With the recent birth of my son I’ve spent a lot of evenings staying up late with the baby in an effort to give my over-burdened wife a few uninterrupted hours of sleep. I find it virtually impossible to actually concentrate on anything else amidst the effort of soothing and tending to an infant. But I’ve found that I can manage to watch a movie, so long as I make liberal use of the pause feature. Thus it seemed the perfect time to work my way through the complete 50 Years of Bond Blu-ray collection that my wife got me for last birthday. I enjoyed the films as always, but found myself asking for the first time a question that never occurred to me before I became a father. Is James Bond a good role model?
Although my son is too young to focus on the screen, let alone comprehend the plot or characters, that won’t always be the case. Eventually he’ll be old enough to understand, mimic, and internalize aspects of the characters he sees on TV. Do I want him internalizing Bond? On the one hand Bond is a hero fighting for Queen and Country, thwarting all manner of bad guys bent on world domination, genocide, nuclear extortion, and the like. On the other hand one could argue that he is a sexist dinosaur that treats women as disposable playthings. And, for all that his occupation is dressed up in a tuxedos, high stakes poker and one-liners, he is an assassin.
I think that in proper context, Bond’s alleged sexism is overstated. Yes, the early movies reflected the pervading sexist attitudes of their time. Men are in charge. Women are subordinates. But what do you expect? Doctor No was released in 1962, and it would be absurd to expect films released half a century ago to reflect 21st century social attitudes. The early Bond movies do have some undeniably sexist, cringe-worthy moments. The worst is in You Only Live Twice when a Japanese spymaster states “in Japan, men come first, women come second,” to which Bond replies “I just might retire to here.”
Despite such unfortunate one-liners, the early Bond movies actually cast women in a predominately positive light. They feature brave women risking their lives to fight against evil. Pussy Galore, perhaps the greatest Bond girl, is depicted as a strong, independent, accomplished pilot and squadron leader, and as one of the few characters (male or female) to ever stand up to Bond on more-or-less equal terms. What’s more, far from being a passive damsel, she shows moral agency and betrays her evil employer to save thousands of lives. Indeed without her Bond could not have defeated Goldfinger. Sure her name is ridiculous, but then so is Auric Goldfinger. In substance, she was in 1964 one of the strongest female characters ever depicted in cinema.
As for Bond’s promiscuity, it is clear from watching the entire progression of the character that this comes from Bond’s wounded emotionality and not from any antipathy towards women. Bond has lost almost everyone he ever let get close to him. Most notably, the one woman he ever married was gunned down by arch-villain Ernst Stavro Blowfeld mere minutes after their wedding. Having learned the lesson that his dangerous world makes any meaningful human connection an invitation to grief, he compensates by seeking a succession of shallow physical liaisons. This is the pathology of a wounded soul–not the product sexism. While one might object to Bond’s sexual conquests on puritanical grounds (although nothing explicit is ever depicted) and on the grounds that it treats both women and men (chiefly Bond himself) as sex objects, but Bond’s treatment of women is far more complicated than meets the eye.
Perhaps more troubling is the fact the Bond kills people for a living. Most of the movies gloss over this fact. Bond is sent on dangerous investigative missions, and he has a license to kill if need be, but he is generally not sent on explicit assassination missions. Yet there are a couple of sequences where this veneer is pulled back, notably the opening sequence of Casino Royale where he straight-up assassinates a traitorous MI6 section chief, and when he is explicitly sent to assassinate a Russian general in Timothy Dalton’s highly underrated The Living Daylights. There’s no escaping the fact that Bond kills people. But, to quote from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s somewhat Bond-Like character in True Lies: “Yeah, but they were all bad.” While I’m being somewhat tongue in cheek, it is literally true. Bond only kills other killers who, if left alone, will kill even more people. Bond is, in essence, a soldier fighting an endless shadow war, and his killing is no better or worse than the killing by one soldier of another.
All of which brings us back to the original question. Is Bond a good role-model? I think the answer is yes, but . . . The but is that your kids need to be of sufficient age that you can talk to them about changing social attitudes, about the hazards of promiscuity, and about the seriousness of life and death. Bond has a lot going for him, and a kid could do worse than to emulate his courage, his confidence, his sense of duty and his sense of right and wrong. Is he perfect? No. Far from it. But that actually makes him a better role model than an unrealistically perfect cartoon of a character. Nobody in the real world is perfect, and characters like Bond send the message that even heroes have flaws. Bond teaches that you can admire some aspects of a person’s character without admiring every aspect of their character. He’s not a black or white character. He’s grey. While there is certainly a place for aspirational role models that represent a perfect ideal of virtue, there’s also value in showing that even morally imperfect people can do the right thing when it really matters.
So in the end, with some reservations, and so long as I have a chance of offering parental explanation, I can live with James Bond as a role model for my son.