It’s Not What You Think

Welcome back to the Creative Life Adventure.

Douglas Adams might have accepted it as a long, dark tea-time of the soul, these months of “terrible listlessness” when many of us have sheltered at home to discourage the spread of COVID-19, while many others are genuinely suffering and a bitter minority brandishes firearms over the fear of not getting a haircut. For many, perhaps even the majority of us, it’s a surreal time.

One might imagine the pandemic is why I’ve been absent from the Creative Life Adventure for an extended time. And while that has certainly added a challenge to creative work, the primary reason is a difficult period in my personal life that led to a major change.

It’s easy to assume that what happens to the majority of people happens to everyone. That’s one way we end up with discrimination or exclusion.

Assumptions also misdirect our interpretation of historic, social, and cultural events. An ax-shaped stone artifact might be assumed to be a weapon for hunting or combat, as that’s how indigenous cultures are so often portrayed. In fact, as Lewis Mumford pointed out in his Technics and Human Development: The Myth of the Machine (Vol. 1), these tools were more likely used for digging. It’s war-making “civilization” that proscribes militant aspects to people and tools of the past.

Photo of stone ax head
What many might assume to have been a weapon was very possibly a digging tool instead

My wife and I are both James Bond fans and last year we re-watched nearly all of the Bond films, from Dr. No (1962) through Die Another Day (2002). (Coincidentally, I finished re-reading Ian Fleming’s Bond novels in the order of publication earlier this year.) So it was with heavy heart we read about the death of Honor Blackman on April 5 of this year. The Bond films were at their best when the Bond women were allowed to demonstrate strength of character, and Honor Blackman’s role in Goldfinger (1964) was one of the best, channeling her character through physical prowess (Blackman actually studied judo at the Budokwai dojo, the oldest martial arts club in Europe) and operation of a flying school for women.

Poster art for the 1964 movie Goldfinger
Honor Blackman played one of many Bond women who didn’t get the credit they deserved for saving the secret agent from certain death. (Poster art by Robert Brownjohn, from James Bond: 50 Years of Movie Posters)

The Bond films are well-known for sexist attitudes, and rightfully so. But during this most recent re-watch of the movies, I noticed a trend I’ve never seen mentioned in any critique of the franchise: how often Bond is saved by women. This got me thinking that the true gender discrimination in these movies is more subtle than everyone realizes. First, a few examples of 007 getting bailed out by his female compatriots (spoilers ahead in case you have not seen these particular films):

From Russia with Love (1963): As Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) is about to dispatch Bond with her dagger-wielding boot, it’s Bond woman Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi) who shoots Kleb and saves the day.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969): Alone and on the run from Blofeld (Telly Savalas) and his henchmen, Bond is rescued by Tracy di Vicenzo (Diana Rigg), who not only provides the getaway car but drives it as well as Bond ever has.

License to Kill (1989): It’s only thanks to shotgun-wielding Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell) that Bond is able to escape the sinister Dario (Benicio del Toro) and his cohorts at the raucous bar in Bimini.

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997): Throughout the movie, 007 survives only because of a wary partnership with China’s Colonel Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh), who is every bit Bond’s equal.

Casino Royale (2006): Bond’s mission, to defeat Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) in a high-stakes poker game, would have been a non-starter without the financial vetting of British treasury agent Vesper Lynd (Eva Green).

So despite numerous instances of female characters portrayed as helpless damsels in distress, reduced to screaming and waiting for Bond to save them, maybe a more insidious form of discrimination is the one nobody notices: a failure to recognize the vital and life-saving achievements of women in Bond’s world, the Bondian version of less pay for equal work. In fact, hopes were raised that characters from two franchise films, Michelle Yeoh’s Wai Lin (Tomorrow Never Dies) and Halle Berry’s Jinx Johnson (Die Another Day) would receive independent films. Studio executives apparently weren’t yet ready for a woman to stand alone as an equal to 007.

During these pandemic days, nations with female heads-of-state seem to be responding to the COVID-19 outbreak more effectively, overall, than nations with male heads-of-state. An April, 2020, article from The Guardian points out that “women are ‘disproportionately represented to a rather startling degree’ among countries managing the crisis well…” One can only wonder how the United States might fare better if the candidate receiving the majority of votes in 2016 were in the Oval Office. Over the long run, will the world remember what happened? Or will credit instead go to luck and coincidence, another historic “It’s not what you think” anecdote?

History and fiction often turn on correct or incorrect interpretation of events (and interpreting history incorrectly can turn it into fiction). This can be used to creative advantage, for example with misunderstandings between characters in a novel or a screenplay that surprises audiences by defying genre conventions. It’s more challenging in real life, where we all struggle with our own preconceptions and expectations. Awareness is the first step. Whether it’s the absence of a much beloved (I’m sure of it!) blogger or a nation’s response to a novel virus, life is rarely as simple as we might like. More often than not, when you dig deeper, you’ll find reality is not what you first thought.

One thought on “It’s Not What You Think

  1. A very thoughtful (and thought-provoking) essay that astutely links gender roles in the Bond films and actions of female heads of state during the pandemic. I like the way you tie it in to the larger picture of “It’s not what you think,” that we’re all prone to seeing and interpreting what’s on the surface rather than going deeper, especially during a crisis.

    Liked by 1 person

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