Why a ‘Female’ James Bond Could Be a Constructive Part of Gender‑Bender Cinema
“If Doctor Who could finally imagine a female Doctor, maybe Ian Fleming’s written-male super spy could support a gender-bending twist.”
There’s one question at the heart of the Bond universe. One the audience, the writers, the actors, perhaps even the creator Ian Fleming have grappled with. What’s stopping the franchise from making the gender switch and thoroughly crafting the female Bond or the Jane Bond persona?
This existential reckoning made itself evident quite recently. Daniel Craig, the reigning Bond who will star in his fifth installment this year, unequivocally noted: a woman shouldn’t take up the Bond mantle. Instead, Hollywood can write better roles for women who desire the 007-fueled thrill.
Craig’s statement strikes at the heart of the tussle in the Bond universe. While some say female characters deserve their own fascinating stories and roles rather than superficially replacing a sexist male character, others find merit in gender-swapping classic characters in legacy franchises.
We know James Bond has a long history of misogyny. The Bond universe ignores female characters as lasting personas. The “Bond Girls” are objects of desire and patronized; it depicts women enjoying rape, as American sociologist Linda Lindsey claimed in 2005. James Bond then sits on the edge of the modern world. In 2018, post the #MeToo wave, director Danny Boyle noted he wants to bring Bond up to speed by making him less “sexist and seedy.” Then writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge took up the writing reins and pursued this mission; she said Bond has to stay true to his character, but the movies can treat women better.
It boils down to: do we need a female Bond figure or a break away from the franchise? A break seems hardly possible since the cultural legacy of Bond is only thriving with time. One then needs to introspect why a female Bond may add to the Bond legacy and why it’s cinematically logical to have a female figure.
The “Bond Girl” has become a barometer of culture. The spectrum ranges from femme fatales to objects of desire to more powerful women who still emotionally prop up a male hero. While the Bond universe keeps evolving the Bond Girl into keeping it in line with modern demands, why not confront this reckoning by shifting these aspirations on the central figure?
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See, the Bond Girl (or in later iterations “Bond Woman”) is still a means to an end, the end being sanitizing 007’s misogyny or responding to the cultural fascination with women-led stories. Writers may then tempt the Bond universe to make female characters prominent in movies, but that again is a win for James Bond and its sexist legacy, not the gender justice mission it so benevolently makes it out to be. A female Bond is not so much about taking “revenge” on the decades of misogyny, as it is about taking the intent of a progressive “Bond Girl” to its logical conclusion.
The anxiety also comes from a gray area of “progressiveness.” Rachel Weisz, who played a Black Widow 007, said: “Why not create your own story rather than jumping onto the shoulders and being compared to all those male predecessors?” She is right, female figures deserve their own stories, and the desire for more women-led action narratives is waiting to be tapped on. However, when it comes to the Bond universe, it may cinematically make sense to rally for a female Bond.
Secondly, Bond has a formidable legacy — a popularity cult that has endured social, cultural, and political tides. Notably, James Bond’s cultural life permeates the books, and we must view this cinematic identity separately. Since Dr. No, the first Bond film,released in 1962, “the cinematic James Bond has expedited the transformation of Ian Fleming’s literary creation into an icon of western popular culture that has captivated audiences,” writer Jaap Verheul noted in her book.
Bond serves a cinematic aspiration, which explains why similar to the demand for a female Bond, there is a growing desire to see a Black James Bond. So when journalist Sandipan Deb asks in LiveMint: “What exactly will be achieved for women’s causes by replacing this alpha male with a lethal female promiscuous alcoholic with a gambling problem?” Well, gambling and alcohol loving is a Bond formula that isn’t going to go away. So having a woman as Bond creates social inclusion and liberation within the archaic formula. At the heart of this aspiration is a desire to respond to social currents. “If Doctor Who could finally imagine a female Doctor, maybe Ian Fleming’s written-male super spy could support a gender-bending twist,” journalist Matt Patches wrote in Polygon. Doctor Who, the science-fiction saga of a timelord traveling through space and time, got a gender to revamp after 10 seasons. The female Doctor received criticism for “being too woke” or inauthentic to the figure of the Doctor, but the character was revolutionary for making a cultural icon inclusive.
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Similarly, the Bond figure serves a broader cultural purpose rather than merely staying true to a misogynistic history, written in a different cultural time. This is how Doug Redenius, an advisor to the Ian Fleming Foundation, described Bond’s legacy: “Ian Fleming created the character of Bond to be someone he wished he was and always wanted to be. In the ’60s, when men and women or boys and girls would see a Bond movie, there was something for everyone. The women wanted to be with someone like Bond, the bad boy but incredibly handsome and sophisticated. Men wanted to be like him because of the cool factor. It set a trend that continues to this day.” The Bond figure lives the same story again and again.
This is also understood through writer Christine Berberich’s paper: “Fleming’s novels, despite his claim for their apolitical content and message, are not only products of their time but also, inevitably, the expression of their creator,” Berberich notes. “In them, we can see Fleming’s bewilderment at the changing times: the liberation of women, for example, which he welcomes on a purely sexual level but which he fears for the impact it might have on society as a whole….”
The insistence on gatekeeping James Bond is chalked up as a pursuit of artistic integrity. In protecting the male James Bond, we end up covering the Bond cultural products’ violence. Besides the derogatory treatment of women, an example is a formulaic structure that thrives on the masculine fantasy of emotionlessness. The cinematic lead capitalizes on the action, the sensuality, the exotic locations, luxury, quippy one-liners. A female Bond figure could challenge prejudiced notions and even shape the legacy for the better.
This is not to say the female Bond must bear the weight of correcting misogyny or be a means to a different end. “What is important is what has remained: the cool, suave, elegant, dangerous British Secret Service agent who is a perfect match for the globe’s most determined megalomaniacs,” as John Cork, a Bond expert who has directed documentaries and written books about Bond, told RealClearLife.
You can’t erase misogyny — but it can be rewritten. I’m with former Bond Pierce Brosnan when he says: “I think we’ve watched the guys do it for the last 40 years. Get out of the way, guys, and put a woman up there. I think it would be exhilarating.”
It won’t be the worst thing in the world for Agent 007 to be licensed to change.
Saumya Kalia is an Associate Editor at The Swaddle. Her journalism and writing explore issues of social justice, digital sub-cultures, media ecosystem, literature, and memory as they cut across socio-cultural periods. You can reach her at @Saumya_Kalia.