For nearly 50 years, the James Bond film series has given us action, thrills, and coolness on a grand scale. It’s also given us some of the most beautiful women ever to grace the big screen. Fans of the movies have a real fondness for these women, but within the films, they are generally treated as simply as eye candy, and with few exceptions that’s how they’re written. Bond himself seems to find all women, good or evil, as just potential conquests, making the rare occasions when his feelings for them are deeper all the more interesting.
The film series began in 1962, well before the sexual revolution, yet even after they started writing women to be even slightly more three dimensional, Bond himself still regards them with little more than bemusement. Let’s take a look at how “Bond Girls” were treated during each of the different Bond’s period.
Sean Connery may be considered the best James Bond to most people, myself included, but he certainly didn’t treat women all that well. On the one hand, he was very protective of them and flirtatiously gentle, but he could turn it around very quickly and become somewhat violent if he thinks the woman is withholding information. A perfect example of this change comes in From Russia with Love (1963) wherein he goes from sweet to harsh with Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi) in nearly an instant, giving her a slap across the face. He’s also dismissive of some of the lesser or “unimportant” women he spends time with. In Goldfinger, he swats the behind of the young woman who’s applying sunscreen to him by the pool when Felix Leiter appears, telling her, “Run along. Man talk.” In that same film, he meets the titular villain’s aid, Pussy Galore, played by Honor Blackman. Ms. Galore is in no way interested in Bond and reacts to his obligatory advances with an eye-roll and a Judo flip. While not as evident in the film, in the Ian Fleming novel she’s explicitly said to be a lesbian. In both cases, Bond’s manly wiles eventually work and Galore switches teams, in both senses of the term, very clearly implying that female homosexuality is akin to villainy.
George Lazenby only had one go as Agent 007, in 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but he left an indelible mark on the franchise as portraying Bond actually falling in love. His relationship with Tracy DiVicenzo (Diana Rigg) starts with him protecting her and making his usual come-on attempt — eventually ending with them getting married. It’s strange to think about Lazenby (usually derided as the worst James Bond) giving a believable performance, but he absolutely does. His performance conveys the feeling that Bond has fallen for someone truly and completely, not merely for sex, which makes it all the more heartbreaking when (spoilers) she is killed in the final moments of the film by Blofeld (Telly Savalas). While Connery is undoubtedly a better actor, I doubt he could have given a more vulnerable performance with the same material. Bond has, for once in the films, had a real, adult relationship. This, however, did not preclude him having trysts with a bevy of international bimbos before he’s made such a commitment.
During Roger Moore’s seven film tenure as James Bond, the female characters began to change, yet the character’s reaction to them largely remained unchanged, which makes it almost more problematic. During the Connery years, Bond’s attitude toward women, as misogynistic as it was, reflected the prevailing attitude of the period in which it was made. In the 70s, as women began to work more in traditionally male-centric fields, Moore’s Bond condescendingly chuckles at career women as one would a child playing dress-up. As this is a Bond movie and the women are gorgeous across the board, the implication of his snickering is that attractive women cannot also be smart. To be fair, of course, the filmmakers often cast the women for their looks without discovering if they could believably play whatever profession they’re meant to be in, which is why Lois Chiles as a rocket scientist in Moonraker (1979) does a pretty good job, but Tanya Roberts as an environmental engineer in A View to a Kill (1985) decidedly does not. Still, Moore is generally flippant towards his female counterparts and sometimes downright predatory. In his inaugural film, Live and Let Die (1973), Bond tricks the virgin tarot card reader Solitaire (Jane Seymour) into sleeping with him so he can get closer to her boss, Mr. Big (Yaphet Kotto). This is a woman who has forsaken carnal pleasure for supposed mystical enlightenment and this never enters into his thinking. In the following film, The Man with the Golden Gun (1974), Bond is nothing short of mean to his supposed friend and ally Mary Goodnight (Britt Ekland), a woman who is pretty evidently in love with him and yet he openly flirts, and even sleeps with other women while Goodnight watches. And it’s played for laughs. Get it? It’s a funny joke…
Things started to get better once Timothy Dalton took over. His was a kinder, less douchey Bond. He still wanted to be the protector, though, and even the relatively capable American agent Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell) in 1989’s Licence to Kill didn’t convince him she could handle things on her own. And, to be fair, she couldn’t. When Pierce Brosnan took over in 1995’s GoldenEye, the role of women in the series changed. For starters, we get the first female M in the form of Judi Dench who called Bond on his arrogance better than her predecessors. The new Miss Moneypenny (Samantha Bond) didn’t sit back and take the agent’s empty flirtations. For a movie or two anyway. The “Bond Girls” themselves began to hold their own a lot more, even branching out into the first female main villain in the history of the franchise. But progress came in small steps considering Denise Richards as the wholly unbelievable nuclear physicist, Dr. Christmas Jones, and Halle Berry as the tough girl cliché Jinx.
Finally, we come to Daniel Craig’s first film as the character, Casino Royale (2007), which gives us Eva Green as Vesper Lynd, the series’ best-written and most fleshed-out female character. She starts out incredibly cold to Bond’s charms, then grows to respect him, then to love him, which is the same for most “Bond Girls,” however here it’s given a chance to progress more organically. There’s a moment after she witnesses, and indeed aids, Bond in killing a bad guy and she’s given the opportunity to react to it naturally — by sitting fully clothed under a running shower. Bond, to his credit, sits with her silently and comforts her. The two eventually fall in love and Bond tenders his resignation at MI-6. That Vesper is eventually, heartbreakingly, revealed to be working for the bad guys, and her utter shame and sorrow at it, proves that she’s more than a one-dimensional damsel in distress or femme fatale. At least for one solitary movie, the Bond series proves it knows how to write women.
As a whole, the James Bond series treats women in a juvenile and pretty archaic way. At best, this is to be taken with a grain of salt, at worst it can be seen as harmful. Still, certain films have attempted to give their female characters more to do than the usual stand-around-and-look-pretty. Perhaps for its next 50 years, the franchise will better endeavor to treat women with a modicum of respect and make James Bond the proper hero for young, impressionable boys to emulate.