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What is James Bond doing in drag? A sexist icon speaking out against sexism

March 9th, 2011     by Julia Caron     Comments

On March 8th, I thought I’d feel empowered, inspired and reinvigorated about the fight for women’s rights. As most of you know, things haven’t been going so well these days. When I heard the day coincided with Fat Tuesday AND Pancake Day, I almost took the day off work to sit around topless at home and eat vagina shaped pancakes (I didn’t, and I still regret it) But the more media coverage I consumed about International Women’s Day, the more upset I felt. It started with Margaret Wente (I have now formally imposed a personal ban on reading any article/newspaper that publishes her work) and didn’t end there. As I began my daily venture into the world of social media, my spirits only took a downward slide.

The main thing that got my goat was that the number 1 thing I saw shared online in celebration of International Women’s Day, by all kinds of feminists I know and love, was a video of Daniel Craig as James Bond dressed in drag. By last count, over 44,700 people shared the video on Facebook, including a dozen of my friends.

I’m not going to lie; when I first saw it posted on the Daily What, I was intrigued. Using an enormously popular literary/movie character franchise to call attention to inequality? Interesting. I got a kick out of Judi Dench pointing out that Bond never gets slut-shamed, but any woman who slept with half of the people Bond has would. But after re-watching it, I felt… uncomfortable. And I was not alone.

This morning I came across a critique of this video on one of my favourite tumblrs, Glitter Politic, entitled “International Women’s Day and the Erasure and Exclusion of Trans women.”

First of all, it makes invisible the multiple ways that femininities are embodied, centers this problematic and simplistic narrative of ‘equality’ around cis women, and is inherently misogynistic towards trans women. In her wonderful book Whipping Girl, Julia Serano notes, “mass media images of “biological males” dressing and acting in a feminine manner could potentially challenge mainstream notions of gender, but the way they are generally presented in these feminization scenes ensures that this never happens…thus the media is able to depict trans women donning feminine attire and accessories without ever giving the impression that they achieve “true” femaleness in the process” (p. 44-45). The way this clip takes up ideas of “gender equality” is extremely cissexist and totally devalues and invisiblizes the experiences of trans identified women.

Legay goes on to address how this depiction of James Bond in women’s clothing “functions to erase trans women from the equation of who is considered a ‘real’ woman,” and this is incredibly important for us to challenge. Note particularly @1:11, when Bond sighs. It is very easy for us to read that as an embarrassed, angry sort of sigh in response to wearing a dress, heels, makeup, earrings, and a wig, or as some have interepreted it, an acknowledgement of how tough it can be to perform femininity and/or be a woman. Unfortunately, we can also imagine that this is played for laughs moreso than for a political statement. Taking one quick glance at the youtube comments confirms this:

I’ll spare you the more explicitly violent comments, not to mention the innumerable sexist and racist ones, but this is simply to point out many would of course read James Bond wearing a dress as a hilarious joke. I know not all people who watched this commercial read it as hateful towards trans* people, or making a joke at their expense, but to me it quite clearly reinforces the idea of a prescribed gender binary. Man = short hair, suit & tie vs. Woman = long hair, breasts, dress, makeup and heels. Judi Dench, the narrator, posits, “I wonder if you’ve ever thought about what it means to be a woman?” and Bond trots out in heels and a dress. This is such a reductive view of what it means to be a woman, what it means to be a man, and also serves to erase anyone and everyone who falls outside of those very narrow definitions.

I can understand how many could argue, “but you can’t possibly represent ALL kinds of women in a 30 second PSA!” What I’m arguing is, “what about trying?” As Teresa Chun-Wen Cheng pointed out in “Attempt to redefine beauty falls short,” even well-intentioned campaigns often fail in their attemps to call attention to gender inequality and sexism, instead offering a glossy, reductive end result. This result often serves to reinforce a very neo-liberal capitalist idea of what feminism in 2011 means: that if you are white, upper-middle class, cisgendered, femme-presenting woman, you’ve almost got equal rights… so we can laugh at anyone who falls outside of those categories. In this case, that happens to be trans* folks. Legay ends her argument with this point:

I’d also like to note the total blatant LACK of acknowledgment of the multiple differences present in women’s lives, and how that disrupts and complicates notions of ‘equality’. OF COURSE WE ARE NOT EQUAL, but ‘men’ and ‘women’ are not homogeneous groups either. What about a discussion of the increased discrimination and violence trans folks, queers, poor folk, racialized individuals etc. face? Next time 007, i’ll have my intersectional analysis shaken, not stirred.

So there’s that. I can understand how many could argue that this is exactly the kind of mainstream media coverage we need: a well-known pop culture icon talking about (well, in this case, standing about) sexism. But for me, seeing a historically [trigger warning: violence against women in both of those youtube videos, and in the comments] incredibly misogynistic character dressed in drag, sighing, all to make a point about how tough it is to be a woman in a patriarchal society isn’t enough. How helpful is to the great variety of women and people calling attention and working round the clock for social justice movements to have a white, cisgendered man who plays the archetypal Man’s Man calling attention to their causes? A character that has consistently sexualized violence against women, yet audiences are supposed to enjoy it since isn’t it great that even women can be violent villains in Bond movies so we can watch him sleep with them and kill them?

Even if we put the specific history of James Bond’s character aside (and the well-meaning attempts at rebranding the floundering franchise in recent years as less sexist), I can understand how many could argue in favour of this PSA, but it still presents “gender issues” and “inequality” as a white, middle-class, cisgender issue. To me, that is simply not enough.

Now, I’m not saying that anyone who shared this video or enjoyed it is a transphobic jerk. What I am saying is this is an opportunity to discuss whose voices we want to hear airing our grievances, and how we want those grievances framed. This video was produced by We Are Equals explicitly for the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, and I think that’s part of the problem: it just seems like a grab for attention, and it sure has gotten it… In just three days it has been viewed over 850,000 times.

I have heard some reasoned defenses of this video, such as this one by Lysa Lapointe:

I like this video because it’s powerful, aesthetically pleasing, and an easily-digestible “intro to systematic oppression”—but yes, Felan, I agree that the drag element is a little heavy-handed. Giving the director the benefit of the doubt… I assume that the message is: 1) James Bond is the archetypal Man’s Man. 2) Being a woman is hard. 3) Even Bond himself, the Ultimate Man, is not “man enough”, i.e. strong/resilient/etc. enough, to be “a woman.” 4) Consequently, who would, or could possibly be? 5) Therefore, the difficult category/existence/reality of “being a woman” needs to be evaluated and worked on and made better.

I could go on, but I suppose I’ll leave it at this since I’m still feeling a little bummed out: what were your positive experiences around International Women’s Day? Did you attend trans-inclusive events? What are your favourite political awareness videos, or do you even see these mainstream media videos as necessary?

Personally, I got a kick out of this video, which is a hilarious sendoff of the horrible original video.:

While not perfect, it’s still a bunch of awesome old people parodying sexism. That’s something I can get behind.

further reading: Original post by Majestic Legay Glitter Politic Whipping Girl: a Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity by Julia Serano

Tags: body politics, media savvy, queeriosities

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