James Bond: My 14-Year-Old Versus 19-Year-Old Self
I was scrolling through Netflix earlier this month when I noticed that nearly every James Bond movie had appeared in the “recently added” section. Having watched most of the 26 films, from “Dr. No” (1962) to “Spectre” (2015), an achievement I am quite proud of, I was excited about the prospect of rewatching the iconic 007 series. When I was 14-years-old, James Bond (especially Sean Connery’s portrayal), was a character I quoted frequently, a hero whose charm and talent I admired. James Bond taught me everything I needed to know about dueling, negotiating and being the cleverest person in the room.
Yet when I started rewatching the very films I have held so dearly since high school, something unexpected happened. The protagonist’s actions and words left me disoriented. The sheer sexualization of women made me upset. Every “Bond girl,” every female character in the films, contributed nothing whatsoever to the stories. Every interaction between Bond and a woman was either flirtatious or downright abusive. Women merely functioned as objects to seduce and please dominant male characters. They are never truly part of the adventure. Female characters are irrelevant to the plot — they don’t make any quote-worthy statements or influential decisions.
In “Diamonds are Forever,” Bond wraps a bikini top around a woman’s neck, strangling her. In “Thunderball,” he blackmails a nurse into joining him in the sauna. Whether they are “Bond girls” or less celebrated insignificant characters, women are beaten, abused and played with.
First introduced by cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985, the Bechdel test measures female representation in fiction. In her cartoon strip called “The Rule,” Bechdel describes two women conversing with each other. One woman remarks to the other that she refuses to watch films which do not portray two women who talk to each other about something other than men. After coming to the conclusion that no such film exists, they give up and return home. The test gained popularity and has been used to measure different types of media. The website bechdeltest.com allows users to rate movies based on these three requirements. Needless to say, almost all Bond movies failed, miserably.
I had never felt personally attacked by a Bond film before. But as a 19-year-old, I could not ignore what I was watching. I have always been one of those people who forgave crude or controversial jokes in old movies or shows. I always argued that context matters. And this mantra applied to all sorts of productions from “back then.” Yes, that joke was distasteful, but we can’t expect anything better from, say, a 90s show. Doesn’t political correctness limit humor and excitement? Choosing to ignore hurtful statements or questionable actions was an active choice I made for the sake of entertainment.
I really cared about James Bond. So when I was unable to identify with any of the women portrayed in the films, it bothered me. Why didn’t any of the female characters have admirable characteristics, sharp minds or skill? They were all useless to the extent that I was unable to pay attention to the rest of the plot.
Then I started questioning. Had I not been aware that the portrayal of women in James Bond films was problematic? Did my 14-year-old self not care? How could I possibly etch James Bond in my memory as a positive experience?
In other words, what changed? Was it the #MeToo movement? Am I simply more mature today?
To be honest, I am not entirely sure. However, I have come to the realization that films with characters such as 007 have an enormous impact on people. When I was 14, I made a clear differentiation between fiction and reality. However, I have encountered people with mentalities that reveal where they learned how to treat women. Perhaps my 19-year-old self is simply painfully aware that James Bond’s behavior is not limited to fictional, arrogant spies.
How do we reconcile our appreciation for art with its toxic elements? Here I am referring specifically to old movies. Fortunately, many recent action movies, such as “Wonder Woman” or “Black Panther,” portray extraordinary female characters. How do we preserve James Bond culture while also ensuring that everyone is aware of just how problematic the films are?
Rewatching the Bond films through a new lens was a powerful experience. Does this mean I will stop watching James Bond? I am hesitant to give a definite answer. One thing, however, is clear. If anyone near me says something along the lines of “Run along now dear, man talk,” (“Goldfinger,” 1964), I will put some of James Bond’s creative techniques to good use.
Photo Caption: Sean Connery as James Bond
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons