Nomi/No Me?: Race, Gender, and Power in No Time To Die
Lisa Funnell / University of Oklahoma
James Bond has been an icon of global popular culture for nearly six decades. While the superspy is known for his ability to ensure the physical safety and geopolitical security of the UK and its allies like the US, the figure is also largely defined by his privilege. As a white, cis-gender, heterosexual, upper-middle class, able-bodied British man, Bond utilizes his privilege to access places, resources, information, and even people for professional and personal benefit. The series has long been criticized for not only depicting but at times also celebrating the espousal of discriminatory sentiments (i.e. sexist, racist, heterosexist, classist, ableist, xenophobic) that naturalize and justify Bond’s maintenance of privilege as he embarks on colonizing missions around the world.
While the longevity of the Bond series—with 24 films released between 1962 and 2016—renders it a unique case study, the franchise, like many other film series, has continually responded to social[ (( Funnell, Lisa. “Negotiating Shifts in Feminism: The ‘Bad’ Girls of James Bond.”Women on Screen: Feminism and Femininity in Visual Culture. Ed. Melanie Waters. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2011. 199-212.))] and political changes[ (( Black, Jeremy. The Politics of James Bond: From Fleming’s Novels to the Big Screen. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.))] as well industry trends[ (( Chapman, James. Licence to Thrill: A Cultural History of the James Bond Films. New York: Columbia, 2000.))] in order to remain viable in the global film market. This is most apparent in our current “billion dollar blockbuster” era with Bond producers going to great lengths to ensure the success of their forthcoming film, No Time to Die (Fukunaga, 2020), such as firing director Danny Boyle and hiring scriptwriter Phoebe Waller-Bridge at the prompting of actor Daniel Craig. As signaled by these actions, the success of a Bond film has long been attributed to the actor playing the coveted role. This is reflected in the typology governing the series whereby films are categorized into eras based on the tenure of the star (e.g. the Connery era). While media speculation over “who will be the next James Bond” is nothing new for the seasoned franchise, the dialogue surrounding the casting for No Time to Die has been particularly volatile.
In the era of social media, the voices of (potential) viewers and critics, and especially those who dissent, can be amplified through the processes of “liking” and “sharing” posts online. Recently, some users have embarked on campaigns aimed at inundating social media platforms and especially movie review websites with enough negative comments to diminish the appeal of films, at times even before they have been released. These campaigns often target projects utilizing casting strategies that promote diversity on screen such as “gender swapping” in Ghostbusters (Feig, 2016) and “race swapping” in The Little Mermaid (Marshall). The sexist and racist vitriol fueling this “backlash” highlights the desire of “core audiences” to maintain the status quo by precipitating the financial failure of these remakes thus discouraging such “diversity tactics.”
The announcement of the 25th Bond installment was met with a flurry of media speculation about who would play the lead role. A few actors even threw their hats into the ring. Idris Elba and Gillian Anderson elicited the greatest reactions ranging from overwhelming support to calls for boycotting the series with all commentary centering on how each actor differed in one way from the status quo—via race (Bond as a black man) and gender (Bond as a white woman) respectively. This type of essentializing is common in Hollywood action films, which have historically been the bastion of white male privilege.[ (( Dyer, Richard. White: Essays on Race and Culture. London and New York: Routledge, 1997.))] Only a small proportion of films features marginal figures as heroes—most often black men and white women—who are presented through an “explanatory narrative” that frames them as being “exceptions to the rule.”[ (( Funnell, Lisa. Warrior Women: Gender, Race, and the Transnational Chinese Action Star. New York: SUNY Press, 2014.))] As a result, they are granted temporary access to the space of physical action while the norm (of heroism) remains largely coded through white masculinity. When Craig (finally) signed on for his fifth film, conversations about race, gender, and power in the Bond franchise largely halted on social media platforms.
The recent casting announcement by Bond producers that Lashana Lynch, a black woman, would be playing agent 007 in No Time to Die unleashed a tidal wave of commentary that included both racist and sexist statements. While some of the negative reactions are rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of her role—Bond (Craig) has retired from the service and his agent number has been reassigned to Nomi (Lynch)—this does not explain or excuse the discriminatory tone and tenor of the comments.
On the one hand, Nomi is the first black woman to hold a “license to kill” in the Bond franchise. Similar to Bond, Nomi has completed the elite training program and earned her position at MI6. As such, she is more like Bond (i.e., the heroic status quo) rather than an exception to the rule, and her role in No Time to Die challenges the longstanding tradition of defining heroism as white and male in the action genre. The Bond franchise in particular has a long history of depicting racial minorities and especially women of color in limited and stereotypical ways.[ (( Funnell, Lisa. “Objects of White Male Desire: (D)Evolving Representations of Asian women in Bond Films.” For His Eyes Only: The Women of James Bond. Ed. Lisa Funnell. New York: Columbia, 2015. 79-87. ))] From Rosie Carver (Gloria Hendry) in Live and Let Die (Hamilton 1973) to May Day (Grace Jones) in A View to A Kill (Glen, 1985), black women are frequently hypersexualized and presented as disposable figures.[ (( Wagner, Travis. “‘The Old Ways Are Best’: The Colonization of Women of Color in Bond Films.” For His Eyes Only: The Women of James Bond. Ed. Lisa Funnell. New York: Columbia, 2015. 51-59. ))] While Skyfall (Mendes, 2012) features Naomi Harris as Eve Moneypenny, thus adding greater diversity to Bond’s inner circle at MI6, she is introduced as a defunct field agent who is demoted for botching a mission and accidentally shooting Bond[ (( Shaw, Kristin. “The Politics of Representation: Disciplining and Domesticating Miss Moneypenny in Skyfall.” For His Eyes Only: The Women of James Bond. Ed. Lisa Funnell. New York: Columbia 2015. 70-78. ))]; unlike Bond who is given a redemption narrative in Skyfall and other films after making mistakes, Moneypenny is encouraged to take a desk job (and told by Bond that “fieldwork is not for everyone”). While the casting of Lynch suggests Nomi’s success in the field, it is hard to see a pathway for her character that does not center on her incompetence or disposability if Bond, who is being called out of retirement, is to end the film with his original agent number. While progressive on the casting front, No Time to Die (much like Skyfall) might be regressive in its representation of women of color.
On the other hand, Nomi has been given the number long associated with the identity and brand of Bond. While Craig’s Bond, throughout his tenure, has been depicted as both familiar (via references to previous Bond films) and older/classic, especially in Skyfall,[ (( Dodds, Klaus. “Shaking and Stirring James Bond: Age, Gender, and Resilience in Skyfall (2012).” Journal of Popular Film and Television 42.3 (2014): 116-130. ))] Nomi is less familiar (in both the Bond series and action films at large) and a member of a next generation essentially replacing the “old guard.” As a black woman, the casting of Lynch alone challenges of the legacy of white masculinity and its connection to British identity in the Bond series. Negative reactions to this might be reflective of a broader sense of uneasiness in the UK (manifested through Brexit) as well as the US (via immigration “reform” in the Trump era) about the changing demographics of the populace and anxieties about “white male replacement.” This is where nationality intersects in powerful ways with race and gender as British (as well as American) identity in popular consciousness has long been framed in relation to white masculinity. As such, the social media backlash, particularly by white men, to the casting of Nomi as 007 (who can be understood here as “no me”) might be tapping into broader concerns about the rising social status of racial minorities and women who continue to claim more institutional and economic power. Social media thus becomes a new/digital battleground for the expression of distain over the loss of privilege in the real world as it is being reflected through film.
While blockbuster films like No Time to Die as well as the (social) media commentary surrounding them is often dismissed as “only entertainment,” it is important to recognize the role that popular culture plays in shaping popular, populist, and even nativist consciousness. Culture binds individuals and institutions together through its justification and normalizing of privilege. Films like No Time to Die relay messages about identity and power that influence the way people see themselves, each other, and the world around them. There is a lot (more) at stake as film producers try to appease and entice viewers as they compete for maximum ticket sales in the “billion dollar blockbuster” market. Thus, in the era of social media, where individuals and “digital swarms” can potentially undermine the financial success of a film, it is imperative that we explore how the experience of losing privilege, which is often misinterpreted as a form of oppression (i.e. “white male replacement”), is fueling digital backlash campaigns aimed at dismantling “diversity practices” in an attempt to control (popular) culture and (re)establish white male privilege in the symbolic realm (from “no me” to “yes only me”) in order to maintain the institutional and symbolic status quo.
- Lashana Lynch, the first Black female 007.
- Ghostbusters: Answer the Call, released in 2016, is a female-casted reboot of the original 1984 film.
- Idris Elba and Gillian Anderson throwing their hats into the ring to be the next 007. (Author’s screen grabs)
- Lashana Lynch in Captain Marvel (Boden and Fleck 2019).
- Naomie Harris in Skyfall (Mendes 2012).
- Daniel Craig as 007. (Author’s screen grab from Skyfall)