Let’s get this out of the way first: I am a long-time fan of the James Bond films. I can enjoy watching a Bond movie, even a bad one, for the thrill of an action movie that falls safely away from a blockbuster. I am okay with certain Bond movie clichés and stereotypes. But I have to admit that, as a cinephile, whenever a great new Bond movie arrives or just an interesting element of surprise occurs in the narrative, I rejoice. It happened with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), the first disruption in the narrative tradition in the series that allowed 007 to function as a human being with fragile emotions. It happened again with the darker, grittier, less fun and less far-fetched Licence to Kill (1989), introducing a Bond (Timothy Dalton) that is tougher but also more realistic and humane. It happened once more with Casino Royale (2006), which went on to become my all-time favourite, again a different type of Bond film, with a story anchored in reality, and with a Bond who would once again be darker, sharper and edgier, but also more humane than the earlier Bonds, except for Timothy Dalton. And it happened with every Bond girl that went against the type, that is every Bond girl with her own past, future and present agenda.
For His Eyes Only: The Women of James Bond, edited by Lisa Funnell, and published by Columbia University Press, is an anthology of essays that offers a scholarly look at the representation of women in the Bond universe. It is not the first scholarly work about the women of James Bond, having been predated by cultural historian Robert A. Caplen‘s “Shaken & Stirred: The Feminism of James Bond”, released in 2010, and which I have yet to read. The Funnell book offers several essays by multiple authors, who are analysing the roles played by Bond girls, Judi Dench’s “M” and Moneypenny throughout the years and in the life of 007. The result is less objective than I would have expected from an academic study and somewhat redundant, repetitive and condescendant to serve as an open and constructive discussion about female representation, complexity and evolution in the Bond franchise.
Don’t get me wrong. I am all for non-archetypal female characters in Bond movies. After all, I have repeatedly written about female characters who have challenged the portrayal of the Bond girl as a one-dimensional lust object and/or collateral damage. They are the ones who have made a lasting impression, distinguishing themselves through a lot more than skin and looks – although they had the looks, too, alright. They are in a league of their own, rather a real match for Bond instead of helpless side-kicks: Eva Green in Casino Royale, Carey Lowell in Licence to Kill, Carole Bouquet in For Your Eyes Only or Naomie Harris and her alt Bond girl in Skyfall – she may be the only one who has proven that she can capture Bond’s attention (and hold it) regardless of any hierarchy or sexual politics, which is why it is somehow hard to comprehend Lisa Funnell’s criticism on the treatment of women in Skyfall.
But, mind you, being a Bond fan, this is not to say that I disregard by any means all the other Bond girls who have populated the 007 movies and their influence. And I understand why, for some, Ursula Andress will always remain the epitome of the Bond girl. Especially that the Bond girl formulaic drivel is churned out just as frequently as the seduction game appears as a two-way street, with Bond girls being the hunters and 007 the prey just as much as the other way around. And especially that, if you look closer, there’s much more than what meets the eye to even the most typical of Bond girls. And the best argument comes from this very book. In her essay, “Designing Character: Costume, Bond Girls, and Negotiating Representation”, Andrea J. Severson makes an in-depth analysis of costume design and character for the first Bond film, Dr. No, and Ursula Andress’ archetypal Bond girl, Honey Rider, and for Casino Royale and Eva Green’s Bond girl of a new era, Vesper Lynd. Although the great rhetorical effectiveness of Vesper Lynd’s costumes has often been documented, by myself included, the apt study of Honey Rider, in relation to her costumes, is not only about the first writing I have come across so far that brings into discussion the complexity and duality of her clothes (famed bikini included, as it turns out that its connotations go beyond the mere male gaze and that it was specifically designed to mitigate a different kind of effect, too, as it was intentionally given a threatening edge by the creative team by positioning the dagger on her hip, in close proximity to her hand, ready to be used to defend herself), but a fair-minded opinion that the book otherwise often times lacks.
“For His Eyes Only: The Women of James Bond” should be more of a conversation starter and less of an interpretation as fact. If, as a culture, we’d make it a practice to censor character behaviour in movies, as I was writing in my piece, Women in the World of Film, in The Artbo magazine, by trying to accommodate every opinion, by trying to be as tolerant as possible, by trying not to get anybody offended, we would not have any artistic diversity and freedom of expression, and we wouldn’t have movies that make us think and that ask for long-due social change either.