Sunday 21 July 2019

James Bond and Fragile Masculinity

Last week the internet was seized by a paroxysm of outrage. Like a fast radio burst, it was energetic and dazzling. And then it was gone. I speak of news that the next James Bond is to be a black woman, played by Lashana Lynch. Deary me. Scanning the horizon of Twitter was like gazing upon a misogynistic hellscape. We found (mostly middle-aged, white) men complaining about how Bond *can't* be a woman because the films are all about fast women and fast cars, and how boys are having their role models stripped away from them. But, strictly speaking, we're not getting a female James Bond. The plot of the next film sees Bond enjoying retirement in Jamaica, until he's recalled back into service. The controversy lies in his replacement, because she introduces herself as 007. Not Bond then, but another character entirely with the same 00 designation. And those men who had a masculinity melt down because gender blasphemy, they really need to chill their beans. Examining the scant details of the scene, the old male supremacy subtext is there: Bond needs to come back because the new 007, the woman, isn't up to the job. What an empowering, gender-warping message.

I don't know how complainers would cope if they knew the British secret services routinely employs women as field agents, and have done so for over a century. Make them cry harder? Though moaning about women replacing male characters in popular culture is nothing new, we've come to see more of it lately. In fact, it appears to be accelerating. Star Trek Discovery got it in the neck for daring to cast a black woman as the lead character, a few years ago the Ghostbusters reboot received brickbats not for its quality, but because it starred women. As I write there's another meltdown happening because Natalie Portman is due to play Thor in the next cinematic outing for the character (never mind "female Thor" has already featured in a run of comics). It is certainly true we are seeing a greater visibility of women in more varied TV and film roles, and this has especially been the case this last decade with dozens of acclaimed woman-led dramas getting the plaudits and reaping success. So pushback was inevitable. But what is the root of this? Why should the masculinity of some men feel affronted when fictional characters have their genders flipped? Why the abject failure to man up?

It speaks to a certain anxiety in the world. The so-called alt-right with its performative displays of misogyny, such as the desperately try hard sexism of failed UKIP candidate, Carl Benjamin, is a symptom of gendered entitlements in crisis. Indeed, the incels, the Men Going Their Own Way movement, the "perfect gentlemen" who gun down young women, the popularity of Jordan Peterson's self-help manuals, the attraction - to some - of fascism, belies a certain frustration. The gendered codes curled up in our socialisation, and force fed us through multiple streams of media still assume male supremacy. It is the unremarked, unspoken starting point for so much. It assumes men are individuals who acquire their manly status by asserting themselves against the world. Women on the other hand are defined by their relationships and responsibilities toward others, they are part of the world to be asserted against. The problem is that while gendered inequality obviously still exists, and men have the most wealth, the most opportunities, and are therefore more likely to possess the above entitled mindset, the relationships underpinning this are shifting quickly. And decaying.

A lot of this has to do with work. For as long as the bulk of the population have to sell their labour in return for a wage or a salary, class matters, and the forms it takes shape and condition gendered expectations and experiences. The industrial worker, once the hegemonic form of conceiving and being working class (and still is for some centrist-types), dominated the 20th century. Manual work, toil, sweat, dirt, the physicality of working the land, in a factory, or an extractive industry ensured class markers were simultaneously gender markers. Coupled to this elision of strength and manliness were the ideologies associated with the social wage: men were responsible for providing for their wives and families, and the understanding - the tacit social contract between labour movement, the employers, and the state - was the wage provided for all the family. Men then were providers, and as the sole or main income their wages were the material basis for patriarchy at home. However, male dominance is not preordained. Since the 1970s, the social wage has declined and with it more women have entered into the work force; the masculine industries of old have undergone steep decline, meaning these kinds of jobs are increasingly things of the part; men and women increasingly compete for the same kind of jobs. And lastly, the character of new jobs are a lot different from the industrial worker of old. And so as the grounds shift, proletarian patriarchy is destabilised.

These new jobs, characterised by immaterial labour are based around the production of knowledge, services, care, relationships. These do not the use of the body's brute force but our social capacities and aptitudes - intelligence, creativity, empathy - and these are mobilised to make relationships, and profits. This highlights an interesting tension in the way contemporary capitalism works. The individuated masculinity of the industrial worker has been recouped and redeployed culturally, and as a mode of governance in the age of neoliberal capitalism. We are posited as individuals who are, fundamentally, on our own. Gender, ethnicity, sexuality and background are no longer barriers to success. You get out of our meritocratic systems what you put in. You, the individual, is sovereign in ways the masculine classed subject used to be. But there is a glaring cultural contradiction between this consumerist sovereignty and having to submit to the will of others in the workplace, be it the employer directly or the demands of service users and clients. This is where masculinity has particular difficulties. The continuities between masculine and neoliberal subjects renders men at a double disadvantage in job roles fundamentally oriented toward others, whereas these same jobs are culturally more attuned to feminine virtues. Cooperation, networking, caring, empathising, all the facets of emotional labour draw upon and have greater fit with the gender socialised into these mores. Therefore men are more likely to suffer a gendered form of anxiety between their gendered and classed positions, and in a very real sense are at a competitive disadvantage as these kinds of jobs and careers grow - for as long as the gendering of boys and men does not keep up with developments.

What this means is we have a man's world in the process of becoming something else. The sexism of the age of industry was about maintaining separation, of reinforcing a sexual division of labour around highly gendered modes of work. The sexism we see today recalls past privilege, but is fundamentally rooted in relationships in long-term decline. It comes from anomie, of men raised and habituated to a world that only partly exists and is fading rapidly. And so we see a recrudescence of violence against women, of shock value sexism, and the incessant whining about women ruining video games and films. They know the game is up and their privilege is slipping away, and we're left with a dwindling band who were promised the earth, but all they got was a shitty bedroom and a chip on their shoulder.

And so whether it's James Bond, Thor, Star Trek, Ghostbusters, or something else, we're going to have to suffer the wailing voices of dethroned masculinity until the point they dwindle into irrelevance. It might be unpleasant, it might be damaging, but as night follows day they are destined to be crushed under the weight of the fates. Male privilege is under attack, and its survival isn't looking good.


Anonymous said...

James Bond is a man, and given the circles he moves in, in the books, ie the upper classes, probably white, however a black James Bond is of no concequence as far as I am concerned, but as you rightly point out, we are not getting a female black James Bond, we are getting a new character that is being sold on the basis of the original male character.

Why was this necessary, if the story is good why was there any need to tack it onto James Bond in the first place, why not write a script about female, black secret agent and call it something else.
I believe the truth is that hollywood is doing its usual thing of trying to get new audiences under the heading of being politically correct.

This was the sole motive behind the Ghostbusters remake, and no we didn't hate it because it was a female cast, we hated it because they remade a film many of us love with a crappy script and poor direction

We have a female Doctor Who now as well and its rubbish, its not rubbish because its a female, its rubbish because the new showrunner Chris Chiobnall cant write for shit, and I would venture that Jodie Whittaker is a poor actress in the role (to be fair, maybe if she got better scripts I might warm to here)

The criticism of the latest Star Trek mostly centres around the fact that, the writers have ignored Canon and ran roughshod over plot lines that have been in existence for many years.

I realise that there are some who are criticizing on these grounds you describe, but to put all critisism under the same umbrella and paint us all as racists or misogynists is frankly disgusting.

Anonymous said...

One other thing, I really look forward to the casting of a man as Buffy the vampire slayer, or a male Charlies Angels, how about the prime of Mr Jean Brodie, Mr Marples, lets have a female Jesus, thats a traditionally male role.
Where do we draw the line

You see how this works.

Anonymous said...

"But there is a glaring cultural contradiction between this consumerist sovereignty and having to submit to the will of others in the workplace, be it the employer directly or the demands of service users and clients".

The anomie of contemporary maleness, that you mention is no laughing matter. They (particularly working class males) are currently killing themselves and self harming at epidemic rates. This is a public health disaster not something to be sneered at!

Anonymous said...

Speak for yourself John Smith. The new Ghostbusters was never going to be as good as the original and just imagine how awful the remake could have been with an all male cast. I haven't fully warmed to Jodie Whittiker's Doctor yet, probably the forced northern accent and those braces (we all have our prejudices). But lets face it Peter Capaldi's Doctor took three series to bed in and then he left. You can't blame the writing; the Rose Parks and Indian Partition episodes where excellent and I don't say that because of the topics covered. As for Bond films, they are a reflection of the Britain they were made in, and so I did think the world was stepping back when Ralph Fiennes took over from Judi Dench. And if by coincidence we get Trump etc. As for a female Bond the films have been moving women characters so it only one small step, the test will be in how it handles that staple of the film the seduction/bedroom scenes.

Peter Briffa said...

If you’d written a post called James Bond and Capitalism and another entitled The Moon and Fragile Masculinity they’d have made just as much sense,

Phil said...

When male anomie assumes the form of moaning about a woman playing the Doctor, taking the piss is entirely appropriate.

Anonymous said...


I agree a remake with a new male cast would probably have been as bad, my point was that there was no need for a remake, and my secondry point was that it was made with an all female cast in order to appeal to a certain audience.
Quite agree that Capaldi was poor, but your wrong about Chris Chibnall's writing, it has been atrocious, and the two episodes you point to were terrible, and come across as virtue signalling rather than historical

A female Doctor Who is perfectly acceptable as the character allows for it, and I had no prejudice towards the idea, however the results were quite excruciating, I speak as a man who joined Doctor Who's viewership when Patrick Troughton became the character and in my opinion the writing is the worst I have seen in nearly 50 years.

None of this was my point, my point was, we are perfectly capable of writing NEW female characters without having to replace existing male ones to satisfy some feminist ideal, as has been shown with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Veronica Mars and hosts of others, and frankly when we use existing male characters and replace them with women all we suceed in doing is making it look as if women are weak and need to rely on the kindness of the patriarchy.

My complaint was that the article suggested that any critisism of female characters was a result of misogyny and I found that offensive.

Cthulhu said...

Hardly writing this has a James Bond film or novel fan, but the character is quintessentially male with conventionally 'masculine' characteristics. I'm sure an independent female spy franchise could be great, but it doesn't have to be 007. Doesn't have to be white. I think Idris Elba would have been great in the role, but it's always been male.

Speedy said...

The feminisation of the workplace began with the industrial revolution, so in fact the "masculinity" of industrialisation was presumably a reaction to the feminisation of the workplace.

There are of course (at least two issues here):

- gender equality
- class
- and let's throw race in while we're at it

Be it Dr Who, "Jane" Bond, Theresa May, or the new EU President ("von" something) calling for a 50 per cent male-to-female split, what they all have in common is being bourgeois (and that includes black, I mean - Chuka, need I say more?).

Although genuine gender equality is to be applauded (and it does indeed appear to trickle through in later generations, also largely due to the CONTINUED feminisation of the workplace) let us not forget it is not out of any moral urge but due to pressure from within the bourgeois class, and used by that class to maintain its power. While great inroads have certainly been made for women - they have largely been made for middle-class white women. Working-class black and white women are frankly neither here nor there, and the utter indifference (and implicit racism) of middle-class feminists re the status of working-class Muslim women and girls, or indeed white working-class girls abused by largely Muslim men, is all you need to know.

Dipper said...

If you've got a good movie idea for a black woman spy, then make a film staring a black woman spy. No need to shoe horn a black woman into a male role.

Phil said...

James Bond might be a male role. But why should *007* be?

Dipper said...

As the most alienated and most under-represented section of society is white working class males, I think the next James Bond should be a white working class Yorkshireman. Name's Bond. James Bloody Bond. Martini? that's a girl's drink. do I look like a girl? I'll have a proper man's drink thanks, a pint of Tetleys. And puli it properly with a proper bloody head on it. no not in a handle, in a proper bloody tulip glass and that's not a pint. top it up barman please. Now, which one of you soft bastards is working for Spectre?

Speedy said...

indeed... "the female of the species is more deadly than the male"...

Gulliver Foyle said...

"One other thing, I really look forward to the casting of a man as Buffy the vampire slayer"

I've got a great idea for a male vampire slayer, he can be black to, I've even thought about who could play the guy, he's perfect for the roll, how about..........Wesley Snipes.

Characters are constantly swapping gender and ethnicity these days, e.g. Nick fury of Avengers and Shield fame was originally a white dude. The thing about fiction's fiction.

Anonymous said...

Not the same character at all, Buffy and Blade, is apples and oranges, may as well compare Blade to Van helsing(they both killed Vampires), which seems to be your point.

My point again is, why not write new tv for female characters rather than appropriating existing male, well loved characters, and annoy fan bases for no good reason.

Gulliver Foyle said...

"My point again is, why not write new tv for female characters rather than appropriating existing male"

As a character Buffy post dates both Van Helsing and the Daywalker, invoking Buffy in the way you have ignores this pertinent fact. It is not inconceivable that if "t'internet" was a thing circa 1992/1997 like it is now a mob of fanboys would be complaining about female appropriation of a male character..........

Alternatively we could all accept the "it's fiction" think, i.e. it's not real and nobody is forcing anybody to watch/read or listen to the thing.