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Why I miss those unreconstructed Bond girls

IMAGINE you are a young girl growing up in the late 1970s or early 1980s, watching whatever popular movies make it onto your home television set, and searching for role models.

Who you would rather be? A prim Doris Day, feuding over a phoneline in Pillow Talk, or kung fu-kicking pilot, Pussy Galore, in Goldfinger? Jane Fonda, nose to the grindstone in Nine To Five, or Grace Jones's villainess May Day, hurling men above her head?

The range is limited, since nearly all mainstream films are made by men and present the world through male eyes. But for a teenaged me, the answer was obvious: the Bond girl, every time, even if she died or was mysteriously erased by the next movie. She may have had to perpetually sport a bikini, but she was, for the most part, an independent, globe-trotting girl who enjoyed her sexual pleasure and a degree of adventure.

I admit I loved many of those Bond girls. I adored their pantomime glamour and freedom – in spite of those cheesy lines and cringeworthy names. And, in a way, I still love them, even in these days when they are considered politically incorrect.

One of the real reasons some people really don't like Bond girls is that they don't like casual sex and hate the idea that two good-looking people in a situation of peril might just cop off together and then move on. There's a frequent assumption, not always implied in the actual films, that the girls must be left feeling empty and used, while Bond just blithely moves in for the next kill.

Watch, though, and you'll see that very few of his ladies seem to want to put a ring on his finger, and those who do – the ones who represent big loves, like Vesper Lynd in 2006's Casino Royale – are the dullest. Yes, there were drips among the early Bond girls, such as Britt Ekland's bungling Miss Goodnight. But the best of them were mostly women in the spirit of Helen Gurley Brown's Sex And The Single Girl, who were agents themselves, manipulative villains, or young, single women living independent lives.

When we caricature Bond as a fantasy for the boys, we forget that there may have been something for the girls too. As Camille Paglia has noted: "James Bond was at the forefront of the sexual revolution." And though it's true that Bond did seem to chow through his conquests like a kid let loose on a box of sweets, many of the Bond girls plainly had fairly active love lives themselves.

But, of course, we never see those scenes, and that's the problem. These are movies in which the central character is always male, and that remains the case today. There is still no female action hero or warrior franchise to match Bond, and that is a fault of the film industry, not 007 himself.

Perhaps critics are right to depict the Bond movies of several decades ago as a sexist horror story, since this was an era when movies really did influence how people saw themselves. For me, the Bond films were, alongside frothy novels like Shirley Conran's Lace, a first primer in sex.

Watching Bond films affected the way I and many women saw ourselves. Like all Hollywood movies they made us scrutinise our own bodies in a way that is essentially masculine. Critic Laura Mulvey described this camera-view as a "male gaze".

Though I partly loved Ursula Andress's Honey Ryder for her earthy wildness, I also saw her as a man would, as ravishingly desirable. Men, I suspect, don't have this split empathy on watching a gorgeous man, since the camera functions, for the most part, as a male eye.

In Casino Royale, Daniel Craig's first outing as Bond, an attempt was made to offer him up as sexual totty. He became the modern-day Andress, rising semi-naked and iron-bodied from the water. But this was also a little disconcerting. It seemed too much like parody. He was sexy, yes, but was this an ironic joke? Was it actually more homoerotic than feminine-erotic? And what actually might be the difference between the two, if any?

Sadly, in spite of the fact that Craig is a hot, brooding, damaged, walking piece of animal magnetism, I find there has been less in recent Bond movies for me. After I watched Casino Royale, the scenes that stayed with me were not the sensual shower scene, but the opening sequence of a public lavatory, in which 007 relentlessly pummels a man; or later scenes of himself being beaten senseless.

It seems to me that as Bond has become less about sex, it has become more, in line with the action of movies of our time, about the bone-crunching realities of violence. This is apparently what we want to see: the body smashed up, on the brink of destruction. Is this where the erotic heart of the movie can be found, in the thud of flesh against flesh or concrete?

And doesn't that make you long for the simplicity of a simple shot of smooth, unbrutalised sexual charisma, stirred not shaken, in the form of a gloriously great Bond girl? Because these, surely, have been what has been missing in recent years. In 2006, after the release of Casino Royale, Zoe Williams wrote in the Guardian that Bond had been "updated so much that there are no women to be seen. Craig is the woman". Even Judi Dench's M, since she represents the matriarch, the woman of control rather than action, doesn't provide an involving fantasy for us ladies. Indeed, the female action hero is more absent from the franchise than ever. Pussy Galore was closer to being a warrior than any Bond girl we've seen in recent times.

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