Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), commonly known as MI6, has always had a love-hate relationship with its most famous fictional operative, James Bond. And for all that senior MI6 officials complain that the Bond films perpetuate serious misconceptions about their trade, they can still use his reputation to attract applicants.
Until the Intelligence Services Act 1994, even acknowledging the existence of the Secret Intelligence Services (SIS) proved difficult – but today, the SIS website notes that its headquarters in London’s Vauxhall “has become easily identifiable from its appearances in several James Bond films”.
Now, reconciled to being in the public eye, the agency has released a recruitment video to attract new talent —- one that clearly tries to shake off the Bond brand. As the Daily Mail exclaimed MI6 has a clear purpose in mind: to dispel the “licence to kill” image and instead highlight “the ‘soft’ skills it is looking for in new staff”.
The male narrator in the agency’s recruitment video tells listeners that “we are intelligence officers” while a shark swims by in a pool. Images of the shark are inter-cut with shots of a child and then a woman (presumably mother) gazing at the tank, as the narrator states “we don’t do what you think”. Instead of “swimming with the shark” in classic Bond style, the video emphasises “picking up on the silent cues that matter” – by implication, signals intelligence and subtle reconnaissance work. As the woman and child embrace, the narrator concludes that the skill set MI6 is seeking is “everyday” and that “secretly, we are just like you”.
For Bond fans, the shark is familiar from decades of grisly scenes – see Thunderball (1965), The Spy who Loved Me (1977), and Licence to Kill (1989). And while the world might have changed since the end of the Cold War, today’s Bond films still revolve around the idea that Britain is in need of an enduring hero to protect citizens from dangerous, adaptable and ever-present threats.
But in the real world, as the MI6 behind the video would have it, the threats Britain faces today have to be fought by “everyday” heroes.
This is a theme that’s gathered strength since the advent of the War on Terror, which made counterterrorism the responsibility of all citizens, not just a handful of crack agents from elite backgrounds. Sure enough, instead of emphasising the extraordinary qualities of privileged individuals – Bond, after all, is a white, heterosexual, middle-to-upper class, able-bodied, Western, cisgender man – the video suggests a more collectivist approach to espionage, and implicitly celebrates diversity, at least in terms of age and race.
Women and girls of colour are to this day rarely presented as heroes in action or spy narratives, and MI6’s video seems to acknowledge as much, perhaps even attempting to capitalise on it by inviting in “unexpected” applicants. And what sticks in particular is the video’s emphasis on gender and motherhood.
Bond is not a parent; until the Pierce Brosnan era began in the mid-1990s, the Bond canon featured few notable female characters with full control over their lives and work. Mothers were completely absent until Judi Dench was cast as Bond’s boss, M, in 1995’s Goldeneye. While M made passing references to her children in the Brosnan era, in the Daniel Craig films she took on something of a surrogate mother role towards Bond himself. But she was, of course, forced into a tradeoff: as M’s maternal role came to the fore, especially in 2012’s Skyfall, her decisions were increasingly scrutinised and her ability to run MI6 called into question.
Fieldwork, as Bond suggests to Eve Moneypenny in Skyfall (2012), is not for everyone. This he says to her after she’s demoted to an office role as penance for accidentally shooting him. Since the series has long associated “shark work” with men, with Bond routinely depicted as more competent than his female agent colleagues, it’s interesting to see the real-world MI6 tackle gender stereotypes head on, suggesting that women can be capable spies and mothers simultaneously. Then again, the mother and daughter are merely shown observing the tank – perhaps instead suggesting that women’s role in intelligence may still be to sit behind a desk and “read the signals”. So is fieldwork really for everyone?
As far as the Bond films are concerned, director Danny Boyle is about to have his say in the yet untitled Bond 25. Perhaps, after her ignominious demotion to the “everyday”, Moneypenny will be entrusted with “shark work” once again. What that might mean for the real MI6’s image, and by extension its recruitment efforts, is another matter.