A New Kind of Bond: Queer and in Drag
Womanizer. Action hero. Manly man. James Bond is an iconic character, originating in 1953 as the lead character in Ian Fleming’s novels and short stories about a British Secret Service agent. The character is most known for roles in dramatic spy plots, and the scantily clad women who almost always accompany his adventures: the “Bond girls.” In the years since Fleming’s creation, Bond has been featured in more than 23 films, two television series, comic strips, radio broadcasts, and 40 books and short stories. But in recent years, new perspectives on 007 have led to a new, more fluid idea of Bond’s masculinity and very existence. Despite critics, contemporary artists and performers like drag queen Max Malanaphy are reimagining what it might mean to be the most well-known spy in the world.
Bond’s primary habits have not changed much since his inception: he drinks (“shaken, not stirred”), gambles, drives fast and expensive cars, seduces women, and maintains an air of cool detachment. He is a government assassin, and has few close friendships. His personality and hobbies perfectly fit into antiquated ideas about gender roles, heteronormativity, and the saturation of male gaze in popular media. Heteronormativity is a system that normalizes heterosexuality, traditional gender roles, and a strict gender binary. By almost every count, Bond meets this bar: his mannerisms and job are all meant to reinforce that particular, aggressive brand of masculinity: hegemonic masculinity. Despite his generally mild-mannered demeanor, Bond’s character is fundamentally based on this idea of “manliness” (physically strong, aggressive, stoic, and clever) and the ideal of hyper masculinity.
This over-the-top, hyper masculinity not only limits the character from a literary and artistic sense, but also holds back Bond from progressing past the days of bikinis and blatant misogyny. Arguably a singular character at times, the Bond girls are typified by bikinis and other skimpy clothing, varyingly sexual names (Pussy Galore, Holly Goodhead, Mary Goodnight, etc.), traumatic pasts, and strong independence prior to meeting James Bond. At times Bond girls are only sidekicks and sexualized minor characters in Bond plots, and at other times they are larger characters either allied with or operating against the main character. Almost inevitably, they end up sleeping with the titular character. While the most recent film series, in particular, has toned down some of the overt sexism (and racism) of the 1960s and 70s, a Bond girl still exists in each film as a secondary or tertiary character whose purpose is at least partially as a love interest. The Bond series seems to assert a sexist and misogynistic view of women, wherein their primary purpose is as a physical object or love interest, and any other service to the plot is optional. The male gaze, or presentation of women from a masculine point of view, is almost palpable in every iteration of the series. However, as one Film School Rejects article argues, “at least Bond’s just slapping women in the ass now instead of slapping them across the face.”
However, things do change: innovative artists, creative thinkers, academics, and others are beginning to explore James Bond in a very different way. Some have considered the potential for subtle or overt homoeroticism in the Bond films, imagined a feminist and domestic Bond, or even considered reinventing Bond as a woman or otherwise very different character. RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 7 Alumnus Max Malanaphy may be the timeliest, and most daring, example yet. Malanaphy, who goes by Max as a drag queen on stage, is the lead in a new three-part web series about a “rare, queer, Bond-like protagonist” called Agent Max. Malanaphy’s tall frame and theatre background allow for the execution of campy, sexual, violent action reminiscent of the earliest Bond films. In the trailer for Agent Max, Max can be seen fighting enemies in full drag: there is an abundance of makeup, latex, high heels, and dramatic lighting. Director John Mark has discussed having a fondness for the James Bond franchise growing up, and found the Bond girls “enthralling” for not only their physical appearance, but also their action-movie feats. The juxtaposition and contrast of high beauty and intense action, both reinforcing and subverting gender norms, attracted Mark. As an adult, he sought out action movies featuring gay men with no luck – so he decided to create his own queer action hero in Agent Max.
Although Agent Max will not be released until March 11, the trailer (above, or here) and promotional materials give audiences an idea of the gender bending, campy thriller that it will be. On a macro level, Malanaphy’s casting as the transgender, queer Agent Max immediately fires at the sexism and casting inequality in Hollywood today. Not only do (cisgender, heterosexual, and masculine) men receive the vast majority of speaking roles in films (check out this interactive data visualization by Amber Thomas), but they are also disproportionately likely to be cast as leading action characters like James Bond. Transgender and other LGBT individuals incredibly unlikely to land speaking roles in any films at all (see below image, from a USC Annenberg study). The by now structural sexism in the entertainment industry is far reaching, and affects individuals at all levels of the sector. However, independently produced features like Agent Max, and more mainstream movies and shows like Moonlight (2016), RuPaul’s Drag Race, and Orange is the New Black are fighting some of these systems by purposely hiring diverse actors and spotlighting their culture or other marginalized groups through plot and interviews.
Agent Max also seems to take aim at the tenets of hegemonic masculinity, the public, fantasy concept of masculinity that is commonly portrayed in action and adventure films like the Bond series. Traditional examples of hegemonic masculinity are fundamentally at odds with homosexual, subordinated masculinity; Agent Max appears to embrace both to an extreme. Max’s feminine but simultaneously violent, intelligent, and capable protagonist channels both the over sexuality and exploitation of early Bond girls and the physical attributes and behaviors of James Bond himself. This duality, and juxtaposition, not only subverts traditional gender roles and hegemonic masculinity, but may better reflect reality. According to Mark, “if you live in the real world, you’ll meet many a gay man who is fully capable of the violence, tenacity and drive it takes to play a hero vigilante.”
The specific importance of the use of drag in Agent Max cannot be overlooked, either. Miss Maxine, as fans often refer to Max, is one of the best-known drag queens in the United States. Eliminated after seven episodes, Max developed a glamorous, David Bowie-reminiscent drag style that includes grey hair and retro-inspired outfits. In the trailer for Agent Max, Max’s appearance could at first be associated with the Bond girls, rather than the protagonist. It is later in the video, where Max is shown in several action scenes, that the connection is made to Bond himself. That juxtaposition, and dissonance, is powerful. His drag could be considered an outright act of resistance to enforced gender roles and the confines of hegemonic masculinity, and based on some of Malanaphy’s personal statements, this seems to be a valid and intentional possibility. According to some gender performative concepts in queer theory, this transgression of assumed gender identity and presentation breaks down the heteronormative connections between gender, sex, masculinity, and sexual orientation. Considered in this context, Malanaphy’s drag becomes even more poignant as a means to dismantle some of the sexism, misogyny, and hegemony of the Bond series, and reclaiming a piece of popular culture for the queer community and fans of drag.
The influence of the James Bond series is far reaching, spanning more than half a century of popular culture. In that time, clear standards have been set for what “makes” a Bond story: high action (performed almost exclusively by men), Bond girls who are always secondary at best, expensive cars, and international intrigue. But along came John Mark and Max Malanaphy, who may be about to flip the Bond narrative on its head. With drag, femininity, violence, and smarts, the new series seems to argue that the association between action and hyper masculinity is dead wrong. Based only on the trailer, the cast, and interviews with the crew, it seems that Agent Max may be ushering in a new era of Bond-style characters with more diversity, cultural awareness, and even drag, without losing reverence for the source material.