The world has changed since Ursula Andress first emerged from the ocean way back in Dr. No (1962), clutching her sea shells and birthing a new trope of beautiful women who would assist, thrill and deceive the spy over the half-century that followed. The Bond girl has become an evolving icon, but does she have any true agency, or is she simply a piece on a chessboard? Is she empowered, or does she exist, even now, as a mere sex object designed for the enjoyment of men?
In an attempt to answer those questions, and more, I've divided the Bond girl trope up into four distinct character types, some more progressive than others. So, let's take a look back at Bond's women through the ages and try to work out, once and for all, whether the Bond girl can ever be truly considered a feminist icon.
The Sex Object
The sex object comes in many shapes and forms. If she's lucky, Bond might ask her name before he takes her to bed. In the '60s and '70s, said name was usually a less-than-subtle spin on the prized parts of the female anatomy — Plenty O'Toole, Pussy Galore. In later years, it's just something vaguely exotic-sounding, like Spectre's Lucia Sciarra, usually paired with a European accent.
She might be an agent, usually MI6 or KGB, in which case she's good, but not as good as James (I mean, she's just a woman, right?). Sometimes she's a pretty girl who happens to be sat drinking alone in a bar, presumably waiting for a man to come along and give her some fulfilment. Often, she's the bad guy's lover, in which case she makes a threat about how dangerous he is and then immediately removes her clothes, inevitably winding up dead herself the morning after (see Casino Royale's Solange or Skyfall's Sévérine) in a cruel demonstration of instant karma.
Looking back at those early Bond girls, some had more agency than common belief nowadays would dictate. Pussy Galore, for instance, is an accomplished female aviator in Goldfinger (1964). But the highly outdated gender and sexual politics of Ian Fleming's source material rear their ugly heads when Pussy, whom it's hinted is a lesbian ("You can turn off the charm. I'm immune,") relents and succumbs to James's advances (only after a pretty gross scene in which he pins her down and kisses her against her will — see the clip below). In Fleming's head, getting that good spy D is enough to "fix" any woman.
For the next twenty years, with only a couple of exceptions, most of 007's women are some variation on the sex object trope, although with the arrival of Roger Moore in the '70s, the women were no longer subjected to the kind of slap-happy physical abuse that Sean Connery did a worryingly convincing job of enjoying.
It's no surprise, then, that Bond girls fare better as the movies begin to move on from Fleming's books. GoldenEye (1995) is the first entirely new story, and also the point at which the sex object is gradually usurped by various, more feminist-friendly types of Bond girl on screen. She doesn't disappear completely, though — the casting of Monica Bellucci as the mafia widow Lucia Sciarra in Spectre (2015) was considered a massive step forward for Bond, not least because Bellucci is four years older than Daniel Craig, awakening 007 to the existence of women who aren't actual baby lambs.
In the end, though, Bond kills Lucia's husband in cold blood, gatecrashes the funeral and seduces the widow before the dirt is dry on the grave — after which, she's never seen nor mentioned again. What is it they say about old dogs and new tricks?
The Action Heroine
With the bikini-clad Bond girl suddenly feeling passé, and framed against the rise of the action heroine in '90s cinema and pop culture (think Milla Jovovich in Luc Besson's The Fifth Element, or the Tomb Raider video games), a rejuvenated Bond franchise began to use that character trope as the new Bond girl template.
Suddenly, the women at James's side came armed with weapons capable of destruction, not just distraction. Take Dr. Christmas Jones, for instance, an American nuclear physicist in The World Is Not Enough (1999). Dr. Jones has the brains to disarm a nuclear bomb, and gets to say things like "I've pulled the plutonium out of the one inside, you can detonate the trigger now." Sounds perfectly legit.
On paper, she's quite conceivable as a smart action heroine — but somebody, somewhere, decided that Denise Richards could believably play a nuclear physicist. As suspension of disbelief goes, that's up there with Ben Affleck as someone who's not a smug dick. By the time James cracks his immortal zinger "I thought Christmas only comes once a year," it feels like we're being trolled by Santa himself.
Bond films often work best when referencing their own absurdity, and Die Another Day (2002) scores big with Jinx (Halle Berry), first seen emerging from the sea in an orange bikini. The cheeky homage to Ursula Andress in Dr. No works because it demonstrates how far the Bond girl has come in those 40 years. Jinx fights alone, saves Bond's ass at a "gene therapy" clinic (whose function in the narrative is to turn Asian characters white, which, in retrospect, is probably not OK) and promptly swan-dives her way out of trouble to disappear into the ocean. She returns later to stab a knife through a bible and into the heart of Miranda Frost. Yeah, Jinx is pretty badass, and in the context of a film which features Madonna as a fencing instructor named Verity ("I don't like cock fights"), she actually makes total sense.
Of course, she's still dressed like Lara Croft, because green tank tops.
Surprisingly, none of the four Daniel Craig movies have featured an action heroine, unless you count the awesomely boring Camille Montes in Quantum of Solace (personally, I've successfully forgotten everything about that movie). That said, it's arguable that Moneypenny, as played by Naomie Harris, qualifies, at least for the half hour that she's allowed to operate as a field agent in Skyfall. After shooting Bond off the roof of a train to his presumed death, though, she's put on desk duty, which is probably fair enough.
The Femme Fatale
It feels kind of unfair, when you think about it, that Bond, an evident nymphomaniac, has banged hundreds of women over the years without ever so much as having an STD scare, while the women of his world who possess a high sex drive inevitably end up being punished with death. If sex is sport for 007, his female nemeses use it as a distraction tool — and nowhere is this weaponization of the vagina more evident than in GoldenEye.
Famke Janssen turned straight women gay and gay men straight, at least for an hour or two, as Xenia Onatopp, an almost unsettlingly gorgeous red-lipped femme fatale whom we first meet behind the wheel of a Ferrari, where she seems to get a sexual kick out of her attempts to drive Bond off the road and into the ocean. Later, she seduces a Canadian admiral on board a yacht, crushing him to death with her thighs mid-coitus.
Back in the '40s and '50s, the femme fatale was everywhere in Hollywood — actresses relished the chance to a play a character far more outrageous and morally corrupted than the typical love interest, resulting in a slew of noir movies from Laura to Double Indemnity in which the female, usually driven by greed, was acutely aware of her own sexual allure and used it to create a web of criminality and deception.
Xenia feels like an extension of that trope, but beyond the fact that she's more brazen about being bad, nothing in her characterization or ultimate fate (suffocated to death in a tree — "she always did enjoy a good squeeze," quips Bond) suggests we've come very far in forty years.
In The World Is Not Enough, James finds himself well and truly played by Elektra King (Sophie Marceau), an heiress whom he's hired to protect from the villainous Renard. King barely has to speak a word in her sensuous French accent before Bond is falling into bed with her, but ultimately Elektra is revealed to be sleeping with the enemy. Toying with James, she almost chokes him to death in a garrotte, but ultimately he puts a bullet in her head. In sharp contrast with his male victims, 007 actually shows some remorse for this kill, perhaps suggesting in a twisted way that the value of a person's life is defined by their sex appeal.
Whether or not the femme fatale in Bond's world displays true agency is debatable. If both of the above examples are ultimately just sidekicks to a male villain (Renard in Elektra's case, Alec Trevelyan in GoldenEye) happy to exploit his right-hand-woman's sexuality, it's worth noting that both are also widely considered two of the greatest Bond girls. What's the takeaway from that? Are we okay with a woman being punished for using her sexuality if she's visually intoxicating or at the centre of enough iconic moments to separate her from the blander girls of Bond's past? Perhaps when a Bond movie delivers a femme fatale who can blindside 007 with her charm and live to tell the tale, we'll be able to sound the progress klaxon.
The Genuine Love
Breaking down the stats, 24 Bond movies have featured well north of 50 sexual conquests and love interests, but only three have ever transcended sex and entered the realm of something that could be considered "love." It's that rarity which makes the one woman who takes James's heart arguably the most empowered Bond girl of all.
In On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969), Bond agrees to marry Tracy di Vicenzo in return for intel from her father on the whereabouts of Blofeld. In this undeniably grubby scenario, Tracy is effectively a bargaining chip, currency. Not exactly flattering. Regardless of what happens next — they fall in love, marry, and Tracy is murdered on the day of their honeymoon in a genuinely heartbreaking scene made memorably by Bond quoting Louis Armstrong's theme song 'We Have All The Time In The World' — it's difficult to view Tracy through a lens of empowerment. Would James have taken the time to fall in love with her if he hadn't had use for her father's contacts? Probably not.
Four decades later, Casino Royale (2006) sets Bond up with the no-bullshit, thrillingly French government agent Vesper Lynd (Eva Green). Their initial exchange on board a train to the titular casino in Montenegro quickly establishes that, in sharp contrast with how Bond came to meet Tracy, these two are genuine equals.
The tail end of the psychoanalytic monologue Vesper delivers to 007 is ice-cold:
"Having just met you, I wouldn't go so far as to call you a cold-hearted bastard, but it wouldn't be a stretch to imagine you think of women as disposable pleasures rather than meaningful pursuits. So as charming as you are, Mr. Bond, I will be keeping my eye on our government's money, and off your perfectly-formed arse."
That last line is particularly interesting, acknowledging for the first time in a Bond movie that a woman can not only think "like a man" (in the sense that she can't help observing Bond's physique, much as Bond objectifies virtually any woman he encounters), but that she can put those observations to one side and later use them as a tool to make a statement about her professionalism and suitability for the job.
For Daniel Craig's Bond, both more intelligent and more emotionally vulnerable than any before him, the opportunity to go toe-to-toe with a woman with a more modern attitude to sexuality is clearly a thrill rarely enjoyed. But if Vesper is the most progressive of all the Bond girls, she's also not what she seems, with Bond learning after her death that she had used him as a bargaining chip in a grander scheme involving another man she had loved; a perfect, tragic role-reversed situation in which he understands what it feels to be used as a pawn. Karmic revenge for Tracy?
But even Vesper, as my personal favorite Bond girl of all time, is not the most important woman in James's life. That dubious honor goes to M (Judi Dench), the boss whose identifying initial doubles as a hint at her status as James's mother surrogate. Only M has been afforded the continuity to exist as the one true constant in James's life across a series of films — seven, from GoldenEye to Skyfall — their relationship evolving over time into something more meaningful, more emotionally charged than any of 007's romantic endeavors. M and Bond don't always like one another (she memorably describes him as a "sexist, misogynist dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War" during their first encounter), but they're bound by a sense of duty to Queen and country, something few, if any of his women have ever truly understood.
In Skyfall (2012), that relationship reaches an apex as director Sam Mendes dares to present M herself as a Bond girl, sending her into the field with 007 as a means of protecting her from Silva's assault on London. The plan fails, though, and M is fatally wounded as Silva's men descend on Skyfall Lodge. Finally, 17 years after that first meeting, Bond's tears demonstrate the real depth of his affection for a woman who, like any good mother, had been an immovable presence in his life. M is, pretty much inarguably, the female character with the most agency in this world, her presence even felt from the grave in Spectre. But is that enough to make the claim that the Bond girl has turned a corner, evolved into something that might reasonably be considered feminist without the caveat of the context of the cinematic universe she exists in?
I would argue not, that M was a misnomer, meaning we appear to have reached the end of this article without having come to a definite conclusion. Sorry about that. Essentially, Bond's world is so meta, so driven by its own tropes, that if it were to truly shake off the idea of the Bond girl as either a piece of eye candy or a character who exists purely in service of James, she wouldn't really be a Bond girl at all. But if that's a sad truth, it renders the exceptions to the rule — Vesper, M — some of action cinema's greatest women.
Do you think the Bond girl has evolved over half a century, or is she still just a woman fighting for a voice in a man's world?