The media applause over Monica Bellucci’s casting as the female lead in the new James Bond film as a huge positive step for the series is somewhat baffling. Praise for this decision, described by director Sam Mendes as “revolutionary”, stems from Bellucci being, at fifty, the oldest female lead in the series history, and seems more than a little exaggerated considering the longstanding misogyny of the series that popularised the not-exactly-progressive concept of the ‘Bond girl’.
The idea that Bellucci’s casting is ‘revolutionary’ seems more that a little exaggerated
In fairness, the source material is much, much worse. Ian Fleming’s novels are harsh on their female characters – as a side note they are also virulently racist and homophobic – who are at best slept with and discarded. More frequently however, they are sacrificial lambs to be tortured or murdered to provide the most hackneyed form of character motivation for Bond. Fleming’s sexism culminated in the widely panned The Spy Who Loved Me. Explicit to the point of being pornographic, it essentially exists as a means of writing leering sex scenes from what Fleming construed to be a female perspective.
The film series could only improve on this situation, and it did…slightly. Sex scenes were toned down, however offensive names such as Pussy Galore and Fleming’s neanderthal attitude towards sexuality remained. Any number of ridiculous moments from the series’ early years could be cited as an example but Goldfinger’s – often cited as the best film in the series – scene of Bond forcefully ‘seducing’ Galore, an established lesbian who is turned heterosexual by the experience is offensive even by mid-1960’s standards.
The films more or less maintained this classy tone throughout the 70’s and 80’s, with only On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’s Tracy DiVicenzo standing out as a well drawn female character, and even she is killed to motivate Bond’s quest for vengeance in the following film. Following the AIDS crisis, the film-makers made the small concession of making Bond monogamous, which at least had the effect of reducing the time spent ogling women per film. However the series eventually went back on this and continued to flaunt the over-sexualisation of its female characters with only minor moves towards a more enlightened gender perspective throughout the 1990’s, Tomorrow Never Dies’ Chinese spy Wai Lin was at least a step in the right direction.
Only Judi Dench’s M stands up as a consistent, non-sexualised female presence and surprise, surprise, she is killed off at the climax of Skyfall
The advent of a more serious tone, ushered in by Daniel Craig’s Bond provided some hope for real progress, but this did not get off to a good start. Casino Royale may have featured an excellently performed and well-rounded lead in Eva Green, but it fell victim to the predictable series traps of having one-dimensional female characters killed and/or tortured to provide character motivation. The same goes for the next two films. Only Judi Dench’s M stands up as a consistent, non-sexualised female presence and surprise, surprise, she is killed off at the climax of Skyfall. It is bizarre considering the Craig era’s rejection of other long time tropes – gadgets, puns, ridiculous villains – and the undeniable talent of the film-makers, Sam Mendes directed American Beauty and Road to Perdition, that misogynistic attitudes remain entrenched in the series DNA.
Now, with Spectre due for release this year and Skyfall having grossed over one billion dollars worldwide, any drastic changes to the established Bond structure seem highly unlikely. Yes, having a ‘Bond girl’ older than Bond himself is a welcome shake-up, however Lea Seydoux, aged twenty-nine, has also been cast as another of the female leads, suggesting that even that minor progress might be a false hope.
But looking to the future how could the series shed these tired tropes? Previous attempts to create villainous female characters have largely relied on tired ‘black-widow’ clichés. Perhaps a genuinely powerful villain able to outsmart Bond and who, for once, does not sleep with the hero, could create an interesting dynamic. Or maybe, just maybe, a women could take on the lead role. Sure, there would have to be some rejigging of character names and backgrounds but if, as the current rumours of Idris Elba suggest, the studio is looking beyond the pool of white male, British actors for the next Bond, it could be more than just wishful thinking. After all just imagine what a talented female actor such as Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jessica Chastain or Felicity Jones could do with such an iconic role. It may appear ridiculous but, if the series is to prevent a slide into outdated nonsense, it may also be entirely necessary.
Image: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters