SEPTEMBER 27, 2021
IF THERE’S ONE assumption that fans and critics share about the James Bond franchise, it’s that the films appeal to viewers through a fantasy world of white, privileged, able-bodied manhood. Here women of all races and ethnicities are playthings — targets, damsels in distress, “quickies,” collateral damage — all at the whim of agent James Bond, the debonair hitman, codenamed 007, whose membership in the elite “00” section of the British Secret Service grants him a license to kill and, it would appear, a warrant to live large, to booze and womanize in excess for services rendered to the Queen. The hyper-masculine attractions of virility, mega-sized armaments, spy world bluster, superhuman athleticism, and heroic conquests of “othered” foes of the Empire — these are the core tenets of the movies, lightly sprinkled, though they may be, with fine dining, Savile Row and Roberto Cavalli fashions, OMEGA timepieces, British airs and graces, and “exotic” travel to grant reprieves from the brutality and lend an air of sophistication to Bond’s missions. It’s a formula of “sex, snobbery and sadism,” as one critic put it, and when assembled in a big-screen adventure, the resulting stories have the power to seduce.
Or to repel.
Yet, with No Time to Die’s release next month, and amid anticipation over the casting of British actress Lashana Lynch as the series’s first Black female character to have earned the rarefied “00” prefix, something curious has developed among Bondophiles: a modest, but promising, alternative perspective within Bond fandom. Might the Bond world have been less puerilely masculinist, and more inclusive, from the get-go? Since 2019, when Lynch’s role in the film was first announced, fans have been asking this question in online forums. And perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this wellspring of progressivism among a certain faction of Bond aficionados has been the effort to feminize the way the films have traditionally been read. Fans have re-scanned the entire history of Bond, from 1962’s Dr. No through 2015’s Spectre, searching for suppressed story ideas that point to a different reality, to a fictional realm where women are “00s” — and the results have been intriguing.
Especially poignant has been the discussion of something hidden deep in the Bond vault: the first teasing glimpse of a female “00.” The discovery was shared just over two years ago on Twitter — traces of a woman agent during the production of one of the original Sean Connery films, 1965’s Thunderball.
The fourth entry in the series, Thunderball is a high-octane romp, swapping the low-burn, spy-thriller suspense of the first three films for unrestrained spectacle. One of several films responsible for the mid-’60s “Bondomania,” and, until 2012’s Skyfall, the highest-grossing 007 outing ever, it’s a modern blockbuster avant la lettre, lean in terms of character-building and bloated in its handling of Bond’s action-filled charge: to travel to the Bahamas and unravel the £100 million NATO extortion scheme hatched by the evil international crime syndicate SPECTRE.
There’s little room for subtlety in a movie like this. But early on, we are taken into a large briefing room, and encouraged for a moment to take in MI6’s power structure. The tension among British service and military brass is palpable. The stakes of SPECTRE’s latest threat are high. The service’s best agent, James Bond (Sean Connery), slinks in late, and occupies a seat amid the entire compliment of “00s.” We’ve never met Bond’s elite, secret agent peers before. But there they are — the nine of them, shown mainly in partial views or from the rear. Fans, ever curious, ever diligent, have uncovered production stills revealing what they look like from the front, and there she is, the first female “00,” at the far end of the arched row.
What’s her story? Like fans online, we can only speculate. As with other “00s,” she’s sure to be highly skilled and tough as nails, and possesses a license to kill. All “00s” share the same origin, as 2006’s Casino Royale recounts. It takes two kills for an agent to earn rank within the service. Did she join the “00” section before or after Bond? Was she perhaps 007’s mentor? How did she break through — the only woman to do so, apparently — in this male-dominated field? Does Bond interact with her with the same flirtatious innuendo he wields in the company of Miss Moneypenny, the forever-spinster? Or does she command more respect, perhaps grudgingly?
Modern Bond fans have it right. There might have been a story here.
Yet Thunderball never shows, let alone names, her. Erased, until recently, from the film and the series entirely, her successes and pleasures are never celebrated, her experiences in the service never recounted. We never learn of the contempt she may have felt for Bond’s sexism or perhaps even the pangs of guilt she may endured over the role that the Secret Service played in perpetuating the depredations on former colonies and women of color during a period of British imperial collapse. Mirroring the masculinism of Bond himself, the storytelling of the early films scrubs her exceptional life and career — for she is an exception in the literal sense — from the fictional record.
Next month, with the long-delayed theatrical premiere of No Time to Die, Eon Productions, currently under the control of producer Barbara Broccoli and her half-brother Michael Wilson, has the opportunity to perform a course-correction 56 years in the making. All signs point to a Lashana Lynch “00” character — in part written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge of Fleabag and Killing Eve fame — who is unapologetically authoritative, self-reliant, confident, and immune to Bond’s charms. There’s a myth-skewering insolence to the character, if trailers are any indication. In one scene, she’s seen mocking Craig’s Bond and his waning physical condition. Craig’s body was once a chiseled ideal and an object of pleasure for the female (and queer) gaze. Now, for this Black superspy, it’s a source of ridicule.
In interviews, Lynch has been strategically coy about her character, Nomi, choosing not to spoil whether No Time to Die presents her as the heir to James Bond’s codename, the iconic three-numbered designation — 007 — much revered among fans. What’s clear is Nomi’s feminist edge — she and Bond enjoy a friendly rivalry that gives her the leg up. “Bond is going to be Bond no matter what happens,” Lynch tells Total Film. No Time to Die is a story about “how people react” to Bond, she explains. “In this film we are vocal. We are opinionated. We know how to stop [Bond] in his tracks, and to teach him something.”
This Black female agent won’t just teach a graying Bond a new trick or two. Like Dench’s M, who in 1995’s GoldenEye dismisses Bond as a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur,” Nomi will put the now-retired white male spy in his place. “The fact that Nomi calls him ‘Commander’ Bond is just such a shakedown,” Lynch explains further. “She’s almost got a book on James, and how to handle him. You see moments where he’s like, ‘How is this woman getting inside my brain?’ And that’s a wonderful thing about Nomi, she pushes every boundary she can.”
Are we on the cusp of a new era in Bond history, a possible future, perchance soon a reality, when figures like Lashana Lynch take possession of the series, remaking it in their own image? Will the Bond world, and the vaunted “007” moniker, soon become the property of a lady?
I evoke this dated turn-of-phrase with a specific reference in mind. “The Property of a Lady” is the title of a James Bond short story, written in 1963 by 007’s creator, the novelist Ian Fleming. To repurpose the title in the context of Lynch’s casting is to propose that it and all other aspects of the Bond myth are “mobile signifiers,” their meanings open to continual reinterpretation, even ironic reimagining, as scholars Tony Bennett and Janet Woollacott argued some decades ago.
A different faction of Bond fans, one unsympathetic to the rise of feminist and critical race perspectives within 007 fandom, has responded with disdain to the notion that the franchise might soon belong to a strong, Black female character. In the fall of 2020, as support for the Black Lives Matter movement spiked, the then-32-year-old Lynch confronted these fans publicly. “I am one Black woman — if it were another Black woman cast in the role, it would have been the same conversation, she would have got the same attacks, the same abuse,” she stated in an interview with Harper’s Bazaar. “I just have to remind myself that the conversation is happening and that I’m a part of something that will be very, very revolutionary.”
Part of the task for Lynch during production was to ensure that her No Time to Die character appealed directly to Black audiences.
I didn’t want to waste an opportunity when it came to what Nomi might represent. I searched for at least one moment in the script where Black audience members would nod their heads, tutting at the reality but glad to see their real life represented. In every project I am part of, no matter the budget or genre, the Black experience that I’m presenting needs to be 100 per cent authentic.
Women of color, Black and Asian women in particular, have rarely been treated with dignity or nuance in the Bond series. The roles speak for themselves. The characters they play are flat, canned, and often contemptuous, mocking of racial and cultural difference. They are oily conspirators (the suspicious “Chinegro” photographer Annabel Chung in Dr. No), turncoats (CIA double-agent Rosie Carver in 1973’s Live and Let Die), agents-turned-secretaries (Eve Moneypenny in Skyfall), bikini-clad “muscle” (Thumper in 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever), and eye candy siding with good guys (Mademoiselle La Porte in Thunderball), the bad guys (Chew Mee in 1974’s The Man with the Golden Gun), and forces somewhere in-between (Peaceful Fountains of Desire in 2002’s Die Another Day). Of course, they’ve also been “obligatory sacrificial lambs,” one of the series’s most notorious formulae. The classic case is Skyfall’s Sévérine, performed by French-Cambodian-Chinese actress Bérénice Lim Marlohe. Bond seduces her, so, as formula dictates, she must die for the dual transgression of indulging her sexual desire and being “turned” against her master, the villain Raoul Silva.
Over the years, some of these women of color have spoken out about the difficult conditions the franchise has created behind-the-scenes. Jamaican Marguerite LeWars and English Jamaican Martine Beswick were asked to color or darken their skin, the first to look more Asian as the mixed-race photographer spying on Bond in Dr. No, the second to seem more authentically Bahamian as Bond’s righthand woman in the field, Paula Caplan, in Thunderball. Gloria Hendry, the first African American woman to see a big part in a Bond film, felt snubbed after being cast as Live and Let Die’s Rosie Carver — she was never contacted by Eon Productions to join the many “women of Bond” reunions. Grace Jones, for her part, recalls being turned down for the lead villain in 1983’s Octopussy because producers thought it too risky to cast a Black woman in such a prominent role (Jones later played a secondary character, henchwoman May Day, in 1985’s A View to a Kill).
This poor track record betrays the importance of a slow shift, unnoticed by many, in Bond storytelling — storytelling beyond the movies, that is. Writers in other official Bond media, especially comics and novels, have been tipping the gender and racial imbalance for some time. Briony Thorne, Agent 0013, is central to the double-agent plot of the 1971 Bond newspaper comic strip Fear Face, written by Jim Lawrence. Another Lawrence strip, 1973–’74’s Beware of Butterflies, shows MI6 spy Suzie Kew teaming with Bond for her first kill. Though not an official “00,” the much-revised Moneypenny character in Samantha Weinberg’s excellent trilogy of novels, The Moneypenny Diaries (2005–’08), is given a rich backstory and a sexual life, and she is the only member of MI6 to discover a mole within its ranks. And Jody Houser and Jacob Edgar’s simply stellar Moneypenny “One-Shot” comic, published in 2017, reveals a Black character who’s a skilled operative, an action hero in fact, with her own secret missions. The Bond franchise is more complex and varied than the movies reveal.
Despite these inroads in terms of gendered and racialized representation, those of us invested in a more inclusive Bond storyworld should look upon Lynch’s character and the prospects of a bold and joyful Blackness in the movies with caution. Throughout the series’s history, even during Barbara Broccoli’s tenure as producer, writers have been known to superficially co-opt progressive ideas, altering the series’s story templates and character types only enough to pay them lip service. As scholars Janet Woollacott, Lisa Funnell, and Meenasarani Linde Murugan, writing recently about Goldfinger singer Shirley Bassey’s Blackness, have shown, the films incorporate shifts in social, gender, and racial norms at a surface level, using progressive character types and a diversity of performances to give the impression that Bond “changes with the times.” Ultimately, though, these elements are woven into stories that reinforce Bond’s superior, white heteronormative masculinity.
Writing the Lashana Lynch character into a single release — even if she’s a bold, Black character — is tantamount to trimming back a few unwanted branches from the Bondian tree, making room for new ones to grow, but leaving the old root system of the series entirely intact. Not even the staunchest supporter of the series could deny that the ideological root system of the Bond franchise, driving its appeals to Britishness, to nationalism, to Western “order,” its depictions of “exotic” globetrotting, its representations of peoples of color, of the Global South, and, most crucially here, of caricatured and demeaned women of various races and ethnicities, is, in a word, empire. Bond is a popular fictional remnant of Britain’s imperial-colonialist past, bearing the white man’s burden of having to rescue former colonized peoples from their “Third World” conditions (only Bond is equipped to determine why Bolivian peasants are suffering from a massive drought in 2008’s Quantum of Solace) while reaping the privileged white colonizer’s rewards (in the very next film, Skyfall, Eve Moneypenny kneels willingly to shave, and flirt with, Bond, taking pleasure in her own sexual colonization). A defiant Black female “00” who challenges Bond’s sexism superficially, in but one film, would simply reinforce the series’s system of colonialist appeals. Such a character, as Bond scholar Travis L. Wagner writes in a 2015 anthology, would only succeed in promoting the view that this white popular hero is “able to move through the world as a colonizing agent who has learned to appropriate and acknowledge his privilege over the Other on a cursory level, never allowing equal standing to a person who is disadvantaged socially by more than one identity category (i.e. gender and race).”
The crucial question, then, is this: Is Lashana Lynch slated to become the lead in her own series? Or is Nomi, the (defiantly?) Black “00,” a token one-off? It seems rather unlikely, given Eon Productions’s commitment to having men at the top of the marquee, that Lynch will take over as star of the main film series after Craig’s departure. Yet No Time to Die director and co-writer Cary Joji Fukunaga has confirmed that the film will point toward the future of the franchise. Perhaps now that Amazon has acquired MGM, Eon’s longtime partner on the series, Bond producers will consider launching two simultaneous properties, one theatrical, with a new male lead succeeding Craig as James Bond, and one streaming, maybe on Amazon Prime, with Lynch continuing on as her own “00.”
Such a space, such an independence from the main film series, would, if conditions allowed, permit the Lynch character to take an entirely different path. Perhaps to begin the series Nomi would be on leave in Jamaica, reconnecting with family and rediscovering her roots (Lynch was born of Jamaican parentage). While there, she uncovers a plot that links MI6 to forces within the British elite undermining recent calls for reparations from the Crown for its centuries-long system of trafficking, forced labor, and torture of African people in the Caribbean. Ordered back to Britain, Nomi faces a dilemma — to remain an instrument of this (post-)colonial regime or to side with her people. She elects to “go rogue,” hunting down those within the Secret Service and the British government continuing to profiteer from the remnants of colonialism in her region of origin. This puts her on a collision course with the only spy able to match her talents: James Bond.
Let’s go as far as this counterfactual will take us. For its Nomi series, Eon would employ Black talent, more in front of the camera and for the first time, some behind it, empowering Black women as writers and directors. The fresh story ideas likely to come from such a diverse cast and crew would eventually free Nomi, at least intermittently, of the burden of righting Britain’s wrongs — a fictional premise which, if unchecked, would continue to define her as “the other” within a (post-)colonial system — and allow the character to discover true Black community and joy, purpose and romance, as she carves out a future beyond espionage, itself a white, colonial invention.
Whether Eon Productions would ever be prepared to “decolonize” their fictional property even to this extent — not quite tearing out the entire Bondian root system, but pretty close — only time will tell.
007 — the property of a Black woman, of Black women? One day, perhaps. In the meantime, we could do worse than to build on the work of those fans, not to mention scholars, encouraging us to perceive this long-running franchise through a fresh set of critical eyes.
Colin Burnett is associate professor of Film and Media Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. He is currently at work on a new book, entitled Serial Bonds: How 007 Storytelling Modernized the Media Franchise.