In the years following the Second World War, Britain had shifted in ways many thought impossible. In the 1950s, amidst the fading colonial legacy of a crumbling empire, with increasing levels of immigration and the decreased faith in the power of the free market led, the country’s middle class felt stranded. These revolutionary changes in the country’s fabric radically challenged the ideas they had been raised to adhere to in the name of success. Middle England was holding out for a hero – and boy did Ian Fleming’s gin-swilling womaniser give them one.
James Bond is a cultural artefact – an ideological snap-shot, emerging initially as the embodiment of the established order, in order to defend it. Such was the archetypal appeal of the character, and so in tune was he to the fears of the middle class, that he soon moved seamlessly between mediums. In a world where Britain’s influence seemed to be waning, and where marginalised races and genders were pushing for equality, Bond showed Middle England could still have it all – no wonder he’s cited as being David Cameron’s inspiration for foreign policy, 007 is a conservative’s wet-dream.
Of course, society has continued to change in the five decades since, and as the franchise’s latest chapter, Spectre, has incessantly reminded us, “times have changed,” and the mythos surrounding Bond has begun to seem “old fashioned.” Since the turn of the century, war and financial crisis have seen a new generation of protest movements challenge the old established norms Bond films had become so comfortable with. Suddenly, in a world where citizens’ experiences failed to match the ideological promises of the ruling elite, leading many to reject ideas of national interest as rich Englishmen prepared yet again to pack off poor Englishmen to die for lies in the Middle East. The “quintessential Englishman” at the heart of Bond’s character became woefully out of step with public perception.
Western capitalist ideology itself had to evolve if it was to survive. Bond was very much caught up in that. In the Jason Bourne Age, where the state had become the archetypal cultural enemy, the simpering sex-pest of Piers Brosnan’s Bond was a hyper-competent human-weapon, without limitations or doubts. He simply did not respond to the world’s changing consciousness. An emotionally and physically brittle Bond was needed – a flawed hero, rather than an omnipotent pervert. Daniel Craig’s “James Blond” supposedly heralded a new era for the icon in this respect – he promised to bleed when he was hurt, to clash with the status-quo when it served nobody, and to evolve the way he corresponded to race and gender. But with Spectre completing a four film arc in Craig’s apparently final outing, the change seems all too cosmetic.
While from the very start in Casino Royale (2006), Craig’s Bond is markedly less overtly creepy than Brosnan, Dalton, Moore or Connery before him, and indeed seems to be interested a great deal more in the welfare of the women in his life. Within the script though, this only translates to a toxic sense of self-entitlement; the new films are riddled with nice-guy logic, suggesting that if you treat a woman nicely you innately obtain the rights to access their pants.
James Bond is a cultural artefact – an ideological snap-shot, emerging initially as the embodiment of the established order, in order to defend it.
When asked about Bond’s chivalry, Daniel Craig himself even admitted in The Red Bulletin that he would rather “slash his wrists” than play Bond again, before claiming that the character is “a misogynist.” And with good reason. Besides the trembling post-assassination-attempt Monica Bellucci in Spectre (bizarrely lauded for being the oldest ever Bond girl as if terrifying a 50 year old into bed is more progressive than doing the same to a 20-something) the Bond’s most infamous victim is surely Skyfall’s (2012) Séverine, a sex-slave whom Bond expresses his sympathy for, before stowing away on the boat she is held on and ‘surprising’ her, sans pants.
And Bond does this, time and again – he lays his coat over a proverbial puddle one second before tossing his trousers to the floor the next with little even resembling consent. And when it doesn’t pay off, both he and the audience wilt. Bond has cinematic nice-guy-syndrome.
Then of course there is Bond’s relation to the status quo. At the heart of Spectre, just as with Skyfall, for all the critical clamour about surveillance critiques, there is undeniably a defence of the status quo – and particularly the British state. In the old days, this would have been nauseatingly unabashed; however, it would be wrong to believe Bond is now critical of the power-imbalances of the world. Rather, as is exemplified by Spectre, we are presented with a false dichotomy. In what is the most highly praised aspect of the story, shady security agent C argues the case that we need an NSA-style super computer to invade the privacy of billions of people to protect us from terrorists. This gross abuse of power is juxtaposed against the “old school” surveillance techniques of Bond – who is referred to as something of a dinosaur, but who respects the freedom of the individual… despite being an unaccountable governmental assassin. This is not some valiant effort to save us from an over-bearing state, it is a semantic battle that dupes us into believing there is a difference between full-fat and semi-skimmed totalitarianism.
The truth is neither of these are defensible as anything other than mechanisms of control – unless considered in a political vacuum. And that’s exactly what Spectre is: a depoliticised polemic, which by avoiding bigger questions props up dominant thought. Pacing issues, tuneless theme, and hideously shoe-horned plot (in which Christoph Waltz is shamefully wasted) aside, it falls apart in its supposed promise of a gritty, honest Bond because it stops short of looking at why people might want to do horrible things to us, besides the naturalised yet highly biased opinion that it is simply, in the words of Judi Dench in Skyfall, “a dangerous world.”
that’s exactly what Spectre is: a depoliticised polemic, which by avoiding bigger questions props up dominant thought.
Just as ideological discourse regarding security has evolved to give us a ‘choice’ between security and freedom; a debate that in the wake of the horrors of Paris last week, will no doubt be re-trodden thoroughly mercilessly by the political mainstream. This is a false dichotomy too. The truth is we can be both secure and free – there are measures, such as ceasing to deal arms with Saudi Arabia, that could disarm many of our perceived ‘threats’ without having to delve into the private lives of millions of innocent people.
During Daniel Craig’s tenure as 007, James Bond has undeniably modernised – but only in so far as he has modernised a conservative fantasy for a modern age of aggressive expansion in the name of ‘humanitarian’ intervention, and curtailed freedoms to preserve democracy. With the departure of Craig, one question suddenly seems to have leapt onto everyone’s lips; and the answer to it I feel exemplifies how Bond’s modernisation is really just a repackaging of old ideology. “How about Idris Elba? Is the world ready for a black James Bond?” Changing the skin colour of one particular symbol of colonialism and patriarchy in the name of progress is meaningless tokenism if you don’t challenge those systemic causes of oppression. It’s about as meaningful as having had Barack Obama as US President.