Masculinity in 007: Is James Bond actually an empath after all?

Image: Movie still from Casino Royale (2006), directed by Martin Campbell. Eon Productions, featuring Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) and James Bond (Daniel Craig)

In this blog, I explore the portrayal of masculinity in some of the more recent-ish (i.e. after the 2000s) James Bond films: Casino Royale (2006) directed by Martin Campbell, and Skyfall (2012) directed by Sam Mendes, both starring Daniel Craig as Bond. I’m interested in Casino Royale and Skyfall in particular, because I think they both hone-in on Bond’s capacity to care and show empathy for other characters, in moments that I think are quite refreshing and historically unusual in the Bond film franchise.

I think empathy is interesting to talk about in the context of masculinity, because I would argue that empathy is often a ‘masculine’ as well as a ‘feminine’ trait, that’s not often talked about. I think Bond in particular is interesting to consider in the context of masculinity, because of the film franchise’s power and influence. Casino Royale made over $600 million US dollars at the box office, and Skyfall made over $1 billion US dollars. Certainly in British culture and beyond, Bond is a household name, with each new generation getting to know a ‘new’ Bond (and potentially some of the old one’s from their parents DVD and video collections, as well as an infinite access via streaming sites), as a new Bond film has been released every few years since the 1960s.

James Bond, a British secret agent for the Secret Service, is portrayed as a masculine character that has historically been synonymous with the suave, cool and sophisticated male, rolling with the elite, with a taste for beautiful women, fast cars, expensive suits, and barely breaks a sweat in the face of danger. We see him engage in fist fights, car chases, gun crime and raising hell (in predominantly urban areas) to track down the ‘bad guys,’ and come out of these situations with barely a scratch. Very little is known about his background, although it’s often cited in recent films that he was an orphan, who lost both his parents at very young age.

I think film is interesting to consider in the context of masculinity, because it acts as both a mirror of society, and also as a guide. What does a modern man need to aspire to be like if they want to be as cool as James Bond? And what is the audience expecting to see that represents a male character that is both something believable and something fantasy, in the context of when it was made? I think one of the appealing things about James Bond is that he has no special ‘superpower’ – he’s essentially an everyday bloke with a taste for the high life, who’s passionate about the work that he does, charms his way through many difficult scenarios, fights for ‘good’ and not for ‘evil,’ and seems to be incredibly good at it.

There are a few scenes in particular that I think represent an (albeit short) breakaway from the James Bond that laughs in the face of danger, without showing much emotion beyond the immediate thrill of being an everyday superhero in a tailored suit. These moments in a few of the films represent to me some of the most important scenes of the James Bond franchise, significant scenes that mean that even someone like myself, who tends to avoid violence in films beyond the comic-book style depicted in certain genres, finds the Bond films incredibly enjoyable.

Casino Royale: Shower scene

I think this is a key scene for the relationship dynamic between Bond and his love interest in the movie, Vesper Lynd (played by Eva Green). Vesper is a treasury employee who is sent to provide Bond the money that he needs for the strategic poker game at Casino Royale, as part of his mission to stop the funding of terror. Following the scene where they first meet on the train, it becomes apparent that Bond has met his match, and in some ways ‘twin flame,’ as Bond attempts to psycho-analyse Vesper just by first appearances, and Vesper counteracts this with equally quick-witted replies, and instantly works out that James Bond must have been an orphan. Here we see the respect that both characters have for each other, beyond just physical attraction. At the casino, after having only just met, they pose as husband and wife for the purposes of the game, and during the break, Vesper witnesses James Bond strangle one of the illegal money investors Steven Obanno (played by Isaach De Bankolé) in a stair well, and also assists Bond by breaking free the gun from the army commander’s hand while he’s chocked to death.  

This is then followed by the shower scene, where Bond returns to their hotel suit, to find Vesper sitting in the shower, fully clothed and traumatised from watching and assisting with the death of Obanno. Vesper explains to Bond, who sees her and sits in the shower next to her, ‘it’s like there’s blood on my hands. It’s not coming off’ (references to Lady Macbeth I’m sure are completely accidental).  

Bond then replies: ‘Let me see’ and tenderly sucks two of her fingers, indicating that he’s ‘cleaning’ any blood off her hands, following the previous fight.

Above 3 images: Movie stills from Casino Royale (2006), directed by Martin Campbell. Eon Productions, featuring Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) and James Bond (Daniel Craig)

I think this moment in the shower scene is incredibly important, because it shows Bond’s empathy for Vesper’s trauma. This is prefaced by the beginning of Casino Royale, where we’re introduced to Bond (with Daniel Craig) and we’re shown footage of 007 agent’s first and second killing of his secret agent career in the opening scene, but we’re not shown any emotion beyond that from Bond, other than a witty comment. In an interaction with corrupt Mi6 agent Dryden (played by Malcom Sinclair), Bond talks about death in a casual way:

Dryden: [asking about Bond’s first killing] ‘How did he die?’

Bond: ‘Your contact? Not well.’

Dryden: ‘Made you feel it, did he? Well, you needn’t worry, the second is-

*Bond pulls out gun and shoots Dryden – Dryden’s body flies off office chair*

Bond: ‘Yes.’ *Reloads gun and looks coldly at Dryden’s dead body* ‘Considerably.’

In the subsequent shower scene, Bond’s understanding of Vesper’s trauma reveals not only his capacity to be tender and caring, but also demonstrates his ability to understand what she must be going through. This is a rare moment in the film where Bond’s reaction to death looks ‘normal,’ and masculinity is about connection, not disconnection.

I think this scene also demonstrates the different ways that people can show empathy. Bond actually has very little lines in this scene, but he shows his compassion and empathy for Vesper with actions and softness. I think sometimes (there’s obviously always exceptions to this rule) people that don’t find it as easy to communicate with words, demonstrate their feelings with actions, softness/physical touch, providing for people or just ‘being there,’ and I think actually goes for men and women who find it difficult to communicate in other ways. In this scene, what Bond lacks in communication, he shows with physicality, and being there for Vesper, giving her space to feel, without trying to ‘rescue a damsel in distress’ (although *spoiler alert* this dynamic does come later in the film).

Skyfall: Forgiveness

It’s fair to say that compared to the relatively complex love story as part of the plot in Casino Royale, Skyfall definitely fits into the more ‘comic-book’ like plot line, although the difference in this film is that Bond’s age is increasingly in the spotlight. I think Bond’s relationship with his team, and M (played by Judi dench) in particular, demonstrates another side to Bond that we haven’t previously seen in the Bond franchise – this is a strong connection with a female character who isn’t a love interest, but a colleague, a boss, and in some ways, a mother figure, that has lasted across many films.

The opening scene of Skyfall shows his fellow Mi6 agent Eve (played by Naomie Harris) take a shot at the mercenary and henchman of the key villain the film, Patrice (played by Ola Rapace), that Bond is fighting on the top of a train, moments before the train goes under a tunnel at speed. Despite Eve’s reservations that ‘I do not have a clean shot’ and that it might hit Bond, M confirms via phone ‘just take the bloody shot.’ Eve then pulls the trigger on the fighting men on top of a moving train, and hits Bond in the chest, who immediately falls from the train, down a high drop, and splashes dramatically into a river 100+ feet below. His body then continues to float motionlessly downstream, down a waterfall, and eventually sinks under water, and the credits of the film start rolling.

This is a key moment in the film where Bond’s mortality really is in the spotlight. Instantly we recognise the humanity in Bond, and that despite all pretences, the work he’s doing is dangerous. The audience are then left wondering what’s going to happen next to the previously untouchable everyday superhero.

Above 3 images: Movie stills from the opening scenes of Skyfall (2012), directed by Sam Mendes. Eon Productions, featuring Eve (Naomie Harris), M (Judi Dench) and Bond (Daniel Craig).

For the rest of the film, we watch Bond get back on his feet, and return to his job at Mi6, after his self-described ‘resurrection’ (we never find out exactly how he got out of the river in one piece). Bond is attracted back to service after seeing a televised news report of recent attacks on Mi6 HQ, following a recent terror explosion.

It’s interesting to see how Bond interacts with the characters, following the near-death experience as a result of being shot because of the decisions made by his team. Other than a few teasing comments to Eve that doing fieldwork ‘isn’t for everyone’ and remarks that he probably feels safer, when Eve shares that she’s not doing fieldwork any more at the end of the film, he never demonstrates any resentment towards Eve for shooting him by accident. In fact, when Bond finds himself in another near-death experience at a hotel foyer, after a scene fighting the bad guys in a crocodile pit, Eve comes to his rescue and saves him from being murdered by one of the hit-men. Bond then describes this act as the ‘circle of life.’ There’s an acceptance within Bond that the world they’re in is difficult, and he forgives his colleagues if accidents happen.

In the case of M, Bond questions what she was thinking when she said ‘take the bloody shot,’ and instantly accepts M’s response that it was the only logical decision in the situation. There’s a dynamic between M and Bond where they never truly express how they feel, but they both know each other so well, there’s still a system of meaning there, even if they don’t answer honestly.

After an emotional funeral after Bond goes missing and M writes a heart-felt obituary for 007, on Bond’s unexpected return, he breaks into M’s flat (not the first time we’ve seen him do this in Bond films) and returns looking older and dishevelled, with a drink in his hand. The dialogue that follows with M and Bond is both cold and warm at the same time.

M: Where the hell have you been?
Bond: Enjoying death. 007, reporting for duty.
M: Why didn’t you call?
Bond: You didn’t get the postcard? You should try it some time, get away from it all, it really lends some perspective.
M: Ran out of drink where you were, did they?

Later in the film, Bond then says to M about the near-death accident: ‘You were just doing your job.’

M also covers for Bond, and lies about his health and fitness results at Mi6, so that Bond can return to service following his accident. Bond later finds out that M has done this, when it’s revealed by his arch nemesis in the film, Raoul Silva (played by Javier Bardem), and he’s left to decide whether he sees M’s actions as a form of betrayal and deceit, or an act of support.

In the proceeding plot line, Bond is there for M unconditionally. The relationship between M and Bond is strong, and withstands many disagreements throughout the series, through mutual understanding, respect, and dedication to the job.

Skyfall: Grief and loss

The only time we see Bond show any kind of emotion (i.e. tears) for another is when *spoiler alert* M passes away at the end of the film after a gun shooting at his childhood home and parent’s estate, Skyfall, She dies in his arms, at the front of Bond’s family chapel at Skyfall, symbolically also the last place Bond lived with his parents before they both died and he became an orphan (for context, we do briefly get shown an image of Bond’s parents gravestones, at their Scottish Estate in Skyfall).

As Bond hold’s M in his arms, she says in her final words:

M: I suppose it’s too late to make a run for it
Bond: Well, I’m game if you are
M: [looks lovingly into Bond’s eyes in her final last breath] I did get one thing right.
[M takes final breath, and Bond draws her eye lids closed]

The camera then pans out to reveal Bond holding M at the front of the chapel, with tears in his eyes, in mourning.

Above 3 images: Movie stills from Skyfall (2012), directed by Sam Mendes. Eon Productions, featuring Skyfall’s game keeper Kincade (the late Albert Finney) , M (Judi Dench) and Bond (Daniel Craig).

It’s interesting that there are very few examples where Bond has historically been shown as having any kind of remorse or emotion about death, either that he’s caused, or that other people have caused. You could argue that part of the appeal of the comic-book like persona of Bond in the Bond films is that it’s a fantasy world where death has no repercussions. Bond – the everyday guy with no superpowers other than his charm, wit, and strategy, gadgets, slick sense of style and top work-out regime, is presented as a guy who’s been through ‘troubled times’ i.e. losing his parents as a child and becoming an orphan, and as a result, becoming a secret agent, to fight crime. He’s a character that’s driven by the pain caused by death and loss. Arguably you could say that one of the cathartic qualities of watching the Bond films, is that it’s a fantasy world, where power is demonstrated in abundance, and for the most-part, Bond is utterly untouchable, despite his human nature.

One argument that this idea of fighting others who are causing death, with immense amount of power, strategy, gadgets, and doing it with effortless style, could be seen as the male ‘ego’s response to death, i.e. this man is invincible, and he’ll never die, whatever happens.

Another way of looking at this is that it’s not purely male at all, it’s human nature to not be able to cope with death and loss, to feel angry, to wish you could have done more, to want to battle through loss, to feel changed as a result of loss, and demonstrate strength to carry on in different ways that you didn’t know you had. Perhaps rather than mindless violence, Bond’s reaction to his parents’ death (in this land of Bond fantasy where you might have a small bump on the head after being in a gun fight with 20 people), Bond’s response by choosing a career to help others is actually quite a logical one (and usefully for the purposes of the film, also very entertaining).

Conclusions

Having said all of this, do these films win any prizes for being feminist? I’m sorry to say, they do still fail on many fronts, although they are certainly a lot more watchable than those films made 10 or 20 years prior to them. The idea of the ‘fallen woman’ as a character trait is still a strong theme in both the films that I’ve talked about, which unfortunately links very neatly to my recent blog posts on the depiction of femininity in the bible and the ‘fallen woman’ as Eve in the book of Genesis. However, I think the gradual ‘softening’ of the portrayal of masculinity in Bond’s characters in the recent films has made it a lot easier to miss out the misogyny (for the most-part, anyway), and put in scenes with real human connection, empathy and compassion instead, which personally I think makes for a much better film, without compromising on any of the action or entertainment.

Overall, I think these moments of empathy and compassion in the Bond films I’ve discussed really do bring a strength of character to the persona of Bond, and shine a light on what masculinity is beyond the masculine ego often depicted in action films – I actually think, at the heart of this, Bond really does care. He’s obviously developed a thick skin, and his childhood trauma and drinking problem is alluded to in the Skyfall movie that suggests his motives may be anger-driven. However, at the heart of Bond’s actions, in the land of Bond, with all its extremities, it’s obvious that he’s motivated by care (and if we are really going to be honest about this, love, but he probably wouldn’t want to admit that).

I can see where things could still be improved (in terms of gender relations in Bond in particular) and there has also been work written about the geopolitics of Bond (e.g. the baddies accents tend to be Russian or European, post-colonial relations, etc), but beyond all of this, I do still think these films have immense entertainment value, and although I can see room for improvement in some areas, I will always be a Bond fan (for the more recent films anyway) 😊

About the Author:

Anna Frances is a Bristol, UK based artist, poet, blogger and holistic healer, interested in the role of gender in popular culture, looking at the role of the ‘Divine Feminine’ and ‘Divine Masculine’ and questioning the portrayal of the polarity between the the two (i.e. she argues we all have the capacity to be soft and nurturing, and also strong and strategic, regardless of what gender we identify as).

Anna also identifies as bisexual, and has created art and merchandise surrounding LGBTQ+ visibility and universal love themes. She’s also a trained holistic healer, and offers 1:1 ThetaHealing® sessions, and campaigns for social issues.

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