Feminism and Female Villainy – The 1970s and 1980s

May Day! Disappearing Women!

Bond films of the 1970s present different politics of representation. They feature narratives in which women are being ‘put back into their place’ within the (hetero)patriarchy as the franchise registers the feminist backlash and resistance to feminist gains of the 1960s. They reflect concerns over the changing social status of women. As noted by Tony Bennett and Janet Woollacott:  “This shift in narrative organization clearly constituted a response – in truth, somewhat nervous and uncertain – to the Women’s Liberation movement, fictitiously rolling-back the advances of feminism to restore an imaginarily more secure phallocentric conception of gender relations” (28). Phallocentric refers to the focus on the phallus/penis as a symbol of male dominance. Bond films of the 1970s emphasize Bond’s libidinal masculinity while downplaying any challenges to it.

As a result, female villains in the 1970s play relatively minor roles in their films. They were presented as incompetent spies like Rosie Carver in Live and Let Die (1973), tragic mistresses like Andrea Anders in Man with the Golden Gun (1974), and sexy secretaries like Naomi in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977). The agency, competency, and autonomy that defined female villains (like Rosa Klebb and Fiona Volpe) of the 1960s have been reduced and diluted in the 1970s. By the 1980s, few villainous women appear in the franchise at all. Over a 2-decade period the Bond franchise phased out images of “bad” women in order to focus on the domestication of “good” women (i.e. the Bond Girl) and emphasize the success of Bond’s phallic masculinity.

Has James Bond Finally Met His Match?

The only substantial female villain of the 1980s is May Day played by Grace Jones in A View to a Kill (1985). Even though May Day is not the arch-villain, she is privileged in the promotional materials for the film. One notable poster features an image of Bond and May Day standing back to back with the tagline “Has James Bond finally met his match?” While Bond is wearing his trademark black suit and holding a gun, May Day is dressed in a black one-piece bodysuit and heels while smoking. The image emphasizes her toned and muscular body while objectifying and sexualizing her in the process. As a result, her strength (via muscularity) and sexuality (given the phallic nature of her elongated cigarette) are presented, from the outset, as threatening to Bond.

In some promotional materials for the upcoming Bond film No Time to Die (2020), Nomi played by Lashana Lynch is set up in a similar way. Even though she has taken over the agent number 007 following the retirement of Bond from MI6, she is set up as an adversary (rather than ally) to him in the film. This is relayed in a post on the official Twitter account for the series @007. The statement “Has Bond met his match?” is followed by the film’s trailer mainly with scenes of his interactions with Nomi. It can also be seen in the fan art recently posted by @thrice_champ that not only mirrors the style of Moore era posters and especially A View to a Kill, but draws a direct comparison between May Day and Nomi. While a comparative analysis of the framing and narrative treatment of each women of color in their respective films is beyond the scope of this blog (given that No Time To Die has yet to be released), it is an important project that should be undertaken.

Understanding the Enigma

May Day is considered to be an enigma in the series. Critics have struggled to read her character because she represents a challenge to Bond that is never resolved. Not only does she dominate him in bed, but she is physically stronger and a trained fighter. If Bond and May Day fought in hand-to-hand combat, he would surely lose. The film completely avoids this confrontation by having Zorin betray May Day leading the latter to commit suicide.

Third wave feminism offers some insight into the casting and characterization of May Day. Third wave feminism emerged in response to the perceived failures of the second wave; that all women have not achieved social equality and remain (institutionally) limited by their gender. The third wave promotes the notion that every woman is a unique individual; her identity is not only based on her gender but also on its intersection with other social locations like race, class, and sexuality. Thus, the third wave celebrates the diversity of the female experience, fosters a ‘woman of color consciousness’, commits to breaking down social barriers, and views difference and even contradictions as being positive.

The casting of Grace Jones coincides with the rise of third wave feminism. Jones is the first black woman to play a lead role in the Bond franchise. She plays a primary character unlike Rosier Carver who is a minor figure in Live and Let Die (1971). In addition, May Day cannot easily be categorized: she is at once masculine and feminine, hard and soft, strong and sensitive. Bond is both fearful and attracted to her. She embodies some of the contradictions that are celebrated by third wave feminism. However, it must be noted that her representation is still highly problematic as it relies strongly on racial/racist stereotypes of black women/femininity.

Grace Jones had an established star persona prior to her casting in A View to a Kill. She is part of the ‘Brigitte Neilson era’ of action women: muscular women featured as heroes in 1980s action-fantasy films. They include Sandahl Bergman in Conan the Barbarian (1982), Grace Jones in Conan the Destroyer (1984), and Brigitte Neilson in Red Sonja (1985).

In fact, the character May Day is similar to the character Jones plays in Conan the Destroyer.

The depiction of Jones in Conan the Destroyer relies on problematic stereotypes associated with black women/femininity. Her character Zulu is presented as animalistic/untamed (in clip 1) and hypersexual (in clip 2). Racial stereotypes work to define a person/character in relation to the status quo. Historically, they have provided cultural justifications for the white man’s (forced) sexual access of the bodies of black women. This depiction has its roots in US slavery.

Beyond her role as Zulu in Conan the Destroyer, Jones had developed a distinctive star image as a musician. She has a unique sound and look. The question is: how do you integrate such a distinctive star image into the Bond franchise?

🎵 Strange, I’ve Seen That Face Before🎵

When May Day is first introduced into A View to a Kill, she appears very similar to Zulu from Conan the Destroyer. She is presented as being wild, animalistic, hypermasculine, hyperviolent, oversexed, exotic, and amoral. She is depicted as a sadist – a person who derives pleasure and especially sexual gratification from inflicting pain, suffering, and/or humiliation on others. She comes across as threatening, intimidating, and frightening to Bond and the audience by extension.

After May Day is betrayed by Zorin, however, she tells her backstory to Bond and is humanized in the process (i.e. we no longer fear the unknown). She explains the motivations for her actions and is given an opportunity to redeemer herself in the film. It is important to note that May Day does not switch sides after her sexual encounter with Bond (i.e. due to the power of his libidinal masculinity) and instead is motivated by revenge after Zorin betrays her and kills her friend, Jenny Flex, in the process. She refuses any form of phallocentric definition and presents a competing image of heroism motivated by personal loss rather than professional gain. It is May Day, and not Bond, who does the physical labor to remove the bomb and follows through on their collective mission when their interests line up. Moreover, it is May Day who sacrifices her life to screw over Zorin, which in turn, just happens to be for the greater good.

May Day is the only female villain to determine her own fate in a Bond film. She is never punished for her violent and sexual exploits. She is not killed by the villain or by Bond. Instead, she dies on her own terms. Her death does not allow Bond the opportunity to prove his phallic masculinity. The much anticipated fight between them never happens. In fact, the franchise seems to avoid this issue entirely as Bond would clearly lose to her in a fight. This is why scholars have difficulty understanding her because she defies long-standing conventions in the franchise.

Does the humanization of May Day and her subsequent heroic ending compensate for the strong use of racial/racist stereotyping in the first half of the film? No. But it does highlight the underlying inequality framing the question, “Has James Bond finally met his match?” as the the title hero is privileged in every significant social location while his adversary is limited (socially and narratively) by the stereotypes associated with black women/femininity. It is not a fair fight from the outset and the franchise/institution ensures that Bond’s privilege and phallic masculinity will not be explicitly challenged.

To be continued…

One Comment on “Feminism and Female Villainy – The 1970s and 1980s

  1. Pingback: Feminism and Female Villainy – The 1990's and 2000's | Dr. Lisa Funnell

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