I saw Skyfall last night, having skilfully avoided spoilers for a couple of weeks. I’m not really a big Bond fan, but I thoroughly enjoyed Casino Royale, which appeared to be a more modern, gritty and open-minded take on what had really become an oily slick and dated super-spy overblown popcorn fest. Although follow-up Quantum of Solace was a disappointment, I’d heard great things about Skyfall. Many reviews had proclaimed it to be the best Bond ever, and I’d also seen a surprising amount of commentary from people arguing the film marked a turning point regarding Bond and sexism. Several such columns were written by women. This all sounded very promising.
Perhaps this is why the film shocked me. Not in terms of the plot, which was generally ham-fisted, illogical, and yet trying really very hard to be clever; instead, it merely overcomplicated things, leading to a surprisingly flabby run-time. Not in terms of the set-pieces, which had their moments but rarely elevated themselves beyond typical action fare (and having recently seen Dredd—a hardcore take on action films—Bond was PG by comparison). No, what shocked me was James Bond seemingly forgetting what century it’s set in, and those in charge doing a semi-reboot and partying like it’s 1969.
Note that if you’ve not watched the film yet, you might want to stop reading, because there are spoilers ahead.
Not every film is going to promote equality and nor should it be forced to. Real-life has sexism, and so it goes that characters within movies will be sexist, including Bond. To some extent, this is a given: Bond is portrayed as a cold-hearted weapon that uses anything as a tool to get his way and succeed in his mission. However, this does not excuse the Bond film itself from extolling the same values. In other words, just because Bond is a sexist who discards women like candy wrappers, there’s no reason why the film itself cannot offer strong women as characters. Indeed, Bond has offered strong women recently, such as the relatively complex Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale, and also Judi Dench’s wonderfully hard-arsed M, for me one of the few redeeming aspects of the Brosnan Bonds.
Here are the women I specifically remember from Skyfall, and how I read what the film did with them:
- The unnamed woman Bond wakes up with, having survived in an unlikely manner his being shot and falling hundreds of feet to a river, and then plunging over a waterfall. Did she save his life? Who knows? She doesn’t get an introduction, nor a single word of dialogue. She’s just set-dressing—titillation that doesn’t even really move on Bond’s story. (The entire section could easily have been cut right to a drunk Bond attempting to down a shot with a scorpion on his hand.)
- Sévérine, a victim of constant sexual abuse (having been enslaved by traffickers for a number years), a fact that she shares with Bond, while visibly shaking. Knowing this, and despite saying he could help her, Bond’s next act is to sneak into Sévérine’s room and have sex with her in the shower. A couple of scenes later, she’s tied up with a glass of whisky on her head, and unceremoniously dispatched by the film’s bad guy. Bond quips that was a “waste of good scotch”, which is just astonishingly callous. It reduces Sévérine to nothing but a plot-device vehicle, and transforms Bond into an utterly irredeemable shit, beyond all hope. But compare this to the Bond in Casino Royale who comforted Vesper Lynd in the shower when she was shaken. In Skyfall, he’d have probably just shagged her too. I was wondering if at some point, Daniel Craig would tear off his mask, revealing a laughing Roger Moore underneath.
- A female MP leading an enquiry, whose main role appeared to be banging on a bit before being told to pipe down by a man.
- M, as previously mentioned, a capable head of MI6, only in this film she’s rebooted as a relatively inept head of MI6. Although she somewhat gets to show her worth towards the end of the film, setting up booby traps during a firefight, she’s ultimately killed for no obvious plot reason, and immediately replaced by a man, because that’s clearly the way things should be at the top of MI6!
- Eve, a capable, tough agent, who is ordered to take a shot that results in Bond being hit rather than the bad guy MI6 were chasing. For reasons unknown, Eve doesn’t shoot again (perhaps through shock). Regardless, she subsequently saves Bond later in the film, yet decides to become a secretary, given that the non-shock reveal was that her surname is Moneypenny.
So if you’re taking note, women in Skyfall are one or more of disposable, throwaway, incompetent, “know their place” or set dressing. With Dench’s departure, the only confirmed recurring role will be Moneypenny, and I can only hope she won’t be the Moneypenny of old, but a new incarnation who does more than receive Bond’s bursts of innuendo. But given how the writers cast women in Skyfall, I’m not optimistic.
Again, that Bond himself as a character is clearly sexist isn’t the issue— it’s that Purvis, Wade and Logan churned out a script that marginalised women and reset Bond to the 1960s. What’s even more baffling is how Skyfall has been championed as a less sexist and more modern take on the character, rather than the throwback that it is.
Further reading: Giles Coren’s Bond, Villain, in which he states the shower scene was “so vile, sexist and sad that it made me feel physically sick”.