James Bond and its Spotty History of Representation

Ethan Parker
Mar 28, 2020 · 11 min read

Content warning: sexual violence/racism. Spoilers as well!

Before No Time to Die got delayed due to the Corona Virus (or bad test screenings, if you want to buy into that theory), I made the valiant effort to watch through every single James Bond movie before No Time to Die was originally set to release. Originally, I was set to watch all twenty-four Bond films throughout the year of 2019, but as time passed, I completely forgot about it, leading me to crunch them out within January and February of this year.

007 has had a storied past of fledgling quality, both within the actual quality of the films and the spotlight that’s brought among both women, LGBTQ+ people, and racial minorities. From Casino Royale to You Only Live Twice, let’s take a look back at the best and worst of James Bond and its history of representation.

Throughout the extensive history of 007, we’ve seen a wide variety of “Bond Girls” featured throughout the films, which for the longest time were only subjected to be disposable sex objects to James. Of course, James Bond’s cinematic debut was back in the 60’s which are a wildly different time than where we’re at now, however, that cannot excuse some of the most sexist and frankly disturbing depictions of women in 007.

Goldfinger

Goldfinger, while being easily the best of Sean Connery’s outings as James Bond, showcases some of the most disturbing treatment of women 007 has ever seen; there’s literal objectification of women through the famous scene where Bond finds Jill Masterson (Jill Eaton) dead and covered in gold paint, as well as a shocking passing remark made by Bond to shrug off a woman to engage in a conversation with a man by saying: “man talk” and slapping her butt (paired with a cartoonish sound effect might I add) to push her away. Even with those seriously problematic issues aside, Goldfinger helms a truly disturbing scene of graphic sexual violence.

The infamous “barn scene” in Goldfinger remains to this day the most grotesque treatment of any woman in any 007 movie (which is saying something). What starts out as a verbal altercation between James Bond and Pussy Galore turns into a violent sexual assault where Bond forcefully throws himself over Galore while she struggles to get away from him.

Even though the scene in question is brief, the imagery is still stuck in my head to this day like I just watched it minutes ago. Bond’s sinister smile on his face paired against Galore’s clenched eyes while he slowly presses himself against her, all while somber, “romantic” music plays over the altercation. Galore may ease up on Bond just before the scene fades out, and embraces Bond’s grasp, but it doesn’t excuse the garish twenty-seconds leading up to that.

You Only Live Twice

Besides You Only Live Twice being my worst rated 007 film, it shows the absolute worst this series can go in terms of treating people of color. The grotesque fetishization of Japanese culture, as gross as it is, may be the prolonged issue hovering about the entirety of You Only Live Twice, yet it all comes to a head when Connery’s Bond dawns a hideous disguise trying to appear as a Japanese villager. In a prior scene, Bond gets escorted to a bath house where he’s treated like a king by subservient Japanese women who bathe and massage him whilst feeding him the most patronizing of compliments. Western culture as a whole may have this bewildered asphyxiation of the east, but treating Japan as if it’s some sort of sexual carnival ride is not how you go about presenting a foreign culture.

Die Another Day

We’ve talked about Sean Connery enough at this point. Although there are plenty of other examples of questionable at best representation in the lineage of Connery’s outing as 007, the more problematic elements of Bond as a series did not start and end with him.

Thus, brings in Die Another Day, which is rightfully maligned by casual viewers and Bond fans alike. Die Another Day may have a few points going in its favor in the diversity department, mainly by keeping the fabulous Judy Dench as “M” and having African American actress Halle Berry in the “Bond Girl” role. Besides the usual eye-rolling forced romance between Berry’s character and Brosnan’s Bond, all seems rather well in terms of inclusivity (for 007 standards, that is), until we learn the true identity to the film’s primary villain.

At the start of Die Another Day, Bond attempts a secret raid against a North Korean military colonel (Will Yun Lee) whose been stockpiling weapons for a disastrous attack on the western world, but it all goes wrong when his cover is breached by the villain’s right-hand man. After an extensive action sequence, it appears as if the colonel dies in a horrific fall down a waterfall, but he is in fact still alive. As the film progresses, we’re introduced to the seemingly new character of Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens), who is later revealed to be the same Korean colonel from before but went through an extensive cosmetic surgery to make himself Caucasian. As baffling as this “whitening” procedure is, it wouldn’t be the last we’d see of an Asian person transforming into a conventionally attractive white person for the sake of adding star power (and subtle hints of racism), with Scarlett Johansson’s Ghost in the Shell doing nearly the exact same thing fifteen-years later.

It’s sad to say that in the extensive history of 007, we’ve seen far more harmful presentations of marginalized groups than positive ones, but as the years have passed, the series had made subtle improvements to craft a more diverse and interesting cast.

The Spy Who Loved Me

While it’s a total shame that it took ten movies to get our first fantastic “Bond Girl” in this series, the character of Anya Amasova (Barbara Bach) was a gigantic breath of fresh air for this series. Anya may still fall victim to the usual “Bond Girl” trappings of being eye-candy for the audience, and even gets a few sexist remarks thrown her way from Bond, himself, but she fights past that to be a true action icon. Bach’s character is a “take no crap” leading woman who is dead set on reaching her goal and will use her cunning wit and fighting skills to get what she wants. James Bond still finds a way to seduce Anya, which is a bit of a shame because her previous complete lack of romantic interest in James and that she frequently outsmarts him is so refreshing to see, but for late 70’s blockbusters and especially the 007 franchise as a whole, this was the start of something great for more prevalent female representation in 007.

A View to a Kill

I know that many out there site A View to a Kill as one of the worst Bond films, but I respectfully disagree. Although leading man Roger Moore was pushing higher into his later years at the point A View to a Kill was in production, the film was an overall fun and campy outing for 007, with a bit more diversity in the cast than the usual. The expected “Bond-isms” make their return for A View to a Kill, with the primary being Bond’s rambunctious hormones, but that aside we had some rather prominent roles for women this time around, with one being a person of color. Jamaican actress/singer/model Grace Jones gets a primary role for the entire film as main villain Max Zorin (Christopher Walken)’s sidekick: May Day.

May Day still has her sexualized moments with some provocative clothing and features in some sexual tension among some male characters, but she gets some fantastic time in the spotlight in terms of action and overall plot relevance. May Day frequently beats Bond at his own game and causes some serious damage to those who oppose her. For a great twist of fate, May Day also acts as the seducer this time around to get closer to James Bond and feeds more information from him while also discovering his weaknesses, turning the tables on him without even knowing. Lastly, May Day gets a great scene at the end of the film where she makes a final turn for the good once she’s betrayed by Zorin, making a heroic sacrifice to save millions of innocent lives and acts to destroy the legacy of her lover turned betrayer.

Goldeneye

In terms of the absolute best representation James Bond has ever seen, Goldeneye is more than likely the crowning achiever. Goldeneye acted as Pierce Brosnan’s very first outing as 007, and with that, saw another dramatic casting change in replacing the role of “M” to Judi Dench. In Goldeneye, there’s three prominent female roles within the movie, each of which provide lots of elements to the overall story and do tons to show diverse characteristics between the three. The aforementioned Judi Dench as “M” marks as the biggest change, and with that, the movie makes a prominent commentary about “M”’s new role and how she’s seen by her employees and her employers, making a bold stance against Bond by showing that she can be just as, if not more smart, brave, and cunning as any of the men who’ve worked her position before. Judi Dench also gets the most hilarious and poignant moment in Goldeneye when in her very first meeting with Bond, calls him out for the profoundly sexist history the character had up until that point; that scene alone made Judi Dench the best “M” we’ve ever seen.

As for the additional roles given to women in Goldeneye, we see some rather different types of characters to add to the fold.

Polish actress/singer/model Izabella Scorupco gets some of the best representation for a “Bond Girl” up to this point with a fantastic arc that she has, defying a misogynist co-worker turned villain by using her brains to outsmart him at his own game. Scorupco’s character: Natalya gets the ire from once colleagues by being treated as a second-level computer programmer who ends up being the true foil to Bond’s archenemy by overriding the Goldeneye satellites and destroying the entire evil plan that he was concocting.

Goldeneye also sees a rather different kind of role for the “sexier” side of the “Bond Girl” with Famke Janssen’s Xenia. Acting as a sadomasochistic dominatrix/femme fetale type, Xenia exploits the rampant sexual desires that the men of Bond usually have by taking that and using it to her advantage. Although the pleasure Xenia gains from her ruthless violence can sometimes feel cartoony, the way that the character is portrayed with her wonderful action scenes and her own little arc to go along with the overall story of Bond is rather cool to see.

Skyfall

Lastly, it’s worth looking at the modern era of Bond, where we see some of the most consistently good representation all-round. Skyfall looks to be the absolute best we’ve seen of dedicated inclusivity thus far with the biggest and best overall change of the series being Judi Dench’s “M” taking the spotlight for most of the film. Every 007 film has been primarily about Bond and his exploits, but Skyfall takes the series in a slightly different direction by telling a far more personal narrative involving “M” and some past secrets she tried to bury in the past.

On top of seeing the plot focusing nearly entirely on one female character, Skyfall also saw a rather good villain in Javier Bardem’s Silva. Silva, unlike many other Bond villains of any other nationality than strictly Caucasian, doesn’t helm the usual racial stereotypes these kind of movies had in the past, creating a more complex character who embraces his national origin, but isn’t a walking racist circus for white people to gawk at, and Spanish people to condemn. Silva also gives off the impression that he may also be gay, or at least bisexual, which is a series first for 007. Skyfall never makes any explicit statements that Silva is in fact gay, but the mannerisms and flirtatious attitude he has around Bond makes it seem that Silva has some sort of sexual interest in Bond as a person.

Moneypenny as a character also sees a drastic shift in plot relevance with being a complex action hero, rather than the beautiful secretary trope we’ve seen before. Monneypenny gets far more time in the spotlight by being involved in not just action but providing crucial details to Bond as they collaborate to see their semi-secret mission to a close. To truly cap off the wonderful achievements Skyfall took in changing Monneypenny, she’s now played by the fantastic African English actress Naomie Harris!

This all leads to where we’re currently at with Spectre, which continued some of the strides Skyfall took.

Spectre did recast “M” as a white male, which is a little of a bummer considering the wonderful strides Dench made in reforming the character and opening the gates to possibly more women in the role in the future, but Ralph Fiennes was still a fantastic addition to the role.

French actress and model Léa Seydoux got her debut as the new “Bond Girl”: Dr. Madeleine Swann, who takes the mantle of “Bond Girl” whilst keeping the great strides made in changing how the “Bond Girls” operated back in the older eras of 007; she’s cunning, strong, holds her own in action by saving James’ skin, and will also be back for No Time to Die, hopefully continuing on from her strong character arcs Spectre began.

Although our villain for Spectre went back to be a white male, just like “M” did, we did get a prevalent, yet silent role from Filipino-Greek actor and WWE superstar: Dave Bautista.

Final Thoughts

James Bond and the tumultuous history of the representation it’s had over the years have yielded interesting results. Plenty of 007’s outings have been rather harmful to marginalized groups one way or another, but through the few progressive spots in Bond’s more early years and the wonderful progress we’ve seen in recent memory, 007 has seen a dramatic shift in the kinds of characters we see represented on the big screen. With No Time to Die (hopefully) releasing this year, Daniel Craig will step down as the title character and the role will be passed on to another leading man. Hopefully, when we get a new James Bond on screen, we can see a person of color and/or LGBTQ+ representation in the role; I’d personally love to see either Idris Elba or Henry Golding in the role of James Bond, but time will tell where the future of Bond lies.

incluvie

Movie and TV Reviews for Diversity

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