The Bond series has always been an interesting reflection of the culture that produced it. Starting in 1962 with Sean Connery as our favorite secret agent in Dr. No, Bond has proceeded to outlast cold wars, government betrayals, terrorist threats and increasingly intelligent video game consoles. With each new villain, each new Felix (the American CIA agent who sometimes works with James) and each new Bond girl, we’re allowed to take a peek into the cultural settings of the film. But one of the more interesting parts of Bond is his ability to sneak past and challenge our American hero sensibilities. While we have continually cycled through autonomous middle-class, tough-guy heroes (John Wayne, Bruce Willis, Jason Bourne), Bond has always been an upper-class servant to royalty. He dresses with style, uses gadgets from the future, makes horrible puns, and drinks fancy drinks.
Rocky, he is not.
But Bond has still managed to fall into that “strictly-for-men” camp. He represents nice cigars, scotch and the days when you wore a suit to work. No matter how advanced our gender relations become, Bond always comes back to remind the world that the most important thing is still the desires of white men. Initially there was some kickback to the hyper-sexuality, but Bond has gone on to prove that the longer you stick around, the more conservative you become in the public eye.
Granted, the portrayal of women in Bond films has gotten better. In some of the Sean Connery movies, he basically manipulates and/or blackmails women into having sex with him (watch the first 30 minutes of Thunderball), while the Pierce Brosnan era actually reinvented M (Bond’s boss) as a woman. Recently, the movies have even mostly dumped the horrendous sexual innuendo names of the female characters (like Xenia Onatopp—don’t think about it too hard) and the beginning of Casino Royale didn’t have the objectifying female body montage that has come to be a defining feature of the series. In many ways, the slow dignification of women in Bond films is a great praise to the efforts of many over the last century.
Probably the overwhelming appeal of Bond, though, beyond the women and the cars and the gunfights, is his ability to do everything while allowing nothing to be his master. Bond kills all day without guilt or nightmares of the blood on his hands. He never flips out and loses his temper in a moment of post-traumatic stress. He drinks and smokes in every other scene, but he’ll never get drunk or have a hangover or get lung cancer. In 50 years of films, he has always stayed young and fit. He has no real community but we never see him feeling lonely. He sleeps with whomever he pleases but never has performance issues, never gets STDs, never gets a woman pregnant and never masturbates. We don’t catch him with a stash of porn in his briefcase and the women never, ever say no. Essentially, he has a consequences-free sexuality. Once again we hear the confusing message: Sex is everything (do anything to get it), and sex is nothing (it doesn’t matter that much). This mentality has affected generations of men who have bought into the lie that they can use pornography the same way we eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches: casually and whenever we want with little consequence; just quit when you get married. If it was easy to pickup, it should be easy to put down, right?
But by losing the negative consequences of sexuality, Bond also loses the positive consequences of meaningful sex. He never feels the power of a woman’s genuine delight in him or trades in cynical lust for committed love. He never knows what it means to have someone love you despite your weaknesses (because he never reveals any). Bond may be naked, but he’s never truly naked before anyone, and in this way he can never be truly loved. What the Bond women (and we) love is the façade. In Casino Royale, the most self-aware entry in the series, one of the Bond girls even comments on this, saying, “You’ve got your armor back up” (or “armour”, since it is a British thing). You may think a vulnerable, committed Bond would be boring, but that’s a quick assumption. We only think that because most action movies end at the altar—marriages aren’t interesting enough, apparently, for the big screen.
Many of you, at this point, are probably arguing that I’m not taking into account On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (in which Bond falls in love, gets married and loses his wife to gunfire) or the recent Daniel Craig iterations, to which I have a quick response. While Secret Service was clearly an attempt to humanize Bond, this has had little impact on the overall series and is rarely mentioned in any of the other films. In the most recent years, Daniel Craig has, in many ways, humanized the agent and dealt with many of my complaints while maintaining the aspects that made us love him in the first place (which is why Daniel Craig has been a crowd-favorite favorite Bond and Casino Royale is an instant classic). But many of the patterns still remain and, so far, Craig only accounts for three of the 23 Bond movies.
Ultimately, even as a fantasy (albeit a very cool one), James Bond falls short. To many, he represents the ideal man for our society. Which is why it is so ironic that, at almost every point, he portrays a pattern of life that would lead to serious pain and emotional catastrophe. True, this stuff is just fun escapism. But Bond has stood as a dominant cultural icon for years. There is a reason he has survived and there is a reason we find him alluring. The problem is that we are settling. We may envy Bond, but we don’t get to see those moments wherein Bond envies us.