James Bond is great. Let’s get that out of the way. The franchise exists wholly unchanged as the decades have passed, the same campy farce of a spy agency stuck in a golden era of British espionage and the reliance on one spectacular agent to save the day, time and again. The weapons have gotten bigger and the environments more modern. But this retro landscape has not aged well for the women of the Bond world.
Not that we should expect a Bond film to be a pinnacle of feminist cinema…it’s James Bond. But in 2012, one could expect that a female player could be relegated to larger parts than “love interest” or “sidekick.” Skyfall was lacking the traditional “Bond Girl” seen in many other films, because Bond’s partner, who went without a name literally until the final moments of the movie, fucked up royally. This female agent, tracking a criminal from a car while Bond fought atop a moving train, accidentally shoots her partner instead of the target. Bond is presumed dead, and she is relegated to desk duty because of her mistakes.
Understandable, but Female Agent is happy with her demotion. As Bond explains, fieldwork isn’t for everyone, and she wholeheartedly agrees. She assumes the wife role, showing up sporadically to assist Bond, but never sleeps with him (though he tries). Her ineptitude as an agent and her willingness to stand in Bond’s shadow strengthen this role: female agent is not a threat.
Then there is M, beloved character and all-around beautifully played by Dame Judi Dench. M is a woman of great power and responsibility, but you wouldn’t know it from this film. Much of the plot centers on securing M’s safety – this time around, the villain wants M dead. Bond must protect M as if she were his mother; the villain also projects his abandonment issues onto M as if she were required to care for him, and failed. M sheds her in-control persona, the boss who keeps Bond in line for the last six movies, and becomes a feeble elderly woman who needs protection, and trusts Bond to provide that for her.
Sévérine is the whore, literally and in this parable. She is the gorgeous escort under the villain’s thumb; she promises Bond that she will help him with his mission if he kills her employer. Bond mentions that a tattoo on Sévérine’s wrist indicates that she was sold into sex slavery at a very young age – possibly 12. She is a prisoner, forced to have sex with her captor. And yet, almost immediately we see her get into the shower, and Bond follow right after; it’s assumed that they have passionate spy sex. WHAT? This is a huge problem. It is expected that Bond sleeps with the pretty women he meets on his missions, but there is nothing, absolutely nothing, sexy about seducing someone whom he has just outed as being repeatedly sexually abused. Sévérine is likely vulnerable, terrified of disobeying her boss, and unable to say “no,” especially to an intimidating man like Bond. Bond is not sleeping with one of his girls; he is taking advantage of a convenient situation.
There is only one other woman in Skyfall, the bitch, MP Clair Dowar, who holds a public interrogation against M for MI6’s failure to control a terrorist attack in London. She only exists for this one scene, where she yells at M. That’s all. And yet, because of this, Skyfall passes the Bechdel Test. Barely, but it squeaks by.
Overall, Skyfall is very enjoyable, and worth seeing just for the gorgeous opening sequence. But good luck being a female player in the Bond world. Your roles are limited.