I’ll fess up at the outset: as a white hetero guy, the new Bond flick Skyfall is a great yarn. It hits all the right Bond notes: great soundtrack including, of course, Adele’s terrific theme song. It is chock-a-block with edge-of-seat thrills combined with well paced character and plot building sequences. And there are some really exciting stunts, including in the opening sequence a motorcycle chase on the ceramic tile rooftops over the grand bazar in Istanbaul. And, of course, the ever dapper Bond in his suits with his suave demeanor who serves up an excellent cool-as-a-cuke and patriotically loyal agent.
Yes indeed, this one works. Audiences are thrilled, the critics are a-swoon. But here’s what’s missing from the latest Bon(d)-fete: even a baseline of gender intelligence. Worse, there is the lingering smell of homophobia in the superbly acted supervillain (played by Javier Bardem). The villain is creepy, funny, psychotic — everything you could ask for, but whose characterization as evil is unnecessarily rooted in homoeroticism.
Here’s some of the tally. Except for Dame Judy Dench, the ladies were bed toys, nursemaids, sex slaves, targets, and — even where there was one bright hope for something a little different, a partner in the field and a woman who could not only keep up with Bond but who could save him in a pinch, [plot spoiler alert] unfortunately she is also the agent who accidentally shoots Bond, who serves in part as his agency mistress, and by the end of the film has traded in her gun for a typewriter.
Added to this is a moral hierarchy that is white through and through (Judy Dench, Ralph Fiennes, an assortment of white MPs, white computer geek), and a villainy that isn’t white – Bardem’s supervillain, prostitutes and gangsters. Moneypenny (played by Naomie Harris) seems to be adding a little diversity to the Empire in the opening sequences, but quickly fades to the background, and only returns prominently to the storyline near the end in her secretarial role.
Am I asking too much from a Hollywood blockbuster? After all, the gender and sexual political state of other recent films in the romp-genre isn’t exactly inspirational (think The Avengers, the Sherlock Holmes franchise, Ironman, Star Trek, etc.). It’s hard not to expect the worst, even when a film is great fun, like Skyfall.
The thing is, I like these films, but the gender stupidity is getting exhausting. It’s spoiling the fun. I like the gorgeous cityscapes of great metropolises (London, Beijing and Macau), the fascinating glimpses into the eerie and opulent interiors where the ultra-rich live and play, the beautiful 1965 Aston Martin DB5, even the craggy medieval landscape of Scotland where Bond finally retreats for his emphatically low-tech final showdown with Javier Bardem.
I am a sucker for Bond’s supernatural fighting and survival skills. It all works for me. But that’s why the obvious gender stupidity and not so obvious homophobic taint are so irksome. There is intelligence at work in this script, and talent in the filmmaking, so why the vacuum of intelligence on this score? Why, like Bond’s suits and cars, do the gender and sexual politics have to be so thoroughly rooted in the 1960s?
It is a comic book story, for sure, but lets face it, comic books are more complex than ever. Skyfall’s metanarratives have something to do with security and fear, and with the Western world’s sustained paranoia-cum-xenophobia about non-white others; something to do with state security and the chronic addiction to intelligence gathering coupled with hostility to public accountability; and something to do with the increasingly omnipresent moral murk of having to break the law to enforce it to keep “civilization” safe. This seems to be, by all accounts, a rather bloody and serious business. Too serious, I suppose, to take account of women as sexual props and villainy linked to queer sexuality.
I can find hardly another review that mentions these things. It is as if Hollywood’s pixie dust vanquishes our collective gender intelligence. Surely it must be possible to say “what a great film!” and “but what’s up with the sexism?” in the same review? And more importantly, surely it must be possible to make a great Bond film without abandoning the moral intelligence of the times?