The character of Miss Moneypenny, portrayed by Lois Maxwell in many of the Bond movies, was part of the successful formula of the movie franchise. The gentle sexual tension – forever unrequited – added a note of humour that helped to define and humanize Bond.
Much could be said about what Moneypenny represents. In some respects she is an avatar of “Little England,” an embodiment of English feminine virtue —pure without being puritanical, upright without being stiff, vaguely Christian in a C of E sort of way, motherly in non-specific way, and a little sexy, at least enough for Bond to lay his one-liners on. She is rather reminiscent of Greer Garson’s portrayal of the English everywoman in the 1942 wartime film Mrs. Miniver.
This means that she is simply too English—and therefore domesticating—for Bond, and any deeper contact between them run the risk of fixing Bond’s “free radical” spirit in a conventional marriage with a consequent loss of virility and danger. Bond’s penchant for exotic foreign women suddenly makes sense.
As played by Maxwell (1962-85) to Bernard Lee’s M (1962-79), one can also view Moneypenny as a stand-in for M’s wife, whom we never actually see. In view of the fact that Bond’s relationship with M often comes across as a troubled filial one, with Bond constantly rebelling against this father figure, his flirting with Moneypenny even takes on a mild Oedipal character, although Bond never crosses that line, showing a respect for the absolutes of authority (if not the details).
These intriguing elements made this relationship a successful and fixed part of the Bond formula, so much so that it later lapsed into something more clichéd. In the Moore years (1973-85) it began to lean ever more heavily on the trope of the perpetual old maid holding a candle for a man she knows in her heart will never marry her.
In this period, the flirtation between Bond and Moneypenny seemed to be more obviously constrained by the simple fact that she was past her sell-by date. Interestingly, both actors were born in the same year, 1927, and were 58 when they made their last film together, 1985’s A View to a Kill.
While Lois Maxwell was obviously one of a kind in the role of Moneypenny, the importance of the role she played was recognized when the character was continued in subsequent Bond movies, although with a string of largely forgettable actresses, of whom Samantha Bond (1994-2005) was the most significant. The inability to get this part right was yet another reason why the Pierce Brosnan-era Bond saw a relative decline in Bond quality.
The paradoxical nature of the Moneypenny character is to be both sexual and anti-sexual, alluring enough in an after-the-office-party sort of way, but also with an element of sexual distance.
In general, fictional characters need to be defined by their flaws and limitations. This is a problem in the case of Bond, who is almost on the level of a superhero, able to overcome almost any difficulty, including female chastity. There is something rather dehumanizing about such characters. In Goldfinger, he even famously straightens out the lesbian character Pussy Galore, who never knew what a “real man” was before. From a dramatic perspective, limits on such polymorphous potency—however they come—can only be a good thing, serving to humanize the character. The fact that not all women can be had by Bond also raises the values of those that he can get.
Connery’s panther was kept at bay, without any loss of his virility, by Maxwell’s cattish complexity. By the time Roger Moore came along, the old maid trope was in operation, something that subtly riffed off the fact that Moore himself was perhaps a little over the hill, an interesting counterpoint.
The second-last Bond movie, Skyfall (2012), was notable, among many other things, for what was a serious attempt at rebooting the role of Moneypenny. There was much comment, especially in Alt-Right circles, about the fact that the role was now played by a Black Caribbean actress, Naomie Harris. This was seen by some as part of a general trend towards the “Blackification” of White characters that included such traditional White roles as Little Orphan Annie and Spiderman.
With speculation growing about the possibility of Black actor Idris Elba ultimately succeeding Daniel Craig in the Bond role, I was actually reassured by Harris’s appointment as Moneypenny. By doing this, the producers had obviously ticked the “diversity box” and paid their dues to the multicultural monster, thus suggesting that Bond’s Whiteness would survive the Craig era.
It could have been a lot worse. Imagine if, following the M’s death on the Scottish moors, an affirmative action hiring at MI6 had been fast-tracked into playing Bond’s boss and parental substitute!
Some have commented on a streak of subtle misogyny in Sam Mendez’s vision of Bond: the women (Moneypenny and M) are shown to be incompetent and are demoted or demote themselves; men—and old-fashioned men at that—replace them. In Skyfall, Moneypenny becomes Moneypenny because she can’t hack it in the field, and so instead takes on the typical female support role of secretary.
But the choice of Harris was also interesting in another way. Progressives may have welcomed the new Black Moneypenny as yet another token that “British” no longer equals “White” (an erroneous idea) —and even as a stepping stone to a non-White Bond—but if they did so, they did so in ignorance of the Bond mythos and the essential functionality of the characters.
Moneypenny’s anti-sexual aspect vis-à-vis Bond is deceptively important but non-controversial. However, combined with a difference in race, it suddenly becomes a lot more problematic in a multicultural context.
While Roger Moore’s Bond failed to consummate the flirtatious relationship with Lois Maxwell’s Moneypenny because of her age, it begins to look like the barrier between Naomi Harris’s Moneypenny and Daniel Craig’s Bond is simply race, as she is younger than him and not particularly unattractive—unless one happens to be a “racist” of course.
The fact that Harris’s Moneypenny accidentally shot Bond at the beginning of Skyfall may offer a little temporary cover to help explain away Bond’s diffidence towards her, but as things proceed in our increasingly racially charged times, Bond’s reasons for not “getting it on” with Miss Moneypenny are going to look increasingly like a touch of that old racially aware Empire spirit of Bond’s original creator.