March 10, 2013

NaCreSoMo #9: Skyfall and the Bond Girl Problem

I've spent a lot of time not writing this post. I haven't read enough feminist literature, I've said. I haven't done the requisite movie research. I've only seen the Daniel Craig Bond movies. But Skyfall was playing on my plane across the coasts on Friday, and it only served to remind me of what I've been not writing since I saw it in the theaters a few months ago.

From the opening credits, I was expecting to like Skyfall. I liked the two previous ones (more or less). The theme song was rich and evocative, and the credits were actually thought-provoking. The idea of a Bond broken down by wear and tear was (and still is) interesting to me. And, of course, I was expecting some pretty slick action sequences.

What I did not expect was my visceral reaction to the way the movie treated its requisite Bond Girl, Severine. (Please forgive the lack of accents--can't figure out how to make my computer do them in a blog post.)

The historic role of the Bond girl has been to provide Bond with some information for his quest, sleep with him, and then die gruesomely. Their entire purpose is to be sexually objectified by men. I don't know why this didn't jump out at me more during the last two Craig movies. (Possibly because Eva Green had a much greater purpose in the first? I confess I don't remember the second movie particularly well.) But in Skyfall, I was literally sickened.

Severine works as Silva's representative. It's implied that such representation also involves sexual favors, as she was rescued by Silva from the Macau sex trade. In Skyfall, she tells Bond that she'll help him get to Silva, but only if Bond promises to kill him. He hops a ride on her boat (not a euphemism). They sleep together (definitely a euphemism). And when they reach the secret island, Silva kills her.

On the surface level, Severine dies because she betrayed Silva and helped Bond. But I see something more underneath. Severine has spent her whole life using her sexuality for the benefit of men. But when Bond arrives, she uses her sexuality for someone else: herself. Severine dies when she dares use her body for her own gratification, rather than for her employer's.

To me that is an underlying statement in this movie, and a problem endemic to Bond movies (and the US film culture in general). Women are present to be objectified by men, to be owned by men, to be used by men--and if they dare use their bodies for their own purposes, they are to be punished. This is what horrifies me more than anything else in Skyfall.

Do I believe that the Bond movies will change? That the Bond Girl's role will be expanded, made more nuanced and complex? To be honest, no. I think the Bond movie franchise is structured such that Bond Girls will always be treated this way. It is a known formula, one moviegoers have come to expect. (And that in and of itself is deeply problematic. Want to check out the newest Bond film? Sure, what's not to like about men shooting at each other and women being objectified?)

Maybe people will say I'm reading too much into this. It's just a movie! It's always been this way! Lighten up! But if those are their only defenses, I find them disturbingly wanting.

I don't think I will ever watch Skyfall again. There were parts of the movie that I enjoyed. There were sections I thought were thought-provoking and well done. But all of that doesn't come close to balancing out the visceral disgust I felt at the treatment of Severine, and the message it implies.


  1. Despite being a HUGE action-movie fan, this is the main reason why I have always had trouble liking (okay, I'm understating--I rarely enjoy them at all) Bond movies. Granted, I have forgotten nearly every Bond movie I ever watched--but I attest that to my dislike as opposed to weak memory. The formula of men playing with toys + objectifying women + sleeping with a new girl or two every movie who serve little purpose but to be sex items is really disconcerting. For me, the problem lies less with the existence of each individual movie, but the fact that there are so many of them--and they are still being made without much change.

  2. This is a great analysis and critique of the sexism that can be found in Skyfall and in the Bond series in general. I'm not sure how much you know about feminist theory, but what you illustrate is commonly referred to as the "male gaze." I'm sure Wikipedia and the internet can better explain it academically than I could, so I would recommend taking a quick look. And never listen to the folks that say you're taking things too seriously, to lighten up and that it's just a movie/TV show/video game/work of fiction. Folks like that are almost always coming from a place of privilege and/or ignorance and we always need to make a ruckus if these issues are ever to be resolved.

  3. I am reminded of:

    Which honestly just makes me more uncomfortable when people try to defend misogynistic movies around me.

  4. I'll be honest here and say that while I object to Severine's treatment in the movie, it's not due to some noble sense of feminism. I'm all for ending the mistreatment of women in media and in real life, but I feel like the greater disservice in this particular case was to her character.

    Having the villain casually kill off a character you have just grown to like is a mainstay of any work featuring violence and death (witness the constant of "women in refrigerators" in the world of comic books). It's a process that needs to be handled with care though - Severine's death was fairly upsetting to me because the Deus Ex Machina of British commandos was very consciously set to fire only after her death.

    In other words, the writers could have played so much with her (admittedly very "rescue fantasy") backstory and character development, but decided to squander this opportunity and use her as a cheap plot device to say, "Hey, the villain is a villain!" as though we needed to have that pointed out to us when 1) he's a named male character in a Bond movie who isn't James Bond, and 2) he's been monologuing for the past twenty minutes.

    Waste of a character. This is my concurring opinion, to borrow the vocabulary of the Supreme Court.

    ~ Ferrard

  5. I totally agree with you that this makes Bond movies a particular kind of trash, but I'm not sure why you're surprised. This isn't exactly news.

    Interestingly (perhaps), one of the first Bond movies I saw was Tomorrow Never Dies, which is probably one of the better Bond movies in this regard. The "Bond girl" is another spy played by Michelle Yeoh; she rescues Bond as often as she gets rescued, and she's as badass as he is or more. (The first time it's revealed she's a spy, she's rappelling down the side of a building while Bond is sprinting out on foot.) They don't actually sleep together during the main part of the movie, though there is a "romantic moment" at the very end before they get picked up to return to the real world.

    The extension of your thesis to women's sexuality in a Western world seems valid to me. Western culture has been perfectly happy with female sexuality, and it's starting to come to terms with women…but it still has problems with women's sexuality, with intelligent, full-personed women who are also aware of and comfortable with their sexuality.

    1. I'm not surprised that this is what happens in Bond movies per se... It was more that I was NOT particularly bothered in Casino Royale, and I was REALLY REALLY bothered in this one. The change was what surprised me, more so than the awfulness of it all. (Maybe that means I've changed as a person rather than that the movies have?)

  6. +JMJ+

    Hello again, Rebecca! I haven't watched any James Bond movie in its entirety, and one reason for that was the time I tried and was completely turned off when Bond (played by Pierce Brosnan) had sex with his doctor so that she would give him a clean bill of health. I actually stopped watching before the end of that scene, so I have no idea whether she let herself be bribed by sex, or turned him down at some point, or even double-crossed him afterwards. It was the fact that Bond used his own sexuality in that way that made me lose respect for him . . . and for the entire franchise, really.

    Recalling that scene now, in the light of your comments, I wonder if even die-hard Bond fans feel some cognitive dissonance at their hero's willingness to prostitute himself. And perhaps it is easier deal with if some other characters who do the same get to be punished for it so that the hero won't have to be. That is, they serve the same purpose as scapegoats. Really sexy scapegoats.