WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS*
(*Always wanted to use that phrase; makes me feel like Claudia Westermann or Jonathan Ross or a combination of the two.)
As a kid I hated James Bond movies. I’m not sure I could have said why exactly. The Bond of my day was Roger Moore, who always looked like he’d be happier sitting in front of the fire in a cardy with a steaming mug of cocoa. My loathing was less for the genial Moore and more for the Bond girls. They were simpering, willowy, passive and usually, at some point, dead.
So it was with considerable surprise that I found myself loving the New Bond of Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace. Obviously it had nothing whatsoever to do with the loveliness which is Daniel Craig; oh no. No shallow enjoyment of a Bond positioned for the female gaze here, I can tell you. No sirree.
(At this point I hope Michele will resist telling all and sundry how I put on lipstick before watching the film in case Daniel saw me. I admit that my grasp on reality isn’t all it could be. But I digress.)
My newfound enjoyment had more to do with the way in which the female characters were fleshed out. Now we were presented with REAL women, and none more real than Judi Dench’s quite brilliant M. First appearing in Goldeneye where she berates Bond for being a ‘sexist, misogynist dinosaur’, she came into her own in the Craig films. Her M was a fiery, funny, highly competent woman who you wanted to see on screen as much as you wanted to see Bond.
So imagine my excitement in the run up to Skyfall.
There was, indeed, much that I enjoyed. The opening was thrilling, fast and furious. I liked Eve, the smart agent who has the misfortune to shoot Bond by mistake. I liked the way M and Bond were increasingly isolated in their attempt to combat shadowy threats while all the time battling their own ageing.
And then I started to feel uncomfortable.
That discomfort started with the death of Severine. A sex worker turned villain’s lover, her sadistic shooting acted as a reminder of the old-time trope that promiscuous women must be punished.
But it was the ending that confirmed that sense that a retrenchment of an old gender politics was being mooted that I really hoped we’d seen the back of.
It felt wrong for such a character not just to be killed off but in the process to be reduced to a frail mother killed by the villain who throughout had positioned himself as her son.
Mummy, it seems, had to die.
That message was driven home in the final scene. Not only does mummy have to die, but so too does any strong female presence.
Eve - revealed as Miss Moneypenny – has decided that life in the field isn’t for her and has thus taken a safer desk job.
The new M is a middle aged man in a suit. (Hey! That's a surprise! Rarely come across those in professional life.) But in case we think he is just one more man in a long line of grey, mediocre bureaucrats, we have been assured during the film that there is more to Ralph Fiennes’ Mallory than meets the eye.
As he passes Bond his next assignment, Mallory’s M does more than simply continue the story: his presence, and the final scene between two men, suggests that patriarchy, threatened by the rise of women, has been safely re-established.
Roll credits, lights up, and home we all can safely go to the 1950s certainties of who plays which role in the Game of Life.
You might say this is just a film. Just a bit of fun. Learn to stop worrying, girl, sit back and get on with ogling Daniel Craig.
I might be tempted to do just that if it weren’t for the way Skyfall connects to the current narrative of male competence and female irrelevance.
Witness Wednesday’s Newsnight and its report of the GeneralPetraeus sex scandal. Reporter Mark Urban’s tone revealed that misogyny and sexism aren’t just rife in the movies. Urban described Petraeus as a “celebrated modern hero” who despite his strengths had been brought low because he was “open to the attractions of a driven young woman”. At no time was it suggested that Petraeus should take responsibility for the affair. All the blame and moral indignation was directed at the woman with whom he’d had this relationship.
And if that double standard isn't enough to convince you, think about the discussion around two Top Jobs currently up for grabs: Governor of the Bank of England and the Director General of the BBC. No women on the shortlist for the former; while Chair of Governors Chris Patten’s exclusively male language when asked about the appointment suggests they will find ‘the right man for the job’ for the latter.
All this on the back of Cameron’s cabinet reshuffle; a reshuffle that reduced the already lamentable number of women in the cabinet still further and which left those women outnumbered by men by 5 to 1.
Why this rise in the kind of sexism and misogyny that Judi Dench’s M confidently claimed was a thing of the past?
We are living through a time of significant political change and during a period of change the desire to return to what is safe and secure can be overwhelming. As women become more aware of and more vocal about the injustices they face the pressure to find ways of keeping women in their place – be that in the home or as support staff for men - will become ever stronger.
I can only hope that in reasserting a patriarchal Bond director Sam Mendes meant to offer a critique of the kind of conservatism that is rife in the institutions of Cameron’s
I guess we’ll have to just wait and see which reading is correct when Bond, as he always does, returns.