For my Film Theory final, I decided to write about how James Bond being a white, British man is an intrinsic quality to the character and my own spectatorship as a Latina who loves waching these films. I’m also saddened by the death of Sir Roger Moore. Though I did not care for his interpretation of Bond, I can appreciate his place in Bond history. R.I.P.
After I decided to write this essay on my personal experience of being a Latina who loves watching James Bond films, I knew the best place to start would be to re-watch the very first Bond film: Nr. No (Terrence Young, 1962). Now, I had not seen this movie in a long time and when the film started up, I found myself feeling regretful. The opening follows black men as they go around murdering white people; scenes that made me cringe with their blatant racism. Right away I thought to myself that maybe I had chosen the wrong topic and I didn’t actually like James Bond films as much as I thought I did.
But then the film moves to a gambling club filled with finely dressed individuals. At a card table a beautiful and red-draped woman is frustratingly losing at cards. The camera does not show the man’s face just his toned, masculine hands. After the woman tries and fails for a few rounds, the robust hands open up a cigarette case and a voice like a rich, oaky glass of scotch drawls, “I admire your courage, Miss…” She says her name and “I admire your luck, Mr.…” Finally the camera reveals his face as he lights a cigarette. He says the famous “Bond, James Bond” line as the classic Bond music begins to play and I audibly let out a squeal of excitement.
No, I had not made a mistake in my choice if I get to be allowed to watch this sophisticated, mysterious, and just plain cool man go on his adventures. But how can I be willing to wade through such racist content for this character? How do these films actively try to isolate minorities like me from watching these films and instead expect the spectatorship to be white, straight men? And yet what about him makes this character so attractive and desirable? I think for one thing the fact that most movies star white men is an issue that needs to be addressed. For, “The dynamism of white instability, especially in its claims to universality, is also what entices those outside to seek to cross its borders and those inside to aspire ever upwards within it, Thus it is that the paradoxes and instabilities of whiteness also constitute its flexibility and productivity, in short, its representational power” (40, Dyer). Since, the bulk of my prospective film options are going to be with white male leads I have to do what I can sometimes to find something in the film that I believe is relevant to myself.
As a Latina, sometimes the options are to choose between identifying with an exaggerated caricature or with the white person. “For women of color, finding yourself in the porn archive very often involves encountering spectacular images of hyperbolic racialized abjection or projecting your own countenance onto the ecstatic white faces of femininity” (147, Rodríguez). Even though, Rodríguez is here referring to pornography, I do think this sentiment is something that Latinas feel across all the different varieties of visual media. The Latina characters often do not adequately reflect real, fully fleshed out people. One exception that I can think of concerning Latina spies is Carmen Cortez from the Spy Kids movies, who was a very important character to me during my childhood. However, I really do love the Bond films and think there is something truly unique about them.
There are so many different traits that classify a Bond film. The perfectly tailored suits, endless explosions, martinis, and car (or other vehicle) chases, just to name a few. Bond always outdoes himself with cooler and more ingenious exploits and action sequences. A common trope that appears in these spy films is persons spying on others and I think this can help to explain the visual pleasure that comes when I watch Bond. From being able to be a voyeur, I get to spy on Bond and achieve a second-hand adrenaline rush. No matter how exclusively masculine these kinds of action movies may be perceived as, seeing stuff get blown-up naturally releases endorphins for the spectator. And the one word that always makes me think of Bond at his best is satisfying. These films just leave me with such strong feelings of satisfaction. Mistakes may happen along the way but the extravagant action gets played out in such a perfectly gratifying manner.
Another vital aspect of these films arises with the Bond girls. In every film, Bond seduces and sleeps with beautiful and hard to get women. In almost every film (without the significant exceptions of Daniel Craig’s Bond), the first scene the spectator sees Bond he is in bed with a gorgeous woman. The strength and success of his heterosexual vitality must be the first thing that viewers know about him. Bond never has a problem with the ladies although realistically he probably should have some serious trust issues with the amount of women he has slept with who have immediately double-crossed him. And while some Bond girls may have burned or slowed him down, he never gets permanently crushed.
Now here is a character trait that was definitely not made for a straight woman like myself. Sometimes I am really bothered by his horrible treatment of women and I certainly cannot deny the physical attractiveness of Sean Connery and Daniel Craig. And yet I still put myself in his shoes during these exploits. But not because I actually want to sleep with these women, as most undoubtedly the filmmakers have wanted the straight male spectator to want, instead I am imagining myself as having his confidence and stamina. As a spectator, I am not focusing on the exact actions he achieves but with the way he goes about accomplishes them. I can perfectly understand what the filmmakers were trying to get across but, “it is possible for a viewer perfectly to understand both the literal and the connotative inflection given by a discourse but to decode the message in a globally contrary way. He/She detotalizes the message in the preferred code in order to retotalize the message within some alternative framework of reference” (137-8, Hall, “Encoding/Decoding”). I may have been expected to just be the exasperated girlfriend who rolls her eyes at her lust-struck boyfriend but instead I have found my own way to feel empowered when watching Bond work his charm.
But what I believe to be the most essential component of the configuration of Bond is his identity as a white British man. His entire character and everything he manages to get away with depend upon this fact. Though the elephant in the room must be pointed out: in the film canon Bond is Scottish. From what I could tell (though it may be different if I was more knowledgeable about the Scottish people) I could not see any specific instance of Bond feeling resentment towards England because of the history of colonization of his land by the English. In fact, he seems completely at ease with English customs and continually offers to sacrifice his life for English causes. So Bond himself may be seen as being under the dominion of English imperialism and the model for a successfully colonized person. He does have a history of not always following authorities’ orders but he would not be able to rebel and not face consequences in the way that he does if he did not have white, male privilege. Also, given his total rejection of loyalty to any country other than England (best exemplified with Bond literally blowing up his childhood Scottish home in Skyfall (Sam Mendes, 2012) and his still very strong inherit sense of white, male, and British self, Bond remains as an embodiment of British imperialism.
Which becomes extremely problematic when taking into consideration that another of the foundational characteristics of a Bond film comes in placing the spy in various and diverse exotic locales. He has been all over the globe and seen dozens upon dozens of different cultures. However, these cultures are frequently not truly indicative of their respective countries and often rely on insulting caricatures. And despite my enjoyment of these films, it must be said that, “Yet all evaluation…is inseparable from, though not identical or reducible to, social structural analysis, moral and political judgments and the workings of a curious critical consciousness” (31, West). It should also be noted that over the course of the Bond filmography almost every oppressed minority could find in it something offensive about their people. But for my purposes, I am going to focus on the filmic issues relevant to my Caribbean and Latina identity.
I think that these films provide sufficient material to work with concerning these issues as I think both Europe and the Caribbean are intrinsically linked. For the Caribbean, “‘Europe’ belongs irrevocably to the question of power, to the lines of force and consent, to the pole of the dominant in Caribbean culture. In terms of colonialism, underdevelopment, poverty, and the racism of color, the European presence is that which, in visual representation has positioned us within its dominant regimes of representation: the colonial discourse, the literatures of adventure and exploration, the romance of the exotic, the ethnographic and traveling eye, the tropical languages of tourism, travel brochure, and Hollywood, and the violent, porno-graphic languages of ganja and urban violence” (218, Hall, “Cultural Identity”). The Islands, through colonization, have been forced to experience and live with European customs and culture. However, Europe has always has a fetishistic fascination with the Caribbean and has felt they have fair use to cherry-pick what they will out of our cultures to tell in their stories. The Bond films make perfect examples for when Britain appropriates aspects of our cultures.
When I am watching these films, I am continually shocked and irritated by the persistent judgment that whole groups of people act exactly the same and there could exist no variety within groups. The films reached a particularly ridiculous low for me when, in Live and Let Die (Guy Hamilton, 1973), an entire Caribbean island is just made up. The filmmakers thought that all the islands were caricatures anyway, so what could be the difference if they just create their own island? But this became even worse when apparently the distinguishing features of the Caribbean are heroin smuggling, human sacrifice, and Voodoo magic. As a Puerto Rican familiar with these Caribbean stereotypes, they were deeply cringe-inducing for me. When I watch a visual medium using the form to display such intensely pronounced racism it can sometimes be difficult to ignore what is right in front of my eyes, even if I really want to just enjoy the film.
I also found instances when I felt that the films were speaking directly to my specific identity, though not in a good way. In Dr. No, the lead Bond girl Honey is a light-skinned blond who gives an entire speech about how her father brought her to different countries and that’s how come she ended up in Jamaica. I myself am light-skinned and know of many light-skinned blonds who are also Latinas. These are not mutually exclusive traits. But when she goes off with Bond in the film end and also in Live and Let Die, when again the light-skinned woman goes off with Bond (this time also trading in her tarot cards for regular playing cards) I believe that these films are saying that light-skinned women do not belong in the Caribbean. Bond seems to want to save them from the dark-sinned islanders. He wants to take them back to Europe, where they really belong. But, “We cannot speak for very long, with any exactness, about ‘one experience, one identity,’ without acknowledging its other side—the differences and discontinuities which constitute, precisely, the Caribbean’s ‘uniqueness.’ Cultural identity, in this second sense, is a matter of ‘becoming’ as well as of ‘being.’ It belongs to the future as much as to the past. It is not something which already exists, transcending place, time, history, and culture. Cultural identities come from somewhere, have histories. But, like everything which is historical, they undergo constant transformation. Far from being eternally fixed in some essentialized past, they are subject to the continuous ‘play’ of history, culture, and power. Far from being grounded in a mere ‘recovery’ of the past, which is waiting to be found, and which, when found, will secure our sense of ourselves into eternity, identities are the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within, the narratives of the past” (212-3, Hall, “Cultural Identity”). The Caribbean is constantly changing and through colonization, the people have become incredibly diverse.
But this pattern of Caribbean misrepresentation had been present from the first film of the entire franchise Dr. No, which takes place in the previously British occupied Jamaica. A particularly racist plotline occurs when the ‘obviously’ stupid islanders believe that a dragon exists. Bond, being the enlightened British man, does not believe them for a second and has to clarify that the dragon is just a machine. This kind of condensation of Caribbean people makes us appear as gullible primitives. In Stuart Hall’s essay “Cultural Identity and Cinematic Representation”, he discusses African identity in the Caribbean as, “But whether it is, in this sense, an origin of our identities, unchanged by four hundred years of displacement, dismemberment, transportation, to which we could in any final or literal sense, return, is more open to doubt. The original “Africa” is no longer there. It too has been transformed. History is, in that sense, irreversible. We must not collude with the West which, precisely, ‘normalizes’ and appropriates Africa by freezing it into some timeless zone of the ‘primitive, unchanging past’” (217, Hall, Cultural Identity). The myths that Hall speaks of refer to all of these varied lands having the exact same identity and not going through any sort of change. This kind of degradation of African and Caribbean culture serves the devious purpose of raising white people above these minorities. However, what I think the filmmakers did not realize is that by demeaning these minorities, they have also lessened the standard for Bond. It seems that in order to build Bond up, other apparently disposable characters must be torn down. Bond’s intellect then no longer just comes across as one man being a genius but as Bond having the natural superior intellect of a white man.
For one of the foundational personality traits expected of white men is sound judgment. The historical dominance that has come from this works because, “The ideal white man was one who knew how to use his head, who knew how to manage and control things and get things done” (30, Dyer). This logic means that white men are the only ones who can truly achieve the ability to be the master of one’s own mind. And while Bond certainly shows off his physical strength, his constant resourcefulness and outsmarting of others are the main factors behind his success. But Bond was not created for me to see as an idol but for white men to see him as the best example to follow or admire.
But it is not enough for a white man to merely have intellect; he must use it for a ‘good’ use. He must use his abilities to expand the British Empire. So many of these films take place in currently or previously British-occupied territories. Therefore, these films come from the perspectives of white British officials coming in to fix the island’s problems. This ties into the long history that the Caribbean has of European colonization because “Enterprise as an aspect of spirit is associated with the concept of will—the control of self and the control of others” (31, Dyer). If a white man believes that he really has the best judgment a human being can have then he could possibly think he has a duty and a right to take charge of other countries. Bond has internalized this logic and arrogantly always tries to take control of situations and seems to be the only one who can figure out how to fix a problem and find a solution.
White men have managed to manipulate this thought process into the world’s conscious. The logic is that white men deserve control not just because they take it by force but also because they deserve leadership based upon their superior mental abilities. As, “The idea of leadership suggests both a narrative of human progress and the peculiar quality required to effect it. Thus white people lead humanity forward because of their temperamental qualities of leadership: will power, far-sightedness, energy” (31, Dyer). Bond gets to advance humanity through his missions because of his extraordinary qualities but these traits can only be gained if he is first a white man. Everything that I admire about Bond does not get presented to me as anything a Latina could possibly be capable of achieving. These are fantasies thought only to be accessible to a certain kind of person.
And yet I can still watch these films pretending that I am the one who takes charge of a mission and thinking up my own innovative plan. As the agenda of conquest “is a position of such notable, albeit catastrophic, success in the world that it is one that many people neither white, male nor middle class, may aspire to take up” (39, Dyer). While I do not actually want to colonize any place, the attraction of being a leader who can effectively advance people seems like an irresistible fantasy. I think most people would like to think of themselves as being capable of taking charge of their own lives and carving out their own path.
One instance where I found this fantasy particularly resonant is in Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006), when Bond is in the Bahamas and he gives his car keys to a dark-skinned valet. Immediately after, another white man then mistakes him for a valet. Bond pretends to go along with it but as payback for the man being rude to him he crashes the car. On the one hand when I watched this scene, I felt that adrenaline rush of yes fight authority! I mean he just looks so cool not willing to submit to anyone and making sure people remember to respect him. But he also does not suffer any negative repercussions for these actions and I do not believe the same would be true if the dark-skinned valet had done the same thing as Bond did.
In Bond’s world, where he can make flippant jokes to his boss and routinely go against his boss’ orders, it’s empowering thinking what that would be like if I could also rebel against authority and not worry about losing my job. In fact, I could still be seen as the top operative and get the juiciest missions. All the doors in the world are open to this man. Even though Bond is portrayed as a profoundly intelligent and resourceful spy, as a Latina sometimes even being perfect does not guarantee freedom from negative stereotypes.
In conclusion, two particular moments stand out in my mind as being the pinnacle of capturing the very essence of the Bond spirit. The first one is in Dr. No, when Bond is stranded in a rickety, fuel-less boat out in the middle of nowhere but luckily a British-run ship appears. And Bond in the most arrogant, self-assured manner possible asks them, “What’s the matter? Do you need help?”. A strikingly reminiscent, modern day version of this scene comes in Casino Royale, when Bond is literally poisoned but after being revived his first words are to ask Vesper Lynd if she is okay. Now these moments could be seen just for their cocky overtones. A man so seeped in toxic masculinity that he refuses to show any weakness or acknowledge the other people who have helped him. A man willing to take credit for other’s work.
However, I think that in these scenes the very heart of Bond can be discovered and also there can be found the most profound reasoning behind why I have such a great love for this character. What exactly do all of his traits and behaviors add up to? All the missions, the women, the expansive props, the exotic locations? What does all of this lead towards? To understand, I looked to the expanded version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and saw that Bond has most of the needs that anyone could want: sexual satisfaction, independence, peak experiences, and more. In moments like these where he is at his best, he has reached the top level: transcendental needs. Bond has transcended all of his desires so as to be able to reach that altruistic high. He does not fear death; he does not fear anything because he has accomplished all he could possibly want to achieve. All of the seemingly selfish acts he commits are just ways to pass the time. In actuality, Bond has the freedom of always being ready to sacrifice himself for the good of others.
Casino Royale. Martin Cambell. Eon Productions, 2006.
Dr. No. Terence Young. Eon Productions, 1963.
Dyer, Richard ”The Matter of Whiteness,” White, New York: Routledge 1997.
Hall, Stuart. “Cultural Identity and Cinematic Representation,” in Framework 36 (1989)
Hall, Stuart. “Encoding/Decoding,” Culture, Media, Language, Stuart Hall, et al. (eds.),
Birmingham: Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, University of Birmingham
Live and Let Die. Guy Hamilton. Eon Productions, 1973.
Rodríguez, Juana María. “Latina Sexual Fantasies, the Remix.” Sexual Futures, Queer
Gestures, and Other Latina Longings, NYU Press, 2014
Skyfall. Sam Mendes. Eon Productions, 2012.
West, Cornel. “The New Cultural Politics of Difference,” Out There: Marginalization
and Contemporary Cultures, Russell Ferguson, Martha Gever, Trin T. Minh-Ha, and
Cornel West (eds.), New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art 1990.