In the matchup between Sean Connery and Daniel Craig over who makes the better James Bond, it’s hard to imagine that a modern woman wouldn’t choose Craig. Connery may have been the original — the one who created the famous balance between rough and refined and popularized the “shaken not stirred” vodka martini — but it’s hard to get behind a guy who was also prone to slapping his women around (as Connery’s Bond did to his lady in Diamonds Are Forever) and whose sexual exploits sometimes teetered on the brink of rape (see: Pussy Galore in Goldfinger).
Bond is a 50-year-old franchise, first emerging when the dynamic between men and women in the bedroom was closer to Mad Men. You don’t need me to unpack how those dynamics have changed in the past half-century, except to state the obvious: Things have changed. With that comes an evolution in the fantasy that Bond is selling, a shift that is most evident across 23 movies in the way Bond treats his Bond Girls.
The six actors who’ve played 007 have slept with many women — the number hovers around 50 — but the women who earn the distinction as “Bond Girls” occupy a special place in the pantheon. For a half-century, the most iconic Bond Girls have been independent women who make it clear that they can take care of themselves and don’t need a man. This starts with the very first Bond Girl, Ursula Andress’s Honey Ryder in Dr. No, who emerges from the blue-green Jamaican sea wearing nothing but a white bikini and a knife strapped to her belt.
She tells Bond that, as a young girl, she’d been raped by her landlord, but, in retaliation, she let loose a Black Widow spider in his mosquito netting, killing him. Independence and strong will are qualities that attract Bond, but these “hard to get” women always succumb to his power and charm. This is true throughout every movie — just think back on Pussy Galore from Goldfinger, Anya Amasova (aka Triple X) in the Spy Who Loved Me, and Octopussy — all the way up to 2006’s Casino Royale. What’s changed is the way Bond wins them over: While regular women throw themselves at the secret agent, the more powerful Bond Girls are the ones that either ward off his advances or remain emotionally unattached when they don’t. In the end, they always succumb to what he wants.
Sean Connery’s Bond was probably closest to what Ian Fleming wrote in his books, and that character was even more of a cad than the movie version. In the novel version of Casino Royale (the first in the series), Fleming writes of a woman that Bond was after: “He knew she was profoundly, excitingly sensual, but that the conquest of her body, because of the central privacy in her, would each time have the sweet tang of rape.” In the book version of the Spy Who Loved Me, Fleming writes from the perspective of a female character: “All women love semi-rape. They love to be taken. It was Bond’s sweet brutality against my bruised body that had made his act of love so piercingly wonderful.” All right, then. In the 21st century, the idea of an author promoting rape-sex as titillating is just crazy and about as unsexy as it gets.
But that’s where the original Bond was coming from, and Connery upheld that brutish streak. In the third Bond movie, Goldfinger, Pussy Galore — who is a lesbian in the book (and it’s implied in the film) — works as a pilot for the villain Goldfinger and knows judo. But when she tussles with Bond in the barn, tossing him violently in the haystacks, Bond finally overpowers her. At first she tries to fight him off, then, finally, she gives in. In a more ridiculous turn, she becomes his ally.
By the time Roger Moore took over in 1973, Bond would have to adapt. Moore’s Bond was more debonair and campy, and though he slaps one Bond Girl, his style was more manipulative than physically forceful. In Live and Let Die, Jane Seymour’s Solitaire is a tarot-card reader whose ability to see the future is ludicrously contingent upon her maintaining her virginity. Bond doesn’t care. When he’s in her house, he fiddles with her deck and makes her believe that she is destined to sleep with him, which she does. As a result, she loses her power (empowering Bond to save the day).
By the more PC eighties, force and manipulation would no longer fly, and Timothy Dalton brought Bond one step closer to modernity, transforming him into an actual gentleman who sleeps with only two women in each of his two films, The Living Daylights and A License to Kill. (By comparison, Connery and Moore could bed as many as four women per film.) When ex-CIA agent Pam Bouvier makes the first move in License to Kill, kissing Bond, he tells her, “Why don’t you wait ‘til you’re asked.” She replies, “So why don’t you ask me.” It’s a marked shift from the Connery years when women were taken, but never taken seriously, and always left behind or left for dead.
Bond Girls are always strong, but they didn’t gain decision-making power until the nineties. Pretty-boy Pierce Brosnan is emasculated from the get-go when his boss, M (played by a woman this time, the Dame Judi Dench) calls him “a sexist, misogynist dinosaur.” In Tomorrow Never Dies, Michelle Yeoh is a Chinese spy with martial arts skills that far surpass Brosnan’s. In the World Is Not Enough, Bond is reduced to a wounded puppy by Sophie Marceau when it turns out that she’s not a love interest but a criminal mastermind out to kill him and terrorize the world. Perhaps as some sort of Hollywood apology, this 007 is always upstaged by his female counterparts.
Which brings us to Craig, the absolute best of all the Bonds, who so easily combines ruggedness and sophistication with a psychological and emotional life. In Casino Royale, we hold our breath when Vesper Lynd reads right through his game: “MI6 looks for maladjusted young men that give little thought to sacrificing others to protect queen and country,” she says. “It wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine you think of women as disposable pleasures rather than meaningful pursuits.” It’s clear that Bond has met his match.
When he demands that she wear a dress he brought her to the casino, he tells her, “I need you looking fabulous,” but it turns out that Lynd — who controls the money that Bond is about to gamble — has her interests, too, leaving Bond a new tuxedo. “There are dinner jackets, and there are dinner jackets. This is the latter. I need you looking like a man who belongs at that table,” she tells him. The two are soul mates, which is what makes Lynd’s eventual betrayal so heartbreaking. When Bond finally discovers it, he doesn’t pout like Brosnan, but we know he’s been hit, as he physically stiffens, frigidity running through his voice as he tries to explain to M that he expected this all along. Bond’s transformation from rape-ready rogue to wounded and woman-weary tough guy is complete.
So, what’s next for Bond's psychosexual journey? In Skyfall, the latest Bond (which I have not yet seen and which opens tonight), there are reports that Bond’s sexual preferences are again up for grabs. When Javier Bardem flirts with Bond, it’s 007 that sounds like a Bond Girl: “What makes you think this isn’t my first time?”