Why Do We Still Care About James Bond?

And why are his fans so afraid of change?

Here at the Internet, there has recently been quite a bit of heated discussion about James Bond. We’ve been hearing the Idris Elba song sung as loudly as usual, of course. Then, earlier this week, Gillian Anderson sent the internet into a tizzy by tweeting a fan-made poster of herself as “Jane Bond.” And now we hear that Tom Hiddleston is in “advanced talks” to take up the mantle. But it officially won’t be with Sam Mendes as director. And maybe it actually won’t be Hiddleston. There have been cheers and complaints about all of these developments, which I guess is only to be expected. But as an admittedly casual fan of the franchise, I wonder: what’s with all the uproar? Why is James Bond, a British Secret Service agent from the ’50s, still so important to us?

I get those who are arguing for a more inclusive franchise. But of course, for every person who clamors for a female Bond or a Bond of color (or, golly, both), there is another, if not ten others, whining bloody murder that Bond is a white man and can only be a white man. So what is it about James Bond that makes the franchise’s fans such intense purists? After all, there are plenty of problematic fandoms in a host of different flavors, and certainly many people who just hate it when their favorite canon is messed with. Completely understandable—I myself would likely have strong feelings about any remake of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, among other things. But here’s the thing: James Bond has never had realistic continuity. I mean, there have been six major actors to play the guy, so that’s your realism out the window right there (unless you subscribe to the theory that “James Bond” is actually a code name for multiple people, which seems to have been disproven by Skyfall). Is Idris Elba or Gillian Anderson really such a stretch when you’ve gone from Sean Connery to Pierce Brosnan to Daniel Craig? (And let’s not even get into the differences between the original books and the film empire…)

In terms of an enduring, multi-format character that has seen many faces and formats, perhaps Bond is best compared to Sherlock Holmes—and it would be difficult to imagine a similar uproar about a female or black Holmes. In fact, they already exist—there’s a comic book that re-envisions Holmes and Watson as black detectives in Harlem, and Brittany Cavallaro’s delightful A Study in Charlotte features only the most recent female Holmes. But even some of the most high-profile contemporary versions aren’t sticking to the script. Elementary has a female (and Asian) Watson and a female Moriarty, you know. (There is one black Bond, of course—but you never see his face.)

Okay, so on the one hand, this may be because Sherlock Holmes is in the public domain, which opens doors for experimentation and unconventional (read: not bound by studio execs) adaptations. Bond (the Fleming version) is still under copyright in the US (but not in Canada), which stifles things a bit. But I still think that the attitudes in the two fandoms are different. A die-hard Holmes fan might say “Johnny Lee Miller’s Holmes isn’t Holmes, but it’s still fun.” A die-hard Bond fan might say that, oh, for instance, Idris Elba is “too street” or, and this from Pierce Brosnan, “Anything is possible for sure, but I think he’ll be male and he’ll be white…a female James Bond, no, I think it has to be male. James Bond is a guy, he’s all male. His name is James, his name is James Bond.”

So maybe this is the sticking point: that James Bond is, for many, an idealized version of masculinity (“he’s all male”) in a way that Sherlock Holmes, with his intellectualism, his addictions, and most importantly his disinterest in sex, is not. Of course he is: he gets all the best cars, all the best gadgets, all the best women. He fights bad guys in exotic locales and always wins. He’s strong but also refined. He is suave. He cannot be made a fool of. Never mind that these are all extraordinarily antiquated markers of masculinity that we could probably do without. Women like Bond too (I like Bond), but this is what American men particularly dream of. And at this particular moment in history, there are many out there who are devoted to clutching the lily-white pearls of said masculinity in the face of any supposed affront (read: representations of things other than white masculinity as primary). Never mind that it would almost surely be beneficial to all to expand our notions of just who can be strong/refined/suave/unfoolish, or that it might not only be beneficial but fun.

That said, I think there’s an even more essential reason for the fandom’s insistence on the tried-and-true trappings of James Bond. It’s simple really: they’re just comforting. In an article about re-reading and re-watching over at the Atlantic, Derek Thompson points out that “familiar fare requires less mental energy to process, and when something is easy to think about, we tend to consider it good.” It’s a similar desire for familiarity and comfort that leads children to watch the same movies incessantly (full disclosure: my most worn-out VHS was the original The Parent Trap). According to the Times: “Children like repetition. It offers reassurance that the world is a predictable place, as well as the confidence of mastering one corner of that world.” I think there’s something similar at play when it comes to the repeated tropes of the Bond films. In a way, Bond has become his own genre, with his own genre conventions. Viewers find joy in expecting these conventions, and they find joy in having them met. And if not joy, then, well, comfort.

Which is all fine, and goes some distance towards explaining the discomfort that some are expressing about the prospect of a female or a black Bond. But ultimately, being too hamstrung by convention leaves you, and your entire genre or franchise, in a boring, repetitive, artistic dead end, which is where I find Bond to be these days. (And I’m not alone. I think Sam Mendes might agree. “I’m a storyteller. And at the end of the day, I want to make stories with new characters,” he said in the aforementioned release announcing his retirement from the Bondverse.) We’re adults, right? We can take a chance on a new thing. We can expand our comfort zone a little bit. That’s the only way that Bond is going to really matter again. So would I like a gender-swapped Bond? Yes I would, because that might be an interesting Bond. I would also be interested in a Bond of color or a gay Bond or an evil Bond or a family man Bond or really anything that stretches the limits of the character, lets him surprise us, and reminds us all exactly why we should care about him.