Skyfall's Troubling Gender Politics

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There's no way to discuss this without talking about the ending. In other words, HERE THERE BE SPOILERS.

Let me start by saying that I loved Skyfall. I can comfortably state that it's one of the top two Bond films (I'm unable to declare it better than Goldeneye without seeing that old favorite again). Skyfall finds the perfect balance between acknowledging the tropes that make Bond such a treasured film commodity and acknowledging their quaintness.

But the problem, as the film so ably points out, is that Bond (and the whole of MI6) can't be judged by its activity in the past, but must be judged by the needs of the present. As a result, it becomes impossible to ignore that Skyfall gives us the most regressive gender politics since the Sean Connery era.

Two female characters are bedded and disposed of (quite literally in one case) with zero fanfare or sentiment. One is LITERALLY TOLD TO SHUT UP by her male colleague during a court proceeding. Meanwhile, in series regular territory, we're back to having a posh toff male heading up MI6, while our clever and highly competent field agent suddenly reveals her life's aspiration to be "sexy secretary". That's zero for five, Skyfall.

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Let's start with Eve, who inspired this post. She spends the entire film being punished for a small mistake she makes under M's orders, while Bond goes around screwing up so badly that he can't even pass the physical fitness exam. Even worse, despite saving Bond's (and everyone's) lives twice in the interim, she somehow decides that she's not competent to be a field agent, simply based on a throwaway comment from Bond. The kiss of death? It turns out that she not only decides to be a secretary, she's actually gonna be that secretary (you remember the one. In fifty years of Bond films, she's notable for alternating "sexy" and "nagging" and "why don't you ever return my calls?".

To be honest, if she started the film as a secretary who went out into the field and then decided she wanted to stay behind the desk, I might have hand-waved it. But to invite the audience to smile knowingly as a capable agent surrenders her power to a man who was once her equal palls.

And why the hell did she end up shaving Bond? Is she his wife? Fail.

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The head of the government inquiry may have been a touch long-winded, but her points were neither hysterical nor invalid. And as any student of the British government knows, long-windedness is not an affectation, but an expectation. Mallory's flippant shutdown of her right to speak (she's the fucking head of the inquiry!) is both against the way government inquiries work, and just flat offensive. And also, the audience is supposed to laugh. Women talking too much! Hilarious!

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The whole Séverine subplot was incredibly bizarre. Bond finds her both traumatized and full of fear from being sold first into sex slavery and then to Silva, and nonetheless chooses to have her by sneaking up on her in the shower. Of course, James Bond is basically male privilege made flesh, but come on dude, she's TERRIFIED. She doesn't want your dick. Also, if he was so desperately taken with her, one would think he'd have slightly more of a reaction to her death-by-dick-measuring-contest. But la-di-da.

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M comes closest to success, but we've spent enough time with her to know her pretty well (remember her fantastic introduction in Goldeneye?) Nonetheless, she dies pretty stupidly. She has no facility with a gun, knows it, but still sits out as a target, despite a wonderful escape route? Sure, she set off some exploding chandeliers, but what was the plan here? She's the head of the MI6, not some domestic terrorist. So we not only get Mallory accusing her of incompetence, she proves him right. M, who never makes a false step, makes a series of them in Skyfall. So she dies, freeing Bond of the only female who can stand up to him in every regard.

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After the women are handily put in their places, Skyfall leaves us with the image of Bond and Mallory talking shop, drinking whisky and smirking about a job terribly done (guys, the head of MI6 is dead! I don't know how you define a job gone horribly wrong, but I am PRETTY SURE THAT'S ONE OF THEM). Mallory failed to track Silva despite Q's technical wizardry, and he still ends up boss. All the women end up dead or demoted, and the men get promoted.

I haven't even discussed the queerification of Silva ("Sure, he's killed a lot of people and blown up buildings, but what's really horrifying is that he might be homosexual!"), but that may be a topic for another day.

So long and thanks in advance for your polite, well-reasoned comments.

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7 Responses to “ Skyfall's Troubling Gender Politics ”

  1. And let's not forget the weird male privilege of Bond in the field: getting to dust himself off and look debonair after a battle multiple times while all the women operatives have to sweat. And, of course, there's Silva weird "mommy" issues with M. I never thought I'd see the day when James Bond managed to outdo James Cameron on paradoxical gender politics, but bless Mendes, Logan, and the team of creative nutballs for either perpetuating a weirdly regressive worldview in the face of 21st century advancement or (well, this is my liberal and judicious read) taking the piss out of priapic James Bond fanboys who wish to keep the old misogyny flowing.

    I'm not sure if you saw this extremely sloppy and poorly observed piece (thank you for paying attention, Yashoda, which not even Dana Stevens or Giles Coran could do!), which attempted a takedown on SKYFALL without considering (as you did) numerous angles:

    http://reciperifle.blogspot.sg/2012/11/bond-villain.html

    The trajectory that I feel has been lost with Séverine is that (a) Bond "impresses" her by observing the henchmen who she is imprisoned with, (b) Séverine agrees to meet up with Bond if he can defeat the henchmen, (c) Bond defeats the henchmen and Séverine waits with champagne on the boat, and (d) Bond sneaks up on her in the shower, finding his "old way" of "seducing" her. I feel that there was a missed opportunity here to say something extremely provocative about gender politics. Does Séverine give Bond her consent because of the agreement or because she has waited around? Is the film playing with the idea of kinky sex with strangers by juxtaposing this against Séverine's past? But ultimately the sloppy scriptwriting for this scene prevented this moment from being clear. Suppose Séverine had said in the exchange at the casino something along the lines of: "I've seen white knights reveal their true nature in dark places." Wouldn't that have added a fascinating ambiguity to the "I feel naked without my Beretta" predicament? Would this not have reinforced the film's old dog vs. new way dialogue? And would this not have forced misogynists and feminists alike to reckon with some of these behavioral ambiguities?

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  2. theoncominghope25 November 2012 10:27

    That's a good point about Bond managing to look completely unharmed even after being shot, stabbed or otherwise maimed, but that's something I can ignore as one of the sillier tropes of the series (like how bullets NEVER make contact with him, even when he has no shelter).

    Silva's mommy issues were very troubling. M never displayed any interest in being the den mother, so it's strange that both Silva and Bond would react so negatively to her failing to take care of them.

    You really do point out a missed opportunity. I would love if she made that "white knight in dark places" comment after he had his way with her, acknowledging both her powerlessness and his brutality.

    Did you read Simon Schama's piece about the history of Bond? I feel like he did a pretty good job of outlining the complications inherent in Bond being a romantic hero: http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2012/10/28/simon-schama-on-skyfall-s-leaner-meaner-james-bond.html

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  3. Interesting commentary. I haven't seen Skyfall. I would prefer to watch the movie before I disagree or agree with your hypothesis.

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  4. About the "queerification" of Silva: that actually made me like him more. I thought the point of that was to add sex appeal to him, not make him seem disturbed. The rest of the movie makes him disturbed. The best thing about Bond villains is how you love them. You have to love them for them to seem worthy of James Bond. Them flirting just makes that competition between them even more fun to watch. My proof? Bond flirts back. I believe he responds, when Silva implies he is going to screw him, "What makes you think it is my first time?" We know Bond is supposed to be the hero so if they are trying to make Silva bi to make him weirder, then that would have the same implications for Bond, and we are supposed to adore him.

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  5. sorry, that scene doesn't make Bond seem in any way 'bi' or even 'bicurious' to me. to me, particularly in the context of the film's overall 'traditional testosterone' level & aggressively regressive male-female gender politics, it's just Bond manning it up even more, demonstrating that Silva's advances don't shake his manly manliness. the scene doesn't play out the way it would if Bond had actually been flirting, the way, say, it might have played out if you dropped a female character in Silva's place; he didn't really seem like he was flirting to me, more that he was dishing out a typically smirky one-liner to throw Silva off, i.e., it seems to me he was merely playing a game of 'gay chicken' to win. (if Silva had been playing too, w/c is entirely possible, that would be even worse.) granted that this is only my interpretation of the scene, the mere possibility of this interpretation weakens your argument that this particular scene is 'proof' of anything other than homophobia.

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  6. Great commentary. I too really liked Skyfall but my biggest reservation was about the handling of the Severine character. I kinda knew the role Eve would play (thanks to spoilers) so I probably subconsciously overlooked it. But yeah they made that lady who was the inquiry head a bit of a harpie properly put in her place.

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  7. Bardems character was not gay. It was more like a game of gay chicken. He was trying to intimidate Bond and make him uncomfortable

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