The evolution of the Bond Girl (or lack thereof)

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Jan 5, 2018

Just say the words “Bond Girl” and she appears in your mind’s eye. It doesn’t matter which one—it might be Ursula Andress, the original Bond Girl, rising from the sea in her sensible bikini and sensible knife, Jill Masterson playing dead in gold paint, or Denise Richards cosplaying as Lara Croft as Dr. Christmas Jones.

More than fifty years into the Bond franchise, the Bond girl—the attractive, punnily-named women thrown Bond’s way in the course of his duties for Queen and country—has become more of an archetype than an individual character, which makes sense. She’s a time capsule of anxieties and fears around what women should and should not be, neatly separated out into good and bad for easy consumption.

Look. I love Bond movies. I legitimately think Moonraker is a hoot, Die Another Day is one of the most fabulously stupid movies ever made, and the rooftop fight in Skyfall makes my heart leap out of my mouth. But what fascinates me most about the franchise is its function as a cultural artifact. More than any other action franchise, Bond is an exercise in the mainstream masculine id—the straight, white, cisgendered, male, colonialist id.

And nowhere is that more evident than the evolution of the Bond girl - or her lack thereof.

The Bond girl is thoughtfully separated into two categories—good Bond girls who help Bond in his mission, either as the female lead or a random bedmate, and bad Bond girls who serve as obstacles to both Bond’s mission and his sexuality. It’s almost a madonna and whore dichotomy, if someone came up with that dichotomy coming off of a bad bender during the age of free “to be sexually available to me, a man, all the time” love. The cheat sheet to a Bond girl’s morality is her sexual availability to Bond. A good Bond girl happily beds Bond almost casually, whether or not she actually seems interested in him. A bad Bond girl not only has “too much” agency over her own sexuality, but she’s often sexually deviant in ways that threaten the Great White Male order of the world.

And Bond can turn a bad Bond girl good by judicious application of… his gadget.

There are exceptions to this rule, of course—for instance, The World is Not Enough features Michelle Yeoh’s Wai Lin firmly but playfully rejecting Bond’s advances until they’re not on the job. (Of course, they bone down immediately after the job is done, because Bond movie.) And the evolution of Moneypenny from erstwhile secretary to competent and reliable coworker is definitely a step in the right direction. But this is the throughline of how the franchise treats its women, even as the franchise tries to pay lip service to the marching tide of female empowerment as the twenty-first century first looms and then overtakes it. No matter where a female character starts out, she’s ultimately subjugated to Bond’s sexual imagination. The only way to escape it is to enter the narrative having already passed your “Last F*ckable Day”. And if she refuses to play the game? Well, then the narrative just kills her.

I realize this sounds harsh, and we’ll get into how the Bond films are a dystopia for personal agency many moons and wines from now, but let me take you on a curated tour of the franchise to show you what I mean.

The Connery Years

The Connery years codified the Bond formula both by virtue of being the first and the most formulaic (save for To Russia From Love). There are some awkward growing pains—witness Bond casually poking around his hotel room to the surfer guitar strains of his theme song—but by the time Shirley Bassey hits that note in “Goldfinger,” we’re locked in.

Goldfinger’s Pussy Galore is one of the most iconic Bond girls, for both her outrageous name and the way Sean Connery says it. In the novel—this was back when Bond movies were based on specific novels, friends—Pussy is overtly a lesbian. (But only because she was abused as a child! Blergh.) Her sexuality is toned down for the film, but when Bond and Pussy meet for the first time, she advises him to turn off the charm. “I’m immune,” she announces in her low voice, wearing a crushed velvet suit, a gold blouse, sensible boots, and shortish hair to fly a plane, which is when my little gay knees turned to putty. She’s cool, she’s calm, she’s collected. She knows judo. She quirks her eyebrow just so. Honor Blackman is such an incredible actress that Pussy is brimming with potential…

Until the scene where Bond, refusing to take no for an answer, fights Pussy in a barn. She tries to fight him off, trying to choke him and even twisting her face away from him, but the moment he kisses her, she succumbs. It is an intensely upsetting scene of sexual assault played as romance. The mere fact of his sexual interest in her—despite her consistent, repeated, and vocal dearth of sexual interest in him—not only turns her to the side of good, but cures her independent, queer-coded ways.

I wish Pussy could had been warned by my favorite Connery Bond girl, Thunderball’s Fiona Volpe, but, alas, the timeline doesn’t work out. Fiona is a ruthless SPECTRE assassin, killing a compatriot on the orders of her boss, covering up the murder, and bedding Bond for her own amusement before she and her cohort capture him. Essentially, she’s doing what Bond does, just backwards in high heels for the wrong side. She even indulges in taunting him:

But of course, I forgot your ego, Mr. Bond. James Bond, the one where he has to make love to a woman, and she starts to hear heavenly choirs singing. She repents, and turns to the side of right and virtue... but not this one!

I always think about this quote when I think about Bond, largely because she’s not only dead-on, she’s dead-on for decades. Of course, for this clear-eyed analysis, refusal to let sexual contact with Bond change her, and also being, like, a villain, Fiona cannot be suffered to live. Bond escapes, managing to make it to the Kiss Kiss Club, but Fiona tracks him down. As they share a terse dance for cover, Bond notices one of her men taking aim. He spins at the last moment, turning Fiona into the line of fire, and she dies in his arms. And to add insult to injury, he dumps her body at a table, asking the patrons, “Mind if my friend sits this one out? She’s just dead.” It’s a bog-standard quip for Bond, but given what Fiona represents—not only a threat to his masculinity, despite her availability, but someone who names and challenges his power—it feels decidedly grim.

The Lazenby Year

Despite starring only in one film, George Lazenby’s Bond encounters quite a lot of Bond girls (see Blofeld’s beautiful Angels of Death, two of whom merrily bed Bond). But On Her Majesty’s Secret Service also boasts the Bond girl who might best be described as the Bond woman—Countess Tracy di Vicenzo, the widowed daughter of the head of a crime syndicate helping Bond in his quest to take down Blofeld.

Casting Diana Rigg in a Bond film was, by the late sixties, both a stroke of genius and a no-brainer. Her role as amateur spy and genius adventuress Mrs. Peel on The Avengers was both iconic and beloved, but, by 1968, Rigg felt her time on the program had come to end. Like fellow The Avengers star Honor Blackman before her, she left the show to star in a Bond movie.

Against newcomer George Lazenby, Rigg’s sharp charisma absolutely sparkles. But what really stands out about Tracy is the way she’s written—not only as someone that can match Bond quip for quip and back him up against Blofeld, but as a woman that Bond respects. When her father begs Bond to continue romancing her because he thinks “she needs is a man... to dominate her” to snap her out of her reckless ways, Bond protests she needs therapy, not a lover. It isn’t perfect—early in the film, Bond slaps her, and he does initially agree to romance Tracy in exchange for intelligence from her father. But out of all the romances in the franchise, Bond and Tracy’s relationship feels the most organic and fleshed out. During his proposal of marriage, Tracy tells Bond that she knows his job will always come first—and Bond tells her he’ll just have to find another job.

Of course, it doesn’t work out like that. On the day of their wedding, Tracy is murdered by Blofeld. It both shatters Bond—who spends the last lines of the film protesting that she’s not dead, simply resting, clutching her dead body—and puts the franchise back on track to the almighty formula. How can Bond gallivant across the globe with girls if he has a wife? As feminist film critic Molly Haskell put it in her contemporary review in The Village Voice, “[t]heir love, being too real is killed by the conventions it defied.” Tracy dies even though she’s, ultimately, a good Bond girl because she, like bad Bond girls, threatens the Bond status quo.

The Moore Years

After a brief detour back to Sean Connery for Diamonds are Forever, the late, great Roger Moore took over the role of Bond from 1973 to 1985. With seven films as Bond under his belt by the time he left, Moore remains the longest serving Bond. (Yes, I know Connery revisited the role for Never Say Never Again, technically bringing him to seven, but that movie is not part of the Eon franchise, and therefore is noncanonical to what we consider the Bond franchise.) This means there are a lot of Moore Bond girls, ranging from the first African-American Bond girl in the blaxpoitation rip-off Live and Let Die to the eponymous Octopussy, who is largely only notable for her name. But the one that comes to mind when I’m thinking about the larger pattern of Bond girls is For Your Eyes Only’s Melina Havelock.

After a string of then-popular genre rip-offs (Live and Let Die for blaxploitation, The Man with the Golden Gun for martial arts, Moonraker for sci-fi), For Your Eyes Only is a return back to a grittier, more realistic Bond. Bond is dispatched to find a sunken British ship carrying an important weapons system before the Soviets. A hitman takes out both the marine archeologist asked by British intelligence to help find the ship and his wife, leaving Melina Havelock orphaned and out for blood. Melina is one of the first Bond girls introduced on her own before we see her meet Bond—she inadvertently rescues him while seeking crossbow-centered justice—and she comes off as a whole human being swept up into the action rather than a conquest, something we’ll see again in GoldenEye.

She’s also considerably younger than Moore’s Bond. While their ages are never specifically mentioned, Carole Bouquet is thirty years younger than Roger Moore. Over the course of the film, their relationship feels more avuncular than romantic. Bond warns her of the dangers of seeking revenge, and she assists the final raid on the villain’s lair in mountaineering gear as one of the lads. During the film, Bond even turns down the advances of Bibi Dahl, a figure skater who seems to be about the same age as Melina, on the grounds that she’s too young for him.

So it’s a bit of a shock to the system when the film ends with Melina and Bond en route to sleeping together via skinny dipping. The film puts no effort into establishing a romantic rapport. So instead of coming off as sexy or romantic, it feels like Melina’s characterization gets undercut. It’s not an ending where Melina finally gets to consummate an attraction she’s had the whole film as a reward for rising above her desire for revenge—it’s an ending where Melina is given to Bond as an afterthought, because what else are women good for in a Bond film?

The Brosnan Years

“Clare,” I can hear you saying, “why are on earth are you skipping over Timothy Dalton, who is objectively the best James Bond?” Well, dear reader with excellent taste, that’s because the Bond girls in The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill are kind of just… meh. Kara Milovy is boring and Licence to Kill finds Bond seeking revenge for the rape and murder of his friend’s wife, which is such a textbook example of Fridging that I don’t have much to say beyond pointing out and going “gross’. (Also, Bond shoves Benicio Del Toro into a shredder and sets a dude on fire, which feels somehow too violent for a Bond film.) The really narratively fascinating and repulsive stuff starts with Pierce Brosnan’s debut, so let’s just start there.

GoldenEye is widely considered one of the best Bond films, an assessment I agree with. A Bond film that requires Bond to grapple with the ramifications of what he and his job have done to both himself and other people usually turns out to be one of the best in the franchise—see also Skyfall. It also introduces Judi Dench as M, one of the greatest casting decisions ever made. I legitimately love and adore her performance, which only gets better with every film she appears in. But it must be said that M’s presence as Bond’s female boss allows the franchise to have its cake and eat it too—M can calmly tell Bond that she thinks he’s “a sexist, misogynist dinosaur” all she wants, and Bond can merrily bed the psychologist sent to evaluate him.

Natalya Simonova is, I would argue, the best good Bond girl. Like Melina, she’s introduced on her own, is out for revenge, and aids Bond with her skills, but with the added bonuses of actually developing a relationship with Bond throughout the film and being age-appropriate for him. She even, delightfully, challenges Bond outright at one point:

You think I'm impressed? All of you with your guns, your killing, your death. For what? So you can be a hero? All the heroes I know are dead. How can you act like this? How can you be so cold?

She keeps to the formula, of course. It’s inescapable. But she's handled in such a way that it feels organic.

The same cannot be said for Xenia Onatopp, GoldenEye’s bad Bond girl. She’s stunningly beautiful, Russian, and derives sexual pleasure from crushing people to death with her thighs. Against the more realistic backdrop of the film, that last trait is an uncomfortable and tawdry choice, making her as sexually deviant as humanly possible (literally getting off on killing people) in order to paint her as villainous. Late in the film, when she has another opportunity to kill Bond, she essentially sexually assaults him, crushing him to death between her thighs as she enjoys herself and Bond struggles to escape. When Natalya comes to his rescue, Xenia grabs her by the face and coos, “Wait for your turn,” which leaves us with the most sexually violent Bond villainess also being queer-coded.

So, um, great, I guess?

The Craig Years

At first, the Daniel Craig films seem to be keeping up the upward trajectory with the leading lady’s characterization. Casino Royale’s Vesper Lynd was immediately seen by critics and audiences as one of the best and most intriguing Bond girls, an impression ably helped by Eva Green’s phenomenal acting chops. The film is also invested in building up their relationship organically, as Vesper has to come to grips with the violence of Bond’s world, to all the more break the audience’s heart when Vesper betrays Bond at the end of the film. To refresh your memory, Vesper is, in fact, a double agent, working both for the British Treasury and for Quantum (a branch of SPECTRE), motivated by Quantum kidnapping her lover, Yusef, and holding him hostage as blackmail. But after falling in love with Bond, she tries to cut a deal with her blackmailers to save Bond’s life, which backfires, and she sacrifices herself to save Bond. In the rebooted universe of Casino Royale, this event is meant to function as the explanation for why Bond interacts with women the way he does—he can’t let them into his heart because of Vesper’s betrayal.

But something curious happens in Quantum of Solace. Bond comes across Yusef, who is revealed to be a Quantum honeypot—he seduces women with access to valuable resources and then is “kidnapped” so that Quantum can manipulate and blackmail them. Yusef is promptly arrested by MI6, but this reveal is meant to redeem Vesper. It doesn’t. Instead, it flattens her character, because Vesper isn’t someone who was swept up into espionage and had to reconcile falling in love with Bond with trying to rescue Yusef. She was being played and manipulated from the start, and Bond no longer has to grapple with the hard moral questions of what Vesper did and why. She’s innocent. This twist is, by the way, not present in the novel; in the novel, she commits suicide after revealing to Bond that she’s a traitor.

The downward trajectory continues with Léa Seydoux’s Dr. Madeleine Swann. After the heights of Skyfall, Spectre is a disappointing return to form and formula for the franchise, and nowhere is that more evident than with the Bond girls of the film. Monica Bellucci is tragically wasted, even after all the postive press over finally having a Bond girl (woman?) in her fifties, and the treatment of Swann falls into old, frustrating patterns. Early in the film, she warns Bond, “Don’t think for one moment this is where I fall into your arms, seeking solace for my dead daddy… Come anywhere near me and I’ll kill you.” Cut to: at the end of an extended action scene on a train, the two essentially shrug at each other and start having sex.

Sigh. Here we go again, right back to where we started—a world where a woman's sexual agency is subjugated to Bond's desires.