The “Bond Girl” is a staple of the Bond series and has strongly contributed to the global appeal of the franchise. In popular discourse, the term “Bond Girl” has been overused and frequently applied to virtually every woman who has appeared in a Bond film regardless of their role or centrality to the narrative. There is a difference between a primary character and a secondary figure who may or may not (be important enough to) be named. Additionally, female protagonists are conceptualized, cast, and treated differently in their narratives than their villainous counterparts (see my blog series on “Feminism and Female Villainy” for details). The overuse of the term “Bond Girl” is one reason why women in the Bond franchise have been overlooked (particularly in academic scholarship at least in the fields within which I work) and quickly written off as window-dressings and sexy pin-ups.
In his novels, Ian Fleming used the term “girl” to refer to the female love interest of Bond. His moniker has been expanded into the term “Bond Girl” which is now widely used in social and academic circles. However, there are many people who find the term problematic or at the very least feel uncomfortable using it, including myself.
First, the use of the word “girl” to refer to professional women works to infantilize them, diminish their accomplishments, and reduce their importance in the film. (A similar argument can be made about the use of double entendres for names. Can we take a pilot named Pussy Galore or a scientist Dr. Holly Goodhead seriously? These names ensure that we do not and detract from their abilities and accomplishments in their films). The term “girl” also works to emphasize their single status with “woman” being reserved in the series for marriage and maternity. Much like the term “boy” can be used to insult a man – as demonstrated by Sheriff Pepper in Live and Let Die (1973) – the same is true for the term “girl” when it is used to describe adult professional women. Importantly, men in the series are not referred to as “boys.” Allies like Felix Leiter, villains like Blofeld, and henchpeople like Jaws are not described as being “Bond Boys.” So why then do we refer to adult women as “girls”?
In addition, the inclusion of the word “Bond” before “Girl” tells us that the woman is being (solely) defined by her relationship with Bond. She does not have an individual or standalone identity. It also suggests a level of possession – that she is Bond’s girl – and will be positioned as an object (not subject) of struggle between Bond and his male adversary.
There are many people – fans, critics, and scholars – who are uncomfortable with the term Bond Girl. In addition, some women who have been featured in the Bond series have also expressed their distaste for the term, Monica Bellucci being the most notable. Rumor has it that the term was banned from the set of the upcoming Bond film No Times To Die with the instruction that female actors should be referred to as “Bond women” instead. While it is difficult to avoid using the term “Bond Girl” due to its cultural pervasiveness – it has been around for nearly 60 years and has become ingrained in social and academic discourse – we need to be mindful of the messages being conveyed through the term about gender, sexuality, identity, and power.
In this blog, I will use the term to refer to the archetype but also employ other descriptors like female protagonist and Bond women in order to reduce its frequency of use.
It is important that we define and clarify the term Bond Girl in order to untangle the web of women who appear across the franchise and better understand the form and function of the lead protagonist in a Bond film. The term refers to a character archetype. She is not a recurring character (i.e. she only appears in one film) but a recurring character type. Each Bond film features a different female protagonist who is played by a different actor. While Bond interacts sexually with various women in each film, he commits himself to the lead heroine by the end of the narrative. They engage in a monogamous and committed relationship (that has ended by the start of the next Bond film). Given this definition, there can only be one “true” Bond Girl in each film.
The Bond Girl is also a “good” character who assists Bond in some way with his mission. Some women play more central and direct roles than others. While some offer physical help, others provide intellectual assistance, and/or emotional support/motivation. The degree of heroism ranges and seems to depend on when the film was made as well as the star persona and performance abilities of the actor playing the role.
There haven been three character phases for the Bond Girl:
* English Partner (1962-69)
* American Sidekick (1971-89)
* Action Hero (1995-2002)
I will discuss the deconstruction and reintroduction of the Bond Girl archetype across the Craig era films in my next blog.
English Partner (1962-69)
The first character phase of the Bond Girl is the English Partner. The Bond films of the 1960s mirror the male-female partnership featured in The Avengers (1961-69), a popular British spy television series centered on a male-female heroic duo. The character John Steed was partnered with a female hero and two of these women were subsequently featured in Bond films: Honor Blackman played Dr. Cathy Gale (1962-64) and Diana Rigg played Emma Peel (1965-67).
The English Partner was often anglicized. On the one hand, Blackman who played Pussy Galore in Goldfinger (1964) and Rigg who played Tracy DiVicenzo/Bond in OHMSS (1969) used their own voices and natural English accents. On the other hand, the voices of other female protagonists in the 1960s – Honey Ryder in Dr No (1962), Domino Derval in Thunderball (1965) and Kissy Suzuki in You Only Live Twice (1967) – were dubbed in post-production by Monica van der Zyl. The only exception is Tatiana Romanova in From Russia with Love (1963) whose voice was dubbed by Barbara Jefford. Thus, the female protagonists frequently spoke with an English accent (hence the label “English Partner”) and many of them spoke with the very same voice regardless of the nationality of the actor or the character. This is one reason why my students find it difficult to determine the nationality of female protagonists in the Connery and Lazenby eras based on voice/accent alone!
As noted in my first blog post on “Feminism and Female Villainy,” the imaging conventions for 1960s Bond Girls reflects Ian Fleming’s character design of the “girl” in his Bond novels. These women have blonde, brown or black hair, with red hair being reserved for the villains: in the novels it was used in the description of male villains but in the films it was reserved for the female ones.
Things began to change with the final English Partner, Tracy DiVicenzo in OHMSS (1969), and the first American Sidekick (see description below), Tiffany Case in Diamonds Are Forever (1971). They both have red hair. This change anticipates/highlights a broader shift in the representation of the figure. Often in film, a change in image signals a shift in characterization. In other words, internal changes are depicted externally and often through visual conventions like costuming and hair. (The film Thelma and Louise  offers a good example of this).
In fact, Diamonds Are Forever explicitly plays with this imaging/hair convention during the introduction of Tiffany Case. She first appears as a blonde, then a brunette, and finally emerges with her natural red hair and remains this way for the remainder of the film. This play on hair color offers a way to visually connect the women of the past (i.e. the English Partners of 1960s) from those of the future (i.e. the American Sidekicks of the 1970s).
American Sidekick (1971-89)
The second character phase for the figure is American Sidekick. Over a two-decade period from 1971 to 1989, many female protagonists were American agents or allies as well as the actors who portrayed them. The American Sidekick embodies American interests in the film and she even replaces Felix Leiter as Bond’s American connection. In fact, when a female CIA appears in a Bond film, Leiter is absent. The only exception is Licence to Kill (1989) in which Pam Bouvier replaces Leiter as Bond’s American sidekick after he is attacked by Frank Sanchez.
In the case of the American Sidekick, the Bond films re-frame the British and American geopolitical relationship via romance. This changes the dynamic by tapping into traditional gender roles. Bond seems inclined to one-up his American Sidekick in order to demonstrate that he is the superior agent. This in turn influences the perception of British and American relations in the films. For a detailed discussion, see my article with Klaus Dodds on “The Anglo-American Connection: Examining the Connection of Nationality with Class, Gender and Race in the James Bond Films.”
Overall, in the first three decades of the franchise, Bond Girls play more supportive roles in their films. It is not an equal weighted partnership and Bond still does the majority of the heroic labor in the film. She is not presented as being a co-hero or heroic equal, and at times she does not even engage in the space of physical action. Instead, English Partners and American Sidekicks serve more as love interests and mediators of threat. In other words, a threat to them propels Bond into action. At the end of the day, it is Bond (oftentimes alone) who is the hero and saves the day.
Action Hero Bond Girl (1995-2002)
The third phase for the Bond Girl is the Action Hero. She appears in the Brosnan era films which are more action oriented than their predecessors and reflect the rise of blockbuster action filmmaking (as well as female action heroism) in Hollywood. In the Brosnan era, Bond is presented more as of a man of action than a lover and the role of the Bond Girl seems to adjusted in a similar way.
As an Action Hero, the female protagonist plays a central role in the narrative and is (far) more active and engaged in the space of physical action. She is largely presented as being a co-hero to James Bond. Pam Bouvier in the final Timothy Dalton film Licence to Kill (1989) is a good precursor to this shift as she is more action inclined and takes part in the heroic labor. Women in the Bronsnan era seem to more forward from there.
The Action Hero is presented as more of an equal to Bond. She may question or challenge his authority, disagree with his plan and suggest a new one, or even take the lead and Bond follows her. She takes more initiative and works with rather than for Bond. Natalya Simonova clearly establishes this dynamic in GoldenEye (1995).
The shift towards more action-oriented women is notable through casting. Two actors featured as Bond Girls had great star power with notable action film credentials. Michelle Yeoh was a bonafide action superstar across East and Southeast Asia prior to her casting in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997). Halle Berry had also starred (and has conintued to be featured) in Hollywood action films prior to her casting in Die Another Day (2002). Overall, these Bond women are far more action-oriented than their predecessors.
For example, Michelle Yeoh performed her own stunts in Tomorrow Never Dies. She even brought her own action choreographer and stunt team from Hong Kong. She is the first woman to be featured in her own action sequence and she is even equipped with her own Q-like spy gadgets. It is Bond and not his female co-star who is the butt of the film’s jokes.
The Gaze (Laura Mulvey)
Bond Girls have long been defined by “the gaze.” In the 1970s, scholar Laura Mulvey published her “gaze theory,” sparking the development of feminist film theory and drawing attention to the gendering of media images. Although her theory is detailed and multifaceted, the following is the crux of it.
According to Mulvey, the gaze in film is male. The lead male character is an active gazer in the film. He is the subject who possesses the gaze and the one who does the looking. In comparison, the female is an object that is being looked at. She is passive, and her body is placed on display and gazed upon. Through camera work, the spectator shares the point-of-view (POV) of the male gazer and looks at the women featured in the film. Mulvey draws attention to the gender binary at the heart of media images: the active male subject vs. the passive female object.
Mulvey further argues that women possess “to-be-looked-at-ness.” Women are presented as erotic spectacles and pin-ups in their films. They play to and signify male desire (in a heteronormative context). In addition, her visual presence in the film tends to work against story development. She freezes the flow of action and creates moments of erotic contemplation. The male hero often stops to gaze at her.
From the outset of the franchise, the Bond Girl has been positioned as the object of the gaze. She is presented as a visual spectacle in her films. She is set up for Bond to gaze upon and the audience, who share Bond’s perspective, are also encouraged to look at her. Moreover, the female protagonist frequently appears in lingerie and bathing suits. These work to enhance her sex characteristics as they highlight her breasts, stomach, hips, and legs.
In the first Bond film, Dr. No (1962), the inaugural Bond Girl Honey Ryder is introduced as an object of the gaze. Bond wakes up on the beach of an island to the sound of a woman singing. He looks out into the water and spies Ryder emerging from the sea in a white bikini. During their first meeting, Ryder asks if Bond is looking for shells and he responds with “no, I’m just looking.” The camera shares Bond’s POV and the viewer is encouraged to look at her too (hence, “the gaze”). Moments later when Quarrel runs towards Bond, he stops in his tracks and stares of Ryder. He loses his capacity to speak and his mouth hangs open. This arresting image of Ryder in a bikini literally freezes the flow of action.
Die Another Day (2002) features an homage to this iconic scene in its introduction of Jinx Johnson. Bond gazes at her through binoculars while standing on the shore. He watches as she emerges from the water in an orange bikini and walks towards him. During their first meeting, he says “magnificent view” commenting on her physique (rather than the scenery behind her). Even though Johnson is an Action Hero who is presented as an equal and co-hero to Bond, she is still introduced and defined through his male gaze.
This leads to an important line questioning: Does this mode of representation enhance or detract the Bond Girl’s heroism? Does it work to trivialize or diminish her character? Or is this simply a fundamental element of the archetype that she can’t move past?
Freedom or Exploitation?
The Bond franchise has been criticized for being many things (such as racist, heterosexist, classist, xenophobic) including sexist and misogynistic. Misogyny refers to the dislike of, contempt for, and ingrained prejudice against women. Misogyny can manifest in many ways such as sexual discrimination, objectification, and violence directed towards women. Although Bond films are rooted in the sexual politics of the 1960s, a seemingly more liberal/liberated era, some have questioned if women in the Bond films are truly free or if they are simply being exploited under the guise of freedom. As Arthur Marwick has stated: “Was this sexual liberation for women, or simply enhanced liberation for men, a grand occasion for even the more ruthless sexual exploitation of women?”
Most Bond films feature at least one women semi-nude and in various stages of undress. This is in addition to the many anonymous/unknown women who are featured in the opening credit sequence. Emphasis is placed on female bodies, which are partially if not fully nude and presented in shadow or silhouette. The objectification of women has long been a marketing feature of the franchise. It is also a core element in promotional materials such as movie posters and men’s magazines.
Playboy is an American men’s lifestyle magazine that features nude photographs of women as well as journalism and fiction. It has a long history of publishing short stories by notable novelists including Ian Fleming with “The Hildebrand Rarity” in 1960 as well as “Octopussy” posthumously in 1966. In addition, many women featured in the Bond films have posed for Playboy. Their photo-shoots coincide with the release of their films and some even took place on set after the films were shot. There is a long tradition of Bond women appearing in Playboy especially in the first three decades of the franchise.
Various issues of Playboy correspond with the release of a Bond film. The women featured in them are photographed nude and semi-nude, and their poses and settings recall their roles in their respective Bond films. All women from major to minor figures are marketed as “Bond Girls” regardless of their role or function in the films. These photos also help to reaffirm the male gaze. They emphasize the pleasures of looking at the women of Bond. The reader can see more of Bond’s co-stars than shown in the films. In essence, the reader is offered a glimpse of what Bond gets to see behind closed doors since the film proper does not contain any nudity (beyond the opening credit sequences).
Since the 1960s, Playboy has (un)covered many of the Bond films with pictorials:
In addition to Playboy, the women of Bond are also featured in other men’s magazines that range from “adult” or pornographic content to more mainstream images. They have been featured in Maxim, Arena and FHM to name a few. Even though these women are wearing more clothing, this remains a problematic and reductive mode of marketing. These women seem to be defined by their beauty/bodies rather than by their performance or skills. Since the 1990s, there has been a lot of talk about how gender politics have progressed in the Bond franchise and the world beyond, but compared to the 1960s are the women of Bond valued more, less, or the same?