Spoiler warning for Skyfall (non-spoiler review HERE)...
As happens every time a new 007 film opens, pundits and critics are generally quick to point out how this new 007 picture has one of the very best 'Bond girls' ever. Oh this time she's strong, independent, able and willing to hold her own with James Bond, and not merely there to be a sex object. So if critics pretty much say that nearly every time, at what point do we have to acknowledge that the meme of the helpless and useless Bond Girl is mostly a myth. To put it simply, many of the so-called Bond Girls were, if not champions of feminism, presented as mostly capable and independent characters who happened to be obscenely attractive and (often improbably) attracted to Mr. James Bond. From Dr. No onward to Skyfall, the hapless sex object who exists purely to be ogled and bedded is more exception than rule. And quite frankly, over the last 25 years (or after Roger Moore left), almost every major 'Bond Girl' was a relatively well-developed character or at least played an important role in the story. Ironically, perhaps in a misguided attempt to appease the fans, the treatment of women in Skyfall is actually comparatively regressive. In short, it takes the series back to a certain misogynistic mindset that hasn't been prevalent since the Connery years.
The Roger Moore films were hit-and-miss in their treatment of their female leads, offering a Carole Bouquet for every Tanya Roberts, a Barbara Bach for every Jane Seymour. Once Timothy Dalton came onboard, somewhat progressive female leads were the rule rather than the exception. Carey Lowell in License to Kill was a fully capable CIA agent who worked in the field alongside Felix Leiter and then again alongside Bond. As befits the brief Dalton era, the fact that she was an attractive woman was of little-to-no concern to 007, and I'm not entirely sure he actually sleeps with a single woman in his second film. Talisa Soto is surely a damsel to be rescued from the unwilling clutches of Robert Davi, but she is afforded more sympathy and respect than Bérénice Marlohe in Skyfall. After two Craig-led films that treated the murder of innocent women as at least a tragedy worth of commentary, Skyfall treats the arbitrary execution of Sévérine as an offhand punchline, to be disposed of randomly and never to be mentioned or acknowledged again. How about The Living Daylights? Well, as Brandon Peters correctly pointed out, Maryam d'Abo's relationship with Timothy Dalton is not just a casual fling, but a developed romantic subplot that is the most fully-developed relationship in a Bond film since On Her Majesty's Secret Service.
Tomorrow Never Dies has, aside from a returning Judi Dench, two major female characters. Teri Hatcher won't make anyone's list of favorite 'Bond girls', but the idea behind her, that of Bond running into one of the countless women he loved-then-left over the years, offers the film, or at least its first half, an emotional pathos that makes the Brosnan films work. Following Paris's murder at the mid-way point (after which she is actually mourned), the film teams Bond up with a secret agent played by Michelle Yeoh. Yeoh's Wai Lin is basically a Chinese female James Bond, plain-and-simple. Why I don't quite buy their quickie romance nor do I care for an action climax that gives Bond most of the heavy lifting, the film treats her skills as no big deal and barely thinks to comment on it. I wish she got captured less and killed more people in the finale, but Yeoh and Brosnan work well together and their relationship is more about nationality than gender.
But the reason the film is underrated is that most of the film's reputation is unfortunately based around Dr. Christmas Jones, badly played by Denise Richards. The inclusion of Dr. Jones is the film's fatal flaw, as she's only there because Michael Apted wasn't willing to break with convention and leave Bond without a final girl to save/bed in the finale. The film should have been willing to just make Judi Dench's imperiled M the proverbial 'Bond girl', something they did right in Skyfall. But if I may pontificate for a moment, don't get caught decrying the mere idea that someone who looks like Denise Richards could be a nuclear physicist as what you're saying is that attractive women can't possibly be taken seriously as scientists. Lois Chiles is just fine as Dr. Holly Goodhead in Moonraker. There is nothing wrong with the character of Dr. Christmas Jones other than that the actress who plays her gives a poor performance.
Die Another Day offers two major female characters, one of whom is forgettable but harmless (Rosamund Pike) and the other whom ranks as the worst Bond girl since... um.... help me out Brandon. But again, the problem with Jinx (Halle Berry) isn't in concept (she's basically a rewritten version of Wai Lin after Michelle Yeoh passed on reprising her role) but in execution. In short, Halle Berry is terrible and obnoxious in the film, a film that thinks she's the best thing since sliced bread and turns the second half of the film into a backdoor pilot for the Jinx spin-off that never came. Most annoyingly, the film goes out of its way to call attention to its heroine's sexual prowess and ass-kicking skills as if the very fact that a woman (gasp!) can behave this way is noteworthy and impressive even in 2002. Rosamund Pike is relatively unmemorable, although she caps off a Brosnan run which contains an impressive three female villains out of four entries.
Quantum of Solace has two major female characters. Olga Kurylenko never even sleeps with 007 but she is the rare Bond girl who exists completely outside the scope of being even a potential conquest. Her quest for revenge is merely meant to parallel Bond's own murderous rampage and the fact that they don't share much chemistry is offset by the fact that they aren't supposedly to be terribly friendly with each other in the first place. It's a refreshingly 'strictly business' relationship. Gemma Arterton *is* basically a glorified conquest, and she merits mention only in that her casual murder actually is treated as a horrible and tragic event that Bond must be held at least morally accountable for.
What's more distressing about this theoretical 'turning back the clock' is that it acknowledges a nostalgia for a portion of the James Bond series that was only commonplace during the beginning of its existence. Yes the Connery films often treated women like disposable playthings and the meme surrounding the misogyny of the James Bond series arguably comes mostly from Connery's six official adventures (although even then the female lead killed the main villain in two of the six films). But for at least half of the franchises's 50-year lifespan, since Roger Moore gave way to Timothy Dalton, the James Bond films have made an effort, sometimes more successful than others to develop "Bond girls" who are more than just fuck toys and/or dead bodies. It would be a shame if part of 'restoring the Bond template', as Skyfall so clearly wants to do, means undoing much of the franchise's successes in terms of its often progressive female leads. Bond girls have been Bond women for at least the last 25 years. It's the first Bond film in a long time to actually regress and actually live up to the Bond Girl stereotype ironically chasing a status quo that was rarely if ever really so.