With Spectre preparing to rollout globally following its record breaking opening day at the UK box office, a lot of attention has been focused on the ladies of the 24th James Bond adventure. Italian actress Monica Bellucci, French talent Lea Seydoux and the Brit Naomie Harris all have a significant part to play in Spectre - but is it - as a recent Vanity Fair article implies - derogatory to refer to them as 'Bond girls', or has the definition of the Bond girl evolved to the point that its negative connotations have been shaken off (or at least somewhat stirred)? Let's take a look back at 53 years of women in Bond to figure it out.
Iconography and misogyny
If his origins as a cynical, chain-smoking spy hooked on girls and martinis give Bond the feel of a dinosaur, it's worth remembering that this was a man created in 1953 at the pen of Ian Fleming. The latent misogyny present in earlier Bond movies was an accurate reflection of that found in the novels, an attitude belonging not only to the author but to the times. In the '50s, the role of a woman by and large was to build a family and keep things tidy at home whilst her husband worked to put food on the table. A beautiful woman who refused to conform to type was an exotic bird, not exactly respected by the men of Fleming's world for her own merits, but placed on a kind of pedestal.
Audiences got their first taste of a Bond girl in 1962's Dr. No, the film which started it all, and which nobody, not even Fleming, could ever have dreamed would make such an impact. The image of Honey Ryder emerging from the sea in a bikini with seashells in hand was pretty provocative for a mainstream audience at that time, and from that moment became the blueprint on which future Bond girls would be based.
But if Ryder herself was actually quite resourceful - she sells shells for a living, giving her independence as opposed to being a kept woman (like Domino of 1965's Thunderball, to name just one of many) - the writers were not always so respectful. Take, for instance, Pussy Galore - an innuendo so outrageous that today it would never make it past the first script draft - of Goldfinger, the 1964 classic which is easily the most beloved of Sean Connery's six outings.
Pussy, it's implied in the film (and stated more explicitly in Fleming's novel), is a lesbian, telling Bond at one point: "You can turn off the charm. I'm immune." So far, so progressive - except that, during the scene at Goldfinger's farm in Kentucky, Bond apparently seduces Pussy (it doesn't seem particularly consensual), after which she switches allegiances and helps Bond to defeat the titular villain. It's a common theme in the Bonds, right up until 1985's A View to a Kill, in which Grace Jones is a bad girl aligned with the antagonist, that the girl is redeemable as long as she succumbs to James' charms.
If not (as in 1999's The World is Not Enough), she has to die, although you could actually make the case that by treating Elektra King (Sophie Marceau) as a villain in whom Bond must put a bullet, the film actually makes a rare effort to treat its Bond girl as more than the sum of her anatomical parts; she becomes an equal to the men of the piece, no longer a rare jewel to be collected and put back in her box. Pussy Galore is not afforded that luxury, and goes down as perhaps the ugliest representation of female sexuality in a Bond film.
007 and the L word
One of the rules of Bond's game is that women are temporary, a distraction from the threat posed to queen and country. Only twice in his history have we seen Bond succumb to that dreaded emotion of the heart, first in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969) and again in Casino Royale (2006).
Secret Service was an unusual Bond film by the very virtue of the fact that it was the first and only time George Lazenby played the role. Given the unfortunate task of taking over from a beloved Sean Connery, audiences at the time did not take to Lazenby (in retrospect his suave sensitivity was actually an upgrade from Connery's rough physicality), which, combined with a story in which Bond falls in love and even gets married, made the movie a complete anomaly in the Bond canon (in my opinion, it's one of the three or four all-time greatest). Bond's wife, Tracy (Diana Rigg), is shot and killed by a henchman of the villainous Blofeld in the film's devastating final scene minutes after they marry, dealing a fatal blow to the novel concept of Bond ever finding lasting happiness with a woman.
Casino Royale treads similar territory, introducing James to Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), sent by MI6 to babysit Bond during a high-stakes poker match. Shared, torturous experiences at the hands of sore loser Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) bond Vesper and 007, and during his recovery they realise that what they're feeling is the L-word. Seeing Bond so blissfully in love - he even resigns from his post to live out his days with her - is entirely surreal and yet it works, somehow, probably because of both Vesper's vast charisma and Bond's own, screwed-up history with women.
But in a tragic final twist, after Vesper drowns in Venice, Bond learns that she had been using him to negotiate the safe return of a lover whom Le Chiffre's organisation had kidnapped, essentially making Bond a pawn in her masterplan. It's sad that both Secret Service and Casino Royale conclude with the status quo restored, Bond single and wary of opening to a woman on an emotional level, but perhaps it also reflects the underlying loneliness of the character and the job. Perhaps Bond being a lone wolf is part of his enduring appeal.
Skyfall and Spectre: Something new
Still, this franchise didn't celebrate half a century of thrilling audiences by refusing to acknowledge the need to evolve, to assume a new identity much in the same way Bond himself often must, and in 2012's record-breaking Skyfall we saw the most fine-tuned, satisfying representation of a Bond girl to date: a woman of 70-something known to James only as M.
Having been an integral part of the Bond films since 1995, the shared history between M (Judi Dench) and her most-trusted agent goes far beyond any romantic relationship enjoyed, or endured, by Bond. During their first encounter in Goldeneye, M dismisses James as "a sexist, misogynist dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War", stylishly addressing the notion that Bond has failed to move with the times in his treatment of the opposite sex. Although her command to Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) to "take the bloody shot" almost has James killed in Skyfall, his return to London and subsequent trip to his childhood home in Scotland with M at his side allows us to dive deeper into the longest-lasting relationship James has ever had with a woman (his mother having died when he was a young boy, making M something of a surrogate). It's no coincidence that M dies in his arms just across the moor from Skyfall Manor, where Bond's story began, and we see him grieve more for her than for any of his conquests over the years, even Vesper.
With Dench's M out of the picture in Spectre, it's natural that the 'Bond girl' identity would shift back to something more in line with the archetype, but fans would be naive to imagine that Bond will be flirting with full-blown misogyny from hereon in. This franchise has turned a corner, and by casting Monica Bellucci as a 'Bond woman' - she's four years Daniel Craig's senior, which is a pretty big win - displayed its capacity to show genuine respect to its women, not just as window dressing but as integral elements of Bond's story. Lea Seydoux is drawing praise for her role as Dr. Madeleine Swann, the primary Bond girl of Spectre, a character more in the mould of Vesper - assertive, independent, and just a little bit exotic - than the Pussy Galores of 007's history.
He may be a little late to the party, but Bond is finally showing the women who inhabit his world the respect they deserve - and if that's a little unex-spectred (sorry...), it couldn't be more welcome. Catch the trailer for Spectre below, and make sure you're there when it opens across the world on November 5th.