A trigger warning for James Bond? Shoot me now…
The BFI is treating cinemagoers like overgrown children.
When a spiked columnist hears that a British Film Institute (BFI) season of James Bond films is to be presented behind ‘trigger warnings’, the reaction is sadly no longer outrage, nor even surprise, but weariness. A heaviness in the limbs, a sinking of the shoulders, the dreary sense of the inevitable confirmed. The consultant asking if perhaps you wouldn’t mind taking a seat, and suggesting a couple of sugars in your tea, before looking at the x-rays. Well, of course, they came for Bond. How could they not?
The jokes almost write themselves. James Bond? 007? Licence to kill? That James Bond? As in, the man who can literally squeeze his literal trigger and shoot you dead, legally, with an actual literal gun without warning? That’s his whole USP, the most famous thing about him. But now you can’t even watch the fucking film without being pre-warned about a double entendre around the word ‘pussy’?
The iconic opening sequence to every Bond movie since Dr No includes the title character turning and pointing his Walther PPK at you and shooting you right between the eyes. Your blood begins to curtain your vision, before the scene moves on – usually to naked nubile silhouettes moving languidly through some sort of ambiguous, idealised plasma. But now the BFI thinks you need a warning about ‘language, images and other content that reflect views prevalent in its time, but will cause offence today (as they did then)’. Or else you might black out as if coshed by a common thug.
Kill me, James. Kill me now. Never mind that some of these ‘images and content’ reflect opinions that perfectly normal people once held and indeed might still hold. No, according to the BFI, they were always shocking and depraved – and always likely to precipitate mental-health events if watched without adopting the brace position.
Quite why the Bond films were presented not just in cinemas behind a PG or 12 certificate, but also to families gathered around the TV to digest their Christmas lunch, is a mystery. Perhaps people back then naively believed the Bond films to be some harmless, cartoonishly implausible knockabout thrills. If so, then this is surely a scandal on a par with Savile, asbestos and lead paint.
This is not, let me emphasise, another of my desperate attempts to throw myself like a podgy human shield between the dead-eyed armies of woke and some pristine perfection in literature or the arts. Bond is not Shakespeare, Wodehouse or even Dahl. The Bond movies were, for the most part, excellent entertainments in their day. But they were very much of their day, too.
I entered during the Roger Moore era, and I never hope to see a more perfect opening sequence than that which graced The Spy Who Loved Me in the late 1970s. I can close my eyes now and transport myself back to the St Albans Odeon. I remember that I knew, in that moment, that no one would ever do it better.
But even I would hover over a trigger warning for Roger Moore’s Warninks-yellow ski suit now – especially if you’ve just overindulged in the old eggnog. Things, thankfully, move on. And these films need no more defending as timeless cultural artefacts than do the works of Pilot, Terry Jacks or the Rubettes.
And as for the books, even as a teenage boy I found many of Bond’s self-assured quips somewhat tiresome – even if I did, obviously, envy the sangfroid with which he delivered them. I defended the novels against Charlie Higson’s possibly tongue-in-cheek re-imagining of Bond as an RS Archer type, but I have never enjoyed Fleming’s prose nearly as much as many of my generation seem to.
The Bond of the novels always seemed to me a seething nest of unresolved and futile snobberies, almost none of which interested me. He imparted useless knowledge on everything from double declutching at altitude to the correct ratio of vodka to vermouth. I much prefer the movies. Locations, cars, girls. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. If you want urbane snobbery, you are much better off with George Sanders’ Addison DeWitt from All About Eve, or anything involving Noël Coward, than anything Bond picked up in the secret service.
But the idea that the BFI needs to emphasise that it does not condone (let alone smirkingly share) Bond’s cheerfully adolescent, locker-room attitudes to curing lesbians, or passing as Japanese, genuinely does suggest a mental-health crisis. What has become of us?
Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt answered that question back in 2018, in The Coddling of the American Mind. They argued that ‘overprotection is having a negative effect on university students and that the use of trigger warnings and safe spaces does more harm than good’.
Were they right? According to the Guardian: ‘A 2021 survey conducted by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) found that almost two-thirds of teenagers polled supported trigger warnings on films which might negatively affect their mental health.’ Those polled felt that anxiety (50 per cent), stress (38 per cent) and depression (34 per cent) were key issues of concern for young people.
All of which supports my suspicion that one should prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child. Humans are antifragile, and accommodating those who feel they need protecting only breeds further weakness. It starves emotional immune systems of the impacts they need to develop antibodies. This only creates further trouble ahead. The demands for more protection ratchet up, and what comes is never enough.
Who knows what the polling might have been if anyone had asked me and my fellow 12-year-olds the same (leading) questions, as we emerged blinking into the drizzle from the Odeon in 1977. All I knew back then was that I needed a bright yellow jumpsuit, urgently, and a Union Jack parachute to break my fall. It’s quite a surprise to realise just how mentally robust that must have made me.
Simon Evans is a spiked columnist and stand-up comedian.
Picture by: Getty.
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