There are a number of reasons the latest James Bond movie has been buzzed about: the return of director Sam Mendes, the speculation whether Daniel Craig will continue to portray Bond, the death of Judy Dench’s M in Skyfall, and the further establishment of Naomie Harris as Moneypenny and Ben Wishaw as Q. It should also not be ignored that regardless of the movie or who’s in it, any James Bond movie is set up to create buzz. But above all, Spectre was chattered about, as they all are, because of its three Bond girls, or women, or whatever we’re calling them these days.

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To start, most apparently notable was the casting of Monica Bellucci, who, at 51, is the only of Bond’s relationships in the entirety of the franchise to be older than he is (the part was first rumored to go to Penelope Cruz). In interviews, Bellucci has said she was “a bit confused” about being approached to do the film at first, but that Mendes assured her that “they actually wanted a mature woman on the screen.” Bellucci has described her character of Lucia Sciarra, an assassin’s widow, as a woman who is “in a world of violence.”

“What is beautiful in the movie is that there are two different kinds of femininity: Lucia, who represents in some way the past, this woman that wants to escape but doesn’t know how, Madeleine, she represents the future,” she said, mentioning Léa Seydoux’s character Madeleine Swann, Bond’s central love interest in Spectre. Seydoux, memorably seen to American audiences in Blue Is the Warmest Color, had similar praise for her character, the daughter of assassin Mr. White.“She’s his equal,” Seydoux said of Madeleine and Bond, “because she doesn’t need him. She saves him.”

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“I didn’t feel like I was in a Bond film,” she added.

Lastly, there’s Harris as Moneypenny. “I’m really lucky because when I got asked to come on board and play Moneypenny, I was told that they wanted to make a radical departure—they wanted her to be much more badass and tougher, more capable and much more of an equal to Bond,” she’s said, arguing, as other’s have, that modern-day Bond girls are less willing to accept Bond’s help. The three actresses have done some press together, presenting as a united front (or, if you’re feeling pessimistic, not worthy of one-on-ones).

And yet, despite all this effort, Spectre has been heralded as a step backward for women—or, at least, a missed opportunity for a step forward. Manhola Dargis at the Times remarked that Bond girls these days are “anemic seductresses.” Christopher Orr at The Atlantic argued, as have others, that Spectre, as contrasted to the wildly heralded Casino Royale, featuring Eva Green as the woman that made Bond fall in true love, Vesper Lynd, “backslides” on typical James Bond activities like his “endless womanizing.” The Independent’s headline reads: “Spectre: James Bond is still a sexist dinosaur—but audiences love it.” (During opening weekend, the movie made $20 million less than Skyfall, but is still the second highest-grossing 007 film and is expected to perform well overseas.)

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At this point in the over 50-year-old franchise, there are some patterns at play that don’t seem like they’re going away. First off, we like fighting over James Bond’s sexism—defending these women is fun to talk about, and one could argue that they’re more fun to discuss than Bond himself. When Bond’s not spending time with other humans who force him to feel things, he’s running around blowing things up (which, to be quite fair, is done mesmerizingly in Spectre), often behaving like a brow-furrowing buzzkill. When he’s pushed to have human interactions, whether sexist or not, he’s at least doing something interesting enough to differentiate the Bond movies from your average superhero flick.

Additionally, whether the women should be much more fully fleshed out—even in this day and age—is worth considering. Bond’s the lead, not them, and it’s not as though the coworkers at the British Secret Service like M or Q get a lot backstory or screen time. And then there’s Bond’s persona himself: How realistic is it that a human could reasonably save the world while having in-depth, meaningful relationships with people? At this point, it feels as though the legacy of the franchise, with its many frustrating years of Bond doing nothing but saving damsels in distress from things like their own lesbianism, is preventing viewers from watching the series with any real open-mindedness. We view the women through Bond’s eyes, and his gaze will always be Bond-centric; that’s to be expected. The real frustration is not that Bond is saving women—in Spectre, Madeleine saves him at one point—it’s that we know he’s always been a man who’s been the emotionally detached ladykiller.

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It’s fair to say that Spectre feels more traditionally Bond (in a less interesting way) than the previous Daniel Craig films, right down to the return of Ernst Stavro Blofeld as the villain, and that the fleeting glances of his women add to that (there’s a brief glimpse of a woman at the beginning who is never named or seen again). But as is the case with all Bond films, you leave wanting more of them, not him. More of Lucia mourning in her Italian mansion in all black, more of Madeleine’s secret ability to shoot a gun, more of Moneypenny’s sleuthing. The explosions are fun, the jokes pithy, the suits impeccable. But the women, slinking, shooting, sniping their way through the movies—they’re new, and the ones to stick around for. One wonders whether, if we were were given much more of them, we’d be too satiated or bored to return—the way we presumably are with Daniel Craig. After all, Bond’s forever rotating through too.


Contact the author at dries@jezebel.com.

Images via Sony Pictures