There’s a certain comfort in a formulaic spy film: the dark suits, the tight gowns, a high-speed chase, a wry joke, smoke rolling off a gun barrel. What sets a good flick apart from the rest is not the story or the characters—we know them already. The only surprising or intriguing thing left is the gaze of the camera upon its subjects and the way it tells the audience to view them—as either objects or people. Women in spy films are traditionally the former. Last year brought us Spectre, Mission: Impossible-Rogue Nation, and Spy, three movies in the genre with different tones and styles. Spectre and Spy both exemplify how filmmakers can manipulate gaze to empower women, but Mission: Impossible falls short. It forgets that it doesn’t matter if a female character can hold her own within the narrative if the camera treats her as an object anyway. Then, her strength is merely bound to the physical.
What I’m referring to is the male gaze. This concept, first defined by film theorist Laura Mulvey, states that visual culture is often dictated by how a man views the world. When we look through the camera, we are looking through his eyes. It portrays women as objects, lingers on sportscars, and puts the male perspective first. In an industry dominated by men, films without the male gaze are few and far between in any genre.
The same scene appears in all three spy films: The camera ogles the female lead as she poses in a gown. In Spy, Melissa McCarthy as Susan Cooper strides confidently into an exclusive club in a black gown with a powerful collar. Time slows down, and she smiles, knowing that she looks good and has captured the attention of her audience. This scene is an act of rebellion by Cooper—she’s instructed to play the role of a frumpy “cat lady” to remain undercover, but she is fed up with this image and confident in her own sexuality. In this scene, she asserts herself as a sexual being and accepts the gaze as tribute.
In Spectre, Dr. Madeleine Swann, played by Léa Seydoux, enters the dining car of a train in a tight blue silk dress and smiles at James Bond as he makes eyes at her. She tells him, “You shouldn’t stare.” He replies, “Well, you shouldn’t look like that.” This is inherently a sexist way to address a woman's appearance, but the statement’s intent is an excuse, not assertion of dominance. This exchange establishes the power dynamic between Swann, Bond, and the audience: She is in control of her own image, and she knows she looks good. She knows that you are looking at her: she acknowledges the gaze and she dominates it. Bond acquiesces and affirms her image in his own chauvinistic way. This power over her own appearance—her public identity—defines her role in the film. When antagonist Hannes Oberhauser lays out a dress for her to wear, he is violating that control.
In Mission: Impossible, there's a comparable scene where Ilsa Faust positions herself in the shadows of the scaffolding backstage at an opera. She uses her knee to steady her rifle. Her green gown falls away slightly to reveal her bare leg. The gaze of the camera is grossly voyeuristic. It watches her at a time when she is supposed to be seen by nobody as she carries out her work as an assassin. This scene is undoubtedly fanservice—it featured in nearly every promotional trailer for the movie with no context. In fact, one needs to look no further than the promotional material for Mission: Impossible to reveal Ilsa’s true purpose in the film: a sex object for the consumption of the male audience. In the promotional posters, while all the male characters either walk forward or shoot guns, Ilsa sits backwards on a motorcycle, her tuchas encased in tight leather pants, closer to the camera than her face. In contrast, while Madeleine Swann also faces backwards in the posters for Spectre, she stands tall and wears the same blue dress as the dinner car scene. Yes, she is a Bond girl, so of course she is gorgeous, but there is strength and control to her character that goes beyond her appearance. We may look, but only because she has given us permission.
Susan Cooper and Madeleine Swann both flourish in front of the camera. Even when Cooper’s appearance is played for laughs, that humour comes from her confidence in contrast to her manipulated appearance. When Swann is drunk in a hotel with Bond in Morocco, she tells him not to touch her and draws a curtain between them. This physical barrier is a symbol of her sovereignty over herself and the audience’s view of her, and Bond respects this (as any person should)—he sits down and watches the door, doing his job. In Mission: Impossible, after saving Ethan Hunt from drowning, Ilsa steps into the background to change out of her wet clothes. The camera watches from a low angle and she undresses, lingering on her buttocks and the exposed side of her bare breast. She has no control over this shot, and it exists solely for the male gaze. Ilsa might be a physically strong woman, but that strength does not make her a “strong female character.” She is still at the mercy of the voyeuristic camera.
A woman in a spy film can be alluring and still triumph over the male gaze, manipulating and bending it to her will. In 2016, let’s ask for an end to needless objectification in spy flicks—we’ve seen how funny, sexy, and exciting a movie can be without it.