Talking Fashion, Fetishism & Fleming with ‘Bond Girls’ Author Monica Germanà

Like you, I’m perpetually on the lookout for new books analyzing every conceivable aspect of the 007 franchise. So, when Dr. Monica Germanà’s latest work – titled “Bond Girls: Body, Fashion and Gender” – caught my eye last month I immediately picked up a copy. What I discovered within its pages was an examination of the Bond Girl phenomenon unlike any I’d encountered before. A bold and provocative study of the costumes, clothing, and complex gender politics that have come to define the women in the Bond series, Dr. Germanà’s book offers fresh insights that will have you looking at your favorite characters and films in a whole new light.

A Senior Lecturer in English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Westminster, UK, Monica Germanà has published widely in the fields of contemporary fiction and popular culture. “Bond Girls: Body, Fashion and Gender” was published on October 3, 2019, by the Bloomsbury Visual Arts imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing.

I spoke with Dr. Germanà about her new book. Here are a few highlights from our conversation.

Monica Germanà

JAMES BOND RADIO: Before we discuss your book, I’d like to hear about your personal history with the Bond franchise. What was your introduction to the series like?

MONICA GERMANÀ: When I was growing up, the Bond films were always on television. My parents were very big fans of Sean Connery, so we watched those films a lot. Of course, I was quite young and didn’t understand them fully at the time, but I vividly remember watching the scene where Rosa Klebb attempts to kill Bond with a poison blade hidden in her shoe. It was such an iconic moment!

Rosa Klebb and her deadly shoe

JBR: What about the later Bond films?

MONICA: I got into the other Bond films gradually. I took a bit of a hiatus because I wasn’t so keen on the Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton films. But then I started watching the Pierce Brosnan movies at the cinema, and I totally fell in love with Bond again when Daniel Craig took over the role. I think his involvement has been great for the franchise.

JBR: Did you read the Fleming novels as well?

MONICA: They came later. I began reading the books after seeing the films. Obviously, I was familiar with Ian Fleming as an author, but I didn’t actually read the books until I started being interested in Bond more seriously.

MG and Casino Royale

JBR: What do your students and colleagues think about your Bond work?

MONICA: That depends enormously on the students and the colleagues. Many of the students I meet nowadays tend to have a critical approach to Bond, particularly in his relationship to gender. In a way, I like to think that I might have opened the door for some of them by looking more closely at certain themes and characters in the series. Eventually, these students realize that the gender question is much more nuanced than just, “Bond is sexist.” Of course, much of that is true, but we can still discuss it and think about it. The same goes for my colleagues. Some colleagues, particularly the previous generation of feminist colleagues, tend to dismiss Bond as sexist without wanting to explore the complexities behind the character and the gender politics attached to him. However, when I share my work with other Bond scholars, we typically have very interesting conversations where we bounce new ideas off each other. We end up discovering fresh ways to look at Bond’s cultural relevance.

JBR: Can you give us a snapshot of your new book? What type of issues does it deal with and how is it organized?

MONICA: After introducing the cultural context of the origins of the literary Bond, which includes a reflection on the impact that the second World War had on the character, the book tackles the problems arising from Bond’s attitude towards gender by deconstructing what Bond is. On the surface, he’s the quintessential white upper-class English establishment figure. However, when you look more closely, you begin to see his complexity. For example, although he’s white, he’s not English. His parents are actually Scottish and Swiss. His Englishness is a matter of performance, and that performance comes from the fact that Ian Fleming intended to create a character that was a heroic figure meant to fill a void. This void was obviously generated by the aftermath of the second World War. Remember, there were multiple transformations happening in British society at the time. Attitudes towards gender, race, and sexuality were changing, and Bond represented the world before that. So, in my book, after deconstructing Bond as a figure, I use three main areas – race and ethnicity, cross-dressing, and sex and power – to establish how Bond Girls expose Bond’s anxiety toward female emancipation, and at times even subvert assumptions about female sexuality. Their clothes and costumes, in particular, when divided into these three areas, display different strategies that challenge accepted conventions about femininity and gender roles, as well as Bond’s own attitudes toward women.

JBR: I wasn’t familiar with the term “power-dressing” that you discuss in the book. Can you tell me a little bit about that phrase?

MONICA: Power-dressing in fashion is a concept that came about in the 1970s when more and more women were becoming part of the professional workforce in offices and companies, and often occupying managerial positions. That began to pose questions about the relationship between female authority and feminine fashion. Should women wear high heels or not? Are miniskirts appropriate in the board room? These were the kinds of questions that floated around back then, and still happen today to an extent.

Rosamund Pike as Miranda Frost

JBR: Business suits would seem to be a prime example of power-dressing, correct?

MONICA: Yes, several Bond Girls wear suits in their various professional roles in the films. Characters as diverse as Pussy Galore in Goldfinger, Miranda Frost in Die Another Day, and Madeleine Swann in Spectre all wear suits to reflect their respective professional employment. The gravitas attached to the tailored suits means that by borrowing the garment from men, women may effectively convey an idea of equality. This is also visible in the genderless uniforms of the armed forces. As you know, Bond Girls often wear armed forces uniforms in the films. The problem that some critics would raise is that the price women pay for success is a certain loss of femininity. So, it’s a contentious issue, because it assumes that there’s only one way to be feminine, and that femininity is an unchangeable and nonnegotiable concept.

Madeleine Swann in her suit

JBR: Which Bond Girl seems particularly adept when it comes to power-dressing?

MONICA: I think one of the best embodiments of power-dressing in the Bond franchise is Judi Dench as M. Some viewers argued that Dench was too butch, implying that she made a mockery of female authority by looking like a man in drag. The truth, I think, is more nuanced than that. M’s costumes depart from both the mainstream concepts of power-dressing and the ultra-feminine response to it. We see her in tailored pieces with a strong masculine influence, including padded shoulders, muted colors, and long sleeves, but she never feels the need to overcompensate for her clothing’s more masculine look. In fact, she keeps her boot heels low, her hair short, and wears minimal makeup in most scenes. M’s sartorial performance unapologetically challenges the simplistic assumption that she’s merely borrowing masculine attire. Instead, she’s self-consciously wearing her own feminine clothing in an environment overpopulated by masculine figureheads.

Judi Dench as M

JBR: Did Ian Fleming touch on some of these same issues in his Bond books?

MONICA: In some respects, yes. There’s a lot of detail about clothing in his writing, but not necessarily specific couturieres or designers, although some are mentioned by name. Fleming was very interested in finding out details about things and he was always taking notes, whether he was browsing in a shop or talking to people in a restaurant. He took meticulous notes about names and titles, and he was very keen to get things right. So, when readers would write him a letter saying that Dior didn’t design that particular dress or perfume, he took the trouble to reply and thank them for pointing that out.

JBR: One of the most fascinating parts of the book deals with bondage and fetish clothing. Can you summarize your argument in that section?

MONICA: Fetish is actually a very large chapter in the history of fashion. It covers an extensive number of practices and clothing associated with sexual practices, where the clothes, materials, and accessories displace the desire for the body that wears them. This includes things like corsets, stiletto heels, and materials such as leather and latex. In psychoanalytical terms, Freud explains fetishism as an exclusively male strategy to deal with emasculation and castration anxieties produced by the fact of sexual difference as displayed by the female body. In Freud’s terms, fetishism becomes a strategy whereby when faced with that anxiety, you’re no longer attracted to the body itself, but what the body wears instead. It’s a way of displacing fear by distracting yourself in some way.

JBR: How do we see that reflected in the Bond movies?

MONICA: First of all, you see fetishization of the female body in the credit sequences of the James Bond films. Those credit sequences often center around animated silhouettes of female bodies, or they focus on isolated body parts in proximity to guns, jewelry, or other objects of desire, indicating a world of consumption that the female body can be part of. There are, however, other instances in which fetish fashion is used to draw attention to Bond Girls’ own desires. I’m thinking, for instance, of the 19th century practice of tightlacing. All women in the 19th century wore corsets, but tightlacers would pride themselves on tightening the corsets to extreme levels. It was a real fetish practice that attracted a lot of criticism from the general public, as well as from medical science, because it represented a potential danger to female bodies. But it also represented a form of subversive female sexuality.

Caterina Murino as Solange

JBR: What are some other examples from the films?

MONICA: When you look at references to corsets in the James Bond films, you can see how costumes operate along the lines of these ambiguous traditions. For instance, we have someone like Caterina Murino who plays Solange in Casino Royale. There’s a lacing motif in the Jenny Packham silk dress that she wears when she’s first seen by Bond in the film. The fact that she wears a bondage motif suggests two things to me. First, it could be a reference to the oppressive marriage she’s in with her partner Alex Dimitrios. But also, her own relationship with him is open to possibilities. Like the tightlacers of the 19th century, she’s able to stray and be led by her own desires. I think the most obvious reference to corsets in the Bond films can be seen in Die Another Day, where Madonna, who plays Verity the fencing instructor, wears one. It’s meant to be a protective garment in the film, but there’s clearly a strong sexual innuendo in her conversation with Bond. She asks him to lace her up because she’s come undone. And as he laces her up, there’s a sexual and fetishistic connotation to the act. At the same time, however, there’s a subversive element at work, because we know that Madonna is not a submissive damsel in distress. She’s not there for Bond’s pleasure. She is there with completely different intentions. We know from the script that she’s more interested in women than men, and she claims that she’s not interested in cock fights. So, when you look at Madonna’s body of work as a singer and a pop artist, and how she’s talked about sexuality in very open and radical ways, it seems to me that Verity’s corset is not a symbol of submissiveness to patriarchal values, but a gesture that speaks to her own agency and self-fulfillment.

Madonna as Verity

JBR: Every few years the term “Bond Girl” is questioned. Some people apparently prefer “Bond Woman” instead, but your book accepts and acknowledges the term “Bond Girl” in its very title and throughout the text. What are your thoughts on the term?

MONICA: Well, clearly I made a conscious decision to use the phrase Bond Girls rather than Bond Women or Women of Bond. I have no objection to people choosing their own titles or their own ways of being addressed, but there’s a few things to bear in mind. First, I’d say that there is nothing wrong with the term “girl” per se. It’s been used derogatively in sexist language, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be re-appropriated in a positive and self-assertive fashion. Bond uses the term “girl” to refer to many of the female characters in the books, particularly because of his age. He tends to be older than most of the women in the novels. But the way he uses the term is hardly ever contemptuous or derogative. There’s nothing really weak, or small, or diminutive, or patronizing about being a girl. It was Kingsley Amis, the first Bond critic, who actually came up with the phrase Bond Girl, and it stuck. Since then it’s been used by countless critics and journalists in the media. Of course, some actors have recently said that they should be called Bond Women. Monica Bellucci was one of them. She was 52 years old when she played Lucia Sciarra in Spectre, and she felt she was too old to be called a girl, and would prefer to be a Bond Woman or a Bond Lady instead. Eva Green called Daniel Craig a Bond Girl, referring to the fact that Craig actually showed off much more flesh than she did. He was the true spectacle in that film. Other Bond actors like Rosamund Pike and Naomie Harris have said that there’s nothing wrong with the term “girl.” In fact, Rosamund Pike has said that the term “girl” is more fun than woman. You could also say that the word implies a different attitude than woman. Woman is more mature and holds more responsibility, while girl reflects a level of independence and care-free resilience that we associate not just with a younger person, but with someone who has girlhood as their state of mind. So, I think the term is loaded negatively by the ways that sexist language has been used throughout history, but it’s time to reclaim it back.

Monica Bellucci in Spectre

JBR: Finally, looking ahead to the upcoming No Time to Die, what are you hoping to see in regards to its Bond Girls?

MONICA: I’m hoping that the Bond Girls in the film will have competent roles. I’d like them to challenge Bond, as they’ve been doing for a while, but I’m also interested in Bond Girls that explore different aspects of female life. It’s nice to see race being addressed because that’s something that should be there, particularly in positions of power. In the future, I’d like to see more challenges to straight sexuality and perhaps gender as well. I mean, it would be fantastic to eventually have a transgender Bond Girl!

To order a copy of “Bond Girls: Body, Fashion and Gender” – available in hardcover, paperback, and Kindle – visit the book’s Amazon page.

 

Matthew Chernov

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