Tabloids Upset By Criticism of James Bond

From Ben Child’s “Week in Geek” column at the Guardian:

Should we watch old movies with one eye on the time and place in which they were made, or view them through a more modern mindset? That is the question the Twittersphere has been pondering after a video depicting some of James Bond’s most misogynist moments went viral on social media.

In chopping together scenes in which Her Majesty’s top spy takes advantage of vulnerable women, slaps bottoms and physically restrains women until they submit to sex, a YouTube cut-and-paste merchant who goes by the name Guru Kid has even missed most of 007’s nastiest behaviour…

Child’s article comes in the wake of a moral panic disguised as a critique of a moral panic: thus on 26 January several British tabloids ran pieces with headlines such as “‘James Bond is a sexist, racist rapist’: Millennials appalled after watching 007 film for first time” (Daily Mirror); “James Bond branded ‘flat out rapist’ by angry millennials” (Daily Star); “Dr NO! Millennials watching classic Bond movies for the first time blast ‘sexist’ and ‘racist’ plots online – and describe Sean Connery’s 007 as ‘basically a rapist'” (Mail Online); “James Bond: Millennials SLAM old movies ‘Sexist, racist and Sean Connery’s 007 is rapist'” (Express); and “James Bond films slammed as ‘racist and sexist’ by young people watching them for the first time with Sean Connery’s with Sean Connery’s spy labelled ‘basically a rapist'” (The Sun).

It’s not clear why there was a flurry on that particular day: was there some ur-text that inspired them all, or did one article go viral and so the others decided to bandwagon? Either way, this is effortless journalism: simply select some Tweets expressing a particular view, string them together, and present them as a collection that exposes some awful truth about the state of society. In this case, we are to infer that young people are censorious and oversensitive, and unable to value Bond’s hyper-competent masculinity. Thus the outrage machine is fed: “why can’t these people simply not watch the films if they are offended by them?” is the cry from those offended by critical comments they have chosen to read.

In fact, though, it is hardly controversial to point out that aspects of the franchise are dated, and that attitudes and actions depicted in the early films and books would not be acceptable or even credible today. The point that even Daniel Craig’s modern depiction has an unlikable side is perfectly reasonable, too. As Child points out:

Bond producers have acknowledged 007’s status as an unreconstructed brute in more recent episodes. When Judi Dench’s M first meets Pierce Brosnan’s suave super-spy in GoldenEye (1995), she lambasts him as a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur, a relic of the cold war”, while she describes the Daniel Craig version as a “blunt instrument” in Casino Royale (2006)…

One of the clips in the viral video (which was actually uploaded in 2016, and is lighthearted in tone) is from Moonraker, and shows Roger Moore’s sexist surprise that the scientist Dr Goodhead is a woman. However, this dinosaur attitude is clearly presented in the film as a joke at Bond’s (and perhaps Moore’s) expense: Bond is flawed and out of touch.

Perhaps the most controversial clip in the video compilation is from Diamonds are Forever, in which Bond rips off a woman’s bikini top and throttles her with it. The context here is Bond as a ruthless and angry interrogator seeking information from a Blofeld associate, rather than Bond as a sex attacker, but the scene is sufficiently disturbing that when the film is regularly re-shown on ITV during the daytime the segment is censored. This excision has failed to excite the kind of controversy provoked by members of the public expressing their views on Twitter.

The panic over criticism of Bond can be placed within a couple of contexts: first, that criticism of the taken-for-granted is “political correctness” (thus it’s one thing for Walt Disney to bowdlerise fairytales, but quite another to criticise fairytale princes for kissing without consent); and second, that this is another attack on that persecuted minority known as “the white straight male”.

On this second point, there was an earlier James Bond controversy last month, when Barbara Broccoli stated regarding the future of the film series that “Anything is possible… who knows what the future will bring?” Tabloids extrapolated from “anything is possible” not that the next Bond actor might be Timothy Spall or Warwick Davis, but that “James Bond boss says next 007 after Daniel Craig ‘could be a woman'”, even though she had provided no such quote. The prospect was again met with howls of dismay, as an attack on aspirational masculinity.

Fleming’s character has obviously been tweaked more than once over the years, both in the films and in the continuation novels. For instance, Bond as a smoker is no longer credible given the physical demands of his job, and tobacco in any case is associated with weakness and addiction rather than sophisticated pleasure. The issue with a female Bond, or a Black Bond, it seems to me, is that the filmmakers would have to decide whether Bond lives in a universe in which race and sex are mere incidental details, or if these aspects of identity affect how he or she is treated by the world and acts within it. If the latter, then the whole dynamic of the series needs to be re-thought.

However, the test of a formula’s strength is how far it can be explored through variation and reinvention rather than just repetition. Eventually, the character of James Bond will enter the public domain, at which point all kinds of new directions will be available, as we have seen with Sherlock Holmes; and unofficial interpretations already exist, depicting Bond as elderly, or battling supernatural beings, and so on. Are tabloids going to whip up a storm whenever one of these new versions is not to their liking?

One Response

  1. Well, on Tuesday, the Sun used the US alt-right insult “snowflakes” on its front page, to refer to people calling for darts to stop using podium girls.

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