Death of the womaniser
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall.
Skyfall parachuted into cinemas yesterday, marking the 23rd film in the Bond franchise. A lot has happened to Bond over the last half-century. In this most recent instalment, critics have made much of Daniel Craig’s portrayal of a more ‘thoughtful Bond’ with ‘mummy issues’ who – spoiler alert - even weeps!
But perhaps the most significant change to Britain’s swankiest spy is his view of women. As far as 007 is concerned, the ladies are still moderately disposable. But we have a reason why. Daniel Craig’s debut, 2006’s Casino Royale – Bond’s ‘first mission’, shows us that Bond was not born a lady’s man - he was made one. Bond had his heart broken by Vesper Lynd, a woman who not only double-crossed him, she was cheating on him too. As if these two heart-stabbing factors were not enough, Vesper drowns. In Casino Royale’s final scene 007 has fastened tight the mask of a womaniser, with a licence not just to kill, but to seduce - and abandon without remorse.
Bond is not alone. Movie heroes are battling their way through more highly choreographed, action-packed scenes than ever before but they don’t involve sleeping around without a reason. And that reason almost always involves acting out.
Hollywood's womanisers ... (Clockwise from top left) James Bond, Mad Men's Don Draper, Iron Man's Tony Stark, 30 Rock's Jack Donaghy.
Look at Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man. Sure, he loves the ladies, but only when his alcoholism flares up –thereby ensuring that any bedroom scene signifies not titillation, (well, not merely titillation) but rather degradation - for both Iron Man and his ‘conquest.’ Speaking of degradation, anyone catch last year’s Shame? Michael Fassbender’s character is successful, attractive and in possession of that most stereotypical of male status symbols: a large penis. But his life is careening toward an abyss of despair because of his depraved addiction to sex.
This trend isn’t limited to the movies. Any viewer of Mad Men would agree that while Don Draper presents as handsome, smart and seductive, his skirt-chasing is portrayed as less of a thrill-ride than a symptom of a deeply broken man. At first his womanising is characterised as a dark indulgence, a little JFK-esque in its romanticised depiction of adultery. But when we learn of Don’s backstory, we’re left to conclude the obvious: sex is not so much pleasurable as a relief and escape from pain. Draper couldn’t be further from Camelot if he tried.
But wait! There’s more! In the most recent season of Damages, Ryan Phillipe plays a Julian Assange type who loves two things: computer hacking and rolls in the hay. During sex, one of his paramours wants him to say her name – he can’t. Later, when she asks him ‘What’s wrong with you?’ he replies, ‘I’m not very good with people’ and follows it up with this decidedly un-caddish statement: ‘I have problems with intimacy.’ Uh, hello? Problems with intimacy? This is not only self-aware, it’s a flat out admission of inadequacy. Can you imagine this sort of sentence emanating from the lips of the traditional Alpha male?
Clearly something wonderful is going on. The cad, the womaniser, the skirt-chasing ladies man, (can I get a thesaurus up in here?!) is no longer someone to aspire to – he is instead someone to pity. In part, this is because feminism has done us the huge favour of allowing everyone to see women as, you know, human. Which means we want stories that include our point of view. Which means we can no longer be treated as objects with quite so much verve.
Of course there is an Alpha male on TV who sampled the caddish lifestyle – 30 Rock’s Jack Donaghy – and he failed miserably. First, he tried to date two women at the same time. He ended up not only emotionally tortured but, in the end, divorced. He then tried to ‘rotate’ a few women at a time, only to discover the humiliating truth - one of his dates was rotating him. And what of the other cads on 30 Rock – the strip-club-frequenting Tracy Jordan? Turns out that Tracy was doing it all for show – he’s actually a happily married man, has been for 22 years. In fact anyone who leers at women on 30 Rock, (Frank, Lutz, Pete) is portrayed as kind of a loser. Certainly, the fact that the series was created by a woman – Tina Fey – is a factor in this. But almost all of the writers on 30 Rock are male.
The other reason for this shift in the construction of the womaniser has a lot to do with psychology’s subtle yet deep infiltration into entertainment. If you want your story to be taken seriously you have to reveal character motivations. It’s no longer enough to do anything simply to advance the plot. As Mark Zoller Seitz points out in New York Magazine,
‘The Sopranos was sprawling and ambitious, folding gangland violence, domestic drama, and social satire into each script, but Tony’s psyche was always its anchor. The show was less about what he did than why he did it, and the week-to-week plotting served mostly to fill his psychiatric case file.’
The Sopranos was modelled on Martin Scorsese’s mobster masterpiece, Goodfellas. But back in 1990, when Goodfellas was released, a defining element of a gangster’s life, (apart from the constant threat of death) was women. Lots of women. Indeed, Henry Hill, (Ray Liotta) has a mistress on top of his mistress.
Oh how we’ve changed. The Sopranos succeeded in showing not just the interior of Tony’s world, but the devastating consequences of adultery, (remember how deeply it wounded Tony and Carmella’s marriage? Remember psychopathic Ralphie’s attitude to women?). The latest mobster offering, Boardwalk Empire, produced by Martin Scorsese and created by the writers of The Sopranos, goes one step further. Sure, plenty of men are cheating on plenty of women. But nobody enjoys themselves for very long. And if they do enjoy prostitutes or cheating on their wives? Or, more specifically, cheating on their wives with prostitutes? It’s a sign that something wicked this way comes – and they will most assuredly be punished. Witness: Nucky Thompson, Agent Van Alden and Gyp Rosetti to name just three.
So we can thank feminism for lifting the shackles off the rigid ideas of what it means to be manly. And we can thank psychology, too, for its part in pop culture discourse. But, at a grass roots level, the knock-on effect of this change might best be described by New York Times columnist David Brooks, who wrote just the other week about men who became more emotionally intelligent as they aged.
‘Over the past half-century or so, American culture has become more attuned to the power of relationships. Masculinity has changed, at least a bit ...’
He continues, ‘This gradual change might be one of the greatest contributors to progress and well-being that we’ve experienced in our lifetimes.’
In other words, men, even older men, like this change too – because it feels good.
Of course there are still pockets of pop culture in which womanising is seen as aspirational, (hip hop music anyone?). But the fact that mainstream movies and television are portraying those who cheat on women not as heroes but rather as broken men, must surely be considered a valiant sign of not just a more evolved society, but, much more importantly for this writer - better quality entertainment.