For every Bond film there is a “Bond girl,” destined to shack up with the secret agent.
Then, cut, roll tapes. Since 1962, Bond has received gadgets and Aston Martin cars, and the actresses have been reduced to vessels of the male gaze. With the latest installment of the daring man’s saga still in theaters, the gender dialogue has thickened in the past six decades, if not the silver-screen plot.
The Pitt News sat down with Emily Deering Crosby, a Ph.D. candidate in communication and instructor in gender, sexuality and women’s studies who uses Bond clips to teach her students about the male gaze in film by discussing Bond girls and their function in gender, power and consent in film.
TPN: The Bond Franchise is more than 50 years old. Outside of the Bond franchise, in Western culture, how has the representation of women changed during this time?
Emily Deering Crosby: You have some significant things happening in the ’60s where women were starting to recognize how the media was portraying them in particularly 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 TV 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.
This year the top films were “Furious 7,” “Age of Ultron,” “American Sniper” and so many of them are sequels. [Hollywood is] just recycling these same narratives that really resonate with young men, because they’re the ones who are predominantly going to these movies … 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.”
TPN: 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 ’90s 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.
TPN: What stands out to you about the Bond girls in what you’ve seen?
EDC: 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 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 [regard to] romantic exchange between men and women, especially when we have the powerful main character of James Bond who sort of represents the Eurocentric or even Anglocentric [idea of] “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.
TPN: In “Live and Let Die,” Roger Moore uses a stacked deck of cards to trick a female character into sleeping with him. That probably wouldn’t pass today.
EDC: 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. [As if] she’s going to slow [Bond] down [or that] 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 ingrained 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 in fact, they’ve sent their top person. It just happens to be a woman.
TPN: Do you see anything in the Bond girls beyond the superficial?
EDC: 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 woman 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.
TPN: What is the appeal of Bond being with a different woman every movie?
EDC: 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.
TPN: Let’s talk about a few specific Bond girls: first Pussy Galore, a lesbian converted by Bond.
EDC: Of course. I think it hopefully shows our progress [on] rights for the LGBTQ+ 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 OK 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?
EDC: ’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.
TPN: Halle Berry, who played Jinx in “Die Another Day,” has said the Bond girl role was empowering.
EDC: 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.
TPN: In “Casino Royale,” Bond sizes up Vesper (Eva Green) in her introductory scene, which we’re used to, but then she returns the favor.
ECD: [Her relationship with Bond] is very reciprocal, which you don’t see often because she is 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 woman 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?
TPN: What do you see happening with the names given to the female characters in Bond films? They are always exotic and often pretty ridiculous: Xenia Onatopp, Dr. Goodhead, Pussy Galore.
EDC: 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 than Amazon, bigger than Google combined. It’s huge. So James Bond was the first franchise to introduce that in not-so-subtle ways.
TPN: There is a lot of misogyny in the films, but being the protagonist, there’s also a lot to love. Is this paradox something you’ve thought about at all, or examined?
EDC: 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.