Subversion in the Mainstream and James Bond in a Dress

Ready to have your life changed? James Bond just became a feminist.

Today is International Women’s Day. In fact, it’s the 100th International Women’s Day. 100 years ago, women’s rights leaders joined together in Austria, Germany, Switzerland, and Denmark to campaign for their rights in a concentrated effort, demanding the right to work, to vote, to be educated and trained, to hold public (and private) office, and to end discrimination and victimization in the public and private spheres. (You can learn more about International Women’s Day and historical feminist activism here.) What does this have to do with Daniel Craig in drag?

Well, director Sam Taylor-Wood and writer Jane Goldman have given us a short film where the bravest, most daring, most dashing person in the world has found one mission he doesn’t want to take on: being a woman. I could pontificate on the power of seeing one of the manliest British actors in relatively convincing drag or the subversive nature of Dame Judi Dench’s authoritative narration, so different from the voiceovers that we usually hear from female actors. I could rant about the frustrating fact that despite a woman’s first Oscar win for Best Director was for an action film, this two-minute short is the first Bond film directed by a woman, despite the success of Bond producer Barbara Broccoli.

Maybe that’s an unfair complaint. Kathryn Bigelow only won the Oscar a year ago, and the successes of the short’s writer Jane Goldman (StardustKick-Ass, and Kick-Ass 2) are heartening for women who want to make action movies or other “masculine” genres. The success of Tina Fey’s 30 Rock and Diablo Cody’s Juno are helping women carve a place in the world of comedy.  (Although I’m sure Fey’s new book is going to point out how far we need to go on that front too.)

Women aren’t making Bond films, but Bond films have changed to reflect this new world M references in the PSA. There are lots of interesting feminist moments in Casino Royale, but the littlest one, and possibly my favorite, is around 7:30 in this clip. Bond is kissing Vesper and then she starts saying “No. Stop. Stop it.” In a Sean Connery Bond film this moment would be when he kisses her harder, and then she reveals that she likes it, that no means yes. In Casino Royale, Bond stops. Immediately. And he doesn’t get resentful or scary, or share a sad look with the camera. He’s always looking at her, and he doesn’t resist her paying her share. This Bond is a different kind of Neanderthal, not a perfect feminist partner, but certainly not the paragon of male chauvinism we see in the Ian Fleming novels and 60s and 70s films.

Contrast the dynamic between Vesper and Craig’s Bond and Honey (Ursula Andress) and Sean Connery’s Bond:

“Are you looking for shells?”

“No. Just looking.”

And see the tables turn in Vesper and Bond’s first meeting, where she calls him on his character’s chauvinist legacy:

It is Craig’s portrayal of Bond that makes the PSA so powerful. The Bond reboot is the perfect place to see how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go. (Let’s work on finding a way to keep at least some of Bond’s “conquests” from dying, please. Although one of the most resounding themes of Casino Royale is that one becomes a ruthless killing machine when you give up the mores of masculinity for someone you love and that person gets taken away from you, so that’s got some potential for feminist dialogue in it, huh?)

PSAs work best when they’re trading on a prior, more pop culture context. It’s why celebrity endorsements are so common. I hate to say it, but this ad is going to get more people talking about gender equality than most of the feminist blogs, and the slow changes in the Bond franchise are going to affect our culture on a wider scale than the usual activist channels.

A lot of artists and activists spend their time trying to subvert the mainstream, when the real culture wars are being fought in the mainstream. More people are going to see movies like Casino Royale or watch shows like Mad Men than read columns about consent on Jezebel or Feministe (which is a true shame, but inevitable.) So the people who do read feminist blogs and make entertainment content have to be part of the fight for equality. The evolution of Bond, the awakening of Betty Draper and Peggy Olson, and the dialectics of Liz Lemon, a woman in power in a comedy, who is played by one of the few women in power in comedy are all part of us figuring out how to fight for equality. There are several fronts here, and one of the most important ones is the hearts and minds of the general public. So well done, James Bond PSA, Casino Royale, and Liz Lemon. We will pursue our goals with the calm determination of James Bond, who always gets the girl, wrecks the car, and saves the day. Someday we’ll all be equal and dating Jon Hamm. Look out Dr. No. We’re coming for you.

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