My mother is still shocked that I enjoy James Bond.
Partly because Bond has always been one of the ultimate male fantasies, a testosterone-and-martini-soaked wish-fulfillment on steroids.
But mostly because I'm a very vocal feminist, and the Bond franchise has always been, well, let's put it bluntly here—disgustingly misogynistic.
But as a feminist who enjoys action films—a genre that is almost always tailored for men—you sort of have to learn how to adjust your anger. You either look past the gross aspects or you look away completely.
(Though I'm hoping the recent success of amazing films like Mad Max: Fury Road may bring about a shift in the way Hollywood handles action in the future; we shouldn't have to keep settling for crumbs and put up with bad behavior. We should be given more feminist genre films without having to constantly scream and beg for them—but I digress.)
It's taken me years of practice, but I can usually silence the outraged voice inside my head long enough to get a brief thrill from a well choreographed fight scene, a well timed explosion, and some impressive stunt work in today's Hollywood blockbusters.
And for fifty years, James Bond has basically been the spy—the action hero. If you're a fan of espionage, gunfire, and lots of crap blowing up, then Commander Bond is your go-to guy. He's always had the niftiest gadgets, the sharpest suits, and the coolest cars.
And let's not forget the ladies: the “Bond girls,” to be precise. Because what are they if not another flashy piece of arm candy for our hero to flaunt, another extension of his spy persona, objects to be collected or disposed of as needed, fun diversions when he's not busy dodging bullets or defusing nuclear bombs?
It's the institution of the Bond girl that is the real crux of the issue for me. If the franchise was nothing more than our smug, sophisticated hero punching henchmen, trading barbed quips with supervillains, and racing the clock to save the world from annihilation—while looking good in a sharp tuxedo and driving a shiny Aston Martin—then there wouldn't be so much bile directed at Bond by half the population.
But too often, being a Bond girl means an actress
- Has one or two nude scenes in bed with our hero.
- Has an absolutely awful innuendo-laced name.
- Dies horribly—either as an expendable pawn to the plot, as a way of giving Bond man-pain, or because she's Bad and Deserves to Die.
The way the Bond girl(s) of each film are handled can make or break a James Bond film for me. There are only so many uncomfortable moments of misogyny I can swallow before I change the channel. It's no coincidence that my favorite installments are those that allow the ladies to be actual characters in their own right, or are treated decently by Bond and the text itself.
So, here's a totally opinionated ranking of Bond films, from best to worst, in terms of the treatment of the female characters:
1. The Living Daylights
The Bond: Dalton
The Bond Girl: Kara, a cellist
Dalton's first adventure is such a relief after the dreadful run that was Roger Moore—his Bond is more focused on actual spy work than on bedding every woman he meets, and he comes across as far more genuine (he even asks for two rooms at the hotel rather than straightaway seducing his target!).
Kara, meanwhile, is allowed to be innocent but is never cast in the role of “stupid blonde,” and even rallies Afghani freedom fighters to save James in the end!
In short, she's integral to the plot without being turned into a plot device, makes mistakes yet lives to the end credits, and actually gets to have a real relationship with Bond—who treats her decently throughout.
2. The World Is Not Enough
The Bond: Brosnan
The Bond Girl(s): Elektra King, oil heiress | Christmas Jones, nuclear scientist
Finally, a lady supervillain! Elektra is deliciously complicated: a kidnap victim turned terrorist who flipped her captor, a daughter who murders the father who “stole” her mother's kingdom, a woman obsessed with reclaiming her birthright and wholly willing to kill eight million people to get it.
There's a lot of commentary on sexuality and psychology with Elektra, and I love that she's neither a complete villain nor a complete victim, but a chimera of the two.
And while the casting of Denise Richards as a nuclear scientist still makes me wiggle my eyebrow in disbelief, I know that's unfair of me: why can't Christmas Jones be both voluptuously gorgeous and a genius?
The only fly in the ointment with her is all of those terrible innuendos James inevitably drops re: her name. *Sigh*
The Bond: Brosnan
The Bond Girl(s): Natalya, computer programmer | Xenia Onatopp, KGB assassin
Natalya's so clever that she foils the GoldenEye satellite by reprogramming it. Xenia is absolutely psychotic, but damn if she isn't a solid gold fashion-plate while she kills men left and right; in this case, Famke Janssen's committed performance elevates Xenia from other femme fatale Bond girls, making her man-eater genuinely intimidating.
But what really makes this movie stand out is the intro of Judi Dench as Bond's boss M, a casting that was a Big DealTM when it happened, and is still a big deal today. When she calls Bond a “misogynistic dinosaur” to his face, I cheer every time.
4. Quantum of Solace
The Bond: Craig
The Bond Girl: Camille
A Bond/Bond girl relationship that never involves sex! Camille is determined to get revenge for the torture and murder of her family; Bond is also on a quest for revenge in the wake of Vesper's death. Seeing that she's in need of help, Bond assumes an almost big brother-like role and helps Camille survive and see the man responsible punished.
People can rag on this one all they like, but it's actually one of the best Bond outings.
The Bond: Craig
The Bond Girl(s): Severine, Silva's girl | Eve Moneypenny, an MI6 agent
Poor Severine gets the shit end of the stick in this one, barely introduced before she and Bond have sex and she's murdered by Silva—and, yes, the whole thing makes me see red.
But this movie isn't about Bond's romantic/sexual dalliances; it's about his mother/son dynamic with M more than anything else. How refreshing it is to see the focus placed on a platonic, almost familial relationship for a change.
And then there's Moneypenny, who's given the same space as any other male agent, and has only a bit of tension (but NO consummation) with our hero.
6. On Her Majesty's Secret Service
The Bond: Lazenby
The Bond Girl: Tracy, a mobster's daughter
There's more than a bit of grossness with her father offering her to Bond like some fatted calf, telling him she “needs a man to overpower her”, but—SURPRISE!—Bond rejects that oh-so-tempting offer and goes on to actually date her before falling in love and proposing marriage.
Tracy's allowed to be complicated and messy; the first time she meets Bond is when he rescues her from a suicide attempt. She's also one of the more badass Bond girls, capable of defending herself against Blofeld and saving Bond's bacon several times. Her death in the last minute of the film, just after wedding Bond, is awful and angering, yes, but she still remains one of my absolute favorite Bond girls.
7. A View to a Kill
The Bond: Moore
The Bond Girl(s): May Day, assassin and henchwoman | Stacey Sutton, granddaughter of an oil tycoon
You'd think you couldn't top a Christopher Walken-shaped baddie, but NO! The real star of this picture is Grace Jones's May Day, who has Hulk-like strength, kills a dozen men without breaking a sweat, and looks runway ready at every moment.
And, when she realizes she's been betrayed by her boss/boyfriend, she promptly switches sides and helps Bond save the day—pulling the heroic, self-sacrifice card by blowing herself up with a giant bomb and a grin on her face.
What a gal.
The Bond: Craig
The Bond Girl(s): Lucia, widow of a Spectre agent | Dr. Madeleine Swann, psychologist and daughter of an assassin
Madeleine is smart and knows Bond and his ilk are bad news—she doesn't fall into his arms the moment they meet. I don't entirely buy the movie's message that she's Bond's perfect match since she's the daughter of an assassin—especially not when they also slip in an angsty Vesper moment—and it's unfortunate that they reduce Madeleine to a damsel in need of rescue in the climax. But, she's still sharp, capable, and knows her own mind.
Plus, it was nice to see a Bond girl closer to our hero's actual age in Lucia, who also gets to live following their assignation.
9. For Your Eyes Only
The Bond: Moore
The Bond Girl: Melina, daughter of marine archaeologists
I genuinely can't stand Moore's Bond, who's the smarmiest bloke to ever smarm, but the supporting cast in this are all great. And Bond girl Melina saves Bond's life several times with her handy bow and underwater skills. She's also given the Batman backstory: she sees her parents gunned down before her, so she vows to avenge them. My kinda lady.
There's also a subplot featuring an aspiring Olympic skater who keeps trying to put the moves on Bond and he…*gasp!*…fends her off because she's so young, which is such a relief (and is also totally cribbed by an episode of Archer).
10. Casino Royale
The Bond: Craig
The Bond Girl: Solange,wife of an assassin | Vesper Lynd, accountant with the Treasury Department
I actually really love this movie, but I can't ignore that both Bond girls end up tortured and dead by the final scene. Poor Solange's body is even left on the beach like trash.
However, Vesper's got a sharp retort for every one of Bond's quips, she remains focused on the job—and dangers—at hand, and she's one of the first ladies to see through Bond's facade and actually have a genuine relationship with him. Her “betrayal” is totally understandable, and while her self-sacrifice is frustrating and largely unnecessary, she's still shown as a three-dimensional person rather than just another pretty face.
11. Licence to Kill
The Bond: Dalton
The Bond Girl(s): Pam, former Army pilot | Lupe, drug kingpin's moll
I could wax grandiloquent on how much I love Dalton's Bond for hours; in this outing, he's so motivated to avenge his friends that he gives up his licence to kill and goes AWOL.
He does put the moves on Lupe, but only to get intel on his enemy—and Pam proves herself a capable ally in a bar fight and frame-up mission. She's more than just a bed warmer or damsel in distress, and she has some lovely interactions with Q.
12. Dr. No
The Bond: Connery
The Bond Girl: Honey Ryder, beachcomber
In his first outing, Bond is more business than pleasure, sticking to the work at hand. When he meets Honey, he's more protective than suggestive—especially when he finds out she (somewhat justifiably) murdered the last man to do her wrong.
There are some troubling insinuations about what No's men might have done to her off-screen, but luckily nothing is explicitly shown—and she lives to see the end credits.
As you can see, not all “Bond girls” are simply on-screen objectifications. As a feminist and a fan of the world's favorite spy, I tend to look for the silver lining in the silver screen.
However, that doesn't mean that I'm going to divulge all my secrets and inevitably let Bond off the hook—because next time, I'm ranking the 12 worst James Bond films from the same perspective.
Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. Come find the angie bee at Tumblr.