That James Bond’s longest relationship with a woman has remained, in spite of his proverbial boudoir skills, unconsummated for more than 60 years seems rather incongruous. Yet, Bond’s interaction with Miss Moneypenny, uneasily contained between risqué flirtation and out-and-out sexist behaviour, may give us an insight into the sex politics of the workplace and how they might have changed over six decades.
A staple character throughout the Bond film franchise, Moneypenny is a paradigm of changing attitudes towards sexual harassment and of its complex intersections with female desire.
Conventional representations of women reflect the ways in which patriarchy has constructed gender roles: “Men act, women appear”, claimed John Berger in his influential 1972 work Ways of Seeing – and, indeed, early film scripts tend to display Moneypenny as the passive recipient of Bond’s attention, relegating her own desire, much like her desk, outside the centre of power.
Similarly, in Ian Fleming’s novels, Moneypenny “functions as an object of desire, chiefly because she basks in the power that radiates from M”, as UK academics Tony Bennett and Janet Woollacott put it in their 1987 book Bond and Beyond: The Political Career of a Popular Hero.
But Moneypenny is not only desirable – she also, actively, desires. In Dr No, directed by Terrence Young (1962), a flirtatious exchange between Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell) and Bond (Sean Connery) sets the tone for the sexual tension of subsequent interactions. When accused of never taking Moneypenny out for dinner, Bond’s reply: “I would, you know. Only M would have me court-martialled for illegal use of government property” – questions Moneypenny’s ownership of her own body.
Australian cultural studies scholar Tara Brabazon rightly suggests this could be harmless stuff: Moneypenny’s “acknowledgment of flattery, rather than sexual harassment, renders Bond’s comments benign and banal”. But the troubling implication is that a woman’s consent might be dispensable, as long as employment regulations allow – or condone – certain uses of her body. She is, after all, government/corporate property.
The problematic negotiation of the female body in a workplace regulated by the male gaze is illustrated in the ongoing discussion about gendered dress codes, from the 1980s so-called “power dressing” to more recent parliamentary debates on compulsory high-heel policies. But the persistent interest in Moneypenny’s physical and sartorial appearance does not mean she is simply the passive recipient of the male gaze and masculine control. In fact, it points to the female body as the bone of contention within the “office battle of the sexes”.
When a new Moneypenny (Samantha Bond) appears in GoldenEye in 1995, wearing a black evening dress, to Brabazon, “her clothes … signify a desiring and desirable woman, who is able to demand rights in the work place”.
Moneypenny’s ironic response to Bond’s leading question: “Out on some kind of assignment? Dressing to kill?”, situates her body as the source of active desire outside the work place:
I know you’ll find this crushing, but I don’t sit at home praying for an international incident so I can run down here all dressed up to impress James Bond. I was on a date with a gentleman.
Moreover, her playful reminder of sexual harassment legislation, warns Bond that she is neither “asking for it” nor “desperate” for Bond’s attention:
Bond: Moneypenny, I’m devastated. What would I ever do without you?
Moneypenny: As far as I can remember, James, you’ve never had me.
Bond: Hope springs eternal.
Moneypenny: This sort of behaviour could qualify as sexual harassment.
Bond: Really? What’s the penalty for that?
Moneypenny: Someday you have to make good on your innuendos.
This self-assured Moneypenny calls Bond a “cunning linguist” in Roger Spottiswoode’s 1997 Tomorrow Never Dies, while, in Michael Apted’s The World is not Enough (1999) she throws the suggestive cigar Bond brings her back from Cuba in the rubbish bin: “How romantic! I know exactly where to put that”, she jokes.
Indeed, the only way Moneypenny chooses to “consummate” her relationship is through a fantasy she is in control of. In Lee Tamahori’s 2002 Die Another Day, Bond’s body becomes a virtual sex toy, when she borrows Q’s VR glasses, which enable her to fulfil her sexual fantasies without compromising her independence.
This newfound assertiveness is a long shot from the air of desperation clinging to the characterisation of Caroline Bliss, her predecessor as Moneypenny in John Glen’s 1987 The Living Daylights and 1989 Licence to Kill. In the first of the two movies, Moneypenny’s failure to interest Bond (Timothy Dalton) in her Barry Manilow music collection is regrettably followed by a submissive acceptance of Bond’s patronising bottom patting.
Naomie Harris’s latest incarnation as Eve Moneypenny, initially deployed as a field agent alongside Bond (Daniel Craig), continues to challenge the active/passive, masculine/feminine binary divide. Her potential to emasculate Bond is most obviously referenced in her gunshot – which nearly kills him – in Sam Mendes’s 2012 Skyfall.
Her feminine sensuality, teasingly evoked when she shaves Bond with a cutthroat razor, gives way to her “phallic” threat visually symbolised by the blade she runs along Bond’s neck. Later, her response to his feigned jealousy about her sex life underscores her search for pleasure outside Bond’s control: “It’s called life, James. You should try it sometimes”, she quips in Spectre (2015) – also directed by Mendes.
Never a passive spectacle for Bond’s gaze, Moneypenny has been looking back at Bond with her own “eyes which [are] cool and direct and quizzical”, since her literary debut in Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale in 1953. But it would be simplistic to read Moneypenny’s escalating challenges to Bond’s control as the triumph of female empowerment. Sexual harassment is as much of a threat to women today as it was in the 1950s. Moneypenny’s message for us remains, therefore, ambivalent: while female desire positively challenges patriarchal rule, women’s bodies sadly remain contested sites of power negotiations.