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Could There Be a Truly Gay-Friendly James Bond?

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by Steven Erickson
November 13, 2012 8:31 AM
8 Comments
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Daniel Craig Javier Bardem Skyfall

The James Bond series, now celebrating its 50th anniversary, has long been alienating to viewers who aren’t straight white men. Often, the much-celebrated Sean Connery vehicles of the ‘60s now come across as the white British equivalent of Rick Ross’ materialistic hip-hop videos, in which the rapper pours champagne in mansions while women in bikinis dance. The series descended into self-parody once Roger Moore took over Bond’s role, and it seemed to lose its way after Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan, in turn, took his place. Yet the series has considerable legs, and it’s remained commercially potent—with all entries adjusted for inflation, Casino Royale is the third most popular Bond film ever. 

It would be unimaginable for James Bond to take a male lover. Nevertheless, some of the recent James Bond films have suggested that someday he might, with kinky homoerotic torture or interrogation scenes. With Casino Royale, the series seemed interested in reaching a female and gay male audience, toning down its customary misogyny and offering up an iconic image of Daniel Craig, in his first role as 007, emerging from the sea clad only in tight briefs. Comparing the recent films to the ‘60s films reveals a lot about changing public attitudes towards masculinity, as well as what phobias have persisted, and how these attitudes survive in film.

The ‘60s Bond films take it for granted that Bond will sleep with every attractive woman he meets, although they tend to elide the exact details of Bond’s sex life. There’s also a tinge of Orientalism to them. From Russia With Love takes place in Istanbul, and You Only Live Twice in Japan. If they offer the heterosexual male spectator the pleasure of gazing at beautiful women, they also give him the opportunity to gaze at distant locales. The two are often linked. Invited to a Roma gathering in Istanbul in From Russia With Love, Bond witnesses a catfight between two women and then gets the chance to sleep with the local patriarch’s daughters. For Bond, travel usually means the chance to sleep with Eastern European, Middle Eastern or Asian women. This is just as true of Skyfall, the series’ latest installment, as the Connery-era films. Orientalism sometimes spills over into overt racism, as in the clueless use of yellowface in You Only Live Twice. If Idris Elba eventually takes over the role from Craig, as has been widely rumored, it would be interesting to see how a black Bond’s sex life plays out and whether it will dodge the stereotypes that may come with this casting.  

From Russia With Love revolves around a female Russian spy, Tatiana (Daniela Bianchi), who defects to the West and brings a cryptographic machine with her. Unbeknownst to her, she’s being manipulated by the evil SPECTRE. While she takes action in leaving Russia, most of the film presents her as a passive sex object. To be fair, From Russia With Love depicts Connery with his shirt off, frequently, but he also gets to kick ass. Meanwhile, Tatiana is passed-out during a big action scene on the Orient Express. Only when fighting a betrayal by another woman in defense of Bond does she come to life.  

Ian Fleming’s novels and the ‘60s Bond films have inspired a counter-canon of parodies, novels, and films purporting to show what it’s really like to be a spy. John le Carré’s whole body of work emphasizes the gray bureaucracy of espionage, with little sex and deglamorized violence. As early as the mid ‘60s, Joseph Losey’s Modesty Blaise mocked the Bond films, paving the way for Austin Powers and the TV show Archer. Amateur fan fiction writers have explored the homoerotic undercurrents of Quantum of Solace and Casino Royale; the presence of an overtly gay character in Skyfall, even if he’s the villain, is bound to be the jump-off for new stories. The Skyfall-inspired story Tomorrow Is Another Day, for instance, brings back a character from Casino Royale to express the author's disappointment at his disappearance from the films.

Skyfall cuts from an explosion to its sole sex scene, as Bond makes out with an anonymous woman while hiding out in an unidentified tropical location.  Bond will go on to join another woman in the shower, but given the constraints of the PG-13 rating, neither encounter is very explicit. Even so, the film’s libido lags. Bond constantly flirts with his driver and assistant, Eve (Naomie Harris), but nothing consequential comes of it. The two women Bond sleeps with may be disposable, but the film doesn’t degrade them. They’re just not very important . 

The Bond films are continuing to send mixed messages to gay spectators. Skyfall is full of images of a shirtless Craig, just as the ‘60s films often stripped Connery to the waist. Nevertheless, it’s hardly accepting of a gay male gaze upon his body. Expanding upon the genital torture scene from Casino Royale, Skyfall has its villain, Silva (Javier Bardem), tie Bond up and proceed to feel him up. All the while, the two men exchange suggestive banter, with Bond even suggesting that he’s had gay sex before. With his hair dyed blonde and a colorful wardrobe, Silva looks stereotypically gay.  However, it’s too bad that Skyfall can’t conjure up homoeroticism without the presence of homophobia to balance it out.  If there’s anything progressive in the film, it lies in the relationship between M (Judi Dench) and Bond. At length, Skyfall explores platonic friendship between men and women, a kind of bond, so to speak, many people don’t even think exists.

In many respects, the ‘60s and ‘present-day Bond films don’t seem so different. Both are willing to show Bond as a fetish object, but only on his own terms. He gets to be a stud, while most of the women he sleeps with are cast aside. But over the years, there’s been a decreasing emphasis on Bond’s womanizing and an expanded role for some of the women he works with. A character like the M of Skyfall would be out of place in Goldfinger or From Russia With Love. Still, in some ways, the Bond films remain as old-fashioned as ever. A queer Bond is obviously never going to appear. Is an unambiguously gay-friendly Bond too much to ask for? 

Steven Erickson is a writer and filmmaker based in New York. He has published in newspapers and websites across America, including The Village Voice, Gay City News, The Atlantic, Salon, indieWIRE, The Nashville Scene, Studio Daily and many others. His most recent film is the 2009 short Squawk.

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8 Comments

  • Steve | November 13, 2012 2:09 PMReply

    Deborah, yellowface is used in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE when Bond disguises himself as a Japanese man.

  • menowant | November 13, 2012 1:57 PMReply

    dear mr. whatchammacallit, not EVERYTHING should be gay or pander to a gay audience. it's okay if bond is straight, and remains straight forever. nothing wrong with that. just like not everything should pander to women (jockstraps for instance), blacks (sun tan lotion for instance), asians, etc etc. diversity and specificity is a wonderful thing. i can't write an article wondering why a very popular gay character should all of a sudden be straight. what good does that serve? in any case, ur article is just ur opinion, and like a$$hole$ i guess u're entitled to having one. and i'm gone.

  • Deborah Lipp | November 13, 2012 1:43 PMReply

    I can't think of an instance of yellowface in You Only Live Twice; a host of Asian actors were employed. Yellowface was used extensively in Dr. No, however.

  • Butt Toucher | November 13, 2012 12:48 PMReply

    You look like James Bond's gay brother, Gabe Bond.

  • Christin | November 13, 2012 11:54 AMReply

    I think the jury's still out whether Silva is hitting on Bond out of genuine interest or just to make him squeamish. When Bond says "what makes you think it's my first time?" Silva drops the act and never returns to it. Not to say that he isn't gay but in that particular instance, he likely has more on his mind. The point is, you can't tell from that scene alone.

    I maintain that there's Bond/Ronson subtext (that guy who got shot in the beginning). Bond seems more upset at the idea of leaving him to bleed out (M has to call him off) than when Severine gets shot. M later tells Bond to come back to work "for Ronson." And of course, Bond's implication to Silva that sleeping with men is nothing new. Of course, as with Silva, that could just be verbal jousting but with all Ronson mentions before (more than Severine gets) I'm willing to believe it's subtext even if I'm the only one and I will die on this hill!

  • David Savage | November 13, 2012 10:47 AMReply

    I'm sorry, but Erickson also misses the highly stylized camp appeal of the Bond villainness archetype that has existed throughout the series and which has been a major object of appeal for a gay spectator, myself included. Armies of sexy, handspringing bodyguards? HOTT! Since the series began, 007 has been lured, tricked and double-crossed by women wilier than him. Yes, most get blown-away. But that's the machinations of the genre, it's nothing to do with misogyny. Many film critics of the feminist/Marxist school have tried to view the Bond series through an enraged lens of "the male gaze" / heterosexism / racism/ blah, blah, blah -- and failed. Why? Because their viewpoint is totally humorless and ploddingly literal. These are basically comic book characters who were created to entertain, not instruct and proselytize!

  • gg | November 13, 2012 2:24 PM

    brilliant deduction max!

  • David Savage | November 13, 2012 10:29 AMReply

    I take issue with Erickson's whole thesis -- that the Bond films must pander to a gay audience, or give gay spectators what they supposedly "crave": To see 007 involved in a gay tryst or something homoerotic. Why? I don't. I wouldn't want Bond's character to be diluted with a bunch of hand-wringing, PC, character-by-committee, mishmash of tropes.Why can't he be a heterosexual, woman-crazed, masculine, alpha male? I'm gay and I never had a problem with it beyond a few eye-rolls.

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