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The tragedy of James Bond

007 is still supposed to be a hero but if you knew him in real life, you would be warning all your friends not to invite him to their parties.

There is something rather tragic about James Bond. In advance of seeing Spectre, the latest instalment in the super-spy sex-murder franchise, I watched several of the old films again. The experience was like having your forebrain slowly and laboriously beaten to death by a wilting erection wrapped in a copy of the Patriot Act: savage and silly and just a little bit pathetic.

James Bond is a guilty pleasure but one in which the pleasure is increasingly overwhelmed by the guilt. Even Daniel Craig seems to know this. The actor acknowledged, just before the premiere of his latest turn as Bond, that the character “is actually a misogynist. A lot of women are drawn to him chiefly because he embodies a certain kind of danger and never sticks around for too long.” Craig, who has fronted a gender equality campaign affiliated to Amnesty International and appears to be about as unsexist as anyone who has worked in Hollywood for 20 years can be, gives us the Bond the 21st century needs: a character who is aware that he is both a relic and a thug and is surprised that he still gets to be the hero.

Nobody is saying that Bond isn’t fun. On top of all the explosions and wacky gadgets, the Sean Connery-era Bond movies are so mind-blowingly sexist that they are hilarious. The revamped films aren’t much better – the last time we saw Bond, he was watching a villain tie up his sex-slave lover, place a glass of Scotch on her head as the camera aimed at her cleavage, then shoot her just to prove how evil he was. Bond’s verdict? “Waste of good Scotch.” Again, gross enough to be funny: until you remember that this is the guy we are supposed to be rooting for. It is possible to watch the films ironically but it is hard to sustain a rigorous internal critique when the scenery is blowing up and Dr No must be stopped at all costs. Ultimately, it is terribly difficult to sustain an ironic erection. To do so involves a kind of anxiety that the men and boys of the 21st century know very well.

The new Bond films work because they tackle that anxiety head-on. The director Sam Mendes told Empire magazine that 2012’s Skyfall – the highest-grossing Bond film in history – was about ageing, uncertainty and loss and that this dynamic forces itself through the action scenes, the ridiculous firefights, the awesome bit in which the train carriage packed with explosives ploughs through someone’s ceiling just because they had the budget. Daniel Craig has not been given enough credit for taking a character who was a cardboard throwback even in the 1960s and playing him straight: as a wall-eyed, traumatised thug, a protagonist who is two-dimensional precisely because he is empty inside.

Craig animates the automaton that is Bond by asking just what it would take to make a person behave in this horrific way – and like any piece of well-done puppetry, the effect is sinister. Daniel Craig is the Bond we deserve, a Bond who takes seriously the job of embodying a savage yearning for a lost fantasy of the 1950s. It is about masculinity, yes, but also about Britishness, about whiteness and about heterosexuality, about the loss of certainty in all of these in a changing world.

That is why I agree with Roger Moore that Bond cannot be played by a woman or a person of colour, except in pastiche – Bond’s whiteness and maleness are as much a part of who he is as the gadgets and the sharp suits and the romantic alcoholism. Indeed, these are almost all of who he is. Bond is anxious 20th-century masculinity incarnate, a relic of 20th-century power struggling to come to terms with its own irrelevance, still fighting cartoon Cold War villains as the planet burns – which is what gives the films their melancholy beauty.

The franchise is dripping with camp nostalgia for a time that never really was, a time when men could be real men, which meant that they were allowed to hurt whoever they wanted and still get away with it. It’s right up there in the job description: license to kill. Bond is the kind of hero he is because he is allowed to do anything he wants to anyone he likes, from harassment to outright murder, all while wearing snappy suits and driving cool cars and getting every single one of the girls, for a rather suspicious value of ‘getting’. He may be a dangerous sociopath, but he’s our dangerous sociopath, so of course we’re rooting for him, because damn, look at the other guy. He’s got an eyepatch. And a cat. And he dresses like your granddad if your granddad was the weird judge off Project Runway.

The ’license to kill’ thing always bothered me - on a logistical level as much as an ethical one. Before the opening credits even roll, Bond has usually caused enough mayhem to keep some poor desk clerk occupied in paperwork for a year. Whose job is it to follow Bond around with a stack of forms and a can of disinfectant, explaining his behaviour to grieving widows and elderly parents who don’t understand why their daughter has been petrified in gold paint by goons and left to die in a hotel room by some sleazeball she’s just met? Presumably the job falls to Moneypenny, who seems unaccountably upset that she never gets a shot at Bond, despite the fact that ‘Bond girl’ is a career in which 'work-life balance' is extremely awkward to negotiate.

The problem with the way we watch Bond is not that Bond is a killer. I rather like films about serial killers, those gory thrillers that seduce you into rooting for the twisted anti-hero over the good guy. The problem with Bond is that he is supposed to be the good guy. He is a borderline rapist who is employed by the government to murder people – and yet he is not an anti-hero. He is just a hero. If your child said they wanted to grow up to be just like Hannibal Lecter, you would be worried. Somehow Bond gets a pass and, come Hallowe’en, a legion of little boys will be dressing as 007 with the full support of their doting parents. Bond is a hero for no other reason than that he is on our side, which is how most western nations and particularly the British come to terms with their particular legacy of horror – with a quiet embarrassment that nonetheless knows how to defend itself by force.

The dilemma of James Bond is a pantomime version of the dilemma facing most men who grew up watching the films and wondering what it would be like to be that guy, whom everybody seems to love not in spite of the awful things he does but because of them. In real life, anyone who behaved even slightly like James Bond would be ostracised, arrested, or both. And that is the problem. Bond is still supposed to be a hero but if you knew him in real life, you would be warning all your friends not to invite him to their parties. That disconnect follows men home from the cinema and into their daily lives, because most of the behaviours that are supposed to make you a hero – the things you are still supposed to do if you want to be a strong, respected, manly man – also make you an unqualified arsehole.

That is why James Bond isn’t evil. James Bond, more than anything, is a tragic figure and his tragedy is the tragedy of white, imperialist masculinity in the 21st century. It is a tragedy of irrelevance that becomes all the more poignant and painful in the retelling. It cannot last for ever and it must not last for ever – but while it does I’ll thank you to pass me the popcorn.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Israel: the Third Intifada?

Photo: Getty
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I'm not going to be General Secretary, but the real fight to change Labour is only just beginning

If Labour gets serious about a new politics, imagine the possibilities.

For a second time, I was longlisted for the role of General Secretary of the Labour Party this week. For a second time, just as in 2011, I was eliminated in the first round. The final shortlist now consists of two veteran trade unionist women leaders, Jennie Formby of the Unite union and Christine Blower - formerly of the National Union of Teachers and the Socialist Party. I met them both yesterday at the interviews; I congratulate them, and look forward to hearing more about their ideas for Labour party renewal.

Last week in both the New Statesman and LabourList, I explained why I thought we needed a General Secretary “for the many”. I set out a manifesto of ideas to turn Labour into a twenty-first century campaigning movement, building on my experience with the Bernie Sanders campaign, Momentum, Crowdpac, 38 Degrees and other networked movements and platforms.

I called for a million-member recruitment drive, and the adoption of the new “big organising” techniques which combine digital and face-to-face campaigns, and have been pioneered by the Sanders movement, Momentum, Macron and the National Nurses Union in America. I set out the case for opening up the party machine in a radical but even-handed way, and shared ideas for building a deeper party democracy.

I noted innovations like the Taiwanese government’s use of online deliberation systems for surfacing differences, building consensus and finding practical policy solutions. Finally, I emphasised the importance of keeping Labour as a broad church, fostering more constructive internal discussions, and turning to face outward to the country. I gladly offer these renewing ideas to the next General Secretary of the party, and would be more than happy to team up with them.

Today I am launching, a new digital democracy platform for the Labour movement. It is inspired by experience from Taiwan, from Barcelona and beyond. The platform invites anyone to respond to others’ views and to add their own; then it starts to paint a visual picture of the different groupings within the movement and the relationships between them.

We have begun by asking a couple of simple questions: “What do we feel about the Labour party and movement? What’s good, and what’s more difficult?” Try it for yourself: the process is swift, fun and fascinating. Within a few days, we should have identified which viewpoints command the greatest support in the movement. We will report back regularly on this to the media.

The Labour movement is over 570,000 members, thousands of elected representatives, a dozen affiliated unions and millions of Labour voters. We may disagree on some things; but hopefully, we agree on far more. Labour Democracy is a new, independent and trustworthy platform for all of us to explore our differences more constructively, build common ground, and share ideas for the future. I believe Labour should be the political wing of the British people, as close to the 99 per cent as possible – and it will ultimately only be what we make of it together.

Yesterday I spoke over Skype with Audrey Tang, the hacker and Sunflower Movement leader who is now Digital Minister of Taiwan. Audrey is a transparent politician, so she has since posted a video of our conversation on YouTube. I recommend watching it if you are at all interested in the future of politics. It concludes with her reflections on my favourite Daoist principle, that true leadership leaves the people knowing that they have made change themselves.  

This General Secretary recruitment process has been troubled by significant irregularities, which I hope the party learns from. The story is considerably more complex and difficult than is generally understood. I have spent considerable time in the last week trying to shine greater light on the process in the media and social media, and encouraging the national executive committee, unions and politicians to run a more open and transparent process. I even started a petition to the NEC Officers group, calling for live-streamed debates among the candidates for this crucial and controversial party management role. I very much hope that there is no legal challenge.

Most importantly, the last week has exposed a significant fault line in Labour between the new left and the old left. When Jon Lansman of Momentum entered the contest against the “coronation candidate” Jennie Formby, many people read this as a fight between two factions of the old left. But Jon’s intent was always to open up a more genuine contest, and to encourage other candidates – particularly women – to come forward. Having played the role only he could play, he eventually withdrew with dignity. His public statements through this process have been reflective of the best of the new politics. And despite our very different political journeys, he kindly agreed to be one of my referees.

There has been plenty of the old transactional machine politics going on behind closed doors in the last couple of weeks. But out in the open, the new left movements and platforms have shown their strength and relevance. Momentum emailed all its members encouraging them to apply for the role. On Facebook Live, YouTube and podcasts like All The Best, the Novara Media network has been thoughtfully anatomising the contest and what it means for the future of the left. Even the controversial Skwawkbox blog finally agreed to cover my candidacy, and we had a constructive row about the leaked memo I wrote for Corbyn’s office back in December about how to win the next election using data, organising and every new tool in the box.

I am worried about the old left, because I feel it is stuck in a bunker, trapped in a paradigm of hierarchical power and control. The new left by contrast understands the power of networks to transform conversations and win hearts and minds.

The old left yanks at levers, and brokers influence through a politics of fear and incentives. But this tired game is of decreasing relevance in this day and age. The new left has the energy, the reach, the culture and the ideas to build a new common sense in this country, and to win decisive victory for Labour and progressives in the next general election – if the old left will partner with it. 

I am keen to help. So are many others. I hope we can start to have a more constructive and equal conversation in Labour soon. Otherwise an exodus may begin before long; and no-one wants that.

Paul Hilder is an expert on new politics and social change. He is a co-founder of Crowdpac, 38 Degrees and openDemocracy. He has played leadership roles at, Avaaz and Oxfam, and was a candidate for general secretary of Labour in 2011.