HomeMoviesDeath to Heteronormativity, Long Live James Bond

Death to Heteronormativity, Long Live James Bond

Daniel Craig as James Bond in NO TIME TO DIE.
Photo Credit: MGM Studios

Up until last October, I had the silly assumption that the only way to be in the closet was to knowingly put yourself there. A guy who likes guys — he has to push those thoughts down every day. Not only is that silly, it wasn’t the case for me. When I was roughly five years old, while taking a shower, I started to think about Jason Scott Lee as Mowgli in Stephen Sommers’ The Jungle Book (1994). I started to wonder (in five-year-old speak), “Am I attracted to him the way I’m attracted to girls?” I immediately waved off the idea, essentially saying, “Nah, guys aren’t supposed to like guys like that. Therefore, I don’t like guys like that.” This wasn’t something I had to tell myself was true, but something I internally accepted as true. 

This wasn’t the only expectation I internalized as truth. I thought I had to be buff, tough, play sports, have a girlfriend, etc. Neither of my parents enforced these expectations on me, and it isn’t as though I expressed interest in dressing feminine and they scolded me to be manly. They only wanted what was best for me and were, above all, just worried about me. They signed me up for sports like football and baseball because they thought it’d be good for me, but also because I expressed interest. When I wanted to stop, they didn’t force me to continue, yet I still felt like a failure for not fulfilling these expectations. 

The only thing I comfortably loved was writing and film, something they encouraged. My Dad and I had what we would call a “Guy’s Night”, which is something I always cherished. “A Guy’s Night” could range from Eagles training camp to bingo night at my school, but it was most often seeing a movie. (Though one time he used the term to try to spice up needing to run errands at a car dealership, luckily, I had my Game Boy). We had Guy’s Nights before my parents’ divorce, but they were essential for establishing normalcy after my parents separated in early 2002. My Dad being a James Bond fan, Die Another Day was most certainly a Guy’s Night, because who’s more of a guy than James Bond? I had many heteronormative influences growing up, but none like him. He’s not just a male heterosexual icon, he’s perhaps the male heterosexual icon, a suave motherfucker who can take a shot (be it a bullet or liquor) and then save the world without so much as a hangover.

That said, most of the blockbusters I grew up on were comic book movies. James Bond is a franchise that releases a film every few years, but comic book films are a genre, and so there were more of them to absorb—and more opportunities for Guy’s Nights. I appreciated the differences between these superheroes and Bond at the time: Peter Parker was a dork who had superherodom thrust upon him, same with Bruce Banner, and Superman is a humble boy scout. The closest to Bond that my cinematic superheroes got were Batman (particularly Christian Bale’s portrayal), who used the womanizing, suit-donning millionaire persona associated with Bond as his disguise, and Wolverine, a badass lone wolf.

But while the protagonists of these movies vary in their coolness, they all had underlying expectations: be tough, buff, and get the girl. Nearly every superhero movie I grew up loving presented “getting the girl” as either the endgame for the hero or their noble sacrifice. The superhero films tended to lean towards noble sacrifice. In Spider-Man (2002), Mary Jane is the girl who Peter Parker wants to get, but he’s a noble, chaste hero who sacrifices getting the girl for her sake/the greater good. Ang Lee’s under-appreciated Hulk (2003) has the big green guy on the run, and the love of his life tearfully tells her father, who pursues him, that she doesn’t know where he is, and would never tell him even if she did. 

Despite the seemingly contradictory nature of the noble love a hero has for his damsel and Bond’s womanizing nature, there is a correlation: they treat romance and sex with women as the ultimate pursuit. This simultaneous tension between and overlap of the singular, noble love and Bond’s philandering was torturous for a confused young boy like me. And it simply evolved. Physically, I aimed for a traditionally masculine look by working out and growing a beard. Despite all the physical and mental health benefits this provided, I was always the same confused little boy who didn’t know what the fuck he was doing — that is, until I was introduced to Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s work through No Time To Die.

I saw it on opening weekend with my Dad and all but one of my four siblings (the missing party and I eventually saw it together and sobbed). I went in with three things in mind: that Daniel Craig’s Bond was going to die (which I didn’t share with my unsuspecting companions), wondering what exactly Madeleine Swan (Lea Seydoux) was up to, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s quote about writing James Bond: 

“There’s been a lot of talk about whether or not [the Bond franchise] is relevant now because of who he is and the way he treats women,” she said. “I think that’s bollocks. I think he’s absolutely relevant now. It has just got to grow. It has just got to evolve, and the important thing is that the film treats the women properly. He doesn’t have to. He needs to be true to this character.”

I didn’t know exactly what that quote meant, nor how, or even if, it would correlate with the other two elements. But I thought it was intriguing. 

The movie starts. Bond starts distrusting Madeleine, believing her to be in cahoots with Spectre. Dad and I have a shared chuckle when Madeleine says there’s something she needs to tell James and he bitterly responds, “I bet there is.” This distrust that incited a chuckle would SPOILERS AHEAD eventually come to break our hearts, as the film later establishes his distrust was unfounded. He gave up on a life with Madeleine, and right when that life is in his grasp again, he has to give it up so that she and their daughter Mathilde may live.

Reflecting on my distrust of Madeleine, on my enthusiasm that she might be up to something, I was heartbroken. This heartbreak was essentially compounded by the missing piece: the Phoebe Waller-Bridge quote. I knew this piece fit in somehow, but couldn’t pinpoint it yet, and so I investigated by watching Fleabag. This was one of the smartest decisions I’ve ever made.

Fleabag stars Waller-Bridge as the fourth wall-breaking title character, though this name is never said. On herself, Fleabag says, “I have a horrible feeling I’m a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman who can’t even call herself a feminist.”

This fear of not being a good enough feminist is repeated both in the show and the words of Waller-Bridge and other creatives she’s worked with. The director of Waller-Bridge’s original Fleabag one woman stage show (as well as her best friend) Vicki Jones said both the play and the show are, “deeply trying to talk about feminism, but it’s talking about a real woman in this world, and how she might feel.” Waller-Bridge continued Jones’s stance saying, “she knows that she is (a feminist), but she feels like she’s getting it wrong somehow.” 

There’s a great Fleabag joke that’s a testament to this: it consists of Fleabag and her sister Claire (Sian Clifford) attending a feminist lecture. The lecturer asks the audience to, “please raise your hands if you would trade 5 years of your life, for the so-called perfect body.”  Fleabag and Claire are the only people who raise their hands. They sheepishly lower them, and Fleabag, with a look of shock, embarrassment, and clearly trying to hold back laughter, says, “we’re bad feminists.” 

In season 2, Fleabag falls in love with a Hot Priest (Andrew Scott). Phoebe Waller-Bridge was worried this would be cliched. “Having a priest, I thought, was just SO OBVIOUS, it was just like, ‘yeah, Fleabag fucks a priest,’” as though it was too obviously subversive for a show about a raunchy feminist. When starting the season, I expected there to be a correlation between worldliness and sex. Fleabag would swear, drink, be raunchy and The Priest would have a clean mouth, maybe drink a glass of wine with dinner, and uncomfortably clench up whenever Fleabag spoke about anything dirty. However, Waller-Bridge didn’t do anything so obvious. The two have a lot in common, and he’s the only person who can see her break the fourth wall. So, the dynamic isn’t between a worldly feminist and the repressed priest she’s trying to sleep with, winning him over with worldliness. Instead, the dynamic is that they’re both lovely, foul-mouthed drunkards with a bitter sense of humor and lots of love to give…so why can’t they sleep together?

Andrew Scott in season 2 of FLEABAG.
Photo Credit Amazon Studios.

In trying to win him over, Fleabag does a little research. She focuses on the rules for Priesthood, of whether The Vatican allows Priests to have sex. When their sexual tension reaches an all-time high, she confronts him about these rules saying, “Priests have sex you know, a lot of them actually do, they don’t burst into flames, I googled it.” His response has nothing to do with the rules of Priesthood. Instead, he says, “I can’t have sex with you because I’ll fall in love with you, and if I fall in love with you, I won’t burst into flames, but my life will be fucked.” 

As he talks to Fleabag, Fleabag breaks the fourth wall, reiterating how they’re going to have sex. She’s comfortable speaking her mind as though only the audience can see her, forgetting The Priest can see her. He eventually loses it, shouting “FOR FUCK’S SAKE, STOP THAT!” He gets edgy, the conversation escalates a little, and when the subject of women and priesthood comes up, Fleabag points out how women aren’t actually allowed to become priests, he says, knowingly sounding like a snotty brat, “oh fuck off, I KNNNOOOWWWW.” But the next moment is crucial. The Priest asks Fleabag, almost rhetorically, “we’re going to have sex aren’t we?” She can no longer look at the audience. She has to answer him, and she agrees. 

In confronting The Priest, it’s not that Waller-Bridge dismisses the inherent misogyny of patriarchal cornerstones like the church. Rather, in having The Priest sound like a snotty brat when Fleabag brings up that discrimination, it’s acknowledging that these structures exist and that women get the short end of the stick. Yet The Priest is still a flesh and blood person, a man to whom celibacy means something, and in this moment, in Fleabag’s apartment, neither of them can do anything about that structural discrimination. She can’t just provide the witty, raunchy insight she uses to survive those structures. Right now, she has to divorce those expectations from the flesh and blood man in front of her, and affirm to that man who’s dedicated his life to celibacy that he’s giving up on that dedication. 

Though they spend the next day as though they’re a couple, by the end of the day, The Priest ends their relationship. By now, Fleabag knows it’s not just about the rules of priesthood for him, but about who he is as that flesh and blood man. The brief, fleeting time of their sexual relationship give him a glimpse of what he was giving up with celibacy, but he has to give it up again, and not because the church tells him to, but because it’s who he is. 

This was the missing piece in No Time To Die. This is the correlation between Bond’s distrust of Madeleine, the tragedy of his death, and Waller-Bridge saying that Bond needs to, “stay true to his character.” Bond is a masculine fantasy, practically his own patriarchal icon on the level of the church, and just as The Priest defies culturally-enforced celibacy by embracing it as essential to his being, No Time To Die divorces Bond from those enforced expectations for their own sake and allows him to just be himself. 

He starts the film by reinforcing his misogyny and abandoning Madeleine, and spends the next five years going through the motions. Essentially retreading the opening of Skyfall, he’s presumed dead by MI6 and living off the grid. He gathers his own food on a kick-ass sailboat, lives on a gorgeous property in the jungle, and has some secret agent stuff only he knows about. He’s living the ultimate masculine fantasy, all in the name of waiting to kill Blofeld (Christoph Waltz), the ultimate bad guy.

It turns out, of course, this is exactly what that ultimate bad guy wanted. Bond gave up five years of his life to be the perfect man. Retreating into his misogyny and exchanging the family life he wanted for the bachelor life that he believed would help him kill the ultimate bad guy. However, Blofeld is only Bond’s ultimate bad guy because he knows Bond’s heart. He knows how to get Bond to prioritize his hate and willingly give up what he loves.

So, how does Bond eventually redeem his enforced misogynist expectations? By living out a masculine fantasy on his own terms. He becomes a protective Papa Bear, living out the heterosexual man-protects-woman ideal that boys are supposed to aspire to.

Daniel Craig and Lea Seydoux in NO TIME TO DIE.
Photo Credit: MGM Studios

No Time To Die presents fatherhood not just as something to be earned, but something Bond wants to earn. Tony Stark’s arc in Avengers: Endgame is a good contrast, because Tony’s arc involves him sacrificing a nuclear family life that he already had. His family is a noble temptation, an established part of his life that he must give up, while they also encourage him to be the most awesome hero in the marvel universe. He’s essentially told by Pepper that he’s a great father and has done great things with his noble nuclear family life, but he must be even more noble by doing the most awesome thing in the universe. Yes, his actual last moments are sad, but his using the Infinity Gauntlet is celebratory. 

In No Time To Die, Bond’s family is not established, nor is it a noble temptation. Madeleine doesn’t acknowledge him as Mathilde’s father (at first). Fatherhood is something James must earn, and he wants to earn. I get chills when James runs through the forest, firing a gun in the air to get the goons away from Madeleine and Mathilde, because it’s the perfect encapsulation of that heterosexual masculinity I was aspiring for my whole life, and he does it not because it’s what’s expected from him, but because it’s who he is. 

Alas, he also defies expectations in death. We expect him to get out of this alive, but he’s no longer an icon of toxic masculinity, the guy who can get out of any situation alive. He is a flesh and blood man. When he’s shot and poisoned with the perfect poison, it’s like he’s found out he has 5 minutes to live, and his shift is over in 3. 

There’s a monotony, and a tragedy to that monotony. He wants to have that nuclear family life that Tony Stark so nobly sacrificed, and he’s not spending his last minutes being the most awesome guy in the universe. Audiences cheered when Tony snapped the Infinity Gauntlet. They don’t cheer when James pushes the lever for the blast doors. They don’t even cheer when James shoots Safin (Rami Malek). There’s nothing awesome about the circumstances of his death. He’s stuck spending his last minutes alive dealing with the monotonous Bond-ian bullshit of opening blast doors and destroying the DNA death robots. It’s silly bullshit, and unfortunately, he can’t do anything to change the silly bullshit. No longer embodying expectations, he accepts his fate as a flesh and blood man. And in being a flesh and blood man, Madeleine can finally tell Bond her secret: Mathilde does have his eyes.

I have a lot of regrets in my life. So did James Bond in No Time To Die. My regrets correlated to James Bond’s by the end. After all, my Dad and I laughed at Bond’s distrust of Madeleine, at his little, “I bet there is” snark, only to shed manly tears at where that distrust got him. When I rewatch the movie, my heart sinks at his pissy snark.

But I cherish that little moment we had. 

I’m having a very hard time writing this, out of fear that it’s a half-assed justification and I’m lying to myself. The laughter was our response to Bond’s misogyny. That misogyny was his undoing. The idolatry of the Bond archetype as the way to be a man led to a lot of issues, for both our world and me personally, and the last thing I want to do is write off all those issues to just insecurely defend myself. But I soon realized that I don’t need to defend myself. No big bad feminist is going to knock on my door and interrogate what memories of mine are fond or not. They’ve got better shit to do. 

No, rather than defend my right to cherish that memory, I need to ask myself why I cherish that memory. Am I simultaneously acknowledging my past while making the most of a moment of laughter we shared? Or am I continuing to suppress myself by grasping onto some quasi-feminist justification for enjoying misogyny? Both are possible. In denying that, I’m just suppressing again. In acknowledging it, the better possibility at least has a fighting chance, and I’ll do my best to keep it going.

I’ve wanted to write this piece since I came out on Halloween 2021 (I specifically waited for that day). I just didn’t know how. By seeing characters divorcing expectations from humanity in No Time To Die and Fleabag, I could start doing that for myself. And God, that sounds so fucking cheesy, but I’m trying to translate my soul to text. I’m finally able to see myself—or at least on the path to doing so. Now, I don’t work out because I feel expected to look like Chris Hemsworth. I work out because I want to know what my body is capable of. Not in a tough-guy endurance kind of way, I just want to know what I can do. I finally want to take up boxing. I want to make little action movies, where I uncover what I’m cinematically and physically capable of. 

And now, I can say Jason Scott Lee was my first crush.


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