Young people are feckless, inconclusive, and incapable of perseverance and self-reliance. Young males are especially bad–and they are excessively effeminate to boot.
That’s a major takeaway from Skyfall, the new James Bond film. The film is arguably the most conservative film since 300. It doesn’t argue that there are marginal differences between the generations; it holds that younger people are epicene and clueless. In one key scene, Bond (Daniel Craig) solves a riddle that has escaped the young, techno-savvy Q (Ben Whishaw) because Bond remembers that a clue refers to an old subway station that closed decades earlier. And without causing a spoiler alert, let me just add that in the end Bond doesn’t dispatch the villain, a creepy Javier Bardem, with a computer, but with the most primitive of weapons.
The list goes on. “Youth is no guarantee of innovation” Bond tells the young Q when they first meet. The new Miss Moneypenny, played by Naomi Harris, is several years Bond’s junior, and she is put on desk duty because she’s a bad shot. M, played by the elderly Judy Dench, shows more courage and determination than MI6 agents more than half her age.
I’m usually wary of arguments about “the feminization of culture.” I don’t like them because behind them is the assumption that women are not incredibly powerful, which is a fallacy easily refuted by anyone who has a mother, sister, or wife (in fact, women are probably more resilient than men, if not physically stronger, as Judy Dench has shown over and over in the Bond films). And as a teacher I know that people who criticize kids usually don’t know any. But there is something going on in Skyfall that is an important defense of experience and traditional manhood. Frankly, the film expresses a rebellion against today’s young males forgetting what it is to be a man, whether it be the ability to couple noble purpose with raw strength or just the proper way to shave. Watching it, I thought back on two of my own experiences that the theme of Skyfall seemed to validate.
A few years ago, I got a job as a substitute teacher at a Catholic school. I was the only male teacher in the school, and on the day I arrived there was near-pandemonium among the boys. At the break for recess they surrounded me, shoving footballs, baseball, bats, and frisbees into my arms, playfully giving me a Charley horse, and pleading with me to go outside and play football with them. They had been swimming into an ocean of estrogen in the school, and I floated in like a buoy. A couple of them literally would not leave me alone, engaging me in conversation about books, movies, and yes, girls, even during their free time. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not Bruce Willis. But these were boys desperate to figure out what it is to be a man. And they weren’t getting it from their computers. (For good measure, I also recently had this essay reprinted in William Bennett’s The Book of Man.)
Actually, maybe a few of the boys in my class were getting good manly tips from their computers, which leads to my second example. Several years ago I made what I thought was a fun and short-lived video about how to shave the old school way–with a safety razor. After it was posted, boys started leaving comments on the video’s page–comments that I often found heartbreaking. They called their own fathers names, put-downs that implied their fathers were not masculine. More than one called me his “YouTube Dad.” I thought there may just be a few boys looking for male guidance out there. But the comments were frequent and, when posted, got lots of thumbs-up clicks from other viewers.
This may be why I took particular notice when in Skyfall Bond is shown shaving with a straight-razor–an even older, more dangerous, and more macho way to shave than even the safety razor I use, which itself is considered old school. “Some of the old ways are the best,” he tells Moneypenny, before letting her shave him. Without the erotic charge the scene could almost play as a father teaching his daughter what it’s like to be a man (and judging by the number of insecure and vulnerable women who get lured into pornography or suffer eating disorders due to lousy or abusive fathers, there’s a great need for such strong men). It’s important to observe that James Bond is a man in a very broad and wonderful sense. He isn’t a Jason Bourne brute or Bruce Willis knucklehead–John McClane, Willis’s Die Hard character wouldn’t know what to do with a straight razor. Bond knows his drinks, he can quote literature, and his suits are top of the line. He’s a gentleman. But, as Skyfall shows with uncompromising clarity, he is also a man. Without apology, in fact with a great deal of pride, he is a man.