‘You’re Both…Damaged Goods’: James Bond and Masculinity

There’s a memorable line in Quantum of Solace where Dominic Greene sneers at Bond and Montes, claiming that they will find a lot in common with each other because they’re both ‘damaged goods.’ They do in fact have a lot in common; enough to take down Greene’s entire empire by the end of the film. It’s the outcome we expect because Bond is the hero and this is what he does, but Greene’s observation is sharp, and it speaks to a theme that runs throughout the Bond franchise.

For all that Bond is a smooth action hero, he’s also a deeply wounded man, something that is brought home in a number of films, especially in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, where Bond’s wife is shot at the end of the film, and Casino Royale, where he’s betrayed by Vesper. Throughout Bond’s life on screen, there’s been a certain frenetic element as he quests after women and action but never seems to find what it is that he’s looking for. On the surface, it might be read as the typical tragic man complex that seems to be common for action heroes, where the character is cold and isolated from everyone because of all the manpain he’s experienced, and has chosen to subvert his pain into being a badass, and we’re all supposed to admire him for this.

With Bond, though, there also seems to be a hint of criticism of this kind of masculinity that I don’t encounter in other works of pop culture that employ this trope. He’s not just a simple sad man who’s become an action hero to deal with all the terrible things that happen in his life, nor is his entire career driven by revenge or a desire to turn back time. That polish isn’t just a veneer to cover the turmoil beneath the surface, nor is it an armor to defend himself from the world. It’s also a commentary on men who refuse to feel, just as Bond himself is a critic of the action hero in the course of his interactions with the people around him.

The formula of the Bond franchise is often read at surface value; you have your action-packed opening sequence, your setup, your Bond girl, your action, your ending where Bond gets the girl and jets away. Enjoy some double entendres and eye-popping stunts along the way.

A lot of the Bond girls, however, are a lot more than just eye candy; they’re resourceful and they complement Bond instead of being set dressing. This is particularly true of more recent films, reflecting changes in social attitudes, more doubt. From Pussy Galore to Wai Lin, the women of Bond are not just passive, especially after the introduction of M. They are skilled fighters, scientists, businesswomen, spies; these are no decorative accessories and to say otherwise is to deny the characters agency.

This makes it hard to read the franchise solely as a glorification of a particular brand of masculinity—the strong, silent, aggressive type. Yes, Bond is a sad man covering up for his sadness with recklessness and a standoffish persona, but as a viewer, I don’t read it as particularly glorious; just the opposite, in fact. At the end of every film there’s a note of deep nostalgia and bitterness floating just below the surface, for those willing to dig, rather than a celebration that elevates Bond’s particular form of masculinity and suggests it is something other men should emulate. Bond is a cautionary tale, not a role model.

Did Fleming intend this? It’s hard to say; Fleming certainly had experience in intelligence and he knew how to spin a good yarn, as evidenced by the fact that his books became such a hit and have spawned their own movie franchise; one so far divorced from the original books that he might have trouble recognising it now. Action has always been a popular genre, and I hesitate to read too much meaning into the Bond novels and the subsequent film adaptations, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that there’s something else there, something deeper going on than what’s lying on the surface.

It’s not just that Bond is a flawed hero; flawed heroes are par for the course, especially in action, and aren’t necessarily commentaries on themselves or the genre. It’s that Bond is a sad hero; Bond is constantly fronting, and maybe that’s why I feel such an affection both for him and the series. Bond is living the dream, it would appear from the surface, but it’s at a high cost, and I get the sense that he is always wearing a mask that he’s terrified to drop. When it does start to slip, terrible things happen, and he’s well aware of that.

Spending your whole life fronting while you flee the past and watch it repeat itself endlessly isn’t really my idea of a good time, but Bond does it, almost like he’s punishing himself for his past sins. I’m not entirely sure that viewers are supposed to read this as positive; rather, I start to wonder if Bond’s presentation is a sneaky critique of the whole action genre and the type of men that Bond is supposed to embody. Are all Q’s toys worth it?

Some people seem to think so, but I’m not sure that’s the takeaway for me.