In the 1965 James Bond film Thunderball, there’s a deliciously subversive scene where the villainous Fiona Volpe (Luciana Paluzzi) mocks Bond (Sean Connery) for believing that he could win her allegiance by sleeping with her.
“But of course, I forgot your ego, Mr. Bond,” Volpe sneers. “James Bond, who only has to make love to a woman and she starts to hear heavenly choirs singing. She repents, then immediately returns to the side of right and virtue. But not this one. What a blow it must have been, you having a failure.”
Volpe reduces Bond to blubbering mush—”What I did this evening was for King and Country,” he whines unconvincingly—and arguably offers a meta-critique of Goldfinger (1964), in which Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman) sides with Bond after he rapes her.
“I’ve told my students, ‘This is going to be on my tombstone,’” says Dr. Lisa Funnell of Volpe’s declaration of independence from 007. “Every time I hear it, I’m like, ‘You are [telling Bond], this libidinal masculinity doesn’t work on me.’ Because in the sixties, you had more liberal sexuality, you had more women saying, ‘If I sleep with a man, I don’t have to marry him.’”
That’s the kind of insight I was hoping to hear when I decided to interview Funnell, a.k.a. “Dr. 007,” who is one of the reigning experts in the field of James Bond studies. With Daniel Craig’s 15-year career playing Bond ending in No Time To Die (due for wide release Oct. 8), I wanted to hear what she had to say about who Bond has been, who he is and who he could be—and as a follower of her work, I knew to expect the enthusiasm of a fan and the intelligence of a scholar.
Dr. Funnell—who is an associate professor in the Women’s and Gender Studies Department at the University of Oklahoma and grew up in Canada watching Bond films with her dad—has published two books about Bond: Geographies, Genders and Geopolitics of James Bond, which she cowrote with Klaus Dodds, and the academic anthology For His Eyes Only: The Women of James Bond.
“James Bond’s cool in and of himself, but Bond is nothing without the women who occupy the world around him,” Dr. Funnell says. “He’s defined by his relationships with them, and they change over time—and when I say change, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they progress in positive terms. We can debate which [characters] are more progressive than others.”
During a phone interview that lasted over an hour, Dr. Funnell and I discussed how Craig’s Bond simultaneously transcends and personifies toxic masculinity, the women of the Craig era and what Bond films could look like after No Time to Die.
“All I want is something that is forward-looking,” says Dr. Funnell. “I don’t want another Spy Who Loved Me, I don’t want another Dr. No, I don’t want another On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. I have those already. I have them on VHS and I have them on DVD and I have them on Blu-ray. And I watch them quite regularly.”
That begs the question: In a post-#MeToo world where Bond sometimes seems outmoded at best and misogynistic at worst, will his adventures continue to be worth watching?
License to Get Political
Dr. Funnell cherishes her memories of watching Bond films during Sunday family dinners. “In terms of what we would watch, because we were kids, most likely we were watching something from the Roger Moore era, just because those films had a little bit more humor to them,” she says. “As a child, you don’t fully understand a lot of, say, the geopolitics or the sexual politics.”
In 2006, Manohla Dargis wrote in The New York Times that every “generation gets the Bond it deserves if not necessarily desires.” As a child of the eighties, Dr. Funnell got Moore, a spoofy Bond with an alligator-shaped submarine; as a millennial, I got Craig, who has often played Bond as a haunted, post-9/11 warrior.
The war on terror is referenced bluntly in Casino Royale (2006) as Craig’s Bond battles Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), a banker who helps fund acts of terrorism. In recent films, however, Bond has faced the more ethereal threat of cyberwarfare—a jarring contrast to Le Chiffre and the cartoonishly devious Russians who populated earlier films.
“We don’t necessarily have an external foe,” Dr. Funnell says. “We don’t have a major country to point our finger at. It has to be more personal. I mean, it’s one of my big frustrations with the Daniel Craig era, but everything is deeply personal and it becomes increasingly familial. So it’s not just Blofeld…but Blofeld, [Bond’s] brother, who is now mad because of whatever.”
Dr. Funnell sees a connection between Craig’s films and the Dark Knight trilogy (2005-2012), which starred Christian Bale as a physically and psychically ravaged Batman. “They [both] tend to be darker in terms of their tone,” Dr. Funnell says. “And of course, the heroes are more battered and bruised and it’s about how they respond to physical trauma.”
That made me think of a scene in Casino Royale where Bond is forced to murder two men in front of HM Treasury liaison officier Vesper Lynd (Eva Green). Afterwards, he doesn’t gloat—he stands shirtless in front of a mirror, staring at his bloodstained body. He doesn’t speak a word, but it’s clear that he doesn’t like what he sees.
Dr. Funnell finds the grimness of Craig’s Bond wearying. “The films have been so dark and—I don’t want to say one-note—but they’ve definitely been downers,” she says. “I feel like along the way, some of the essence of Bond, and who Bond was in different eras, at least for me, got lost. I know for my dad it got lost. And he’s not alone in that.”
Film critic Stephen Carty once claimed that Bond fans can be divided into Connery Purists, Roger Moorists, Dalton Connoisseurs, Brosnan Defenders, Formula Advocates, New-Bond Enthusiasts and Other Fellas. It was a tongue-in-cheek take, but it helps explain how Craig can be both derided as an irredeemably mopey bloke and lauded for saving the series from the excesses of Pierce Brosnan’s tsunami-surfing 007.
“Bond fans and Bond viewers, they range in terms of their demographics, they range in terms of their politics, they range in terms of their preferences,” Dr. Funnell says. “What do they want to see in the next James Bond? That depends on who you ask.”
Could Bond be a woman or a person of color? It’s a controversial prospect to people like the Taiwanese-American filmmaker Justin Lin (Fast & Furious), who told Esquire that he agreed with a film editor who told him, “James Bond cannot be a person of color or female. James Bond has to be white. That’s his superpower: He’s a fucking privileged British fucking asshole.”
Dr. Funnell says that some Bond fans feel differently. “Some people believe that it should be, demographically, the same basic template that [Bond creator] Ian Fleming put forward,” she says. “But there’s also a lot of other people who are saying, ‘Maybe this person should be younger, maybe this person should be from a different country, maybe this person should be of a different race, a different gender, a different sexual orientation.’”
Not Everybody Can Be Tracy di Vicenzo
For years, I was a partisan Craig worshipper. From the moment I saw Casino Royale, I felt that I understood his Bond—especially his hunger to abandon MI6 for Vesper, who drowns during the film’s climax. As a sensitive teenager who fantasized about tuxedos and weddings instead of Aston Martins and one-night stands, I saw Craig as a Bond I could connect with.
Yet during the pandemic, I turned to the sole George Lazenby Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), for comfort. I had bought it on DVD after hearing that Christopher Nolan, my favorite filmmaker, had named it his number-one Bond film. When I finished watching it, I understood why.
Lazenby may have been a middling Bond, but the movie that director Peter Hunt built around him has more adrenaline and poetry than any of the Connery films. In style and substance, On Her Majesty’s is the Empire Strikes Back of Bond—a film that enriches and improves upon all that came before.
That’s partly because Bond has rarely had a romantic partner with as much panache as the heroine of On Her Majesty’s, the English-Italian heiress Tracy di Vicenzo (Diana Rigg). She is his lover, but she is also a feminist force who skis, impales a Blofeld henchman and skillfully drives a Mercury Cougar into the midst of a stock-car race while Bond rides shotgun.
I asked Dr. Funnell why, in a supposedly more enlightened age, few of the female characters in the Craig films are as compelling as Tracy or Vesper, who beguiled Bond with her soulfulness and her suavely sick burns (“By the cut of your suit, you went to Oxford or wherever and actually think human beings dress like that,” she mocks him in Casino Royale).
“The commonality is that [Tracy and Vesper] are both well-developed characters and they are played by charismatic women,” Dr. Funnell says. “And people are largely attracted to these types of representations. You would think, maybe then we would have better-developed women.”
Dr. Funnell was particularly rankled by Skyfall (2012), the film that killed off M (Judi Dench), demoted Eve Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and glamorized Bond sexually assaulting Sévérine (Bérénice Marlohe), a character who is a victim of Macau’s sex trade.
“It feels as though the legacy of Bond is being developed at the expense of woman after woman after woman,” Dr. Funnell says. “And so I left that film feeling terrible. I put together my book For His Eyes Only: The Women of James Bond because I was reacting to Skyfall and really asking, ‘How is this the fiftieth anniversary film?’ This wasn’t 1962. This was 2012.”
The misogyny in contemporary Bond films can be a chilling reminder of the sins of the past. “Can Bond ‘get away with’ the things that happened in the Connery era?” Dr. Funnell wonders. “When my students watch [those films], they feel [that the sexual violence] is worse than what they see in Game of Thrones because it’s played for laughs with funny music, like consent is this comedic thing.”
Yet while Bond films can be toxic, Tracy and Vesper aren’t the only magnificent women who have fought alongside Bond. In fact, Bond has actually been upstaged by characters like the savvy pilot Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell) in License to Kill (1989), the crossbow-wielding avenger Melina Havelock (Carole Bouquet) in For Your Eyes Only (1981) and the Chinese secret agent Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh) in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997).
Dr. Funnell adores Yeoh so much that she wrote a book called Warrior Women: Gender, Race and the Transnational Chinese Action Star. Her work makes the case that to dismiss Bond would be to dismiss the wondrous women around him, an argument that hovers over every episode of her podcast License to Critique.
It heartens Dr. Funnell that many Bond fans prefer multidimensional women who kick ass. “When I look at the fandom, I look at the women that they are championing, the women that they’re connected with,” she says. “These women are commanding based on the actions that they take, the feelings that they convey, even just the way that they hold themselves.”
I’m excitedly anticipating Dr. Funnell’s analysis of No Time to Die, which will introduce Bond to two new women of action, Nomi (Lashana Lynch) and Paloma (Ana de Armas). It will also be the first Bond film to bring back a woman who Bond loved in a previous installment: Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), who first appeared in Spectre (2015).
“I think they’re going to go into unmarked territory, because a woman that Bond has been in a relationship with has never made it to the next film,” Dr. Funnell says. “How are we going to feel about having a spy with a partner? [When] you have a family, that splits your loyalties. You’re not going to be solely loyal to Queen and Country. You’re going to also be loyal to your family.”
Emotionally Shaken and Stirred
At the end of Spectre, there’s a scene that defines Craig’s Bond. He stands in the middle of the Westminster Bridge, pointing his gun at Blofeld (Christoph Waltz), whose machinations have killed Vesper and M. At one end of the bridge stands the new M (Ralph Fiennes); at the other, Madeleine Swann.
“Finish it,” Blofeld goads Bond, who simply responds by saying, “Out of bullets. And besides, I’ve got something better to do.” Then he tosses his gun away with a flourish and walks toward Swan.
I was moved by Spectre’s conviction that Bond could live for more than duplicity and violence. It’s one of my favorite Bond films, and while Dr. Funnell isn’t a Spectre fan, I was curious to hear her thoughts on the possibilities that Bond’s romance with Swan present for No Time to Die.
In response, Dr. Funnell brought up Ian Fleming’s novel Moonraker (1955), in which Bond falls for fellow spy Gala Brand, but discovers she’s engaged. “He’s like, ‘Fine, I need to get out of these young people’s lives and I need to be the cold-hearted spy that you want me to be.’” Dr. Funnell says. “So I feel as though that notion [that Bond can’t marry] definitely has Fleming roots.”
While a domesticated Bond is sacrilege to some fans, Dr. Funnell is willing to imagine what he’d be like as a parent. I suggested that if Bond had a daughter, he could become a fascinating paradox: A protective father who wants to defend his child from men like him.
“I think that very much parallels some of the sentiments I’ve heard some men express when they themselves have daughters,” Dr. Funnell says. “They have said, ‘I didn’t understand the social, economic, professional barriers that women face. I didn’t realize how pervasive rape culture is, whether it’s actual violence or threats of violence and how they loom large, until I had a daughter.’”
Could Bond experience a similar awakening? Perhaps, but Dr. Funnell points out that it’s “an interesting position to be in because you see this revelation, but it also opens up the question, ‘But how did you not know that it was problematic until it was your daughter, until you had that personal relationship with a young girl, your child?’”
Maybe No Time to Die will answer that question; maybe it won’t. But whatever happens, I’m grateful for the escapism that watching Bond films offered me during the pandemic. As Dr. Funnell aptly put it, “I’m very happy that Bond was able to serve as that safety blanket [for you], because I sure used the franchise as that safety blanket too.”
While Craig is still my favorite Bond, watching the films in quarantine taught me to lighten up—at least a little. It would be melodramatic to say that seeing Timothy Dalton’s Bond use a cello case as a sled in The Living Daylights (1987) or Roger Moore dressed in a gorilla costume in Octopussy (1983) saved my life, but those films did make me indescribably happy.
Dr. Funnell and I both crave revisionism, but we also want joy from whoever replaces Craig. “Bring in a solid new creative team with great ideas about, ‘How do we make the Bond film of the future?’” Dr. Funnell says. “I don’t want to see a remake of the past—move me forward to a beautiful standalone narrative where Bond simply does his job. And that is being the best British agent in the world.”
- You can listen to Dr. Lisa Funnell’s podcast License to Critique at https://bit.ly/3u9mSke.