In the last few months, the James Bond universe has given us some new ‘Bond Women’ to the canon from Trigger Mortis to Spectre. On the fifth anniversary of his ground breaking book about feminism and the representations of women in the 007 novels and films, we checked in with Robert Caplen to get his opinions.
What are your reactions to the portrayal of the female characters of the recent film SPECTRE.
I thoroughly enjoyed Spectre, which, in my view, has all the ingredients of a classic James Bond film. I specifically appreciated how well the film directly (and subtly) weaves in various images and themes from prior missions. There are many examples, but I found the image of a black widow (Thunderball), symbolic shift in Madeleine Swann’s wardrobe after she aligns herself with Agent 007 (Goldfinger), and pre-selected attire during her and Bond’s ‘captivity’ (Dr. No) particularly striking. And, I should also note Bond’s latest monologue with a rat that, oddly enough, again aids his mission (Diamonds Are Forever).
Spectre reaffirms that we are in the midst of what I describe as the “Revisionist Bond Girl Era” in my book. The pre-title sequence briefly offers a sexually charged dynamic, but it is Bond who defines and controls the tease. The naked female silhouettes in the title sequence, like their Revisionist Bond Girl Era predecessors (Die Another Day, Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, and Skyfall), carry no weapons, a characteristic that was commonplace during the 1980s and 1990s. Unlike the dancing, carefree silhouettes in Quantum of Solace, Spectre’s silhouettes are entangled in and trapped by the tentacles of SPECTRE’s symbol of oppression. These women (perhaps all women?) appear constrained, diminished, and in need of Bond to liberate them. Relatedly, the film makes a passing reference to approximately 160,000 women employed in the “leisure sector,” victims of SPECTRE’s human trafficking initiatives who seemingly require Bond to rescue them.
I was hoping to see female characters who offer audiences greater depth and complexity. Instead, Spectre’s women seem to serve largely functional roles. Miss Moneypenny resumes her position as the dutiful secretary. The audience sees more of her delivering personal effects to Bond’s apartment and carrying M’s paperwork than anything else. She offers her resourcefulness, but her place in the hierarchy is defined: Bond is “Sir,” and he does not hesitate to criticize her when he learns another male shares her bed.
Then there is Lucia Sciarra, the widow of an assassin Bond murders in Mexico. Although she may be the oldest object of Bond’s seduction, Lucia’s story is not particularly memorable. She was essentially trapped in a loveless marriage, nuptials that shielded her from the specter of a certain death. But the marriage does not change the fact that Lucia is, in essence, a mistress or kept woman. Much like Andrea Anders (The Man With the Golden Gun) or Corrine Dufour (Moonraker), Bond uses sexual conquest to gain trust and extract information. Bond liberates Lucia, but her irrelevance is highlighted by the fact that the audience is left to ponder her ultimate fate. Perhaps Franz Oberhauser’s comment that it is not coincidence that all of the women in Bond’s life wind up dead applies to Lucia as well, but it is unclear.
The main Bond Girl, of course, is Madeleine Swann, a psychologist who trained at Oxford and the Sorbonne. Despite her acumen, Madeleine works at a remote Austrian clinic, in large part to escape the unsavory world of which her father is a part and avoid death. In essence, Madeleine remains hidden away for her own protection, perhaps to her professional detriment, until Bond needs her to decipher the meaning of “L’Americain” and guide him accordingly. Her initial disdain for Bond is punished by captivity. Once Bond rescues her, Madeleine warms to him. But Bond continues to control the dynamic, save for keeping watch while Madeleine sleeps. After they dispose of an enemy together, Madeleine asks Bond, almost comically, “What do we do now?” Bond answers her inquiry in the next scene by rewarding himself physically.
When Bond faces imminent death, Madeleine confesses her love for him. Later, left with no illusions about Bond’s loyalty to Queen and country, Madeleine chooses to walk away. But she does not exercise free will, and she instead succumbs to circumstances beyond her control. After Bond rescues her again, Madeleine remains with Bond at the end of the mission because he chooses to do so.
What was your reaction to Anthony Horowitz’s female characters in Trigger Mortis and how the 1950s setting of the novel relates to a ‘modern’ audience?
Trigger Mortis is highly entertaining. It offers fast-paced action and a clever, Fleming-esque story. Horowitz successfully captures Fleming’s attention to detail and tone. Indeed, it is not surprising that the first mention of a female, a “pretty girl,” involves thoughts of sexual conquest. Bond himself appears in bed awaking next to Pussy Galore, of all people! Even the passing comments are quintessential Fleming. Bond, we learn, “simply could not imagine working with a woman who was plain or unattractive.”
Logan Fairfax, a skilled race car driver, seems a bit too comfortable in a world dominated by, and presumably reserved for, men. She remains professional and wholly immune to Bond’s charm. With respect to the latter, the reader later learns why.
The main female character in the novel, Jeopardy Lane, has a memorable introduction: in Bond’s mind, she simply is not glamorous enough to be a race car driver and appears slightly boyish. He later softens his critique. But Jeopardy is much more than a passing female love interest. A Secret Service agent employed with the Treasury Department, Jeopardy specializes in investigating counterfeit currency. The most passion she exhibits is derived from discussing her work. Her name conjures up images of danger (indeed, her mother was inspired by cautionary signs posted in the rail yards). She has a checkered past and even worked in carnivals in her youth. At first, Jeopardy outwits Bond; later he is indebted to her for saving his life. Unlike the characters in Spectre, Jeopardy’s background story is compelling. She has purpose, takes pride in her work, and her intelligence and skill provide meaningful substantive assistance. That assistance only goes so far: Trigger Mortis is a Bond novel, and the mission remains Bond’s to complete.
Trigger Mortis must be read through the lens of a 1950s Ian Fleming novel. Its sensibilities may seem anachronistic, but they capture the essence of Ian Fleming and his original character. I do not believe that we can–or should–sanitize Bond novels to conform to our current social mores. If anything, Trigger Mortis reminds readers that Bond is a product of a bygone era. Preserving that context in no way excuses or justifies the manner in which the female characters are presented, but it is important social commentary; through Bond, we see how far we have progressed socially.
Should a female author write a James Bond novel? How would the tone change, if at all?
If Ian Fleming could write The Spy Who Loved Me from a female perspective, then I see no reason why a female author should not tackle Bond. I think a female author would shift the focus of the narrative to the female characters. I suspect she would introduce female characters in a manner that downplays physical attributes and accentuates substantive qualities. After all, Fleming carefully focused on presenting his female characters through a highly fetishized lens, what Laura Mulvey has described as the male gaze. Excising the male gaze element would create a completely different focal point. The challenge would be to find a balance between revisiting the “Bond Girl” character while preserving some of Fleming’s literary elements.
What led you to publish Shaken & Stirred: The Feminism of James Bond and become the first scholar to unveil a large-scale social history of feminism, femininity, and James Bond?
I developed the idea to analyze feminism through a Bondian lens about 15 years ago while I was a student at Boston University. Ian Fleming’s novels and the literary “Bond Girls” had been analyzed before. Passing comments were also written about several female characters in the films. But I was aware of no comprehensive academic study devoted exclusively to the Bond films and the ways in which they presented the female characters.
I thought looking at Bond’s world and its intersection with–or divergence from–the second-wave feminist and Women’s Liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s was an important and overdue study. Bond films predated and postdated these social movements, and their continuity offered the perfect framework to dissect a social movement. My idea was one that one of my professors (later my thesis advisor) found fascinating, and he encouraged me to pursue it in earnest. At the same time I was developing the idea, I became aware of James Chapman‘s Licence to Thrill: A Cultural History of the James Bond Films, a work that I found highly inspiring. Professor Chapman’s study was interesting and engaging, and it offered greater legitimacy to my idea.
In 2000, I developed a formal thesis proposal. A year later, I succesfully completed my oral defense of the work before a faculty committee in Boston University’s history department and was awarded undergradute and graduate degrees in history. I registered the copyright to the work in 2002.
Soon thereafter, I enrolled in law school and became involved in the writing and publication of legal scholarship. While practicing law full-time in Washington, DC, I spent several years editing and revising my original manuscript. As an independent scholar, I lacked certain resources such as research assistants, licensing consultants, and financial grants. I performed my own research. Many Saturdays were spent shuffling between the Jefferson and Madison buildings at the Library of Congress as I combed through books and screened microfilm. It didn’t take long for the research librarians to realize that my interest in the Playboy holdings was strictly for the articles! I also financed the work myself and procured licenses for all the images that appear in the book.
In 2010, Shaken & Stirred: The Feminism of James Bond became the first published book-length academic study devoted to the subject. It has since been influential in both academic and Bond popular culture circles, and I have been recognized as an important scholar in the field. I have been quoted and cited by scholars, as well as by Sir Roger Moore, and have been interviewed about feminism, James Bond, and my book. In October 2015, I appeared on the BBC News program “Talking Movies” as one of two scholars discussing Spectre and the portrayal of women in the Bond films.
I am very grateful to be considered of the founding scholars of a new wave of critical studies about 007. The number of academics interested in James Bond continues to increase, and rightfully so. I am sure that others will write about the gender politics of James Bond and continue the discourse that I started 15 years ago at Boston University.
Tell us about your current and future projects.
I am developing the next work in my Shaken & Stirred literary and academic series, Shaken & Stirred: The Post-Feminism of James Bond. Like its predecessor, this book will continue my comprehensive examination of the James Bond films that comprise the “Post-Feminist Bond Woman Era” and beyond. I am also exploring the publication of individual scholarly Bond film studies and related works. I am excited about these projects and look forward to sharing them with your readers, students, fellow scholars, and Bond aficionados in the near future.
In 2010, Robert published Shaken & Stirred: The Feminism of James Bond, making his study of the Bond Girl publicly available for the first time, which serves as a medium through which to analyze the historical and social implications of the feminist and Women’s Liberation movements in popular culture. A revised edition of The Feminism of James Bond was released in November 2012 to coincide with and commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. No.
For additional commentary and news, follow Shaken & Stirred: The Feminism of James Bond on Facebook (www.facebook.com/bondgirlbook) and Twitter (@bondgirlbook). Robert can also be reached at email@example.com.