Magazine | June 27, 2016, Issue

Secret Agent Woman

In case you haven’t been following the important debates on the Internet this year, people are wondering why James Bond can’t be a woman and why Captain America can’t be gay. No one is yet asking why an apple can’t be a wrench, but give them time.

It’s quite the change from the comic-book panics of the ’50s, when Dr. Fredric Wertham’s book The Seduction of the Innocent accused the comics of implying homosexual relationships between big strapping men in tights and their youthful wards. That was derided for years as evidence of blue-nosed hysteria, and now it is a consummation devoutly to be wished. Wertham also deplored the way women were portrayed — dey wuz hard molls what got a crack on the kisser if they lipped off. That critique would be celebrated today as well, since the comics normalized violence against women in the same sense that the zombie comics made it socially acceptable to rise from the grave and eat brains.

Anyway. So why can’t Captain America be gay? Hmm. Because he’s not? Because he has a girlfriend? The audience would find it out of character if Cap asked Thor how he kept his locks so shiny and manageable, because Cap’s a short-hair-and-Vitalis kinda ’40s guy. The audience would find it out of character if he argued that nuns should be required by the government to perform abortions, because Cap’s a God-fearing man of the old school. The audience would find it peculiar if Captain America discovered that his friendship with Bucky had subterranean streams of raging, boiling eros, because that’s not who he is.

If you read into the friendship something that’s not there, you might be one of those people who think boxing is homoerotic because two guys who are trying to hit each other hard in the head occasionally hug.

As for Bond, it is becoming increasingly difficult to insist he must be a Scottish male. The defenders of the classic Bond ideal are forced to resort to such flimsy evidence as that Bond has been a Scottish male for 24 films and numerous books — as if that were any justification. Why, the fact that Bond has always been a guy is precisely the reason he shouldn’t be. It would be progressive to have these changes; it would signal salutary broadening of our cultural parameters. Old, silly, hidebound ideas are the shackles that keep us from running toward the utopia over the next hill but make us shuffle in sullen rows, serfs in fealty to dark archaic lords.

Traditionalists try to bargain: Cap’s straight and Bond’s a guy, but hey, no problem if you want a female 00 agent; it could be good. She just can’t be Bond. A gay superhero? No one’s stopping you. It’s a free country — form your own Boy Scouts, start up your own bakery, invent whatever fictional characters you please, and let people make their own choices.

Ha! I know, I know. That was another country. In this one, it’s not enough to offer your own alternative to Bond or Cap. What matters is changing an existing icon, and you’d better like the new one or you’re an awful person. What matters even more, though, is taking the character away from its previous admirers. If you don’t want Jane Bond, then you can’t have any Bond at all. For decades you men got to live vicariously through a suave secret agent who was promiscuous and ruthless, and you saw this as the epitome of manhood. Shame on you. Now we have Jane Bond, who has sex with men without emotional engagement because she is sexually empowered and who can physically best any man because Women are Strong. Hoorah for us!

Okay. Many have suggested Gillian Anderson, a wonderful actress known for her role on The X-Files, as a worthy Jane Bond. I don’t know any guy who wouldn’t be happy to see her as an agent on Her Majesty’s Secret Service. We’d line up around the block for Moneypenny duty. If there’s anyone you can imagine saying “You’ve had your six” and shooting a traitor in a Jamaican bedroom, it’s Anderson. She would be a different sort of secret agent, with different skills — but she wouldn’t last 30 seconds in a train-compartment fight against Robert Shaw.

And she hence cannot be Bond. In the end, Bond brawls. Modern movies are replete with women who have the physique of a praying mantis but nevertheless hoist broadswords with one hand while kicking someone in the head, and we’re supposed to cheer because it redresses decades of movies in which women were tied to chairs awaiting deliverance from the Caped Marvel or whomever. But no one believes it.

This summer has a Ghostbusters movie. People have waited decades for a third Ghostbusters movie. The new version has an all-female Busters of Ghosts crew. Maybe it’s good. I’ll probably rent it. If I find it disappointing, of course, it’s because of sexism, which just proves why we need an all-female Ghostbusters. I thought Ghostbusters 2 was disappointing, too; does that help? No. These are your Ghostbusters now.

So Wonder Woman could be a man? Sure. Little Women could be about four boys? Sure. My Friend Flicka could be about a boy’s sensual awakening with an equine accomplice? Why not. Nancy Drew could turn out to be a third Hardy brother? Of course. Dynamite the paradigms, comrades! In fact, it’s time for an all-female version of The Longest Day in which Normandy is stormed by waves of WAVES (as in, you know, Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). It’s a necessary corrective to the standard sexist view of history.

Just because it didn’t happen that way doesn’t mean a thing. It’s important that we pretend it could have.

– Mr. Lileks blogs at

In This Issue



Books, Arts & Manners


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Secret Agent Woman

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