Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen is sad. You see, he went to see the new Bond movie the other day, and while he loved the action in ”Skyfall,” there was something that just wasn’t right. Daniel Craig, the man who plays James Bond, is just too attractive.
You may think that’s an odd sort of thing to find problematic. I mean, sure, it’s easy to be jealous of Craig when he’s flirting with Naomie Harris and/or Javier Bardem, but Bond has always been able to win ‘em over, even when he was played by George Lazenby.
Nevertheless, while 44-year-old Craig is able to attract the attention of women eight and eleven years his junior (because it’s in the script, of course), that isn’t good enough for 71-year-0ld Cohen, who sees discrimination in the fact that Craig came into the film in fine shape.
This Bond ripples with muscles. Craig is 44, but neither gravity nor age has done its evil work on him. Nothing about him looks natural, relaxed — a man in the prime of his life and enjoying it. Instead, I see a man chasing youth on a treadmill, performing sets and reps, a clean and press, a weighted knee raise, an incline pushup and, finally, something called an incline pec fly (don’t ask).
All right, you may think that’s a fair complaint. There are worrying signs that men are starting to have the kind of body image problems that women have dealt with for generations (which is the opposite of how things ideally would have gone), and if Cohen wanted to argue that Craig’s ludicrously-fit Bond presented the same kind of outlandish, unattainable ideal that, say, Meghan Fox did in “Transformers,” I’d be all ears.
That’s not Cohen’s problem, though. Cohen’s problem is that in order to get attractive 20-year-olds, Bond has to work out a lot, and that’s unfair — to older men.
“Skyfall” is a lot of fun — don’t get me wrong — but it still says something about our culture that, in the autumn of my years, I do not like. To appreciate what I mean, contrast this new Bond to Roger O. Thornhill, the charmingly hapless advertising man played by Cary Grant in “North by Northwest.” Like Bond, Thornhill pulls off some amazing physical feats — his mad frantic escape from the crop duster, the traverse of Mount Rushmore — and like Bond he wears an expensive suit. Unlike Bond, though, when he takes it off we do not see some marbleized man, an ersatz creation of some trainer, but a fit man, effortlessly athletic and just as effortlessly sophisticated. Of course, he knows his martinis, but he also knows how to send out a suit for swift hotel cleaning. He is a man of the world. He is, in short, a man of a certain age — 55 at the time, to be more or less exact.
In “North by Northwest” and other movies, Grant — for all his good looks — represented the triumph of the sexual meritocracy –a sex appeal won by experience and savoir-faire, not delts and pecs and other such things that any kid can have. He was not alone in this. Gary Cooper in “High Noon” wins Grace Kelly by strength of character, not muscles. He was about 50, and Kelly was a mere 23.
That’s right. In the good old days, middle-aged men had women swooning all over the place, without having to worry about “working out” or “being old enough to be her father.” Those were the days, when men were in charge and women were with the most powerful of them as awards for reaching that point in your life when you could start to consider retiring. Truly, this was a “sexual meritocracy.”
Cohen shows no understanding that women swooned for Grant and Cooper because it was in the script. Moreover, he seems to have no clue that young, attractive Eve Marie Saint and Grace Kelly were almost certainly working hard to look good for the screen. Men’s concerns with their looks are new and worrying, but I can forgive women for looking on at this new, horrible problem with a certain amusement. After all, it’s only recently that Hollywood has realized that there are quite as many viewers interested in ogling Craig as those interested in ogling Bérénice Marloh. Only recently would Craig feel the need to work out for the role of Bond, because suddenly, men’s bodies are starting to be portrayed on film the way women’s bodies have been featured for decades.
I’d say that it’s hard to see how this newfound emphasis on beefcake is unfair, but that’s not true — “Skyfall” notwithstanding, there’s no way that men are objectified by Hollywood nearly as much as women are. It’s not close. What men are dealing with is just a taste of what women have had to put up with. If this troubles men, it should spur us to ask whether we’ve been ignoring legitimate complaints from women because until now, we weren’t suffering from the ridiculous skewing of body images in mass media. (Spoiler alert: we were.)
Cohen doesn’t consider any of this. Who cares what women want? What matters is what men want and this change, this demand that men worry excessively about how they look, is damaging to society.
This is all very sad news. Every rippling muscle is a book not read, a movie not seen or a conversation not held. That’s why Sean Connery was my kind of Bond. He was 53 when he made his last Bond film, “Never Say Never Again.” Women loved him because he was sophisticated and he could handle a maître d’ as well as a commie assassin. Western civilization was saved not on account of his pecs but on account of his cleverness and experience.
This is true. It’s also completely ignoring that every plucked eyebrow, every overly-complex coif, every day spent woozy from too few calories (because real women don’t weigh more than 115 pounds), every evening at the gym, every morning putting on make-up — all of these things have been demanded of women for far longer than I’ve been around, and until now we’ve heard nary a peep from Cohen. He doesn’t lament that Bond’s dalliances with younger women sets up men for unrealistic expectations, he doesn’t suggest that it would be nice to see Bond dating a woman close to his age for once, he doesn’t give women so much as one line in his screed.
No, the problem for Cohen is that he’s not 20 anymore, and 20-year-olds don’t find him particularly attractive, and that if he wants to win over a 20- or 30- or 60-year old, he’s going to have to actually put in effort to look good, rather than simply earning one by virtue of his long experience in the world. You know — an actual sexual meritocracy.
I’m sorry, Richard. I’m not 20 anymore either, and I’m not going to win Scarlett Johannson’s heart, and there’s nothing I can do about it. I’m not sitting around lamenting it. It seems to me that there are plenty of women out there who are about my age, plus or minus a few years, who — like me — maybe weigh more than average, or bear a scar or two from surgery, or somehow fall slightly outside some arbitrary and capricious beauty standard.
Women who are kind and decent and smart and funny, who I would frankly be lucky to meet. I’m fine with that. I don’t lament that I don’t look like Daniel Craig, because as I’ve aged I’ve gained wisdom, and I’ve realized that the mark of a mature human is the willingness to be comfortable in one’s own skin. Nobody should have to work out incessantly. Nobody should have to spend their lives worrying that they aren’t attractive enough. Nobody should have to live up to the ridiculous standards of Hollywood. Not men, not women, not anyone.
It is not surprising that Cohen should fail to even consider this from a woman’s point of view. Cohen is an expert in ignoring the wishes of women. Happily, I think most men are capable of making the connection between lingering shots of Bond’s pecs and lingering shots of Bond girls’ décolletages. If one bothers us, we need to address both.