James Bond and Trans Women: A Chat With Grace Lavery About Xenia Onatopp, Cis-Girl Cuck Fantasies, and Taking Out the President
You and I have been watching a lot of Bond movies the last few weeks, and something that struck us both as fairly obvious is that James Bond enjoys the company of trans women, if you're inclined to put it charitably, or is a chaser, if you're not. Maybe it's the incredibly elaborate wigs-and-headdresses of so many villainous Bond Girls (plus the punny, drag-queeny names), maybe it's just a vibe, but you just know in your bones he's said something ridiculous but also possibly endearing like "She's an elegant woman…who knows her way around a stick shift." Or like, I don't know, something about how "the most dangerous game" is actually dating trans girls. Incredibly cheesy and definitely wrong, but said with genuine affection and esteem, and he's definitely going to buy you a really nice watch or cover your rent before he leaves town. Certainly something about his cultivation of connoisseurship is part of it, as are his many passports. He can get you new travel documents in 24 hours but he's also probably going to compare you to a fine Cuban cigar, so it’s always a mixed bag. It's obvious, but like, mostly subtextual I think, until we get to Famke Janssen's Xenia Onatopp in 1995's Goldeneye. This was the first Bond movie either of us ever saw, to the best of my recollection.
Famke Janssen, who would later play a trans woman on Nip/Tuck, gives one of the best performances of a sex maniac I've ever seen. She keeps licking Bond every time they run into each other and gives these little “I’m-coming” puppy-yelps whenever she machine-guns somebody, which she does a lot. She's introduced in this remarkable sort of scene that's – I guess you would call it a cis woman's cucking-anxiety fetish? Bond's being “psychologically evaluated” during a drive, for some reason, by this woman named Caroline, and everything about her, from her name to her hair to her “not-so-fast-James” stick-in-the-muddery, telegraphs “I cannot keep up with James Bond. I have bangs, and I ride horses correctly, not interestingly, and I don't like any of this.”
And then James sees Xenia (Xenia versus Caroline! It was never a fair fight), and it’s all over for Caroline.
I love this reading of the Goldeneye opening as a cis-femme cucking scene - it's especially interesting because it locates the erotic torque of the scene in Caroline, the cipher-secretary. I suppose there are moments where the Bond franchise attempts to look through the eyes of a hopelessly straight female dependent, in the figure of Moneypenny, but they tend to feel (obviously) like merely another moment of bro fantasy - one may question why this franchise tends to traffic in the fantasy of having an old spinster fixate on oneself, but it's not until Naomie Harris in Skyfall, frankly, that the character herself can really focalize the viewer's sympathy. Her name is odd, too - like a frugal version of "honey bunny," but also a kind of pleonasm, a semantic as well as a phonic redundancy.
Caroline, I think, would probably be the same, except that she is seated between Bond and Onatopp, both the fulcrum of their dynamic and the lucky pierre hosting the attention of both. (I suppose, then, that the cinematography demands that Bond's car be customized for British roads, rather than for France, where the scene is set.) But I do think you're right. Goldeneye was one of the vaunted re-launches of the franchise, and at least part of what that seems to mean is that we are given a female audience avatar from the start. The real question is what difference it makes to that psychic scene that Famke Janssen seems, as you say, to code trans. What do straight cis women want from trans women? To be upstaged? Or perhaps - given that Caroline spends the scene seeking comfort and reassurance from Bond, who eventually turns his gadgetry and surreptitiously-concealed car-champagne upon her, she will find it easier to eroticize a baby role if her daddy already has a mommy - if, that is, daddy has clocked his real erotic match as the dashing, square-jawed lady in the flashy car, then she can nestle more comfortably into a position of coziness, sweetness, cuddliness.
I have a deep connection to Famke, as you know. One of my favorite pieces in my newsletter was my open letter to her - and one time I was googling my own name and the autofill came out "grace lavery famke janssen" with "related question: is famke janssen a man?" It's interesting to think about these figures of voluptuous 90s androgynous femininity, which seem so different from the contemporary andro dyke stereotype exemplified by kd lang, etc. I had a Famke poster on my wall as a kid, obviously, and loved and desired those cheekbones. There's so much nostalgia in transition, so many primal scenes we realize that we've failed to leave. In Bond too - forever returning to lurid, obscene fantasies of post-war British imperial cosmopolitanism, while at the same time loathing any expression of cosmopolitanism. We've been struck by the degree to which Roger Moore - whom I, at least, had remembered as an arch and campy John Steed type - is really just a Brexit dad: sour, dismissive of non-European wines, and violently unfunny.
All of which having been said, I've been thinking recently about the critique of memoir as a depoliticization of history, and while I'm resistant to that idea for a number of reasons, it seems important to me that the story of my transition - routed as it has so often been through cultural touchstones - is interesting to anyone else only if it says something worth hearing about the objects involved, rather than simply absorbing them into myself. There's a way in which queer people sometimes do that - especially when we come out relatively late in life - that strikes me as wishful thinking. "I should have known I was trans... I loved Xenia Onatopp!" Yeah, but plenty of people did, who aren't, and while the ego (say, my ego) wants to personalize these stories as prefaces to my glorious self-becoming, the truth is that these codes and structures exist entirely independently of me. Which isn't to say that Onatopp isn't trans coded - I think she is - but rather, that somehow the structures themselves seem to be programming us, even in our moments of apparent freedom. So perhaps the real question is: if Xenia Onatopp transitioned, did she do so freely, or on the grounds of necessity?
Scratch a cis-femme cucking scene, of course, and you'll get a transmasculine pearl of desire, more often than not. The Moneypenny thing is odd – there's the immediate nod to “Honey Bunny,” of course, but one also leaps to “pennywise and pound foolish” and maybe mother-henning. She’s a mommy-money-honey-henning knot of complexity, which Bond has no interest in eroticizing.
When it comes to Caroline (the dowdy, plain old cis given name can't help but droop next to the chrome-coated newness of Xenia, the absolute latest model in Woman), I wonder if there's a connection to upgraded-vs.-obsolescent womanhood and the constant gadgetry enhancements Bond gets from Q-branch? By Goldeneye, Q is joking about how dumb the old new, flashy gadgets used to be ("What were you expecting? An exploding pen?"); one girl is always getting swapped out for another from installment to installment and often even from scene to scene. I haven't seen enough of the 70s-era Bond films to be sure when this tradition began, but certainly by the 80s at least (so for 20-30 years of the franchise now!) there was explicit tension between Bond as a dinosaur/hopelessly out-of-touch gentleman spy surrounded by the absolute latest in villainy, tech, and potential sex partners. And Goldeneye is just a few years after Silence of the Lambs, The Crying Game, and (ugh) Ace Ventura: Pet Detective – trans woman as serial killer, as femme fatale, as animal kidnapper – now we've got trans woman as upgrade, as the only force that can drag James Bond into the 90s. “You’ll find her very much like the models you’ve handled before, Bond, only this time…”
I take your question about what straight cis women want from trans women in such a formulation, in a scene where the viewer-as-dowd has failed to hold Bond's interest and instead watches him gape at Xenia, as a kind of relief – Oh, thank God I don't have to try to keep up with James Bond, that looks exhausting. Maybe it's a fantasy of oneself as an understanding, forgiving, generous wife – James needs girls like Xenia, Lord knows I'd never let him do that to me. What sort of woman likes that sort of thing? Real women don't go in for that. Caroline gets to be soft by using Xenia as a human shield to absorb/deflect/captivate/attract Bond's hardnesses. (It doesn't strike me as a T4T formulation, by the by, Bond's body is government-issued and fully-licensed, which isn't trans so much as filtered through military-industrial body modification. He's as cis as they come.)
I don't have many strong memories of 90s-era femininity, as my interest at the time was squarely in the "soft-looking boys" camp, but I can mentally conjure up a period-accurate Famke, Kristen Johnston on 3rd Rock From the Sun, and a few other trans-resonant examples of Big, Big, Big! Femininity. Early SATC-era Sarah Jessica Parker too, although maybe her most trans-resonant roles are from LA Story and -- oh my God, of course!! Ed Wood.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I share your interest in routing transition/memoir through cultural touchstones and think of them as potentially interesting to any number of people, for any number of reasons. Maybe it's more accurate to say that Xenia Onatopp seems coded to make the viewer think about transitioning, rather than coded-as-trans herself (by the way, does “coded” mean anything other than “hints” in this context?). Strangled on her own gadgetry; Bond can't bring himself to take her over the edge, or doesn't know how. Moore's Bond is, as you say, absolutely dreadful and seems committed to ruining even the slightest moment of pleasure or intrigue – at least Brosnan gets to be a little camp, with all his pursed-lip gun-posing and Blue Steel expressions. You get the sense he wishes he'd been allowed to take Onatopp out himself.
I would say Brosnan is more than a little camp. I was surprised by this too - which reminds me how much of my meta-sense of how adaptation works is actually derived quite specifically from DC Comics, and perhaps even more specifically from Batman. Last year's Joker made everyone, finally, sick of the whole “gritty reimagining” strategy, but it seems quite recent that people agreed that was a good thing - Tim Burton's Batman got praised for being “dark,” as of course did all the Nolan movies, the assumption seeming to be that asking a question like “what makes a bereaved billionaire dress up as a bat to fight crime?” signifies some sort of moral seriousness, rather than (as it has since Frank Miller) a wish for more authoritarian and less accountable cops. I definitely don't exempt Alan Moore from this criticism, by the way - it seems bizarre to me that Watchmen is now remembered as a critique of the superhero genre, rather than a cynical adaptation of it. I've also noticed that it appears to have passed into received wisdom that in the HBO adaptation, the cops were the good guys, and that it was therefore a “blue lives matter” recruitment video. Which, I guess, means that none of those Alan Moore stans watched as far as the sixth episode. (I'm not, like, uncritical of Damon Lindelof - The Hunt seems like a totally cynical and stupid proposition.)
Whatever, my point is just that while campy 60s/70s Batman became serious 80s/seemingly permanent Batman, the same did not happen to Bond. Sean Connery is a macho man in a way Pierce Brosnan was not, and it seems to me that the softly-spoken Remington Steele is positively swishy next to Roger Moore, however much the latter milked his tired eyebrow in his dying decades. Goldeneye does in fact have an exploding pen. The Daniel Craig stuff is a more mixed bag, but Skyfall (the only truly good Bond movie, imo) is psychoanalysis-serious, rather than gritty-serious, which works a bit better on me. Plus the villain is straight-up gay, and Bond refuses to gay-panic at him: “What makes you think this is my first time?” So while the Batman cinematic franchise has now utterly attacked its queer roots in the service of deeply phobic, ambiently fashy, grittiness, the Bond franchise has seemed rather to lean into its classicism, its taste for epic, its relish of symbolism. The Daniel Craig years are also the years of David Cameron, all that Churchill worship, “Keep Calm and Carry On,” rather than the unrestrained, gonzo nationalism of the past few years. I wonder how Bond will deal with Brexit - or, rather, I don't, the thought makes me feel sick.
I love the notion of the bionic str8 as the opposite of the trans guy - it makes so much sense. Do we ever think of transition as weaponizing the body? I think more in transfeminine than transmasculine contexts, maybe - the hot alien blonde who is going to kill the president, etc. But maybe this is naive of me, certainly I know there are masc body builders who pump a shit ton of iron, and are generally very hot. There's a lot written about gay machismo - “the body that can fuck you,” as D. A. Miller calls it - but I'm not sure whether we need a different semiotics for trans masc machismo.
So for me the Martian Girl in Mars Attacks is everything - another Xenia - and it's also a movie where Pierce Brosnan is in a deeply t4t clinch with Sarah Jessica Parker herself. But I have two other names to add, both deep roots for me: Jamie Lee Curtis...
...and Linda Hamilton.
That Jamie Lee Curtis still is so amazing. Do you remember developing an attachment to her before or after you learned about the "hermaphrodite" rumors? (Apologies for repeating that lumbering, unpleasant word, but it does seem relevant; that was the first time I'd ever heard anyone talk about anything even remotely connected to intersex and/or trans topics, and it struck me as such an odd, clunky word to use.)
What does it say about the 90s that there was such an increased level of interest in (seemingly connected) cop stories and trans women? Was it a prefigurement the most classically cis4trans relationship to come, when Lana del Rey started dating that cop? Or is it just just that a cinematic interest in one creates a compensatory desire for the other? I wish I was more broadly familiar with either Watchmen or Batman comics to add much to what you've already said, but I'm still making my way through The Invisibles, so it'll just have to wait.
The bionic straight guy is such a thing! The gadget-enhancement of Bond, The Six-Million Dollar Man, even Inspector Gadget all feel incredibly straight to me – the government loves you so much, thinks you're doing such a good job already, that it wants to join you inside your body, to bring the CIA into greater alignment with your lungs and muscles and vision. Everything is enhanced, never altered.
I wonder what transmasculine weaponization might look like – there's Mulan, I suppose, whose (provisional) transition is still government-funded, though not government-initiated.
But it's hardly “strap on your tits and kill the president.” I'll try to think a bit more on transmasc machismo – I don't often think of myself as a macho person, but right now with my shaved head and my reckless sense of being confined I might just start doing pushups and winking at myself in the mirror. Then I'll take out the president.