August 19th, 2010
Tomorrow never dies. Actually, that’s not true. If you recognize that short statement as the title of a 1997 James Bond film, starring Pierce Brosnan, you win this trivia round. Tomorrow is dying, after all. Anyone who follows news in the entertainment world knows that MGM, the studio that has owned the whole James Bond franchise, has been in huge financial trouble for some time, and production of the 23rd 007 film has shut down—“indefinitely.” Daniel Craig, hunky dimple-chinned, current go-to double agent, is also busy whoring himself out for the next big thing, the Stig Larsson franchise (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo … Who Played with Fire … Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest). At the very least it means the end of Craig, Daniel Craig, as the guy with a license to kill.
Indeed, it might just be the end of a phenom. I call attention to this show biz news because a bunch of shrewd graduate students in Communications at Cleveland State and Kent State in Ohio have recently published the martini-dry titled “Shaken and Stirred: A Content Analysis of Women’s Portrayals in James Bond Films.” Apparently the 8 or so graduate student authors watched almost all of the 22 Bond films—including the dreadful, aforementioned Tomorrow Never Dies—and came up with some dandy findings. Would it surprise you to know that 88 percent of “major female characters” engaged in some form of sexual activity with James Bond? That 1 percent attempted to kill Bond before engaging in sexual activity, or that 1 percent attempted to kill Bond during sexual activity? The stats crawl on in this fashion…with a stunning obviousness.
I don’t think you need to be pursuing a PhD in Communications or Film Studies to know that women serve a very limited purpose in the Bond narrative cycle. Certainly, they do not exist to domesticate the double agent who, by definition, just can’t be civilized that way, as another famous adventurer, Huck Finn, might have put it. Women help to glamourize the landscape, spice up the screen, and often heighten the intrigue, as Ursula Andrews et al have been doing for 22 films to date, but they sure aren’t there as equal partner in the crime-solving capers that drive the stories. After all, there’s a whole category for these women: Bond Girls. Some might argue there are exceptions—the Bond Girl in each of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Casino Royale—but both end up dead, as most do anyway. Let’s face it, this universe isn’t big enough for Bond and a powerful, independent woman.
What the grad students’ article does stress, after drawing up its inventory of female characters and their limited functions, duplicitous roles, and gruesome deaths is that over the 22 films in the franchise not much really changes. Dr. No, the first film in the series, hit the screens in 1962, making the franchise an almost 50-year old business. Just think of the changes to women’s lives in 50 years, but yet the Bond girl has remained consistently vulnerable to violence and death—especially once she has been bedded by the guy with the allegedly best gun in town.
Perhaps, like all successful ventures that eventually splutter and fall (General Motors, the Soviet Union, the VCR, Elvis Presley…you get the idea), the Bond film franchise has lost touch with 21st viewers who fail to see the charms of ‘fifties stereotypes. Of course, the source material, author Ian Fleming’s novels, is deeply rooted in the Cold War ethos of the 20th mid-century, and Fleming’s handsome hero, devious villains, and the gorgeous women upon whom they all gaze, however briefly, belong to an entirely different set of cultural behaviours. The film franchise has advanced the Bond hero’s technology, of course, updated his fashion sense, and even made him a bit more of a complicated figure, dare I say it, a man of (some) feeling: witness Daniel Craig’s 2000s appeal as an introspective, dark-thinking type. But the role of women has remained unfailingly the same. Bond Girls show up, dressed, of course, to kill, and distract the hero just long enough to permit him to shower, but they are almost all fated to untimely exits. You can practically hear 007 shouting out “next…!” after the closing credits.
What’s the point? I have enjoyed many of the films in the series, and I fully appreciate the formulaic reassurance of the James Bond story. Repetition is a staple of all successful genres. I’ll always expect Superman to long for Lois and Batman to want to be alone. But it occurs to me after reading “Shaken and Stirred…” that MGM might have fared better if over the decades they had encouraged more character development, more life-affirming intelligence, less predictability for the Bond women. It’s enough already with the hello-goodbye-you’re toast pattern of courtship. I want to know what Bond would do with a really threatening situation–like marriage.
I envy the Ohio graduate students who undoubtedly turned a research project into an orgy of popcorn and diet coke™. Why didn’t I think of that? Wonder what they are watching now? The emotionless content of Indiana Jones’ facial expressions? Shrek’s unchanging skin colour? Well, good for them. You only live, er, once….