Sunday, 18 November 2012

Skyfall: Women

I am the typical recent Bond consumer: I have seen a few of the old ones and enjoyed them, but I didn't get into it properly until the Daniel Craig reboot. I loved Casino Royale; I wasn't blown away by Quantum of Solace; I was optimistic that Skyfall would redeem itself. I don't pretend to be a Bond expert, or a film expert. My enjoyment of a film is usually closely related to whether or not it's enormously sexist, and whether or not it has musical numbers. Many films, however, slip through the net and find a place in my heart despite being neither musicals nor nice about women. And that's ok. I can love something and understand that it's flawed; I am capable of holding more than one thought in my head at once. No media is perfect.

So, to Skyfall (be warned: I spoil this film pretty thoroughly). Honestly, I loved it. No musical numbers, although Adele's theme is beautiful and haunting and the rest of the soundtrack is great. And it's not very kind to woman either. There are five: unnamed sex-partner#1, Moneypenny, practically-unnamed-plot-driver (and-of-course-sex-partner#2) Sévérine*, the MP who heads the enquiry into MI6, and M. Of these five, three are young and gorgeous and have sex with Bond. I would argue that none of them really get to be characters in their own right. Moneypenny, in addition to being a bad driver and a bad shot, becomes a secretary at the end, and unnamed sex-partner#1 is just that. Sévérine is a sexual possession who is passed between men until she dies. Her relationship with Bond is particularly upsetting: having learnt that she was a victim of sex trafficking when she was 12 or 13 and is now the miserable, terrified possession of the film's supervillain, Bond responds by creeping into her shower and feeling her up. Because this is a Bond film, she's actually pretty happy to see him.

Plenty of people have taken issue with Sévérine's death: when Silva shoots her, Bond quips "waste of good scotch", and a lot of commenters feel that this is rather callous and out of step with Bond's chivalrous character. Others think that Bond's quip is a ploy to cover up his true feelings, and allow him to regain the upper hand: Silva's MO so far has been to play with Bond's feelings, trying to throw him off his game, and his murder of Sévérine, coming as it does as part of a game which Silva sets up as a test of marksmanship in which the loser could accidentally kill Sévérine, could easily fit into this narrative. Either way, it's a nasty moment, and regardless of Bond's feelings about it, Sévérine's role in the plot is as possession, honey-trap, and motivation for Bond.

Honestly, though, I was bothered less by that unpleasantness than by the general treatment of women in this film. You don't have to make a joke about a woman's murder to be sexist. You have to only have five of them in a cast of hundreds, and make sexist commentary about all of them.

        1) exists purely to have sex with Bond (because that's what Bond does).

        2) is Bond's getaway driver in Istanbul, whose driving Bond criticises and even takes over by grabbing the wheel away from her. She also manages to shoot Bond when she's aiming for his opponent, knocking him into the river and (we think, but not really of course) killing him. Bond jokes about her incompetence for the rest of the film, telling her that "field work isn't for everyone". She ends up becoming a secretary, and she has sex with Bond.

        3) is a victim of forced prostitution, is the sexual possession and pawn of Raoul Silva, and her sole purpose is to bring the hero and the anti-hero together. Oh, and she has sex with Bond.

        4) is the snide, unnamed female MP who heads the enquiry into MI6, who talks so much that she is publicly upbraided by Mallory, allowing a glance of sympathy and understanding to pass between Mallory and M.

        5) is M. Despite being a fabulous character in her own right, there are significant problems with the portrayal of M in this film, not the least of which is that she, too, cannot shoot straight. That's two women who shoot guns in an entire film of men who shoot guns, and neither of them hit their target. It's a plot point that Bond's marksmanship is poor in this film, and yet apart from his test where he proves how bad he has become, this issue is never in evidence in the actual plot. Even if it were, I would require more to prove to me that this isn't about women not being good at shooting, because there are plenty of men in this film who shoot straight 100% of the time. And Bond still manages to shoot the lock off a door and a roomful of fire extinguishers, despite his supposedly poor skills.

So M has a different skillset from that of a secret agent. I can accept that. What I find more difficult to swallow is her role as a mother-figure in this film. The whole plot revolves around a kind of Oedipal nightmare in which Silva both loves and hates M, wants her regard and attention yet blames her for betraying him, wants to kill her and yet cannot stand to see her hurt. It's a good plot: gripping and powerful. But I can't help but be a little disappointed by it. I've not seen many Bond films, but were any of the male Ms before Dench's time treated in this way? Were they accused, as Dench's M is, of being "sentimental" about Bond? I have to doubt it.

I'm pretty much used to female characters being sex bombs in Bond films. That's what they're there for: even the ones who are spies / agents / double agents / otherwise professional are also sex bombs, because Bond having sex with everyone is kinda the point of the films. I've no beef with that. (Well, obviously I do, but it's so unremarkable that I'm over it.) What's upsetting about Skyfall is that M, the one female character who doesn't double as a sexual conquest for Bond, is in this film reduced to the only other available female stereotype, the mother figure. Dench is brilliant, as always, and pulls off the role beautifully, and the film is powerful and moving and lots of fun. I still love it. I just think that the Bond franchise's woman problem is not exactly solved by adding a maternal stereotype to the stable of sex symbols, especially at the expense of an already-existing great female character.


* It's possible that someone said her name in the film and I missed it, but I've seen it twice now and I just had to look up her name in the credits. It's telling, I think, that of the four women, only M is consistently named: I'm fairly sure Sévérine isn't named at all, unnamed-sex-partner#1 certainly isn't, and Moneypenny doesn't get a name until the closing scene of the film, when it's revealed that she is the canon character Miss Moneypenny rather than another unnamed agent. Obviously that's a necessary trick, but there's something important going on with names and gender here. Consider Kincade's mishearing of 'M' as 'Emma'; the unnamed-ness of the other female characters; the fact that even though he's the secretest secret agent in the world, everyone knows 007 is Bond James Bond; and the psychological importance of M remembering Silva's real name, Tiago Rodrigues. Consider the fact that Mallory becomes M, whilst Judi Dench's M's real name is never known. To me, these little things add up to an interesting focus on names and naming, in which women are much less individual and much more interchangeable than men. 


  1. This is beautifully articulated- I agree with pretty much everything here (except that I could have sworn that Severine tells Bond her name when they meet for drinks in the casino- but I could be imagining that, I've been devouring film trivia for a week or so since then).

    (this is Carrie from the meetup last week, by the way- I hope you don't mind, I found your blog link from your comment on the meetup thread)

    1. No worries - it was good to meet you and thanks for looking me up!

      Yeah I honestly can't remember hearing it, but that doesn't mean it wasn't said. It was only that when I came to write this, I had to look up her name, and I didn't get that feeling of recognition when I normally would, which made me realise how unimportant her name must have been to the film.

  2. Yeah, I know what you mean. I did think it was interesting that the character is given a French name, when the actor is also French- I was expecting her to have a name that played much more into the whole 'mysterious Asian sex worker' persona (like Peaceful Fountains of Desire in Die Another Day).

  3. I watched this yesterday, and I do agree with you completely! Does Moneypenny have sex with Bond though? I thought she shot him down?

    1. I thought they had sex when Moneypenny turns up in Bond's hotel in Shanghai. There's the whole face shaving thing, and then the slow fade ... to be fair though, we don't actually see them have sex, and since when has a Bond film missed the opportunity to show that? So perhaps you're right. Maybe they don't have sex because she'll be a recurring character and they can get more mileage out of 'the chase' ... ?