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

Women and Hollywood By Soraya L. Chemaly | Women and Hollywood November 14, 2012 at 11:30AM

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.
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Naomie Harris

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.

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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.

This article is related to: Skyfall, Judi Dench, Naomie Harris, Bérénice Marlohe, Feminism