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Last week, actor Roger Moore’s comments that London-born Idris Elba isn’t “English-English” enough to play Bond have touched off a storm of controversy about racism. Elba would be a fabulous Bond, but the real radical move would be to cast a woman.
Leaked emails from Sony have suggested that Idris Elba is being considered to succeed Daniel Craig in the role of James Bond, and Elba is said to have had talks with producers. Elba has also admitted he would love the role. Roger Moore, who played Bond in the 1970s and 80s, got in trouble for saying Elba wasn’t English enough to play Bond. Not “English English” enough Moore reportedly said of Elba, who was born in London. Moore said his comments were “lost in translation” in an interview for Paris Match magazine. Moore was taken to task by many critics who pointed out that some of the best actors to play Bond have not been English: Sean Connery, Timothy Dalton, and Pierce Brosnan have roots in Scotland, Wales and Ireland, respectively. I would go further to say that by virtue of Moore’s own English Englishness, he was one of the worst Bond actors. The middle class white Anglo Saxon Protestant style that Moore brought to the role made his rendering of Bond bland and uninteresting. Bond needs a little “ethnicity” to be an edgy and credibly spy. The English style of aggression is compartmentalized and passive aggressive. They send younger sons to build an empire of blood while the elder sons sit at home and survey their land and the ladies sip tea. Throughout their colonial empire, they set up people of color in the middle (East and South Asian, Arab and Jewish) to be their middlemen. They let the colored folks tear each other apart and sit back at home while the riches roll in. Poor and working class English folks can be plenty vicious, but there’s never question of Bond with a Cockney accent. I think Elba would make a fabulous Bond. Would Sony feel the need to make a white James Bond, as well, the same way they did with the female reboot of Ghostbusters? Probably not. Because at this point, with our black president, and the proven blockbuster bankability of numerous black male actors, Elba as Bond is actually a predictable next move. Moore shows himself as a dinosaur in failing to jump on the bandwagon. Sony isn’t leading the trend, it’s following. The real bold move would be to make Bond a woman.
Racism has always been part of author Ian Fleming’s vision of James Bond written in the 50s and 60s. I read the original books as a teenager because I was a voracious reader and I wanted to impress my boyfriend who read the books. But the stories hold together without the explicit racism—stereotyped depictions of people of color. It works to have a black man in the role, even as he would be working on behalf of England’s white colonial interests. You could basically remake any of the old stories with Elba or an actor of color as a contemporary Bond. However, it would utterly change the story if Bond were a woman. The Bond character moves in the world’s male dominated spaces in a position of privilege. Women are objects or cunning adversaries,or sexy allies. But spycraft for women is based in a different skillset. Women spies have the same brainpower but rely on classic manifestations of sexism. Female spies approach those in power—mostly men—either relying on how men systematically underestimate women’s intelligence, or how men can predictably be distracted by sexual opportunities. Women spies also consistently exploit the invisibility of domestic workers.
Lately, I’ve been admiring the skills of women spies on television. USA’s Covert Affairs, the female half of the husband-wife duo on FX’s The Americans, and I’ve Alias, the spy show I never saw when it came out in 2001, back when I didn’t have TV and you couldn’t yet watch shows on the internet.
A female Bond would also complicate the playboy approach to love interests. Plenty of women like affairs and hook ups in real life, but there’s an expectation of longer-term romantic storylines for women characters in media. How would writers balance the need to fulfill those expectations of the moviegoing audience while maintaining sexy spy tension in the films? I don’t know, but I would love to see the writers try. As a writer, I’d love to try it, myself. In my own writing of women’s action novels, I solve the question by having each book focus on a different character. So each protagonist gets her stand-alone arc where her life is transformed and the audience can get the same new love affair romantic payoffs they’ve come to expect. But with Bond, the formula is to have some kind of sexy ever after ending to one movie and the woman is long gone by the time the next film opens with a different sexy love interest. No explanation needed.
A female Bond has been done in fiction. One of my favorite writers, Mabel Maney, wrote two books which parodied Fleming’s work starring Jane Bond, James’ twin sister: Kiss The Girls and Make Them Spy (2001), and The Girl with the Golden Bouffant (2004). When the books open, Jane, a depressed, androgynous lesbian, is contacted by Her Majesty’s government when James is washed up and drying out in an inpatient placement—all the liquor, stress and sex has taken its toll. Maney portrays Bond as a sociopathic narcissist. The government contacts Jane because there’s a mission that can only be undertaken by Bond. With a bit of a drag makeover, Jane can impersonate him perfectly. In Maney’s signature hilarious style—honed in her previous series of Nancy Drew parodies of the 1950s—she creates a sixties-style, skilled, sexy crew of lesbians to undermine sexism and save the day.
The movie industry ran out of Ian Fleming novels decades ago. At first they made movies based on Fleming’s short stories, and then had to write scripts from scratch. The stories have moved from cold war to war on terror like all the spy narratives. Why not a gender update? Why not a Jane Bond or Jenny Bond or Jamie Bond or even Juana Bond? I would love to see Angelina Jolie or Jessica Alba or Yvonne Strahovski (Agent Sarah Walker from the TV show Chuck) as Bond. But since Hollywood does not appear to be ready, I’ll have to satisfy that craving by reading and writing nuanced, smart, sexy, edgy action novels, with badass women in the center.