Spoiler warning for Skyfall (non-spoiler review HERE)...
As happens every time a new 007 film opens, pundits and critics are generally quick to point out how this new 007 picture has one of the very best 'Bond girls' ever. Oh this time she's strong, independent, able and willing to hold her own with James Bond, and not merely there to be a sex object. So if critics pretty much say that nearly every time, at what point do we have to acknowledge that the meme of the helpless and useless Bond Girl is mostly a myth. To put it simply, many of the so-called Bond Girls were, if not champions of feminism, presented as mostly capable and independent characters who happened to be obscenely attractive and (often improbably) attracted to Mr. James Bond. From Dr. No onward to Skyfall, the hapless sex object who exists purely to be ogled and bedded is more exception than rule. And quite frankly, over the last 25 years (or after Roger Moore left), almost every major 'Bond Girl' was a relatively well-developed character or at least played an important role in the story. Ironically, perhaps in a misguided attempt to appease the fans, the treatment of women in Skyfall is actually comparatively regressive. In short, it takes the series back to a certain misogynistic mindset that hasn't been prevalent since the Connery years.
The Roger Moore films were hit-and-miss in their treatment of their female leads, offering a Carole Bouquet for every Tanya Roberts, a Barbara Bach for every Jane Seymour. Once Timothy Dalton came onboard, somewhat progressive female leads were the rule rather than the exception. Carey Lowell in License to Kill was a fully capable CIA agent who worked in the field alongside Felix Leiter and then again alongside Bond. As befits the brief Dalton era, the fact that she was an attractive woman was of little-to-no concern to 007, and I'm not entirely sure he actually sleeps with a single woman in his second film. Talisa Soto is surely a damsel to be rescued from the unwilling clutches of Robert Davi, but she is afforded more sympathy and respect than Berenice Marlohe in Skyfall. After two Craig-led films that treated the murder of innocent women as at least a tragedy worth of commentary, Skyfall treats the arbitrary execution of Severine as an offhand punchline, to be disposed of randomly and never to be mentioned or acknowledged again. How about The Living Daylights? Well, as Brandon Peters correctly pointed out, Maryam d'Abo's relationship with Timothy Dalton is not just a casual fling, but a developed romantic subplot that is the most fully-developed relationship in a Bond film since On Her Majesty's Secret Service.
Things got even better in the Pierce Brosnan era. GoldenEye had three terrific female leads. Aside from Judi Dench as M, we have Natalya Simonova (Izabella Scorupco) as a whip-smart computer programmer who is adapt to new technology in a way 007 is not, as well as providing the kind of moral compass that puts the entire 007 franchise in a new light (she is appalled and horrified both by the violence she encounters and the macho dick-measuring contests that make much of it possible). As Brandon Peters mentioned in our GoldeneEye commentary last month, the key of the Brosnan films is that it views Bond's 'traits' (the guns, the girls, the gambling, the alcohol, and cigarettes) as character flaws and/or defense mechanisms, something Natalya highlights rather successfully. And let's not forget Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen in a star-making performance), who is easily the best female villain the series has ever produced. She is basically a pain/death-fetishist and she nor the film makes no apologies for her insatiable sexual appetite for either/or.
Tomorrow Never Dies has, aside from a returning Judi Dench, two major female characters. Teri Hatcher won't make anyone's list of favorite 'Bond girls', but the idea behind her, that of Bond running into one of the countless women he loved-then-left over the years, offers the film, or at least its first half, an emotional pathos that makes the Brosnan films work. Following Paris's murder at the mid-way point (after which she is actually mourned), the film teams Bond up with a secret agent played by Michelle Yeoh. Yeoh's Wai Lin is basically a Chinese female James Bond, plain and simple. While I don't quite buy their quickie romance nor do I care for an action climax that gives Bond most of the heavy lifting, the film treats her skills as no big deal and barely thinks to comment on it. I wish she got captured less and killed more people in the finale, but Yeoh and Brosnan work well together and their relationship is more about nationality than gender.
The World Is Not Enough offers one of the most complex Bond girls in the series's history as well as one of the worst Bond girls of the last 25 years. Sophie Marceau's Electra King goes from kidnap victim to possible Stockholm sufferer to full-blown super-villain over the course of the film's 128 minutes. If Tomorrow Never Dies dealt with one of Bond's random flames coming back into his life, The World Is Not Enough dealt with Bond more-or-less falling in love with what should have been a random conquest, which of course makes her betrayal sting all the more. Chris Nolan obviously liked this idea, since he borrowed it for The Dark Knight Rises. And while Brosnan arguably makes too much of a fuss over having to murder her in the film's climax, at least her violent onscreen death offers no mercy, no quarter is given to her on account of her gender. Of all 24 007 films, The World Is Not Enough is the only one where the absolute main villain is female, which is just one reason why the film is ever-so underrated.
But the reason the film is underrated is that most of the film's reputation is unfortunately based around Dr. Christmas Jones, badly played by Denise Richards. The inclusion of Dr. Jones is the film's fatal flaw, as she's only there because Michael Apted wasn't willing to break with convention and leave Bond without a final girl to save/bed in the finale. The film should have been willing to just make Judi Dench's imperiled M the proverbial 'Bond girl', something they did right in Skyfall. But if I may pontificate for a moment, don't get caught decrying the mere idea that someone who looks like Denise Richards could be a nuclear physicist as what you're saying is that attractive women can't possibly be taken seriously as scientists. Lois Chiles is just fine as Dr. Holly Goodhead in Moonraker. There is nothing wrong with the character of Dr. Christmas Jones other than that the actress who plays her gives a poor performance.
Die Another Day offers two major female characters, one of whom is forgettable but harmless (Rosamund Pike) and the other whom ranks as the worst Bond girl since... um.... help me out Brandon. But again, the problem with Jinx (Halle Berry) isn't in concept (she's basically a rewritten version of Wai Lin after Michelle Yeoh passed on reprising her role) but in execution. In short, Halle Berry is terrible and obnoxious in the film, a film that thinks she's the best thing since sliced bread and turns the second half of the film into a backdoor pilot for the Jinx spin-off that never came. Most annoyingly, the film goes out of its way to call attention to its heroine's sexual prowess and ass-kicking skills as if the very fact that a woman (gasp!) can behave this way is noteworthy and impressive even in 2002. Rosamund Pike is relatively unmemorable, although she caps off a Brosnan run which contains an impressive three female villains out of four entries.
Casino Royale offers one of the more enjoyable female leads of the series in the person of Eva Green's Vesper Lin. But I'd argue most of the huzzahs for this character comes from her introductory scenes (during which she profiles Bond upon first meeting). During the course of the narrative, she collapses into a pool of hyperventilating tears upon encountering violence, is kidnapped by the villains, and, let's be honest here, becomes a woman-in-refrigerator. Whatever chemistry she shares with Craig (oodles), her primary purpose in the James Bond mythology is to die violently and thus give Bond motivation to go crazy in the next film (as well as establish Bond's famous lack of emotional connection). Eva Green is terrific in the film, she and Craig crackle onscreen together, but it's not anything resembling groundbreaking in terms of female leads in a 007 film.
Quantum of Solace has two major female characters. Olga Kurylenko never even sleeps with 007 but she is the rare Bond girl who exists completely outside the scope of being even a potential conquest. Her quest for revenge is merely meant to parallel Bond's own murderous rampage and the fact that they don't share much chemistry is offset by the fact that they aren't supposedly to be terribly friendly with each other in the first place. It's a refreshingly 'strictly business' relationship. Gemma Arterton *is* basically a glorified conquest, and she merits mention only in that her casual murder actually is treated as a horrible and tragic event that Bond must be held at least morally accountable for.
In Skyfall James Bond seduces a human trafficking victim (who was underage when she was first raped) with false promises of rescue, allows them both to be captured, then doesn't bat an eye when she is shot in the head by arch-villain Silva (Javier Bardem) in what amounts to a spy-vs-spy dick-measuring contest. The other two women of the picture, Eve (Naomie Harris) and M (Judi Dench) suffer fates that arguably occur to reset the series template to a more regressive patriarchal status quo. Eve is introduced as a completely competent field agent but spends the majority of the film being mocked for her one mistake (never mind how Bond fails again and again throughout the picture) and asserting that she's not fit for field duty before putting her back behind a desk as the new Moneypenny. Yes having Moneypenny as a former field agent may open new avenues in later films, but for the moment the film basically says that this woman belongs not in the field but at a desk where she obeys the whims of someone who was once her equal.
M's fate is equally disconcerting, where the once progressive idea of a female (and mostly de-sexualized) M is replaced by a younger male superior. This female M is punished for her "sins" despite making the same calls that anyone in her position would have (as was the case with 24's lone female president who was expected by many to put her family above her duties as Commander in Chief). What's disconcerting about this resetting is how self-satisfied the film feels with this new normal, as if proper balance has been restoring by killing off a strong authoritative female character and replacing her with a man (an admittedly winning Ralph Fiennes) while taking another strong would-be action heroine and putting her in a subservient role. "Okay," Mendes and company seem to be saying during the last scene of the picture, "M's a man again, Moneypenny is back at the desk where she belongs, *now* things are back to normal".
What's more distressing about this theoretical 'turning back the clock' is that it acknowledges a nostalgia for a portion of the James Bond series that was only commonplace during the beginning of its existence. Yes the Connery films often treated women like disposable playthings and the meme surrounding the misogyny of the James Bond series arguably comes mostly from Connery's six official adventures (although even then the female lead killed the main villain in two of the six films). But for at least half of the franchises's 50-year lifespan, since Roger Moore gave way to Timothy Dalton, the James Bond films have made an effort, sometimes more successful than others to develop "Bond girls" who are more than just f**k toys and/or dead bodies. It would be a shame if part of 'restoring the Bond template', as Skyfall so clearly wants to do, means undoing much of the franchise's successes in terms of its often progressive female leads. Bond girls have been Bond women for at least the last 25 years. It's the first Bond film in a long time to actually regress and actually live up to the Bond Girl stereotype ironically chasing a status quo that was rarely if ever really so.