Changing How the World Thinks

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It's time to let James Bond die

The ethics of fantasy and reality

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Just as the new James Bond has hit the screen, the chatter about who is going to replace Daniel Craig has already begun. Some are adamant that it should absolutely not be another white, straight, macho man - the times have moved on from all that. But would changing the character into a woman or a person of colour or with a different sexual orientation be doing violence to the very concept of who James Bond is? Not if the new Bond is able to move with the same suave confidence, owning every room they walk into, having fun and sex, and blowing things up without anyone questioning their right to do so – in the fantasy world gender and race and sexuality do not have the same constraints they have in the real world . The question then becomes, is the audience ready to accept a world in which Bond isn't a macho white man? If the answer is no, then it’s time to kill James Bond, argues Adriana Clavel-Vázquez.

 

With Daniel Craig’s last Bond adventure in theatres, the question of whether the next Bond will be another white dude has emerged. Some think a change in Bond is unnecessary. What we really need is to create great characters and opportunities for people of colour and women. And they are not wrong. The film industry, and our aesthetic interests, would benefit from supporting a great variety of characters and stories. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t something in the demand for a well-established franchise to consider expanding its casting choices beyond white men.

Bond offers a fantasy but in doing so also says something important about how we engage with others in real life. Bond gets to do what he wants, and who he wants, no consequences. He drives awesome cars and gets to play with awesome gadgets. He attends stylish parties. He gets to save the world. All while looking great in beautifully tailored suits. Bond is fun. And he always has a seat at the table. It’d be great to imagine that people who aren’t white men can have that same kind of fun. That can in theory be done without sacrificing too much of who Bond is as a character. The question is, would the audience buy it? If not, then it’s about time we let James Bond die.

How we engage with fictional others is not inconsequential. It says a lot about how we engage with others in real life. It’s not simply about people seeing themselves in these films (although that’s undeniably important). Who we allow to have this kind of fun in fiction says a lot about what we expect from and for others in real life. When we engage with fictional narratives, our interests become aligned with the interests of specific characters and according to what is of import for the work. The allegiances we allow in fiction say a lot about who is allowed to get away with doing what they want in real life. So, the question about Bond’s next casting isn’t misguided; and it’s not enough to answer that there’s no need to consider the alternatives when we can just create other stories for characters and actors who aren’t white males.

If Bond’s world is ruled by the same norms as ours, a female Bond would have to keep justifying her place in a world dominated by men; a non-white Bond would not have vices outweighed by attractive features, they would not have the experience of smoothly moving around the world with the confidence that everyone knows they belong in every room.

Of course, the issue is whether changing Bond’s social identity would entail changing the character to a level that it is unrecognizable, and away from what audiences love about it. Presumably, any changes should aim to preserve the elements that make Bond films an entertaining experience. But is his being a white, heterosexual man one of these core traits?

Bond is an antihero that was created as a response to post-war austerity. He was not meant to be likeable, he was meant to be a fantasy. While the point of his adventures is that he saves the day, Bond is a morally flawed character. As a fantasy, nevertheless, his vices are appealing, glamorous. Bond’s core traits are the traits that allow him to fulfil this role as a mischievous fantasy in trying times. He is good-looking, tall and slim; he is seductive, worldly, and sophisticated. He is a car enthusiast with an unlimited expense account. He enjoys good food, drink, and sex. Most importantly, he is never out of place. He is debonair; he carries himself with the confidence that the world is his. As an antihero, he is full of vices. He has no respect for rules; he is violent and murderous. His smile is repeatedly described by Fleming as cruel. He shows no particular concern for others. But he never faces consequences for his actions because his flaws are always outweighed by the features that make him an appealing fantasy. Being a white man isn’t in itself an essential feature of Bond. His essential features, however, do depend on him being a white man. Boys, after all, will be boys. All his vices are washed away by his social identity into nothing more than a rough charm.

Bond’s world is unrealistic in many respects – there are no evil geniuses plotting to destroy the world, nor do the gadgets Bond routinely relies on exist. But it is certainly realistic in regards to social norms. In the actual world, the social categories we embody determine our experience of and in the world. The norms and expectations that follow from our social identity partly determine how we are perceived by others, how we move around the world, and the interactions that we find available. Given how Bond’s world is built on the same social norms of the actual world, changing Bond’s social identity would mean the character couldn’t engage in the same escapist adventures we expect. According to the social norms of Bond’s world  (and our world)  being a white man is a necessary condition to always having a seat at the table and to having the confidence that the world is at one’s feet. If Bond’s world is ruled by the same norms as ours, a female Bond would have to keep justifying her place in a world dominated by men; a non-white Bond would not have vices outweighed by attractive features, they would not have the experience of smoothly moving around the world with the confidence that everyone knows they belong in every room.

Having said that, there are open avenues to play with Bond’s social identity that wouldn’t involve doing violence to what Bond films are. The truth is that the franchise has always changed to fit its different iterations and to keep up with the times, without departing from the fantasy that Bond embodies. Some of Bond’s physical features have changed to fit new casting choices, like his hair or eye colour. Some of his habits have also changed, like his heavy smoking. Certainly, the kind of enemies he fights has changed as the socio-political landscape has evolved. That’s not a bug, it’s a feature. A serialised work of fiction needs to be ready to evolve if it is to continue to engage appreciators throughout time.

This has never been about what characters or fictional worlds allow. This has always been about what audiences want to see in works of fiction.

As No Time to Die director Cary Fukunaga has said in interviews, Bond doesn’t need to change; the world around him does. This is an option because, as a work of fiction, the world of Bond is incredibly flexible. While certain elements of the actual social context are preserved and built into the fictional world, many other elements greatly depart from the actual world. The Cold War is long over, and today’s espionage is presumably less about murderous agents and more about malware. Bond has never been a particularly realistic fiction in many respects. And if that’s the case, there is nothing that prevents the saga from being unrealistic in regards to its social context as well. The world of Bond could be tweaked in such a way that changing the social identity of the character could preserve its core features. It can be unrealistic enough to allow that someone who isn’t a white man can always have a seat at the table, can always get away with breaking the rules, can always be rewarded with a glamorous life for their unethical attitudes. We don’t really need to do violence to the character. We just need to be able to imagine a fictional world that plays by different rules. That is, a fictional world in which race and gender norms and expectations are such that non-white and non-male characters can be suave antiheroes that get away with everything.

In this case, nevertheless, race and gender would need to be non-issues. A Bond with a different social identity wouldn’t be a violation if we tweak the social norms that rule the fictional world – if no one batted an eyelid at a gay or female or black Bond (the identity of a new 007 agent in No Time To Die is so clearly tokenistic that even the scriptwriters themselves failed to fully buy it). What would be a violation would be a Bond film that is about gender or race. A Bond film cannot be a commentary on how hard it would be for female or non-white Bond because it shouldn’t be hard for Bond. That would be a betrayal of the character.

The problem is, however, that this has never been about what characters or fictional worlds allow. This has always been about what audiences want to see in works of fiction. So, the real question shouldn’t really be whether Bond as a character can change without ceasing to be the fantasy that it was. It should be whether audiences would allow Bond to change, to embrace a different social identity, without losing the fantasy.

On the one hand, there might be Bond fans who think that his male, heterosexual identity, his machismo, hateful views, his racism, sexism and homophobia, are part of his core features, part of what makes the Bond franchise. And if that’s the case, James Bond needs to die because in today’s world there should be no room to glorify hateful views.

On the other hand, we might have appreciators who think that it’s not desirable to have race and gender be non-issues in the fictional world because it would mean that the films would in fact by shying away from addressing those issues. If artworks are really a product of their times, we want them to speak to the things that matter. If the change of Bond’s social identity isn’t a direct commentary on inequality and injustice, one might think there is no sense in changing it at all. If Bond cannot evolve with the times to explicitly speak against social injustice, James Bond needs to die because it cannot engage audiences who care about these issues.

A Bond with a different social identity, then, would need to find its audience. The question is whether audiences are ready to embrace a non-white, non-male Bond that is unapologetically flawed in a film that ignores race and gender issues, and that doesn’t address how a non-white, non-male Bond gets to be Bond. On the surface, that might look like an unappealing option. But, wouldn’t that be the ultimate test of equality? A non-white, non-male antihero who is just allowed to kick-ass and have fun without having to justify to anyone that they deserve a place at the table. At the moment, it looks like this is a freedom we only allow of white men: they never have to interrogate their race or gender. So, are audiences ready to have a non-white, non-male Bond be just unapologetically Bond, without any questions over race or gender being raised? If not, it’s time to let James Bond die.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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