Dueling Skyfall Reviews: Skyfall: A Post-Election Conservative Wet Dream

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by Soraya L. Chemaly
November 14, 2012 11:30 AM
5 Comments
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FAIR WARNING: Do not read this if you don't want to know how the new James Bond movie Skyfall ends. Although, if you were disappointed by last week's election results, it might give you solace.

What can a feminist gal say about Skyfall? "Cars, cars, cars. Undies!! Guns, guns, guns! Undies!!" as my 13-year daughter regularly intones when we sit through movie previews. None-the-less, I love James Bond movies, every single one of them - the good ones and the bad ones. And that's saying a lot for a feminist. I grew up marking my childhood by Bond film locations, designing bad guy lairs, and idly wondering if "Truly Scrumptious" actually grew up to be "Pussy Galore."

These ridiculously entertaining films are so steeped in sexism and misogyny that you just have to buy your bad-for-you buttered popcorn, laugh through your casual deconstruction and consider them a fair reflection of the culture we live in. From this perspective Skyfall is one of the most interesting Bond movies made and, like much of what Hollywood is producing, an exercise in confused, male nostalgia.

Usually art reflects culture as it is changing instead of, like politics and science, sluggishly following after it changes. But, the fact that the movie, historically replete with famous single ladies, was released at the end of this particular Election week was really dead on given the trouncing that Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan received at the hands of single women voters. The other fact, that the movie is doing so well, is also a testament to its cultural currency. Both the election and the movie are indicators of the confusion people continue to experience in a world where gender roles are still evolving rapidly. The past 50 years of Bond films dovetails almost exactly with past 50 years of safe, cheap and effective hormonal birth control for women and its impact on gender roles. Which is why it is no mistake that the movie's weekend success was driven by a heavily older male audience.

So, here is the most important spoiler for the purposes of this critique: Judi Dench's M is killed off. In 1995, as M, Dench broke into the ultimate boys club that is the world of Bond. For an entire generation of Bond watchers there was no other M, a bad-ass woman not to be toyed with. At one point she says to a cocky, no pun intended, well, maybe a tiny pun, Bond, "I think you're a sexist, misogynist dinosaur." Which is why the most telling scene in Skyfall is the last one, when Ralph Fiennes, the new M, closes the film by saying to a resurrected Bond, "Are you ready to get back to work?" (Or words to that effect.)

Read: "Thank god that relatively brief, disorienting, foray into non-sexualized female power is over!"

Boys. Boys. Boys.

Your patriarchal relief is palpable.

Consider their question: What do to with women in this brave new world where so obviously objectifying "girls," albeit stunningly beautiful, well attired ones - gilting their naked bodies (in effect making them shiny distractions), "man" handling them (think on that term for a bit), strategically using them as pawns and eye candy, tying them up, legitimately and illegitimately raping them, portraying them as untrustworthy and backstabbing, and well, just bullying and terrorizing them - isn't quite as easy and acceptable as it once was. Not that it isn't done, but it's not quite as palatable. Besides, you can never be sure how some people are going to react.

What do the makers of Skyfall do with Dench's "unconventional" M and other women in this world?

M? An old, powerful, decisive, unremorseful, pragmatic woman with legitimate authority is dispatched - but not after a fair display of incompetence and public ignominy. I mean, c'mon, it's "unnatural" isn't it - for a woman to be so unsentimental and unmaternal. It's downright unladylike. Not only is she done away with, but she is portrayed as a matriarch, taken back into the home (and out of the public sphere) where a "son," deranged by her heartlessness, kills her. Who wants powerful old women around anyway? They're unpredictable and unattractive. Won't do what they're told. Think for themselves. Won't tolerate mansplaining and worst of all, no longer fertile. Eww.

Bond Girl? Usually a big name starlet or starlet to be. Can you name Skyfall's? On screen or off? There is a vulnerable, luscious beauty played by Bérénice Marlohe, but she is even more marginal than most Bond girls - and subjected to more immediate and clear violence. Clearly grappling with the sexual enthrallment of "Bond girlness" itself, the writers and producers pay lip service to the horrors of actual and obvious sex slavery...thereby exploitively not exploiting the exploited. But wait! For her slight and ambiguous efforts, she gets a name! Sévérine. This being the French, feminine version of Severus. Which means "stern." Not much of a party girl if you ask me. I mean, an actual sex slave whose name means "stern?" Maybe she's upset or something. At least she wasn't whiny.

Gratuitous Loophole Woman. As Ariel Levy described in her excellent book, Female Chauvinist Pigs, a loophole woman is the one that makes it into the boys club. M was a Loophole Woman - but one even a feminist like me could embrace. But, since M becomes, by default in this movie, the distressed damsel (a desexualized, old Bond girl if you will), there is another: the woman who prosecutes M. She's the one that the all-male hierarchy trots out to do its dirty deeds whenever women are overtly involved. There is no tactic more eagerly employed by male dominated power structures than the girl-on-girl takedown - always indulged in by women competing for access to vicarious power. It's common practice, for example, the Catholic Church (which after all has no women in power but usually recruits one lay woman on staff as a spokesperson) or women who help out Team Rape.

Last but certainly not least, Moneypenny, the most storied secretary of all time, gamely played by Naomie Harris, who stole every one of her Pirates of the Caribbean scenes. If only she could have stayed a Voodoo Witch Doctor here. After toying with the idea of Moneypenny as an in-the-field-agent who can drive semi competently, although not really, they make her a poor shot, have her get down on her knees to shave Bond (a "cutting-edge performance") and then finally, phew, put her back where she belongs - behind a desk and eager to please. She, too, is given a first name for the first time! Yay! A name! Not making this up - it is EVE. You know, the original sinner - the mother of gender essentialism. If I didn't know better I'd say it was a conspiracy.

So having been made prior to the 2012 Election and released in the immediate wake of a conservative, Republican defeat largely delivered by the power of women's votes what did Skyfall have to say about women and their roles? Just to recap:

- Men are in charge. Really, really, really, dammit. We keep saying it!

- Women, old and powerful: deady, dead, dead, dead.

- Women, young and seeking freedom: ditto.

- And, just because we have to have you around, you know, for-fun Women, you get to live... if you are subservient and working for The Man in Charge. We'll put together some of those nifty binder thingys.

I'm betting, in a genuine effort to recuperate from the grueling campaign and the surprise of loss, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan hosted a staff party this weekend that featured private viewing of Skyfall on a continuous loop. Which, considering how quickly the staff's credit cards were cancelled, was a nice gesture.

________________________________________

Soraya L. Chemaly writes about feminism, gender and culture. She writes in The Huffington Post, Fem2.0, Alternet, RHRealityCheck among others and has appeared on NPR's Talk of the Nation, Siriux XM and other radio programs to talk about these topics. Follow her at @schemaly.

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5 Comments

  • Rosie | November 26, 2012 7:05 PMReply

    When Moneypenny first lined up that shot, she made it clear to M that it was NOT a clear shot. But M ordered her to take it anyway. Moneypenny wasn't being incompetent, just unlucky. But thanks to Bond, who damn well knew that M ordered Moneypenny to take the shot, insinuated that she wasn't made out to be a field agent. After all that happened - saving Bond's life in Macau and handling herself quite well during Silva's attack on M in London - apparently Moneypenny agreed with Bond and asked to become a secretary, with 007 repeating his words that she wasn't cut out to be a field agent.

    I was so disgusted that I was one of the first customers out of the theater by the time the end credits began to roll.

  • Lani | November 18, 2012 11:13 PMReply

    Pretty spot on review.
    Would Bond have had to help a male agent drive? Would a male agent have missed the shot? Every woman in the film is either killed or removed from any active role.

  • Star | November 16, 2012 10:13 AMReply

    Wow. The writer of this "review" has serious problems.

  • nicow21 | November 14, 2012 4:10 PMReply

    Seriously. After that shower scene, I looked around to see if anyone was as creeped out by I was by that, but no everyone's engaged in the 'sexiness' of a woman sold into sex slavery as a child and still held as a prisoner as an adult being snuck up on while she's naked in the shower. What the fuck? Who writes a scene where he deduces all that about her, then follows that up with a super rapey sneaking into the shower scene?

    And my god, it felt like some undergrad psych student was consulting on this film: 'no, get it? its like Jungian self-actualization, right? He's gotta like separate himself from his mother in order to give birth to himself again. Also, lets throw about four hundred womb/vagina symbols into this film in case people like don't get it, right? How about a subway plunging through a hole blasted into the underground, how about we really play up M as mommy and completely devalue her character. Lets show how the mommy prevents children from realizing themselves." (I nearly puked at this line (paraphrased): 'he went down into the tunnel for two days, and when he came out he was no longer a boy'. Blah blah blah mommy issues, now that he's free of the mother he is totally free, blah blah fuck you Mendes and writers. What a lazy, overwrought male-actualizing story.

  • Soraya Chemaly | November 26, 2012 8:28 AM

    I had the exact same response (guess that's obvious) - although your analysis was deeper and cracked me up this morning:)!

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