Feminism and Female Villainy – The 1990’s and 2000’s

In the mid-1990s, the Bond franchise returned after a 6-year hiatus. During this time, the series renegotiated some of its codes and the Brosnan films have been updated in terms of gender politics. Now, the Bond films did not necessarily alter Bond’s attitude towards women. Instead, they adjusted the attitudes of women around Bond. They forward the impression that the while the world has changed as well as the women who inhabit it, Bond has remained the somewhat the same and will face some new challenges (in the workplace/field).

Postfeminism

Bond films of the 1990s (like many other spy narratives) are strongly influenced by postfeminism. This is a popular social movement among some (privileged) women that is centered on the belief that feminism has won its battles. It promotes the idea that (the need for) feminism is over and women have achieved social equality. As suggested by the prefix “post” (which means “after”), this movement claims that we are living in the time after feminism.

(It is important to note that third wave feminism and postfeminism take place at the same time. They relay different impressions about the social status of women and the need to fight for equality.)

One key idea forwarded during postfeminism is that femininity has been demystified. In other words, women are no longer being held back their gender. As a result, they can (re)claim their sexuality and use it personal gain without being judged harshly by others/society. “Girl Power” (popularized by the Spice Girls) was a notable expression of postfeminism at the time.

Many scholars have strongly criticized the postfeminist movement and believe that it relays some troublesome messages. First, postfeminism is an exclusive movement that focuses on the experiences of certain women: white, middle-class, able-bodied, heterosexual, Western, Northern, and cis-gender. It takes their experiences as the universal experience for all women (much like the second wave concept of “universal womanhood”). As a result, it overlooks the lives, intersectional identities, and experiences of all women. Second, postfeminism is very narrow and overlooks the multitude of ways that women are marginalized based on their other social locations: race, class, ability, sexual orientation, nationality, and gender expression.

Third, postfeminism overlooks the fact that gender oppression still exists. The gender pay gap is a good example of this. There are many other social and structural limitations for women in addition to people who are trans, non-binary, queer, or identify in other ways. Finally, postfeminism discourages women from taking action to change their social circumstances and encourages them to be happy with the status quo. This raises an important question as to who benefits from postfeminist ideas and their transmission via film, television, and music (among other medias) in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Sexually Empowered Villains in the Brosnan Era

Postfeminism strongly informs the depiction of female villains in the Brosnan era and Bond is challenged by them in 3 out of 4 films. These women rely on duplicity to gain power over Bond and play on his affinity for sexual conquest and domestication. Importantly, they use their sexuality for personal gain and sleep with Bond in order to develop an emotional connection with him. Some even masquerade as Bond Girls in need of protection (and could be considered Bond Girl-Villain hybrids). Ultimately, the goal here is to use Bond’s libidinal masculinity against him and render him (more) vulnerable for attack. A good example is Miranda Frost in Die Another Day (2002) who literally disarms Bond’s gun (with phallic connotations) while they are in bed together.

In the Brosnan era, the gender politics governing Bond’s “licence to kill” have also been updated. Bond kills his adversaries regardless of their gender. In other words, he can and does kill women. He is able to (re)assert his masculinity over dangerous women with liberal sexual identities who challenge his phallus. Moreover, his method of killing them is often ironic and reflects their sexual threat to him in the film. Xenia Onatopp from GoldenEye (1995) is the best example of this. Onatopp is a sadist who takes sexual pleasure in inflicting pain on others. During coitus, she wraps her legs around her (usually male) target and squeezes until they asphyxiate. She is eventually killed by Bond who attaches a harness from a helicopter to her belt and she is asphyxiated between two tree branches that look like a pair of legs. Onatopp is killed in the same way that she killed men and threatened Bond.

Of all the female villains in the Brosnan era, Elektra King featured in The World Is Not Enough (1999) warrants special attention. King masquerades as a Bond Girl and damsel in distress only to emerge as the primary/arch-villain in the end. She is the first woman to serve in this capacity and much like other core villains she has her own musical theme. What makes her a memorable villain is the way that she plays on the emotions of Bond and Judi Dench’s M, albeit in different ways; her seduction of Bond (and later sexual torture) challenges the effectiveness of his libidinal masculinity while her emotional manipulation of M plays on her maternal instincts. King is underestimated as a threat and this is reflected in the Elektra Theme, which is slow and melancholic, framing her as a tragic and (somewhat) helpless figure while masking her true intent from Bond, M, and MI6 as well as the viewers. We are all seduced by her.

While some might argue that Renard is the primary villain, he serves as more of a traditional henchperson with a biologically altered/enhanced body (think: Oddjob in Goldfinger [1964], Tee Hee in Live and Let Die [1973], and Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me [1977] and Moonraker [1979]). Moreover, his pairing with King is reminiscent of Zorin and May Day in A View to a Kill (1985) with the henchperson being more emotionally/romantically invested in the relationship than the primary villain. While Renard lacks the ability to feel physical pain, King is depicted as a sociopath who lacks the ability to connect emotionally. This makes their pairing interesting (i.e. they have what the other lacks) but also unsustainable (i.e. they will never be fulfilled). Much like May Day, Renard comes across as more of a tragic figure given his unrequited love for the villain that cannot be returned.

The Case of Valenka

Casino Royale (2006) ushered in a new era of James Bond. The film is a prequel and presents the origin story of the title character from the moment he attains his “00” licence to kill. The Craig films deconstruct the Bond brand and gradually reintroduce core elements across the era. While a comprehensive discussion of the Craig era is beyond the scope of this blog (and possibly a future posting topic), it important to note that the heroic model governing the series has changed.

As I have argued elsewhere, there is a shift in Casino Royale away from the “lover literary tradition” from which Bond has his roots and towards a more Hollywood-styled hard-bodied mode of masculinity. In other words, Bond is defined less by sexual conquest and more by the way in which he endures and overcomes physical pain. Craig’s Bond is the most battered, bruised, and bloodied in history, and his action sequences are more visceral, graphic, and (hyper)violent. As the model of heroic masculinity governing the series changes, so too are the ways in which Bond’s heroism are tested and confirmed. With respect to female villainy, this requires a shift from sexual to physical threats.

Valenka featured in Casino Royale is the only notable female villain across the Craig era. She is introduced as the girlfriend and employee of the primary villain Le Chiffre. She has little dialogue and limited personal agency in the film. Instead, she is paraded around in revealing garments like bathing suits and gowns in order to offer a visual distraction to Le Chiffre’s poker opponents.

Unlike other female villains, Valenka does not interact with Bond sexually. She does not seduce Bond and Bond does not seduce her. In fact, there is no sexual tension or interaction between the characters. Instead, Valenka remains in a seemingly monogamous relationship with Le Chiffre. Since the heroism of Bond has changed from libidinal to muscular/body-based, so too are the ways in which his heroism is challenged by villainous women.

In spite of her characterization or maybe even because of it, Valenka is underestimated as a threat to Bond. However, she is one of Bond’s most dangerous adversaries because she succeeds where others have failed. She is the only villain to actually kill James Bond, even though he is resurrected shortly after. This renders Valenka one of Bond’s most dangerous opponents.

Although Valenka is a threat to Bond, she is disempowered over the course of the film. She is set up as a dependent rather than independent/autonomous character. Unlike female villains of the 1960s who make their own decisions while working for Blofeld, Valenka lacks an individual identity and sense of purpose. She is presented as being a function of Le Chiffre and not his partner/equal. While we clearly know what motivates him, we get no insight into what is driving her (maybe love?). Her silence is quite deafening in this respect.

We also get the sense that Le Chiffre might not care for her all that much. When Le Chiffre and Valenka are attacked in their hotel room, Le Chiffre does not call out or try to stop the assailant from hurting Valenka. The attacker even notes Le Chiffre’s lack of protest; he was willing to sacrifice Valenka in order to save himself. This is different from Bond’s attempt at saving Vesper Lynd in the stairwell in the next scene. This works to further contrast Bond and Le Chiffre in the film particularly with respect to their romantic relationships.

The fate of Valenka is also quite telling. While we see LeChiffre die through Bond’s point-of-view – he is killed in the climax of the film and his lifeless body falls to the ground – Valenka’s death occurs off screen. It is only mentioned in passing during a conversation between Bond and M. Given the mortal threat she posed to Bond, it is surprising that she is not killed on screen. Instead, her death is presented as a by-product of Le Chiffre’s failed business with Mr. White rather than punishment for her mortal attack on Bond. This goes to show just how disempowered she is when compared to the female villains of the past.

Late Craig Era

Since Casino Royale, there has yet to be another substantial female villain in the Craig era films. While some might argue that Severine from Skyfall (2012) is a central figure/antagonist, I see her as more of a secondary figure with limited purpose. Unlike other kept women like Domino Derval in Thunderball (1965) and Andrea Anders in Man with the Golden Gun (1974), Severine could easily be removed from the film with little disruption to the plot line. Moreover, she is one of the most disempowered and tragic women featured in the series. For a detailed discussion of Severine and the racial stereotypes framing her representation, see my article “(D)Evolving Representations of Asian Women in Bond Films”.

With the release of No Time To Die, it will be interesting to see if either Nomi or Madeleine Swann will take up this role. Trailers for the film suggest both are possibilities but we will need to wait until November to see.

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