In the realm of big-time big screen heroes, the most well-known names tend to fall into one of three categories: superheroes, action heroes, and James Bond. There have been plenty of spies on the big screen, but few carry the cache of one 007. He’s the spy all other spies hope to be, and the man men universally idolize. He’s the man who can be a tad sexist and still put moviegoers under his charming spell. He can inspire legions to drink martinis even though they hate vodka. He’s the ultimate movie spy and his pop cultural reach is boundless. Except when it comes to the ladies. There are 50 years indicating that James Bond is a legend, but there’s not a single female hero who can claim the L word on a Bond level just yet.
Of course, we do have lady heroes – action, spy, and otherwise – but none has managed to nab a stronghold the way Bond has. The closest we’ve come to the female equivalent of Bond is Angelina Jolie, who’s starred as an action star and spy in films like Mr. And Mrs. Smith, the Tomb Raider movies, Taking Lives, Wanted, and recently, Salt. The release of Salt ignited this discussion, but the film failed to make a great enough impact to give the world a female answer to 007.
“The fact that there was so much conversation about [Salt] suggests to me that it’s an anomaly. It’s unusual, that’s why it matters so much,” says Chloe Angyal, an editor at Feministing.com. “If we have a female equivalent of James Bond, it’s a new phenomenon and it’s not going to be truly equivalent until we’ve had decades and decades of it the way we’ve had a James Bond,” she adds.
From a historical perspective, women simply haven’t had as much time to build up one character as a super spy. If we look back to the early sixties, around the first Bond film’s release in 1962, the big films centered around women rarely had a woman in a hero capacity. These were the years of Mary Poppins domestic goddess extraordinaire, Holly Golightly’s journey to being My Fair Lady, and Tippi Hedren fleeing The Birds. Women weren't strangers to leading roles, but while Bond was taking down the most sinister villains imaginable, the most well-known female protagonists were often upheld by ladylike qualities like delicacy, loveliness, and motherly tendencies. Even Batman’s Catwoman, while a villain in her own right, was characterized by little more than her weaponized sexuality – besides, she was the bad gal. We had yet to see a woman employing her cleverness and slight of hand in a lead character capacity – and for good – the way our favorite secret agent does. The film industry’s catalog of female protagonists simply doesn’t have the breadth to include a “female Bond”… yet.
Of course, many of Bond’s women didn’t help to expand that catalog. “You also have to look at the place of women in most of the Bond films … it’s pretty grim,” says Angyal. From the femme fatales who use sex to trick Bond, to the women used as playthings in villains’ games, to the one-off sexual playthings who hop in and out of his bed, to the pining secretarial standby Moneypenny, the ladies of the Bond series, are for the most part, accessories to Bond himself. Not the stations that inspire the next female super spy.
But times have changed and with it Bond girls, who’ve gained more tactical importance and chutzpah in recent films. But more importantly female spies have become more common in film and television. We’ve seen ladies take the reins in the espionage game on shows like Alias, Chuck, and Nikita, and while Alias was appointment television during its early 2000s run, Sydney Bristow hasn’t exactly maintained a spot as the de facto lady spy. Though Jolie has made a mark for herself as a slithery spying heroine, she certainly can’t carry that torch for 50 years, plus. We find similar qualities in more nuanced superhero characters like Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle (The Dark Knight Rises) and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow (The Avengers), but neither character has become the cultural hero on the level on the British government’s secret weapon.
Part of the roadblock for spying ladies is the audience’s thirst for romance. Whereas Bond gets to “love” his Bond girls and leave them, female spies almost always have more sentimental love interests (in their past or present) when they’re running the show. These women rarely have one-off sexual encounters like Bond has had (though he does so less often in more recent films), lest they be painted as a femme fatale rather than a heroic figure. Oftentimes, a character’s proclivity for romance rather than pure sex is what separates her from the villainess. Even Homeland’s unostentatious spy Carrie Matheson finds herself in a deep romantic entanglement while on the trail. It’s practically unavoidable. But still, that may not be the real reasonwe don’t have a female character with the same commanding presence as Mr. Bond.
There’s an element of pop culture-lovers’ capacity for accepting new long-lived characters. Recurring roles in big budget movies are limited, mostly, to heroes born out of comic book legacy and 007, most of which started sewing seeds in the ‘50s and ‘60s. They’ve had time to cull their fan bases and establish themselves. Current films that claim devotion on that level are limited to series based on book series like Harry Potter and the Bourne films, but even then, the names aren’t built to continue endlessly like Batman and Bond can. With something like Potter, the source material is sacred and limited, meaning the capacity for endless adventures of Harry Potter and friends is practically nonexistent. Bourne tried to continue on with a new hero after the franchise lost Matt Damon, but while the box office numbers were good, the Bourne Legacyfelt less like a continuation of Jason Bourne’s adventures and more like a segue into the life of another, completely different super soldier. Perhaps the lack of a non-comic book, recurring female heroine on the level of James Bond has little to do with sexism and more to do with the fact that the role of go-to pop culture spy is already filled.
Perhaps the question isn’t when will we have a female James Bond, it’s will we ever have a character who captures generations of movie-goers the way 007 does? Maybe what we’re looking for isn’t a lady version of the world’s greatest spy, but a female character who captures the world in the same way. Maybe we’ve already met her, but then again, we probably won’t realize we've found her until we notice that she’s been stringing us along for a whopping 50 years.
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[Photo Credit: iStock Photo; ABC]