Deconstructing an Iconic Male
It always struck me as strange that my father, a church-going, decidedly monogamous teetotaler, would enjoy the James Bond films—and expose his son to them.
On Sunday morning the virtues of non-violence, anti-materialism, and sexual purity were preached via the Gospels, while on Sunday evening I was treated to a thrilling encomium to stylized violence, conspicuous consumption, and bed-hopping in the form of the James Bond movies. Talk about mixed messages.
This divide between our professed beliefs and our preferred entertainments is part and parcel of modern life. The divided man is the modern man.
Our fantasies are much more telling than our stated code of ethics—and cinema is a kind of collective cultural fantasy. Bond was—and in some ways still is—the fantasy of post-World War II Western man.
007 was created by Ian Fleming—the secret agent’s first appearance being in the book Casino Royale in 1953. Since I’ve never read any of the books, this discussion of James Bond will be confined to the movies—which have always loomed larger in the public consciousness anyway.
On the face of it, James Bond could be considered a modern-day version of the cowboy. Handsome, strong, a gun at his side, riding not on a horse but in an Aston Martin—an idealized version of masculinity that appeals to the in-many-ways-emasculated modern male.
But what sets Bond apart from the cowboy, first of all, is his Britishness, and second of all, his professionalism.
For some reason, the Brits still have a lock on elegance and intelligence when it comes to the popular imagination. A slightly posh British accent lends an air of respectability, rationality, and elegance to a voice, no matter the content. At least to American ears.
Bond is also an extension of the stereotypical British gentleman, with his well-cut suit and polished manners and exacting attitude and dry wit. Strange that Americans are still attracted by this archetype, since we worked so hard to rid ourselves of the tyranny it supported.
Even though the sun now most definitely sets on the British Empire every evening, Americans (whether we admit it or not) still regard British culture with a certain degree of awe and deference. Daddy issues on an international scale.
As for professionalism, Bond reflects the modern-day mindset of living for your job. Above all, 007 is a consummate professional. Unlike the cowboy, with his wild, rugged individualism, Bond is a company man—he accepts missions with minimal fuss or qualms, and proceeds in a business-like, calculating manner. Violence and sex are merely means to an end.
This specialization and separation of action and emotion are things only the thoroughly modern man can sympathize with. That’s because most of us separate our actions from our emotions every day in our jobs.
But 007 is, above all, a product of the Cold War. Perhaps in no other era could the idea of being a spy seem sexy. The Soviets were the ideal villains in that they were just Other-like enough for them to be objects of our hatred, but then again sufficiently like us, culturally-speaking, for flirtation and sex to occur.
Our main enemy these days is al Qaeda, and it’s highly unlikely that the Bond of the Sixties could charm his way into the bed of a female al Qaeda jihadist quite so easily. Too many cultural and religious taboos stand in the way.
Bond’s trademark Aston Martin also reflects the triumph of the automobile in the post-World War II era. The Aston Martin is a signifier of Bond’s character—refined but powerful.
Living in New York City and relying on public transportation, I sometimes forget just how car-obsessed my fellow Americans are, and how cars are still used as an expression of the self. In modern life, the products we buy define us. Whether that’s the way it should be is another matter.
Which brings me to the gadgets. For many, the best scenes in the Bond films are the ones in which Bond is introduced to some high-tech weaponry and other assorted devices by Q. This love of gadgetry still thrives amongst us—a consumerist expression of our never-ending curiosity and acquisitiveness, childish attributes both. We toss away last year’s gadgets just as Bond seems to—he never has the same stuff in the next film.
The new films show the steady deflation of the above Cold War fantasy. Affluence has spread to such an extent that even people with low incomes can afford smart phones, so the salivation with which our fathers and grandfathers ogled Bond’s gadgets is somewhat muted because of overexposure.
Bond’s sexual exploits also don’t pack the punch they once had, either. The triumph of the sexual revolution and the general social acceptance of premarital sex has killed that part of the fantasy. And the ease and relative affordability of world travel have also drained the Bond films of some of their appeal.
Which is why, in the new films, the fantasy aspect has been largely dropped. No longer the happy warrior, Bond is now a guilt-ridden soul with a tortured past.
In many ways, Bond has lost his way. Take it as a sign of progress.
+++To mark the 50th anniversary of the onscreen James Bond, MGM has released Bond 50, a collection of all twenty-two of 007’s filmic forays on Blu-Ray and DVD. The twenty-third installment, Skyfall, is due in theaters on November 9th.