The James Bond films are populated with women who help to shape and confirm the libidinal masculinity of the title character. However, when we simply group all women together under the umbrella term “Bond Girl,” we invariably overlook the range and diversity of female characterization as well as changes in female representation over time. There is a difference between a primary character and a secondary figure (who may or may not be named). Moreover, female protagonists are depicted differently than their villainous counterparts.
This blog is the first in a series to explore the depiction of female villainy across the Bond franchise. While female antagonists occupy a range of roles from arch-villain (like Elektra King in The World Is Not Enough ) and henchperson (like Fiona Volpe in Thunderball ) to various unnamed spies (like the woman featured in the pre-credit sequence in The Spy Who Loved Me ), my focus here is on major figures who play a central role in their narrative and significantly impact Bond’s ability to complete his missions.
There are different waves/phases of female villainy and each is defined by a set of common characteristics including image, actions, behaviors/mannerisms, and sexuality. More importantly, these phases are influenced by different waves of feminism as the Bond franchise registers the changing social climate and does the imaginative work of culture by addressing contemporaneous ‘concerns’ about liberated women.
Good vs Bad
The term representational politics refers to the way(s) in which power constantly strives to fix meaning to support its agenda. Cultural binds individuals and institutions together, and provides justifications for maintaining systems of oppression thus contributing to, if not buttressing, social privilege. As such, meanings are assigned to people, events, resources, ecological conditions, and even objects. For our purposes here, I am most interested in exploring how women are presented as villains in the Bond films and what messages are being relayed through their depictions about the social role and value of women.
The early Bond films incorporated and addressed the ‘modern’ sexual identities of the 1960s. They first emerged during the ‘swinging sixties’ and this was a time of great(er) sexual freedom. With the rise of various branches of second wave feminism, more attention was being directed towards the systematic oppression of women especially in the areas of reproduction and mothering, sexual violence, domestic labor, and the expression of sexuality. During this time, there was a shift away from more conservative/traditional ideas that regulated sex, sexuality, and the body, which reinforced the idea that you could not have sex before marriage.
In the film series, Bond was freed from the sexual constraints of chivalry while women were liberated (to some degree) from the confines of marriage and the family. Prior to the 1960s, female sexuality was considered suspect, immoral, and often dangerous when presented outside of marriage. Even though the Bond films present women with more liberal/liberated sexual identities, there is still a value judgment that is being relayed – one that conveys traditional gender roles. In the Bond films of the 1960s, we are presented with a binary of ‘good’ vs ‘bad’ women.
The ‘good’ woman in the Bond film is the Bond Girl. She is good because she submits to the will and libido of James Bond; she trades in her liberal sexuality for a domesticated one and enters into a committed relationship with Bond. This renders her ‘safe.’ So while the Bond Girl is sexually and socially liberated for a time, she is expected to return to her traditional gender role and be domesticated by the end of the film.
The ‘bad’ woman, in comparison, is the female villain. She is not simply defined by her allegiance to the arch-villain (often Blofeld), her violent actions, or evil intent; she is also coded as ‘bad’ for refusing to trade in her liberal sexuality for a domesticated one after her sexual encounter with James Bond. She rejects the prescription of traditional gender roles and this renders her a ‘dangerous’ woman not only in the world of Bond but society at large.
🎵 Hair, Flow It, Show It 🎵
In the first decade of the franchise, the films relied on iconography to contrast good and bad women. More specifically, they relied on elements of visual style to differentiate the two groups.
On the one hand, the image of the Bond Girl adheres to the template outlined by Ian Fleming in his novels. The Bond Girl is described as having blond or brown/black hair with no intermediary shades. Bond Girls of the 1960s generally adhere to this convention (with the exception being Tracy DiVicenzo/Bond. For a detailed discussion of her depiction, see my chapter on the typography of the Bond Girl).
On the other hand, the image of the female villain is different and the most dangerous women of the decade are presented with red hair. In his novels, Fleming reserved red hair for Bond’s most dangerous male adversaries. He suggested that Bond should be alarmed by red hair as it will match the ‘red’ (or violent intentions) in the villain’s eyes. Interestingly, this convention was transposed onto female villains in the films and not their male counterparts.
In the 1960s, the Bond films relied on stereotypes associated with red-haired women and incorporated them into their characterization of female villains. The stereotypes centered on notions of deviance – the departure from a usual/accepted standard. For the red-haired female villains, this included notions of:
* sexual deviance – wild and oversexed
* social deviance – hot tempered, weird, and clownish
Based on these stereotypes, there are two types of female villains who emerge in the 1960s: (i) the oversexed siren and (ii) the middle-aged sexual deviant. These types are differentiated in terms of image, age, and their sexual relationship with Bond.
1. Oversexed Siren
The first type of female villain is the oversexed siren. Two women can be grouped into this category: Fiona Volpe in Thunderball (1965) and Helga Brandt in You Only Live Twice (1967). While the former is the trusted adviser of Emilio Largo (who is #2 in SPECTRE), the latter is an official member of the organization (#11).
Both women are young and attractive. However, unlike the Bond Girl they are presented as being sexual threats to Bond. Although they sleep with Bond, they do not shift their allegiance away from the villain. Instead, they refuse to side with Bond, become his Bond Girl, or be domesticated by him after their encounter.
Fiona Volpe is the best example of this. When Bond sleeps with Volpe in Thunderball, he refers to her as being a “tiger” and tells her she should be “locked up in a cage.” Their scene is shot through the golden bars of a bed frame suggesting that she has a wild sexuality (matching or even exceeding the sexual appetite of Bond) and needs to be tamed/domesticated.
But after their sexual encounter, Volpe refuses to side with Bond and even criticizes his attempt at domestication. She states: “But of course, I forgot your ego, Mr. Bond, James Bond, who only has to make love to a woman and she starts to hear heavenly choirs singing. She repents and then immediately returns to the side of right and virtue. But not this one!” In this quote, Volpe proudly proclaims her villainous status while critiquing Bond’s (hetero)patriarchal view on female sexuality. This renders her a dangerous woman in the world of Bond.
James Bond has a licence to kill. And yet, in the first three decades of the franchise he uses it to mainly kill men. Rarely does he kill a woman and the most notable exception is Naomi in The Spy Who Loved Me (1979) who is piloting a plane shot down by Bond. Given the physical distance between Bond and his target, and the mode of killing via a launched missile, her death does not seem as personal or violent. Thus, early in the franchise Bond’s license to kill seems to be gendered.
There appears to be a double standard in the Bond films. While women can hurt Bond and try to kill him, he does not hurt them (in the same way) back. One reason for this could be a concern, on the part of filmmakers, about how contemporaneous audiences would respond to Bond killing a woman. Violence against women is often linked to notions of female victimization; audiences might sympathize and side with the woman vilifying Bond in the process. The politics of representation in the franchise are designed to sanction Bond’s missions. They are not only institutionally permitted by MI6 (i.e. they are not illegal) but they also need to be socially palatable and acceptable for audiences. As a result, Bond was given a licence to kill but does not (regularly) use it towards women.
One way around this issue was to place the responsibility for violence against women onto SPECTRE with female villains being killed by Blofeld or one of his male agents. Any negative reactions to their deaths would be linked to the organization working to further vilify them while keeping the hands of Bond ‘clean’. This approach is also a way to remove female villains who pose a phallic danger to Bond, refuse to side with him, and reject domestication.
2. Middle-Aged Sexual Deviant
The second type of female villain is the middle-aged sexual deviant. Two women can be included in this category: Rosa Klebb in From Russia with Love (1963) and Irma Bunt in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969). While the former is an agent of SPECTRE (#3 in their organization), the latter is the trusted adviser of Blofeld (who is #1).
Both villains share a relatively consistently image. In terms of appearance, they are both middle-aged white women with similar body shapes who dress conservatively. In terms of personality, they are cold and blunt, and speak with a ‘foreign’/non-English accent thus potentially tapping into xenophobia or fear of the (accented) other. (In the 1960s, most Bond Girls speak with an English accent and the voices of some figures like Honey Ryder in Dr No , Domino Derval in Thunderball , and Kissy Suzuki in You Only Live Twice  were dubbed by the same voice actor, Monica van der Zyl, in post-production). Finally, both women are connected by their red hair which is cut short or pulled back in order to emphasize age over aesthetics.
These women occupy an interesting place in the world of Bond. They are not set up as love interests or sexual conquests as they are considered (by the franchise and Hollywood at large) to be too old and unattractive to appeal to and challenge Bond’s libido. Instead, these women are characterized as lesbians at a time when homosexuality was considered deviant and criminal (until 1967 in England and Wales, and 1981 in Scotland). At times, their sexual orientation is overtly depicted and at other points it is more subtle. In both instances, their sexual orientation (be it suggested or assumed) helped to vilify the figures further (see Black 2000). Moreover, both women challenge Bond by restricting his access to the Bond Girl. They might offer competition for the Bond Girl’s affections (e.g. Rosa Klebb) or prevent Bond from having sex with his conquests (e.g. Irma Bunt).
In the case of From Russia with Love, Bond Girl Tatiana Romanova has to choose between her Russian commander and lesbian suitor (Rosa Klebb), and her British target and heterosexual lover (James Bond)
At the end of each Bond film, we expect Bond’s adversaries to die with a notable exception being made for Blofeld who serves as an arch-villain across multiple films. However, he is eventually killed in the pre-credit sequence in For Your Eyes Only (1981). However, there is one occasion where Bondian justice has not been served. In OHMSS, Bond marries Tracy DiVicenzo who is murdered shortly after their wedding. She is shot by Irma Bunt while sitting in the passenger seat of Bond’s car. The film ends on this tragic if not devastating note.
Although Bunt murders Bond’s wife, she is never killed, captured, or punished. Bond goes after Blofeld who was driving the car and his desire for revenge is presented in the opening scenes of the following film Diamonds Are Forever (1971). However, Bond never pursues Bunt who did the actual killing. Bunt remains the only villain in the history of the series to escape the violent retribution of Bond. She simply gets away with it.
The Bond franchise frequently casts multiple actors for the same role. This is the case for James Bond who has been played by 6 actors, Miss Moneypenny who has been played by 4, and other staple figures like Felix Leiter, M, and Blofeld. The actor who played Irma Bunt, Ilse Steppat, died shortly after the film was released. Producers considered her to be irreplaceable in the franchise and did not recast the role or bring back the character out of respect. This works to position Steppat and her character Bunt as anomalies in the franchise.
To be continued…