As heralded earlier, this is an M appreciation post, and is part of a larger conversation about female role models in pop-culture. It will contain spoilers for “SKYFALL” the latest 007-extravaganza. Consider yourself duely warned (and do get thy self to a cinema and watch it!)
The thing is — this third film in the “renewed bond” saga, with Daniel Craig (of whom i fully approve) is sadly the end of an era: The era of M(3) played by Dame Judi Dench. She was the first female M, and more importantly for this post, she is to me the real M, because she’s the first one I remember. When GoldenEye came out in 1995 I was still a teenager, and it was the beginning of my love affair with Bond. It took me a few years, and some reruns of the earlier films, before I realised that M in Dench’s incarnation was dead on when she famously called 007 a misogynist dinosaur
(no, this clip cannot be posted on the Gates too many times — the circumstance that that last year, Judi Dench and Daniel Craig did a piece on women’s rights as covered here at the Gates makes it even better)
Because that is more or less what the Old Bond universe was – a relic from a time gone by where women were things and using them as such was the hallmark of a real man. The Brosnan-years shifted the balance a bit, but it’s no great mirro of a world of equality. However, in addition to bond girls there is now a Bond Lady. M is the boss, and she is using James for her own goals (well, technically for England: Queen and Country, and World Peace).
In some scenes – like the “lighthouse prison break by cleverly using alarm clock to build a small explosive” from The World is Not Enough – M got out into the field and did cool things. But most of the time, she is just playing chess with her agents like any other (or more likely a handful others) spy-masters of the world. Consider her calculations in Die Another Day, for example:
Falco: You were supposed to throw away the key, not leave the door wide open.
M: Are you saying I had a hand in his escape?
Falco: Well, he did get away real fast.
M: Well that is what he is trained to do…
With Craig and the Casino Royal-relaunch M’s role grew. And Dench was as dench as ever (Judi Dench being so cool her last name is now slang for “cool, awesome”. And she’s a good sport about it too)
My point with all this is that it didn’t occur to me that the fact that M was a women was really a “thing”. M just “was”. In the Old Bond Films I watched with my dad and my brother (and we have quite a family fetish for this — down to rigging our parents living room out as MI6 headquarters for the screening) M was a man sure, but now it is a woman. Only in the past years have I become aware of the “breaking of glass ceiling” this appears to be. And I has made me think. As I’ve written elsewhere on the Gates, my feminism and awareness of gender inequalitiyes is deeply rooted. But my parents, and especially my mother, on purpose didn’t raise me saying “anything a boy can do, you can do too!”. They simply never made me being a girl any part of the debate of whether I was right or qualified to do something specific. Just as they didn’t tell my brother that “anything a girl can do, you can do too!”.
So, in my mind, M was obviously a women. and then – bam – i realised that to a lot of people that was a big deal. and I thought they were really stupid 🙂 I mean, how could they even think that M couldn’t be a woman? Haven’t they met Judi Dench?
This is of course the second part: Choosing an actress like Judi Dench is the only way to go. Because her charisma and authority and overall amazingness sells the deal. Yes, I know each film has her quite explicitly drinking alcohol and what is either a feeble attempt at ‘masculinisation’ (this is possible a word I am making up) or simply acknowledging that this kind of job comes with a lot of stress and most people at the top drink a lot. But here’s my idea: What about assuming that this woman was simply the best qualified for the job as M and then she got it. and now we all shut up and let her do her job?
As expected, it played it the general debate of “can a feminist enjoy james bond” (like here / Jane Martinson on Skyfall). As should be pretty clear from the above, I am a very happy feminist after being well entertained by 007 & Co. on the screen. But the real gift is that for the past seventeen years, the franchise has taught us that women can rule the shadows. And they were clever enough not to make a big deal out of her being a woman (yes, there is a scene in Quantum of Solace where she is removing her make-up while taking a call, and I am absolutely sure, no make M would ever be seen removing make-up. But in the future, we might see Ralph Fiennes shave in a similar scene. It works nicely since that sequence was about ‘removing masks’.) The press, the fans – they made a big deal out of it.
Which makes it even sadder that M is killed off in this last film. First of all, because Dench is such a magnificent actress and i will miss her presence in the coming films. But also because it was good for the gals to see a female M. We need those role models and we need them especially when their gender or ‘way to the top’ is not the actual focus of the story. when it’s not something that needs special “oh wow look the supreme court judge is a woman” but rather “the national anthem of India sounds like this and their president is a women and now look over there at something really odd”). I emphasise this because once “gender” or “this job is being performed by a woman” takes centre stage then the film, book (insert random pop-culture item) tells little girls and little boys that this is something very strange that must be explained and investigated. And that I think can be very bad. Role-models in the shadows, in the back of our minds are powerful cultural tools of socialisation.
One of the things I loved about SKYFALL was the reoccurring theme of ‘old-new’ and in that narrative, letting M die in the line of fire rather than retiring her was absolutely the best choice.
But it did annoy me that James had to come and shoot Silva. I kept hoping M would draw the dagger we had seen earlier and stab Silva in the back. Or at least pull the trigger, killing them both. I think she should have, hell, I think she would have: not being the victim but going out with a BANG on her own terms. But I guess they wanted that final scene between M and Bond, and seeing the story arch between the two in the past three films, that was also gratifying.
(I am here possibly interpolating my love and adoration for Dench and the fact that I’d like to see a more Medean-version of her death… It’s just that with that whole Oedipal theme between Silva and M and Bond, M could actually stand for Medea equally well. Just saying. (Her performance as Lady Macbeth still haunts me. Oy so brilliantly scary and heart-breaking! We watched it in high school when we read Macbeth in English A level. I could hardly understand that this Lady Macbeth was the kind old lady from “Chocolat” and “Tea with Mussolini” – but that’s of course what makes Judi one of the best actresses in the history of, well, acting)
But at least they gave her this line:
Dignity! To Hell with dignity! I’ll retire when my goddamn job is finally done.
M setting the record straight! Yeah.
Oh I’ll miss her… but I am grateful she was my M. And taught me be something when I wasn’t looking: It does not in fact matter what gender you are. It matters how well you do your job.