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How My Love for Sean Connery and Bond Exposed a Serious Problem with White Guy Hero Infatuation Syndrome

Like a lot of people all over the world, I have long considered myself a stone Sean Connery fan.

I often recited the juiciest dialogue bits from his Oscar-winning turn as a beat cop-turned crusader in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (in addition to the speech everyone quotes, I loved how he told Eliot Ness he knew he was a treasury agent without seeing his badge because “who would claim to be that who was not?”) I watched the painfully clumsy 1986 B-movie Highlander mostly for his charming turn as Egyptian (!) immortal Juan Sánchez-Villalobos Ramírez.

And, of course his work as James Bond always set the ultimate example for urbane cool. Which explains why I often felt the theme song thrumming in my head whenever I wore a stylish suit or hopped off a plane in a cool city. For men a generation older than me, he practically defined the sophisticated, stylish machismo found in the pages of Esquire and Playboy.

For these reasons and more, I have always loved the rogueish Scotsman as an actor. And yet, when news of his death at age 90 spread across the world, I couldn’t bear to pay tribute to him on any of my social media pages or platforms.

That’s because his passing highlighted my problem with a particular malady. I call it White Guy Hero Infatuation Syndrome. And I have suffered from it for many years.

Put simply, my fan’s brain knows that Connery’s landmark performances were the stuff of film legend — especially as Bond. Cool, authoritative, suavely menacing and mostly unflappable, his take on a secret agent who knows the best suit designers nearly as well as the best pistol manufacturers set the template for escapist espionage fantasies over the next half century and beyond.

His first line as the character — “Bond. James Bond.” — has become pop culture legend.

But as a media critic, I also have to contend with James Bond’s status as a relentless sexist and a British agent who walked the world as if it was made to be ruled by wealthy, capable white men. Watch him slap the behind of a pretty blonde who was massaging him poolside in 1964’s Goldfinger when CIA agent Felix Leiter turns up for a chat. “Man talk,” he tells her dismissively, sending her out of the scene.

Or check out how he treats Quarrel, the bug-eyed Black man who acts as a “fixer” for him in Jamaica during the first Bond film, 1962’s Dr. No. Scrambling across a beach to avoid the bad guys’ goons, Bond turns to Quarrel and tells him “fetch my shoes” — as if he were his butler, rather than a local ally helping him avoid thugs with automatic weapons.

And there’s loads of scenes where Bond forces himself on women who quickly succumb to his charms — like Honor Blackman’s character in Goldfinger — perpetuating a dangerous myth that a man can earn a woman’s love by pushing her into being romantic with him. (Or that a dismissive, vaguely annoyed tone with women — treating them like impertinent children or misguided simpletons — is somehow irresistible to them.)

When Connery played Bond, he played a character who was the embodiment of white privilege. He made it look sexy, virtuous and necessary — the natural state of things in a 1960s-era world that, outside the comfortable confines of Bond’s make-believe spy games, seemed to be coming apart at the seams. But in the America of 2020, it’s a symbol of how media can teach you to accept a limiting legend.

And this was a fantasy I bought into eagerly. As a kid, my mom and I bonded over the heroic white guys she loved on film and TV, mostly from westerns. Just this past December, as she was fighting cancer and months before she would succumb to an infection, we sat and watched Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall save the day too many times to count.

As I got older, I’d make fun of all the misogyny, racism and white centering going on in these shows — gibes which my mother, a proud Black woman who loved her people and culture, tolerated with a weary smile. “These are my guys,” she’d say playfully, swatting aside any idea that there was a deeper impact from gorging on stories which treated these virtuous white men as the noble, natural center of every story. I wish the issue were that simple; it often isn’t.

For me, it wasn’t just a problem with Connery. As a kid, I loved Eastwood’s 1970s-era Dirty Harry movies, where the taciturn cop with a Magnum pistol cut through all the nonsense to nab the bad guy. Same with Bronson’s Death Wish movies, where the solution to rampant street crime wasn’t better policing, but a taciturn, middle class white guy with a gun shooting down street criminals. It’s a potent fantasy, especially if you’ve ever had to deal with the numbing bureaucracy of real-life law enforcement or the brutal violation of being a crime victim.

It wasn’t until I got older that I realized many of those bad guys Harry Callahan was hunting were young hippies and Black people — the kind of folks who, in real life when Dirty Harry was released in 1971, were trying to get America to face how it was chewing up poor, young men in an unwinnable, unnecessary war in Vietnam. It was a prime example of “copaganda” — convincing the audience that the excesses Detective Callahan committed to nail a person the audience already knew was a serial killer, was justified.

Even now, I wonder: Can I watch these movies and appreciate why they are thrilling, while rejecting the tropes that present a white male-centered world as just and appropriate? In my work on race and media, I’m often telling audiences that people who insist they are not affected by media subtexts are often the most affected by them. Couldn’t that be true for me, when it comes to heroes like Eastwood, Bronson and Connery?

(One caveat: Sitting in the arena in Tampa, watching Eastwood give his infamously strange “empty chair” speech at the Republican National Convention in 2012, broke me of my affection for his work. I have avoided watching new Clint Eastwood films since then. Click here to read my story on that speech for the Tampa Bay Times.)

In his later years, Connery denied or walked back quotes where he seemed to approve of physically hitting women in real life. His roles in films like Highlander, The Untouchables, Hunt for Red October, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen often featured him playing the older mentor to younger white guy heroes portrayed by the likes of Harrison Ford, Alec Baldwin and Kevin Costner.

And so, as the question of Connery’s legacy in show business arises, the fanboy part of me is at war with the media critic. One side of me is lost in the absolute coolness of the suave masculinity he so often symbolized, particularly as the world’s most successful secret agent.

The other is painfully aware of the inequalities and oppression such portrayals enabled, and how much they may feed our real life fantasies for a powerful white male savior to set things right, even now.

Especially now.

And saying these characters were a product of their flawed times somehow doesn’t seem enough.

This is a tough column to write, and not just because there are so many fans who want to focus on the best moments of Sean Connery’s life now that he’s gone. It’s difficult because he was a personal hero of mine for a long while — and remains one of my favorite performers — even as I acknowledge the terribly male-centric and white-superior ethos he embodied in so many roles.

This may sound like disrespectful nitpicking to hardcore fans and family. It’s never easy to sit with the more uncomfortable aspects of a great artist’s legacy. And the time after his death has been filled with heartfelt tributes to Connery, a man of great talent and no-nonsense sensibilities who was respected and loved by a great many people who worked with him.

Sometimes, being a good media critic means becoming something of a buzzkill; insisting that we all face the more troubling aspects of a film or TV show that most people would rather just sit back and enjoy. Because part of unwinding the effect of past portrayals is acknowledging their power in the present day.

Which means, every time I watch Connery stride to a baccarat table in Goldfinger, Dr. No, or Diamonds Are Forever, archly demanding a precisely constructed alcoholic beverage, I also have to remind myself of the damage done by too many characters like that offering too constricted a vision of what a hero looks and acts like. And I suggest you do the same.

It’s the only way to balance a comforting myth with the reality of how that legend can, unwittingly, teach us to cling to ideas that ultimately hold us back.

NPR’s TV Critic; media analyst, MSNBC/NBC News; Duke University adjunct professor; author, Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation

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