When it comes to his treatment of women, James Bond has never been a nice man. That’s part of his retrograde charm. But in “Skyfall,” the newest installment of the Bond franchise, Agent 007 reaches a new level of not-niceness: having sex with and otherwise exploiting a captive victim of sexual trafficking. And it’s not at all charming to professional advocates for victims of sexual violence and trafficking.
(Image credit: AFP/Getty Images via @daylife)
On Thursday night I saw a screening of the film, which opens nationwide today (and which I otherwise enjoyed). Here’s a quick summary of the relevant plot thread, with some spoilers:
At a casino in Macau, Bond meets Sévérine, a woman he believes to be working for Silva, the film’s villain. Bond notices a distinctive tattoo on her wrist that identifies her as a former brothel worker and correctly guesses that she is not, in fact, Silva’s employee but his captive, bought or stolen out of the brothels to serve him. She agrees to lead Bond to Silva on the promise that he will kill the villain. They part ways. In the following scene, Sévérine, who believes Bond to be dead, is in the shower when he enters, naked, and initiates sex. In the following scene, they arrive at Silva’s stronghold, and Silva promptly kills Sévérine.
Sexual hyper-aggressiveness and putting women in harm’s way are trademarks of the Bond franchise, of course. They’re a big part of why the protagonist is often decried as a misogynist and even a psychopath. None of it has stopped the series from earning more than $5 billion and counting.
But those elements are uniquely problematic when set in the context of a character who’s a victim of ongoing sexual violence and intimidation, say critics.
Tracy Cox, director of communications for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, calls the on-screen sequence “alarming.”
“In the film, a trafficking victim discloses what has happened to her, then is further victimized by the person she confides in,” Cox says. “Society may falsely assume that victims of sexual violence are sexually available when in actuality, the shower scene depicts James Bond abusing his power and authority.”
(To be clear, neither Cox nor the other experts quoted here has seen the film yet. Their comments are based on a description similar to the one above.)
The Bond of “Skyfall” abuses alcohol and painkillers, womanizes and causes wanton destruction, yet he’s still clearly meant to be seen as a hero, not an antihero. But his conduct toward Sévérine isn’t just ungallant — it’s coercive, says Julie Gerstein, a writer for the women’s site The Frisky. ”Essentially, he’ll only free her if she completes a transaction with him,” she says. At the moment he approaches her in the shower, she is as much Bond’s prisoner as Silva’s.
Viewers who know more about Bond’s reputation as a lothario than they do about the psychology of abuse might confuse this exploitation for seduction, worries Heather Genovese, a New York City psychoanalyst who specializes in working with traumatized individuals.
“Sometimes victims of sexual abuse are so deeply in need of help and have such a strong wish for rescue that they get into situations where they are being abused and don’t even realize it,” she says. “Sometimes it’s simply because the dynamic is familiar to them. This can be why they are so vulnerable to being re-traumatized, and it is alarming for society to see such a thing without a clear understanding.”
“Women are always collateral damage in Bond films,” says Gerstein. ”It’s a common trope that he exerts his masculinity vis a vis sexing any woman he wants, but it’s rather tacky to then put that into a sex-trafficking narrative.”
A spokeswoman for Sony Pictures, “Skyfall’s” distributor, said the creative content of the Bond films is entirely in the hands of Eon Productions. Though the spokeswoman passed along my request to Eon, it was not until after hours in the U.K., where Eon is based, and no one was immediately available for comment.