From Pussy Galore to Plenty O’Tool: Why We Need More Female Focussed Action Films

Ellie Macmillan-Fox is doing a Master’s in Climate Change: Environment, Science and Policy. She also did her undergraduate degree at King’s in History and International Relations. She has a keen interest in women’s participation in global politics, as well as environmental politics.

[Featured Image: A collage of the various actors who have portrayed the character of James Bond. Source.]

DISCLAIMER: This article was written before the announcement of the tragic death of Sean Connery on 31st October 2020. Our thoughts go out to his family at this difficult time. He made many great contributions to cinema outside of the Bond franchise, but he truly was a great Bond and is in no way blamed by this article for the actions of the character, which reportedly he “hated”. (https://www.looper.com/217067/the-reason-sean-connery-regrets-playing-james-bond/). 

Like many of the nation, I was pretty bored whilst the country was in national lockdown. But, as a massive film buff, I found solace in my family’s excessive DVD collection. After watching all the Star Wars, Marvel and most of the Mission Impossible films, I decided to turn to an even longer running film series: James Bond. 

Often my film taste surprises people. I’ve become used to people assuming that because I’m feminine, I must only like ‘chick flicks’. Don’t get me wrong, I adore rom-coms. But I also love The Lord of the Rings, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and The Dark Knight trilogy. So why then is this seen as unusual?

The answer is that these films aren’t made for women – they’re viewed as ‘masculine’ films. Here are three reasons for this:

Firstly, they involve violence. Yes, some women may not like watching violence, but only in the same way that some men may not. Personally I appreciate a good fight scene, especially when it has been expertly choreographed by talented stunt and special effects crews. 

Secondly, women are rarely the main characters. They’re typically the damsels in distress that the hero must rescue from the clutches of evil. The women seem incapable of doing anything to help themselves, unable to resist the charms of the protagonist as they fall into his arms and reward his bravery with a passionate kiss. Think Lois Lane in Superman (1978), all the women in the Indiana Jones films and Mary Jane in Spider-Man (2002).

Finally, the action genre is built on foundations of sexism. James Bond wasn’t the first action film, but it helped popularise them and many films have been influenced by it since. I had watched all of Daniel Craig’s Bond’s and a handful others, before I embarked on my Bond binge. But I had never before been so aware of the appalling sexism that plagues the films. Within the first 20 minutes of Goldfinger (1964), I couldn’t believe my eyes as Bond shunned a swimsuit clad woman away so he could speak to a male CIA agent, by proclaiming “man talk” and slapping her butt. [1] 

But this is nothing compared to later in the film when Bond imposes himself on Pussy Galore (yes really, that is her name) until she submits. Later, in The Living Daylights (1987), I despaired as Bond used a naked woman to distract an opponent. [3] Time and again Bond behaved in ways that was misogynistic, towards women with the most objectifying, sexist names possible: Plenty O’Tool, Octopussy and Holly Goodhead to mention a few. [4] I highly recommend watching this YouTube compilation (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L7qn5Iw5TDM) of Bond faux pas, as it is hilariously and excruciatingly awful.

This is not to mention the cliché these films created of a masculine hero encountering a beautiful woman who tends to accept his invitation into bed almost immediately. This woman is later dumped, kidnapped or tragically dies and is dismissed as ‘collateral damage’. They are not only inconsequential and two dimensional characters, but are seen purely as objects of male pleasure. They are there to paint Bond as an alpha male, they service his needs and are thrown away. As Barbra Ellen put it, they ‘primarily exist to look sexy and impressed’.[5] Thus, considering the treatment of women in the Bond franchise, it is unsurprising that the genre it helped create is widely viewed as unenjoyable for women.

But the real question is, are today’s action films still male centric and sexist, or has there been some improvement? To this I would say, there has been some but not nearly enough. Ben Child made an interesting observation about how Judi Dench as ‘M’ was used as a device to highlight Bond’s misogyny. [6] In Goldeneye (1995), she called Bond a ‘sexist, misogynist dinosaur, a relic of the cold war’. [7] Similarly in Quantum of Solace (2008), she scolds Bond after the MI6 agent he slept with is killed. ‘Look how well your charm works James’, she says standing over the body, ‘how many is that now?’. [8] But now that (SPOILER) Dench has been killed off, we’re left with only Moneypenny, who encourages Bond’s workplace flirting. 

In terms of the wider action genre, there has been an increase in female action heroes in recent years. Charlize Theron was incredibly badass in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), even though she wasn’t the titular role. [9] A more three dimensional and highly capable female character was introduced with Ilsa Faust in Mission Impossible: Rouge Nation (2015). [10] But for me, the MCU comes out top for Captain Marvel (2019). As a long time Marvel fan I watched the likes of Iron Man and Thor kick ass countless times, whilst the female characters faded into the background. The few female superheroes, like Black Widow, Gamora and Okoye, [11] were far less capable than the men. But watching Captain Marvel gave me a feeling of empowerment like no other action film ever has. Here was a film ABOUT a female hero. She was complicated, likable and more powerful than any of the male superheroes that proceeded her. Plus she fought bad guys to a girl-power, nineties-grunge soundtrack – could you ask for anything more?

The action genre should learn from the success of Captain Marvel: female heroes are just as watchable as men, if not more due to the current novelty. As Victoria McNally puts it, ‘women can struggle emotionally, kick ass physically, excel intellectually, or any combination thereof in the real world’, and this needs to be represented in fiction too. [12] As for James Bond, the next instalment, No Time to Die, does seem cause for some optimism. Lashana Lynch (who also featured in Captain Marvel I might add) will be playing Bond’s 007 replacement. This is a great opportunity for the franchise to modernise and demonstrate women are just as capable as Bond. I sincerely hope they rise to it. 

Although, when it will actually be released remains a mystery in the current times (it’s already been delayed by a year from the original date). I guess in the mean time I’ll be at home watching Captain Marvel on repeat. 


[1] Goldfinger, Directed by Guy Hamilton, (1964), London: Eon.

[2] Goldfinger.

[3] The Living Daylights, Directed by John Glen, (1987), London: Eon.

[4] Diamonds are Forever, Directed by Guy Hamilton, (1971), London: Eon ; Octopussy, Directed by John Glen, (1983), London: Eon; Moonraker, Directed by Lewis Gilbert, (1979), London: Eon.

[5] Barbara Ellen, ‘A #MeToo Bond defeats the whole object of the spy who loved me’, The Guardian, (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/mar/18/danny-boyle-new-james-bond-film-me-too).

[6] Ben Child, ‘Time’s up for James Bond: is 007 too toxic for the #MeToo era’, The Guardian, (https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/jan/30/times-up-for-james-bond-is-007-too-brutish-for-the-me-too-era).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Quantum of Solace, Directed by Marc Forster, (2008).

[9] Victoria McNally, ‘Are Women Taking Over Male-Centric Action Movies From Within?’ MTV, (http://www.mtv.com/news/2245549/women-action-movie-protagonists/).

[10] Ibid.

[11] Iron Man 2, Directed by John Favreau, (2010); Guardians of the Galaxy, Directed by James Gunn, (2014); Black Panther, Directed by Ryan Coogler, (2018).

[12] McNally, ‘Women’.

Leave a Reply