THE poster for the new James Bond film, Quantum Of Solace, has Daniel Craig and his co-star Olga Kurylenko walking side by side across a desert landscape, both roughed up yet moodily glamorous: him in a black suit, her in a knee-length cocktail dress. This man and this woman are presented as twin souls on the same journey. They move together and in parallel. In its plot too, Quantum Of Solace has these characters follow similar arcs, as if the two might be interchangeable. This is the modern Bond. It's as close as the franchise can get to making a female 007 without completely re-gendering the character. Here you are, ladies: this is a protagonist you may be able to relate to.

The years have progressively feminised the Bond films. They have come a long way since the early 1960s incarnations of Dr No and Goldfinger, when to be a leading female character (or "Bond girl") meant being just one of a string of scantily-clad bombshells, there to be sexually available, ogled at and bedded by Bond, then dispensed with in favour of the next love interest. Since then, Bond has been raped by a woman (Grace Jones). He has seen his boss, M, the official centre of power in the movies, transformed into the mother figure of Judi Dench. He has even been called "a sexist, misogynist dinosaur" by Dench's M. The franchise appears to be jumping through hoops in its efforts to escape from the chauvinism and sadism of the Bond novels' author, Ian Fleming, and of the era, the 1950s and 1960s, during which he was writing.

Daniel Craig has fairly universally been hailed as the woman's 007 - as if the spy's appeal to the opposite sex were some fresh revolution. Yet the movies' producers have always been trying to reel in the ladies. The Bond character may have embodied the heterosexual male fantasy of universal sexual irresistibility, but in fact, the films were pitched at everyone. Bond, as producer Harry Saltzman once said, "is sadism for the family".

As such, the franchise occupies a potent place in our culture. Not only does it provide a barometer of changing attitudes towards women and sex, but it has also had a formative influence over them. Indeed, for many of my generation, the movies were effectively a form of accessible erotica: for girls as well as boys.

Looking back on my own first Bond movie experience is rather like recalling a first kiss. I was around nine years old when I was allowed to stay up and watch it on television in my grandmother's living room. I remember the evening clearly: crackers and cheese in front of the fire and then the film, You Only Live Twice, whose plot I've now forgotten, but which immediately, from the early images of Bond apparently shot dead in bed, spoke of grown-up mysteries. The credit sequence with the bodies of naked Geisha girls flickering in the light of volcanic eruptions said that sex was a powerful explosive thing and suggested that life's big thrills had something to do with the slim, undulating, naked bodies of women. That evening, it was as though I had been allowed to step into, though not over, the threshold of an adult world.

The Bond games that I went on to play with my Barbie dolls were not domestic scenarios, but thriller-type tales involving kidnappings, torture and humiliation. Barbies and Action Men would frequently be tied up and placed in perilous and fetishistic situations, usually involving banisters and a plastic sports car. I know I am not alone in this. When I contact Ariel Levy, author of Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women And The Rise Of Raunch Culture, I mention these make-believe scenarios. She laughs, recalling how influential the Bond films were on her own Barbie play. "I remember watching Octopussy, which I think is one of the kinkiest ones, and afterwards setting up this Barbie situation which was rather like The Story Of O. It was really dirty."

"For many women," says Levy, "those movies and Barbies were like their first pornography. You don't exactly know what you're doing but you realise that it's, like, kinky. I remember being aware of that as a kid. There was something unsavoury going on in these Bond movies."

Levy points out that with any story, most of us - male or female - identify with the protagonist, regardless of gender. Because of this, we women were consuming Bond almost as boys might do. We were looking at ourselves, the Bond girls, or others like us, with a male gaze.

The very concept of the Bond girl seems to belong to another era - so much so that it has already revolved through a politically correct reincarnation as "Bond woman" only to return to post-feminist "girl" again. It calls to mind other embarrassing but persistent phenomena of its time, such as Miss World and Hugh Hefner's Playboy bunnies. Nevertheless, to lump all Bond girls together, whether they be Goldfinger's passive vehicle for gold paint, Shirley Eaton, or Grace Jones's muscular maneater from A View To A Kill (1985), risks throwing away the wheat with the chaff. The Bond movies, after all, had their fabulous female characters.

When in 1962 Honey Ryder (played by a bikini-clad Ursula Andress) rose out of the water singing Underneath The Mango Tree in the first-ever Bond movie, Dr No, she represented a new type of sex icon: athletic and physically capable. Of course, on one level she was there simply as"spy candy". ("Are you looking for shells?" she asks James Bond. "No," he replies, "I'm just looking.") But she was a new type of spy candy.

The problem in those early Bond films was not so much the dearth of interesting female characters, but James himself, and the ultimate joke of the series: that no matter how beautiful, clever or powerful a lady was, he could bed her. This attitude, thankfully, has been jettisoned in the recent movies.

What is different about the Daniel Craig series is that they are essentially taking the old Bond and writing a psychological motivation into him. No longer does Bond seem just a commitment-phobic cad, who serially seduces and chucks simply because that is what every man wants to do. Rather, as the villain in Quantum Of Solace puts it, he is explained away as a "damaged" person who struggles with intimacy because of the brutality he has experienced.

N the meantime, Bond Girls themselves have hardly become perfect agents for the feminist cause. In the 2006 film version of Casino Royale, Vesper Lynd, played by Eva Green, has a fabulous first scene in which she gets to verbally wipe the floor with Bond. After firing off her final devastating character assessment, she asks: "How was your lamb?"

"Skewered," Bond answers. "One sympathises."

Ultimately, however, Vesper still has to break down when the violence gets too intense; to play the nurse when Bond is injured; and to tumble into his arms then meet her end by drowning in a lift beneath a crumbling Venice building. It's hardly pushing the boundaries of gender expectations.

But then, why would we expect it to? The Bond films have always been mainstream in their sexual politics, or, more often, as the years went by, just a small step behind the mainstream, tugged backwards by the invisible threads tying them to Ian Fleming, author of the novels on which the movies are based.

Even for his time, Fleming seemed to inhabit the margins of good taste. He once said he thought men liked "women who could be turned on and off like a switch". His own sex life was characterised by affairs and sado-masochism. One of his wife's letters to him pleaded: "I long for you to whip me because I love being hurt by you and kissed afterwards. It's very lonely not to be beaten and shouted at every five minutes."

Fleming called his books "the pillow fancy of the author". As such, they were the thinly veiled fantasy of a man who saw women as thoroughly disposable. In the first James Bond novel Casino Royale (1953), Fleming's narrator says that "women were for recreation" and should be "brutally ravaged, never pandered to or pursued".

Particularly troubling was the recurrent theme of rape. In The Spy Who Loved Me (1962), he even had his female narrator muse: "All women love semi-rape. They love to be taken. It was Bond's sweet brutality against my bruised body that had made his act of love so piercingly wonderful." When criticised for this, Fleming tried to argue that the book was an attempt to show young people that Bond was not a good role model.

In today's Bond films some of these elements have been thoroughly exorcised. That had to be done. The old 007 wouldn't be  suffered gladly by many women today. His tendency to slap a lady on the bottom or thrust her body as a shield into the path of an oncoming bullet or weapon, would not go down well. And the "semi-rape" he was so fond of, would have him in court before he could whisper the phrase "play hard to get".

In this sense, the old films appear horribly dated. Re-watching Goldfinger, it seems laughable yet shocking when Bond girl Pussy Galore, pinned to a bed of straw by James Bond in a scene that verges on rape, melts into his arms. For a modern audience, this turnaround is impossible to believe. Just a few scenes earlier, the smart-talking female aviator had been telling Bond: "You can cut the charm. I'm immune."

Nevertheless, more than four decades on from Fleming's death in 1964, a ghost of the author's Bond still haunts the films. It is there in their cruelty. Back in 1958 when the literary critic Paul Johnson reviewed Dr No, he summed up the 007 appeal as one of "sex, sadism and snobbery". Though the snobbery seems to have dissipated, the physical sadism has intensified.

What is new, however, is that in Craig's incarnation, Bond is both the sexual protagonist and the sex object. The more physical aspects of the Bond girl, in other words, has been absorbed into Bond himself. That is the genius of the current films. Daniel Craig is the hotty who rises from the sea, in obvious reference to Ursula Andress's Honey Ryder, modelling trunks and pecs. He is the one who gets "skewered". And, though it would be almost unthinkable now have a female character in a mainstream film stripped naked and threatened with genital mutilation, that is exactly what happens to Bond in 2006's Casino Royale.

On one level it's all just more of the same old sadism, only with a different flavour of flesh. But on another it is profoundly different. It is an acknowledgement of what we already know: that much as we are all, regardless of gender, consumers in a sexual marketplace, we are all its objects, too. And even the once invincible James Bond becomes just another joint at the meat market.

Meanwhile, we, the audience, continue to be "just looking" - but at a new type of spy candy.