Wednesday, August 31, 2016

No, I'm just looking!

Is the iconic secret agent transforming both as a figure of desire as well as the figure who desires?

The sensuous secret agent is past 50, and is not done yet. With its all twenty-four releases under Eon productions, Ian Fleming’s iconic James Bond with a pre-script 007 has continued to seduce women as if there is no tomorrow. Providing a visual guarantee of the maleness of the secret agent, from Dr. No to Spectre, the female characters have been treated with disdain by James Bond. No wonder, Bond has been personified as a guilt-free voyeur with a license to seduce and bed women, and if need be kill them too. Without doubt, the legacy of the most-wanted secret service agent has been built at the expense of women of all hues.

How has a character, who has been accused of sexism, endeared itself on the silver screen for five decades? Having studied the James Bond franchise for over a decade, Lisa Funnell has come up with a nuanced but complex understanding of gender, sexuality and female representation in the immensely successful series. Pulling contributions from over two dozen established and emerging scholars, the compilation provides breadth and depth that goes beyond the assumption that the masculine genre of action is created by and for men. In reality, however, Bond has been scripted both as a figure of desire as well as the figure who desires. More than mere beautiful objects, the Bond girls from Ursula Andress to Monica Balucci, have given momentum to the story with their often underrated skills in armed combat and espionage knowledge. 

Funnell, a professor at the University of Oklahoma, has often been asked how being a woman and feminist has she followed aggressive heterosexual masculinity and consequent suppression of women by James Bond. Positioning herself in the complex space defined by the patriarchal nature of film, she discounts the problematic nature of the films in favor of consumption of male culture which defines female fandom. Why should gendering of consumptive practices work to delimit pleasure? In the Bond fantasy world, both good and bad women, have a pivotal role to play in furthering the narrative. These characters can easily be viewed as symbols rather than individuals, their position being a reflection of their disposable physical attributes as mere functions of the narrative. No surprise, therefore, that the Bond girl is usually characterized as being independent and willful. 

Does it mean the Bond stories reflect a progressive view of women’s sexuality? On the contrary, the manner in which James Bond ends-up possessing the girl(s) reflects a traditional, and culturally problematic, male fantasy of women’s sexuality. Sample the iconic scene of rising Ursula Andress out of the surf in a white bikini in Dr. No. ‘What are you doing here? Looking for shells?’ she asks. Without missing the gaze, Bond replies: ‘No, I’m just looking’. Sigmund Freud would view such ‘gaze’ from the notion of scopophila, creating a voyeuristic viewing situation in the darkness of the theatre. In drawing greater sexual freedom for women, Ian Fleming extracted greater sexual opportunities for men. And, it has paid dividends at the box-office.   

The social consequences of the perpetuation of gender stereotypes have far from clearly understood, and neither has it been easy given the complex nature of patriarchy and feminism. The book explores tensions between the progressive and the conservative viewpoints, offering scholarly perspectives on the representation of women in the franchise. 

There is an interesting twist to the tale, though. The first Bond novel was published in the same year as the launch of Playboy, lending credence to the assumption that the story emerged in the context of mass-market pornography. It captured the emerging consumptive characteristic of post-war Western Europe and North America. And, there hasn’t been any looking back since then. If graphic account of sex wasn’t enough, the Bond girls were given sexually suggestive names - the most risqué and famous being Pussy Galore, played by Honor Blackman in Goldfinger (1964). Plenty O’Toole and Octopussy were other sexually suggestive names for Bond girls in the series. 

Ever since the iconic character was created, socio-political developments have shaped the depiction of women in the franchise. The book captures the influence of feministic undercurrents on the franchise through the decades, and makes for serious scholarly reading. The most significant change being the transformation of Playboy in recent months. With the magazine having started covering its girls, so has James Bond responded by bedding few women than his predecessors. Spectre, the latest Bond flick, has Daniel Craig in more serious romantic relationship.   

For His Eyes Only
by Lisa Funnell (Ed)
Wallflower Press, UK
Extent: 309, Price: $30  

This review was first published in Deccan Herald on Aug 28, 2016.

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