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James Bond Converts to Conservatism
Film's most famous playboy has become a metaphor for cultural anxiety.
Warning: This post discusses key spoilers for No Time to Die. Stop reading now if you are planning to watch it and have not.
No Time to Die is not a very good Bond film. It has the right ingredients but is not cooked thoroughly, and seems likely to be forgotten pretty fast. What makes it interesting is not what’s there but what isn’t: namely, James Bond. Everything that James Bond embodied as a metaphor for a particular kind of Western masculinity is reversed in this film, and the end result is an action hero who seems, at least on the surface, deeply conservative. But is he?
That James Bond could be a father, as he’s revealed to be in No Time to Die, is not exactly an outrageous proposition given Bond’s laundry list of lovers. One of the longest running jokes in movies was to observe how 007 has avoided bullets but probably not venereal disease. In real life, any man with Bond’s proclivities would likely have gone broke on child support payments long ago, but of course that’s not the universe Bond inhabits. James Bond lives in a world where neither his enemies nor his seed ever hit the target. And in this world, Bond exemplifies a particular vision of the good male life, one that is simultaneously progressive in its uninhibited recreational sexuality, and patriarchal in its celebration of virility.
People have asked for decades how James Bond was a plausible cultural icon in a feminist age. It’s a good question, one that the franchise’s showrunners seemed to have given more thought as the series has aged. The older films featured “Bond girls” who were also action heroines in their own right, which made them feel more like participants in the adventure…even if their main function in the stories was still to look beautiful next to Sean Connery or Roger Moore. The Pierce Brosnan films upped the ante by casting Judi Dench as “M,” a brilliant move that allowed the more feminist audience members to see themselves in Bond’s superior.
The Craig films, however, have not merely tinkered with the series to assuage the scruples of modern audiences. They have transformed Bond completely. He’s still amorous, but now he has soulmates instead of Bond Girls. No Time to Die lays a dramatic capstone on Bond’s transformation. Nothing could disrupt the inner logic of James Bond more than a child, and that’s exactly what happens. A childless universe of willing damsels—the fever dream of Hugh Hefner—has been invaded by reality. James Bond has grown up.
So what to make of Bond’s evolution from playboy to parent? At first glance, it sure looks like a clear cut instance of conservative moral norms cleaning up the unsatisfying mess that Boomers left behind. It’s telling that Bond’s journey feels normal rather than preachy; a similar revelation in one of the Brosnan films, for instance, would have been unthinkable. Now, it not only seems plausible, it feels dramatically interesting. Why? One answer is that in the era of Internet pornography, the Bond franchise’s highly stylized sexuality, and uneasy balancing act of female empowerment and obsequiousness are remarkably banal. What does “sexy” mean in a culture in which 50% of the audience, including preteens, arrive at the theater having just watched bare, un-simulated sexual gymnastics on their iPhones? What is interesting are father figures, trying to be emotionally proximate to their children and lovers while bearing the burden of work that has real, non-BS stakes. That is interesting precisely because it is what Western culture lacks. Love scenes = old and busted. Emotionally present dads with interesting careers = new hotness.
This narrative is the one that comforts social conservatives and gives some sense that maleness, fatherhood, and fidelity still haunt our sexually revolutionary age. But there’s another explanation for Bond’s transformation that is at least as equally plausible: Bond has become, metaphorically, (and perhaps very soon, literally) a woman. In this interpretation, No Time to Die’s paternal revelation is a way of completely leveling the playing field between Bond and the women he accessorizes. Think the world is not enough? Ok, buddy, try making breakfast for a toddler.
There’s no question that the Bond of the Craig series is meant to be a more emotional, more sensate spy. Roger Ebert was not wrong when he observed that Bonds before Craig were “lustful technicians,” and he was definitely not wrong that Craig’s Bond “gives the sense of a hard man, wounded by life and his job, who nevertheless cares about people and right and wrong.” The Bond of this series is a more moral man, but the expression of his morality is largely through therapeutic self-awareness. The question nagging me at the end of the Craig series is whether James Bond is a better man because he’s more in tune with his and others feelings, or whether he is more in tune with his and others feelings because he’s a different kind of man.
I can’t help but wonder what the commercial image of James Bond must look like in an era in which “traditional masculinity” is declared a mental disorder. As a cultural icon, Bond embodies more than lust. He embodies a kind of independence, strength of will, and emotional restraint that idealizes a stronger vision of masculinity. Bond’s lack of empathy is not haphazard; he is a government agent tasked with saving the world through warfare. “Why are you so cold,” Natalya asks James. “It’s what keeps me alive,” Bond replies, and of course he’s right. Bond is a soldier, and the good he offers the world (and the audience) is a good that is not coterminous with positive psychology and emotionally equitable relationships.
Obviously, this is a very generous interpretation of James Bond. Social conservatism’s esteem of the family is not something that finds much support in the women-conquering episodes of the Bond franchise. That’s why I think, in the end, that Bond’s paternity is a symbolic victory for Christians and other traditionalists. It’s a sympathetic and cinematically beautiful portrayal of parenthood, and that matters.
But there’s no getting around the shifting definitions of masculine power that surround the revolution of James Bond. Reducing male distinctiveness to testosterone-fueled emotional intelligence is a cultural flashpoint, and the need to make Bond a codependent lover and a father probably signals a discontent with given gender that will undermine sympathetic treatments of parenting. Children are beautiful, but the beauty of creating children is not as intuitive to a morally anxious Western world. To what degree do offspring challenge our autonomous sense of self?
Here’s a clue. In this film, what is the first thing that James Bond does after confirming that he is a father?