by Matthew Wilby
All men are bastards, or so I’ve been told, and generally speaking, yes, as a gender, historically, we have been pretty shit on the whole. Years of warring, oppression and syphilis have shaped an image of men that is less than exemplary; thousands of years of evolution and
development haven’t really given us all that much change. That’s not to say that we haven’t tried, and that progress for both sexes hasn’t been made. But part of the problem is that while actual tangible progress has been made towards shifting demographics and promoting equality and so on, attitudes have changed very little in some circles, and old, outmoded ideals of what men, and indeed women, should be and do in their lives still prevail, actively promoted by media organisations throughout the world. Not only are we being bombarded with explanations of who or what we should be, but in the 21 st century we are suffering from a dearth of positive role models on TV and in films to whom our younger generation, the torch bearers of tomorrow, can look to for guidance in what are undoubtedly troubled times.
The 20th and the 21st centuries have seen some of the most significant changes to preconceptions of what it means to be male or female thanks to war, economics and pop music. More than ever we live in a time when equality is simultaneously more within reach than ever before, while at the same time coming under threat from a creeping backlash by traditionalist forces. But when women can do everything that men can do, and vice versa, then what does it mean to be a man or a woman, and how does one take one’s place in society?
Recent years have seen a number of strong, instantly memorable characters written for TV and film, appealing to one side of the above question: looking to the past, “when men were men and women were women,” and presenting it as some sort of ideal. Though the stories themselves
may be very different content-wise, the characterisation of these leads is very similar: Don Draper, and James Bond exist in distant fictional worlds, but they share a number of things in common. Each is a proud, strong man, turned to to lead and protect, while remaining compassionate at times. Both are flawed and, in the case of Daniel Craig’s first two Bond movies at least, contemplative and haunted by their pasts. They represent versions of a sort of archetypal idea of a man – the type of guy that men want to be and women want to be with – but I find them wanting: if these are the best we have to offer then we should be worried. Are we really saying that a suave, philandering, booze-hound existentialist ad-man with a knack for pulling a deus-ex machina plot device out of his sleeve and a suave, philandering, booze-hound secret agent with a knack for pulling a deus-ex machina Q-branch gadget out of his sleeve are what we should aspire to be?
In the case of Don Draper, what we have to an extent is a patriarchal figure, someone who is looked up to by others and does well for his family, but is also beset by internal and external torment, frequently sinking into a self-inflicted, alcohol fuelled existentialist nightmare (see Seasons 1-6). James Bond differs slightly: not a patriarch, he is more of a playboy figure; every time he gets emotionally – and more often than not, physically – close to a woman, rather than – as Don Draper is wont to do – settle down and start a family (with the addition of countless mistresses), she tends to die, which probably goes some way to explaining Bond’s horrible attitude towards women, though it by no means justifies it. Bond is certainly not a family man in the way that Draper is, preferring instead to sleep with a succession of barely memorable women after pursuing them in an often disturbingly predatory fashion. The only women in his life who provide moral rather than physical support are notably the only two to whom no sexual advances are at any point made. M, as played by Judi Dench for the last 6 or 7 films and Miss Moneypenny. M is intended to represent the Matriarch, keeping tabs on Bond, who, clearly lacking as a patriarchal figure, represents the child in the relationship instead. At the same time however, M is rarely allowed to acknowledge her femininity, and there are constant allusions made to her unsuitability for the job by chinless, balding morons, only for her to upstage them and prove that she has more “balls” than they do. Moneypenny meanwhile remains solely a comedic foil and a constant source of cringe-worthy flirtation, led on by Bond in a cruel power-play that lets her know her place. Instead of forming lasting and healthy relationships with women then, Bond is more interested in fleeting encounters with the exotic, usually vulnerable and/or damaged women that he meets on his travels. Take for example Bérénice Marlohe, who played former child prostitute Séverine in last year’s smash-hit and highest grossing Bond film of all time, Skyfall. In the film, after meeting Séverine briefly, not only does Bond enter into the cabin of her boat uninvited and initiates intercourse with the poor woman, presumably without asking, because he’s Bond and that’s how he rolls. After being led into a trap, he then proceeds to witness the botched William Tell-job death of Séverine at the hands of the film’s villain, reacting only to the extent of casually bemoaning the loss of a glass of good scotch. His absolute disregard for the death of a woman with whom only hours earlier he had been intimate with essentially colours her about as valuable and interesting as a used Kleenex in his eyes and makes one wonder whether the writers, producers and director intended to try and make the abuse of women seem cool (what with all the marketing and brand power behind the Bond franchise), or just read the script, shot the scenes, decided not to care and hoped that no one would pay that much attention to it all. The characterisation of Bond in this film is also deeply at odds with the Bond in the previous two films, who was – I wouldn’t say realistic – but definitely more human, more believable, and showed genuine regret and frailty after the death of his female companion. The only saving grace of the moment was that Craig’s Bond didn’t spew some awful innuendo, as might have been the case if the film had starred Roger Moore’s lechy uncle Bond. With Casino Royale’s “reboot” of the franchise, it seemed as if Bond’s attitudes had moved forward with the times, it’s disturbing to see that this progress has been sacrificed in the name of creating a “classic” Bond film.
The same unflattering presentation of Male/Female relationships is evident in Mad Men too, as, while Don Draper may well be the patriarch and family man, he sleeps around endlessly and uses sex as a means of getting his own way. Don is excused his frequent dalliances by his peers
because of his skin-deep family values, and is presented to the viewer as the hero or perhaps anti-hero of the show, while his long-suffering wife Betty is frequently depicted as at fault. The other men are just as bad, constantly belittling their female co-workers, or worse, and while at first this image of sixties gender politics might have seemed interesting as some sort of historical document, after six seasons the whole thing feels somewhat tedious and worn out conceptually. The show of course makes token references throughout to the progress being made by the various social movements that existed at the time, it would be ridiculous not to ground it in some sort of factual realism, but this is far outweighed now by the show’s overt sexism, being as it is that sex sells. Unfortunately at times, this is all that has kept the weaker plot lines afloat.
Now obviously these films and TV shows are made purely for entertainment, but the truth is that some people will view them and try to emulate the lifestyle or actions that they see, perceiving them as acceptable attitudes due to their inclusion. Bond and Draper are both presented as the epitome of cool, but by making this sort of lifestyle and attitude seem desirable, could they be contributing to a reversal of the progress made towards equality? To go back to a time before equal voting rights or legal abortions for example would be absurd, and yet it seems okay to present inequality as a glamorous alternative to the times we live in, as long as it’s on the TV. Is this glamourisation of inequality a reflection of a widespread desire to live in a simpler time or merely a convenient means of selling a product? You have to wonder if there is an agenda being pushed by these media outlets, and if so to what end, or if they are simply satisfying some sort of demand for regressive attitudes. If the latter is the case, we should also ask ourselves if we want to go back to this “golden era” when everyone knew their place. Perhaps there is no agenda and the writers are just working through an ordinary state of confusion: watch a film like Jaws, or The Big Chill, for example and you’ll see that thirty years ago things were pretty confused as well, but then, isn’t it worrying that our male leads should still have the same attitudes now that they had decades ago? Maybe we could avoid all this confusion by just being bastards.