James Bond's New, Not-So-Progressive Mommy Complex

Rather than updating the franchise's gender roles, Skyfall takes them to Oedipal extremes.

MGM / Columbia

Skyfall, the new James Bond film, is obsessed with the aging of James Bond films. Daniel Craig, who just two movies and six years ago was playing a young, cocky, erratic young agent, is now supposed to be an aging, cocky erratic old agent—grizzled but still deadly, not to mention priapic. Inevitably in a Bond film, the anxiety about growing old is linked to anxiety about growing less manly. And that anxiety is soothed with a procession of male bodies for Bond to violently mutilate and a slightly less numerous procession of hot young things to whom he can show the ropes and other bits.

But gender roles have changed since Sean Connery raped that lesbian vixen Pussy Galore in the barn and made her like it. In response to our brave new and at least nominally feminist world, the last two Daniel Craig films worked hard to update Bond's brand of machismo. In Casino Royale (2006), Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) was presented as Bond's equal, creating an actual convincing love story—and an actual bitter betrayal. In Quantum of Solace (2008), Lynd's ghost functions as the main female presence: a hidden wound that secretly drives the implacable Bond's quest for blood and vengeance. In both cases, Lynd's dramatic and emotional stature offset the franchise's obsessed commitment to testosterone—or provided the necessary justification for that commitment, depending on how you look at it.

For Craig's third outing, though, Lynd is gone. Rather than trying to replace her with another believable love interest, Skyfall takes another tack. The main female lead here is the formidable M (Judi Dench), Bond's boss and the head of MI6. M is referred to by her agents as "Mum," and Skyfall is—very atypically for a Bond film—focused not only on women as sex objects, but also on women as mothers.

Just as the sex objects in previous Bond films were sometimes untrustworthy, motherhood in Skyfall is an ambivalent thing. The first set piece of the movie concludes with M issuing an order that results in Bond's apparent death. He then goes on a bender involving sultry Mediterranean babes and lots of liquor, as if he's recovering from a lover's quarrel. The main antagonist, Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), also has major mommy issues. A former MI6 agent, he believes he was betrayed by M and is obsessed with destroying her agents and killing her. In an unpleasant nod to Ian Fleming's virulent homophobia, Silva's mother fixation is linked to his decadence and predatory homosexuality. He's a twisted momma's boy, and his personal sick fixation on M is contrasted with Bond's straight (ahem)-arrow commitment to duty and country.

In fact, in terms of the movie's gendered logic, you could say that Silva's mistake is in seeing M as a mother when—despite the female body—she is in fact a father. Throughout the film, M insistently rejects the traditional mother's role of nurturer for the traditional father's insistence on duty and tough love. Sometimes, the female father is played for laughs, as when Bond, returned from the dead, shows up in M's apartment with no place to stay—and she tells him in no uncertain terms that he is not going to spend the night. At other times, the female father is presented more solemnly—as when, in a moment of weakness, M wonders if she made a mistake in her treatment of Silva, and Bond tells her that no, she was just (like every good father) doing her job.

Either way, though, the result is the same. M's motherliness validates the film's, and indeed the franchise's, masculine performance. It's no accident that (despite some detours to exotic locales) much of Skyfall is set in London or—at the climax—in Bond's Scottish childhood home. The mother and the motherland are what we fight for; the idealized imagined masculine can bust some heads in the name of the idyllic imagined feminine.

And what better way to validate this symbiotic gendered violence than to have the mother herself stand up and trumpet the manly virtues? Thus it is M who sends Bond out into the field though she knows he is not at 100 percent, trusting the inspiration of her (and his country's) need to overcome his weakness. And it is M who delivers the speech to the legislators about the evils of terrorism and the strong, ruthless agents who are needed to protect the weak, spineless public. You civilian overseers with your quaint concerns about loss of life and due process and ethics: You're such children. But don't worry your little heads about it, and mommy and daddy—or even better, mommy/daddy—will pile dead bodies at the barricades on your behalf.

Are such lurid fantasies really deployed to protect innocence? Or is the luridness a goal in itself, and the innocence merely the excuse? Perhaps the answer lies in one of this film's entirely old-school Bond moments, involving a striking, morally ambiguous damsel-in-distress. Séverine (Bérénice Marlohe) seems sexy and dangerous—but Bond deduces that she is in fact a sex-slave who has been brutalized since her early teens, and that she is in fear for her life. The short conversation between Craig and Marlohe is perhaps the most realized sequence of the movie: The actress conveys both terror and vulnerability, and Craig comes across as concerned, competent, and empathetic.

But then, of course, Bond slips into the room of this sexually traumatized woman and casually screws her. Shortly thereafter, she is brutally murdered in front of him; his only reaction is a callous joke. I guess you could argue that Bond was putting up a tough façade—but there's little evidence for that in the film, which utterly forgets her existence and her trauma the instant they have served their purpose. Séverine is just a body and a plot point, there to lend weight to Craig's perspicuity, sexiness, and imperviousness. Same goes for M, who, with her last lingering look and her final benediction, testifies to Bond's fitness for duty and inarguable adequacy. No woman is too old or too damaged to bolster Bond's swinging psychodrama. Skyfall, then, doesn't so much update Bond's gender roles as it extends them to their logical Oedipal extreme. It's taken 50 years of films, but at long last even mothers can be Bond-girls.