what it would take to make a person behave in this horrific way – and like any piece of well-done puppetry, the effect is sinister. Daniel Craig is the Bond we deserve, a Bond who takes seriously the job of embodying a savage yearning for a lost fantasy of the 1950s. It is about masculinity, yes, but also about Britishness, about whiteness and about heterosexuality, about the loss of certainty in all of these in a changing world."

It's quite interesting that these 'values' that seem to be the essence of Bond - clearly inseparable from the man and the myth - have managed to sell plenty of movie tickets throughout such tumultuous, radically changing socio-political decades that followed his arrival in the 1960s and, now, well into the 21st century. A time where critical awareness on these subjects - perhaps now more than ever thanks to new academic studies, not to mention various social and online media - has enhanced and pointed out just how outdated, unhealthy and misrepresentative these traditional, patriarchal and, frankly, stagnant views of how 'men are men' and 'women are women' truly are. Hidden or not, they have simply stayed this way far too long and need to be reckoned with.

"Mad Men" (2007-2015) dared to take up this challenge; to face this 'wolf in sheep's clothes' and call a bastard for a bastard in regards to Don Draper who is basically a James Bond archetype in many ways. The show - in contrast to the Bond movies - manages to draw critical lines across the ways society in Bond's cinematic birth years actually looked like regarding the sexes and gender roles, more so than glamorizing them (though this scale of balance can be debated).

I'm not saying that James Bond from now on should be an icon for cultural and structural change in that regard - if that is even possible, since he is and probably always will be an archetype of his time and more camp and entertainment than diversity and politics. The books were never meant to be more than that and mainly served as Ian Fleming's own subjective/selfish and partly autobiographic outlet (although he laid it on pretty thick).

But I'm still prone to see icons, no matter their various contexts, as partly responsible for what they represent in the end. Especially for the coming generations by asking what we want to leave on the map of legacy to guide them. And so I ask: Can Bond really work in the 21st century when he represents the essence of toxic masculinity and basically still sees women they way he does? Isn't he just too dated, too archaic in these aspects?

Then again, name a blockbuster/cardboard action hero from prior decades that didn't play into the areas of toxic masculinity and actually showed true esteem and respect for women with no romantic/sexual attachments developing along the way... Nope, neither can I. James Bond just predated them all and happened to have more class and style than the rest of them put together. Of course, he's the 'top dog'.

So. Can you change the stripes of such a, uh, tiger? I don't know. Again, Bond's essential cardboard-like qualities may just inhibit the figure from ever evolving and will remain a product of his time; a stagnant mindset, so aptly spoofed in the Austin Powers movies.

I grew up adoring Bond partly dewy-eyed, partly aware of his obvious flaws, and I can still laugh at the utter campiness of the movies, but as I've grown older I've also been made aware of my previous blind spots. I cannot unsee them. That goes for several of my fandoms, in fact. It doesn't ruin them per se, since I accept I loved them blindly at the time. Then I learn and move on to find something that will suit my tastes, a bit more aware. I find that can never hurt.

And I'll end on that note by stressing that you can still let Bond stay the entertaining, campy icon he's always been as long as you keep in mind what he's actually an icon for - other than Fleming's legacy.


  1. Don't know if you've read Ian Fleming's books (read one and you'll inevitably read them all before reading anything else) but you left out the screen Bond who comes closest to Fleming's Bond: George Lazenby in "On Her Majesty's Secret Service." I think he was the best Bond by leaps and bounds because of his believability as Fleming's character. The current Bond, Daniel Craig, is at such remove from Fleming's creation that it spurs one to wonder what's next. Have a look at Lazenby as Bond and weep at his decision to leave the series after the one appearance, destroying his own career and leaving humanity stuck with Roger Moore as Bond for an almost endless cycle of comparatively unwatchable movies, to be eventually followed by even worse.

    Actually, I did mention George Lazenby - there's no way I will forget him as he is my second favorite Bond right after Sir Connery! ;) And I agree with you (even though I haven't read any of the books yet), George L. certainly comes close to being THE James Bond, and it was really a shame he didn't return as Bond. Still, I guess it's a matter of opinion who's the true James Bond. However, Connery and Lazenby were without a doubt the best to portray him and it's a mystery to me why they were followed by such miscast actors...