Backlot Bitch: The Trouble with James Bond and Skyfall

Bond is back, whatever that means to you

Get the eyerolls out of the way. Whether you think this article is frivolous because you think the iconic British superspy stands for all that is wrong with patriarchy and classism or that he’s a classic icon that doesn’t need to be criticized, make your peace now. I’m going to bring Skyfall back to earth.

So it’s your standard Bond adventure: espionage, treason, bloodshed, exotic locations, writhing female bodies, but continues on this odd attempt to add deapth to Bond’s stereotype. Starring Daniel Craig (who I still don’t personally buy as the titular leading man), this Sam Mendes–directed work takes us to the dark beginnings of Bond’s past. Because Casino Royale didn’t already do that? Whatever, turns out James Bond is the British Batman, or perhaps Batman was an American James Bond? Apparently, after Bond’s parents died (cause unsaid in movie), he left the lofty Skyfall estate on the Scottish Moors to become the spy we know and love. I can’t wait until the British Joker shows up in the next movie.

Mendes lifts several scenes almost entirely from Nolan’s Batman trilogy, so much so that my friend and I starting joking about what would happen next (worse, we were sometimes right). The cool iconic gagdets are no longer with us, as new Q tells us that “we don’t do that anymore.” I noted a lack of explosions (until the end, of course) and good old car chases. Then there was this very strange theme of Bond getting old and how he’s still the shit over the youngins at the British secret service. But even then, that wasn’t what got my head tilting when these scenes went down.

The second Bond girl we’re introduced to is Sévérine, played by Bérénice Marlohe. Of course, she’s just as glamorous as Bond (I might’ve taken some makeup notes), and just as cool and mysterious. But that facade melts when he tells her he detects fear in her. He takes her wrist, spots a tattoo, and informs the audience that she is a sex slave, sold off in her early teens. Her eyes fill with tears, and that’s her confirmation. She gives him a challenge to survive the henchmen watching over her, and he obliges, promising her that if she takes him to her boss, he’ll free her.

Now here’s where it gets creepy (and duh, spoiler-y, so feel free to stop reading): Bond defeats the baddies, and goes to meet Sévérine at her yacht. She believes he didn’t make it. Disappointed, she goes to take a shower. Bond waltzes into the shower and passionate kissing commences. Uh, didn’t we just establish that she’s trying to escape her past as a sex slave? This is problematic: I can’t tell if Bond is taking advantage of her situation or he’s reaping the rewards of a job well done on the henchmen. Worse, once getting to the bad guy’s evil secret island, she’s killed off as a show of bad guy’s lack of regard for life. Bond reacts with some violence, but it’s pretty much curtains for Sévérine. There’s no mention of her after, feeding again the series’ trope of women as disposable. Like I said: so many problems.

Javier Bardem, for all intents and purposes, is delightful, licking his lips and enjoying the bad-guy schtick better than any recent Bond villain. However, his character has echoes of Hollywood’s beloved depraved homosexual trope. He is evil out of revenge, but flirts with Bond and refers to M as his mother. The flirting scene apparently has led to some raised eyebrows and to a few articles either lauding the film for its “gayness” or offering some stock no-homo reassurance.

Homophobia and sexy disposable ladies aside, Skyfall also continues the storied Bond tradition of cultural imperialism. Bond jets across the globe, meeting “exotic” ladies and murderous assassins of every color and creed. Perhaps if the series were more inclusive of other agents of color, this thorny problem wouldn’t stick out so much. Q and M, Bond’s tech person and boss respectively, have all been played by white actors, and have only recently been essayed by a woman (Dame Judi Dench as M). I find it symbolic that the bad guys are mostly defined as “others” and MI6, with a token exception here or there (in Skyfall, it’s Agent Eve, one who roundly screws up within the first few minutes of the movie) is predominately white. It’s not inclusive enough to be the one-time sidekick fuck buddy. Britain is quite diverse right now, feel free to reflect that anytime, Mr. Bond.

The issue of a feminist Bond has been hotly contested. At least one book has been published about Bond and feminism, and I’m sure more than a few academic papers have tackled the subject. I’m not fully convinced, and it’s possible that Skyfall might set any arguments for Bond as a feminist back. However, I’m pretty sure we can all agree that Adele’s theme song for the film is one of the best in series history. So there’s the silver lining.

Are you planning to see Skyfall this weekend? If so, where do you fall in the great Bond-as- feminist debate?

by Monica Castillo
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Monica Castillo is a freelance film critic. You can usually find her on Twitter talking about the movie she just watched at @mcastimovies.

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23 Comments Have Been Posted

Did you see Giles Coren's

Did you see Giles Coren's piece about Skyfall? It touches on a lot of the same themes. He wrote it for The Times, they didn't want to publish it, so his wife posted it on her food blog:

I saw the last 2 Bond movies that came out, but, ugh, I am not even going to bother with this one. Sounds horrid.

Coren's article

I haven't read it yet, but it doesn't surprise me that the Times didn't run it. Bond's an iconic figure and has a pretty hefty fanbase that celebrates the hypermasculine figure in all his glory. I doubt very many mainstream outlets would have loved to have gotten this article as a review.

I haven't seen the film but

I haven't seen the film but I've heard it's incredibly regressive, even for a Bond movie. Like apparently at one point Bond calls M a bitch? It's a shame too because Casino Royale actually treated the Bond character with ambiguity, it didn't just take for granted the misogyny and the violence but the sequels have all been determined to destroy all of that and bring the series back to the old school, which is what some people wanted all along I guess. I shouldn't be too surprised, considering the director, Sam Mendes. American Beauty is held up as a classic but that movie's treatment of Annette Benning is pretty infuriating.

Ah well, maybe I'll watch it and come away with only one positive thing, thinking that Javier Bardem needs another Oscar.

I will see Skyfall

There are a few points with which I take issue in this article.

M (Judy Dench) is Bond's boss and a strong woman. She is competent, strong, smart, and regularly shuts him down. Judy Dench has played the role since, what, 1996 or so. That's hardly very recent. That's more than 15 years of the franchise. As a woman, I think they're the best years of the franchise, and she has a lot to do with that. She's by far the best M they've ever had and she has done a fantastic job. She's been given the biggest role of any M that was ever on the series. And she calls him out on his bs.

There have been several female agents and agents of color. Halle Berry was a lead role and agent a few years back with Pierce Brosnan, Colin Salmon was in several of them as a fellow impressive agent and contact for James, there was the Chinese agent woman that I don't remember her name in a different Pierce movie who often was shown to be an equal or probably better agent than Bond, and then Craig's Bond's best friend was Felix Lighter - a fellow agent and shown to be a good family man unlike Bond - who was in several of the movies as well. Hell, Denise Richards is a TERRIBLE actress, but she played a rocket scientist in the late 90s - a rocket scientist who was the only one who realized who Bond was and helped uncover the whole evil guy plot.

I would argue that since Pierce's Bond and the addition of Judy Dench, the franchise has been making strides away from the rampant sexism and racism of the Sean Connery days. At least George Lazenby's Bond was madly in love with his fiance/wife and treated her as a woman not just a fun afternoon. I don't care at all for Sean Connery's movies due to the role women played - and I just don't like him as Bond. He's not hot enough. But I digress.

Oh, and the bad guys being "other." Quite frequently, the bad guys are white straight males (again, I'm referring to Brosnan movies and Craig movies - so the last fifteen to twenty years worth). Villians are often British or Eastern European - one was South Korean, but he had plastic surgery and looked white to the dismay of his father the high level Korean General (a good guy).

Oh! And we've known Bond was an orphan for a very long time. We know it was a horrible situation. We never learned the details, but that's been canon for a long time. It's in the original novels going back as far as the Roger Moore days and has been mentioned on screen many times giving tidbits of his sad and lonely childhood.

Okay so it's not a total feminist's dream, but the series is no longer the misogynist garbage of the old days. Maybe there probably are shades of homophobia in this new one, and I sure as hell hope there isn't, but I want to judge that for myself. That's not really something I've seen in the last twenty years of Bond movies that I can recall. And I'll be upset if it is in there. But I am excited to see this movie. And Adele's song? Awesome.

*gets off soapbox and takes off Bond fangirl hat*

I never got the homophobia

I never got the homophobia angle in the movie. There was a scene where Silva somewhat flirts with Bond in order to freak him out, but Bond doesn't relent and kind of flirts back, causing Silva to back off and approach him from a different angle. It's definitely people making it a bigger deal than it actually is.

Sexual Harassment

I agree with you on the issue of homophobia in Skyfall. In my opinion Silva's sexual advances (unwanted touching and talking) served as a form of intimidation, which is what a lot of sexual harassment actual is. To me, this showed that anyone can sexually harass anyone and that it is equally disgusting, evil, and deals with power dynamics, regardless of who and what genders or sexes are involved. The fact that Bond throws it back in Silva's face showed that Bond wasn't going to give into Silva's intimidation tactics and was down to fight. Rather than homophobia, this seemed like a clear anti sexual harassment moment, and I appreciated that they had Silva demonstrate this on Bond and not Severine. While it obviously sucks that her character wasn't more developed and essentially disappeared from the film I think that it is better than Silva treats her like any other prisoner-total disregard, used only as a pawn, dead shot to the head- and doesn't make the fact that she has been trafficked part of his treatment of her.


Thanks for writing. :)

Count me as a member of the Dame Judi Dench M fan club. I grew up watching her as M. It was a little sad for me (hopefully, you've seen the movie by now) that her replacement returns to being a white male, but I understand that's how M was originally. Now, for the Bond girls-it's always a revolving door, they're never series regulars (which is why I kind of dismiss them, they're to show off Bond's international mileage and not much else). This might change with Moneypenny, so I'll cross my fingers.

So since there's hardly any MI6 agents of color (except those killed off), I take issue when the only other depiction of POC is as the bad guy or one-time fling. I don't take issue with Bond fighting with other European villains, because they have equal representation. And yes, it has gotten better-both in the racism and sexism department. I just feel like "Skyfall" was a step backward than forward.

As for the orphan backstory: Oliver Twist was an orphan too, but in no way resembles the Batman story. Skyfall=Wayne Manor, the gamekeeper=Alfred, desolate locale, parents buried in the backyard, M as Gordon, Bond/Wayne looks uneasy with their wealth (rejects the home), Bond/Wayne both use fancy gadgets (although in this one, less fancy gadgets for Bond), and Bardem plays the deranged Joker. Both are prequels too. The reveal of the new M is a little like the end of "The Dark Knight Rises" when we figure out who Robin is. Also, the retraining sequence of Wayne and Bond are both due to a life-threatening injury. It was just a little odd.

On the topic of Bond being an

On the topic of Bond being an orphan, it is actually in the books that Ian Fleming wrote that he grew up in Scotland and his parents died in a climbing accident so whatever point your trying to make with regards to Batman, the books were out first so Bond didn't copy anyone they went to the original source material!

I was really disappointed by

I was really disappointed by the role Sévérine played. She was set up to be a really cool, interesting character but instead she turned out to be nothing but a plot point. His disregard for her death really didn't sit with me as natural, nor did her response to him in the shower.

I wish they had done more for the character and, ideally, kept her alive. I didn't really understand the scene and the motivations for her death.

Perhaps to show Silva's

Perhaps to show Silva's complete disregard for human life? Why does every death have to mean something?

James couldn't react, Silva

James couldn't react, Silva shot Severine to unsettle Bond, if he had reacted then Silva would use it against him. Bond is a double oh and can't let his emotions get in the way of his job.
Also if you watch the shower scene carefully, it is Severine who initiates the kissing and is the more forceful one, Bond is very gentle and careful when he touches her, I am so sick of feminists.

Very Disappointing Movie

I was very disappointed with "SKYFALL". Very disappointed. I think it's one of the most disappointing Bond movies I have seen since "TOMORROW NEVER DIES". Only "GOLDFINGER" and "DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER" are worse in my opinion. Between the erratic writing, poor portrayals of the female characters and unmemorable score and theme song, "SKYFALL" is one Bond movie I have no desire to pay good money to see for a second time.

Wow, really? A woman who has

Wow, really? A woman who has been sex trafficked has been raped probably thousands of times in her life. When Bond -- who told Severine he could rescue her -- then broke in as she was taking a shower and had sex with her, in my head I was screaming, "Women who are prisoners cannot consent!" It took me out of the rest of the movie. I really didn't care about Bond or his dead parents after I saw him, er, assume he could have surprise sex with a victim of human trafficking.

Wait a second.... she told

Wait a second.... she told him to come to her boat. And are you really implying he raped her or something? "Women who are prisoners cannot consent"? You do realize she wasn't Bond's "prisoner" right? I guess I'm just puzzled by your response, considering she did consent. And I'm not aware that every time I have sex, my partner has to ask me "Can I have sex with you?" and I have to say "yes." I thought nonverbal consent was still consent. And I guess victims of sex trafficking can apparently no longer have a love life?

The point is that she asked

The point is that she asked him to come onto her boat, not to join her in the shower. Bond just assumed that it was totally acceptable for him to surprise a sex slave in the shower. No one is saying that victims of sex trafficking can no longer have a love life, but I think the situation was entirely unrealistic and insensitive. The scene would have been different if she came onto him, but that's not what happened. Bond literally got naked and surprised her in the shower, and they have sex. I highly doubt that a woman who was sold into sex slavery at a young age would be totally down for surprise sex with a stranger.

We could even contrast this scene with that of the one with Moneypenny. Moneypenny was clearly coming onto Bond and the sexual tension was high. The first time Bond meets this other woman, she begins to cry at the thought of her life as a sex slave. That does not exude sexual tension or an invitation to surprise her in the shower, in my opinion.

I don't buy the death of

I don't buy the death of Severine as being a representation of Bond's view on women as disposable. He met her about 24 hours prior, had one random night with her and she was shot the next day. The fact that the movie didn't dwell on her much after this was because she was a minor character with whom Bond had a one night tryst. End of story. I think the disposable women thing is drawing a fairly long bow.

I also don't buy the racist thing, sure, Britain is a lot more diverse then it used to be, but the fact that Eve is darker and stuffs up in the first few minutes (did she really stuff up?) is hardly evidence of racism. I mean to say, I doubt Sam Mendes sat down before filming and said "hey guys, find me a black actress for Eve so I can film her making mistakes because I'm a racist, mwahaha". I find a lot of the points you're making here are jumping at shadows, but anyway.

I like the last 3 Bond films mainly because they are more in the vein of Jason Bourne (obviously with a bit of leeway), and are a lot less corny then the old ones. I feel the urge to laugh and shudder when I see Roger Moore swinging from vine to vine in Octopussy making Tarzan noises, and I'm glad in a way we're not going back there.

I don't know well your

I don't know well your website, maybe the title implies that the point is to bitch about everything and if it's a game my apologies for what follows
If you're serious about your critics, there isn't much that is valid and what is valid is pretty much a problem you have with the bond character and you shouldn't even have been in the theater in the first place
- Craig isn't bond ? partly agreed. It was a choice and an interesting choice with that: make Bond a violent crude guy and see him develop. It's reaching its limit with skyfall.
- Dark Knight inspiration ? not the way you mean it. Giving a character some backstory isn't automatically copying Nolan. As for the orphan backstory it 's part of Fleming corpus.... even Casino Royale refers to Bond as an orphan. Mendes "lifted" from Nolan the darker cinematography (but he's known for liking this kind of image, see road to perdition) , a more brooding james bond, a richer world less centered on the hero. Not any of this stands as a real rip off but more as intellent influence.
- Bond sexism ? it's agreed that Bond past a certain point is somehow jaded about women and YES they are disposable. That's the point. Bond is very dangerous that's what appeals women in him and that's also why they get killed.It's not pretty but at least it's not as much romanticized anymore. Bond has been conceived as a slightly snob, slightly cruel, and bitter character.
for the severine case; so just because she has been a sex slave she can't have sex anymore????? I guess every women who has been raped should also stop have sex too ? until proven otherwise (and as you wrote it she was clearly disappointed he didn't come and was waiting for him with champagne. So I don't think scrabble was at the top of of her evening plans )it was a free choice from an adult woman so mind you own business
- Silva ? he's not homosexual. He is insane. He's trying to mess with Bond. First he tries to prove him that M constantly lies to him and doesn't care for him, then he tries to shake his macho personality as Bond is a well known womanizer and finally he kills the girl in front of him.
-Racism ? at this point you're really off the mark. There is a black moneypenny. Except a black bond I don't know what more you can wish.

there is valid critcism to make about the movie (ubergenius trope who plans his own mistakes something very cliche and very badly handled) but pretty much none of you what you say is really relevant.

James bond is a great man. I

James bond is a great man. I really have an intimating type of feeling when i look at him.. cooler than the coolest

However, I'm pretty sure we

<i>However, I'm pretty sure we can all agree that Adele's theme song for the film is one of the best in series history. So there's the silver lining.</i>

Hell, that song is about as memorable as the name of the post man. I simply can't recall it. I can think of many Bond songs who deserved that Best Song Oscar a lot more than the theme song for this movie. The best thing I can say about it is Adele's voice. It's beautiful.

As for "SKYFALL", it was shit. "QUANTUM OF SOLACE" may have been too short, but at least it was a better written story than this piece of sexist crap.

Some counter-points

I think you bring up some good points in this post. I agree that diversity is important to have in the franchise, and that sexism should be avoided. In the following points, I just would like to clarify that there may be more than the thin silver lining you are allowing.

1.) "M has only recently been essayed by a woman (Dame Judi Dench)": This is untrue. For 17 years and seven films, Dame Judi played M. That is over 30% of the series both time-wise and movie-wise. I think we can all agree that that is a considerable amount of time.

2.) "MI6, with a token exception here or there (in Skyfall, it's Agent Eve, who roundly screws up within the first few minutes of the movie) is predominately white" This is true. However, Moneypenny is not a character to be overlooked. She is the only "Bond girl" with whom Bond has never had sex, although they flirt constantly (arguably not a Bond girl at all). The fact that she is portrayed by a woman of color is significant. She is by no means a "token", but a fixture of the series for most of its 50 year history. Finally, the fact that she "roundly screws up" is completely irrelevant to this argument. Nobody places blame on her for missing the shot, let alone because she is a woman. It is understood that the shot was a near impossible one to make. In fact, if anyone is blamed, it is M. It is in no way sexist to have a female agent make a mistake.

3.) You are right that often, the series portrays women as disposable. However, it should be taken into account that Bond has had two great loves throughout the series, and that these women (one of whom Bond married) were killed despite Bond's best efforts to protect them. Both of his loves are strong female characters whom Bond respects. Quantum of Solace saw Olga Kurylenko's character exacting revenge on a cruel macho general while helping Bond meet his own goals. In For Your Eyes Only, a similarly strong female character assists Bond and gets revenge against a man. I agree with you: this is a minor counter-current within the broader trend. However, it is important to clarify that women are often strong Bond characters.

In my opinion, Skyfall is part of a new wave of Bond films that are more diverse. They will not always have faultless heroines, they will not always have enough non-white main characters, and they will not always avoid stereotypes. But they are making progress, and that is not something to be overlooked.

This isn't a proper film review.

If your just scanning films for equality and political correctness, you're missing the point entirely. Let go of your anger.

Eve Moneypenny

<i>Nobody places blame on her for missing the shot, let alone because she is a woman. It is understood that the shot was a near impossible one to make. In fact, if anyone is blamed, it is M. It is in no way sexist to have a female agent make a mistake.</i>

Really? Then why did Bond continued to make snarky comments about how she was not suited to be a field agent? Why was she demoted to secretary? I found that incredibly insulting.

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