Saturday, July 26, 2014

Oh, James...

Is this an action movie, or an excuse for putting scantily clad sexy women in sexy situations while men in tuxedos look on approvingly?

I used to love James Bond.

I don't remember not knowing about James Bond, or at least about agent 007 and his cool gadgets. I'm not sure how I knew about him, as throughout my childhood my parents were as disapproving of violence as they were of smoking, drinking, and sexual references, so the only movies we went to were either cartoons or musicals. We did watch a lot of TV, and there may well have been ads for James Bond movies, and one of our favorite shows was the Mel Brooks spy spoof, Get Smart, which was as appealing to me for the coolness of the gadgets as the humor, which often went over my head. Whatever the source, by the time I was six I already knew the James Bond theme and knew that 007 was a spy, and was eager to experience some entertainment in that vein.

Twelve years later, I finally saw my first Bond movies.

There were two of them, an on-campus double feature, tied together by the theme of gold: Goldfinger and The Man with the Golden Gun. I was captivated by the coolness of the music, the over-the-top villains, the intricate universe in which Bond operated, the campy humor, the gadgets and, of course, the girls. As a sexually frustrated teenager, the Bond girls particularly appealed to me. "I like a girl in a bikini," says Scaramanga, the titular man with a golden gun. "No concealed weapons." I, too, liked looking at these girls in bikinis, liked Bond's easy way with them--but already, in my first full exposure, felt some discomfort at how disposable they were. When Bond discovers that, thanks to his meddling, Scaramanga has publicly executed the beautiful Domino, he feels perhaps a moment of remorse, but it's fleeting. His real passion is solving the mystery, putting a bullet through the villain, and then moving on to his next conquest, the bikini-clad spy Goodnight, who has been lusting after him for the entire film, but doesn't get her "Oh James!" moment until the end.

I've seen Goldfinger several times since that first viewing in 1979. Golden Gun I have not revisited in 35 years, yet still those details pop out to me, most likely because of the guilt I felt, even then, for enjoying such a misogynistic bit of entertainment.

Last night, seeking some light entertainment, I turned to the DVR and a recording I had made months earlier: From Russia with Love, long hailed by film critics as the best of the early Bond movies for the depth of its characterizations. I watched maybe half an hour of it, and had to turn it off. In that half hour, I saw Bond casually bed another throwaway girl who was frantic to have him, saw two gypsy women have a cat fight over a man, and saw Bond given the task by their chief of ending their conflict by, apparently, having a threesome with them. I don't know if it actually came to that, because I turned it off during the setup for this scene.

I've seen every James Bond movie, even the tiredest, tritest Roger Moore episodes, and over the years, I've observed a gradual evolution on most counts: technology, politics, diversity at MI-6 headquarters. The sexism bordering on misogyny, though, has proven especially stubborn. While casting Judi Dench as M was a welcome change, and led to some of the most dramatic moments in the Daniel Craig reboot, these most recent films still feature subplots in which Bond's reckless disregard for the consequences of bedding a villain's girlfriend is breathtaking. The superspy's body count doesn't stop with those he turns his pistol on (including, in the very first film, Dr. No, a woman he shoots in cold blood after having his way with her); there's plenty of collateral damage, from the woman Goldfinger causes to suffocate by coating her in gold paint to the torture shooting of Severine in Skyfall. Whenever one of these deaths occurs, Bond is angered by it, but appears to feel no remorse for putting a woman in such a position. It may strengthen his resolve to use his license to kill to exact revenge on the villain, but that was going to happen anyway.

This aspect of the Bond universe is heightened by those few women who manage to pierce 007's confirmed, but active, bachelorhood and worm their way into his heart. James Bond is an old-fashioned rake: he may be willing to bed anything in a skirt, but he's no adulterer. Anytime he gets close to settling down, we know this woman is not long for this world. The only time he's permitted to marry--On Her Majesty's Secret Service--his wife is gunned down, in the wedding limousine, by arch-villain Blofeld.

What, then, are we to make of this beloved character whose career is littered with the corpses of beautiful women who had the bad luck to give in to his charms? Should we consign him to the dust heap along with the Lockhorns, Andy Capp, the Honeymooners, and every tired sexist bit of humor or drama that populated television up to the 1980s? Is there any way to cleanse misogyny from the Bond franchise?

There's been talk lately of casting Idris Elba as the first black Bond, but I have to say that's just not good enough. The only way I can see to save the Bond universe from more than half a century of dehumanized femininity is to do with it what Marvel is about to do with its most virile superhero, Thor: total gender reassignment.

That's right. If 007 is to remain relevant in an age that takes misogyny far more seriously, in which there is at least an even chance that the most powerful man in the world will soon be replaced by a woman, then Daniel Craig needs to hand the franchise over to a woman. Let 007 be known as Jane Bond, and maybe this beloved hero can be set back on a track with a future. Otherwise, I expect we'll see more and more people having the experience I had with From Russia with Love, and voting with their remotes.

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