Poor Richard Cohen. He watched Skyfall, the new James Bond movie, and it turns out that even though James Bond is middle-aged, he’s ripped and studly when he takes off his shirt. And that is not fair! Old men of yesteryear didn’t have to be in decent shape to score babes half their age; they just had to be smarmy jerks.
“Skyfall” is a lot of fun — don’t get me wrong — but it still says something about our culture that, in the autumn of my years, I do not like. To appreciate what I mean, contrast this new Bond to Roger O. Thornhill, the charmingly hapless advertising man played by Cary Grant in “North by Northwest.” Like Bond, Thornhill pulls off some amazing physical feats — his mad frantic escape from the crop duster, the traverse of Mount Rushmore — and like Bond he wears an expensive suit. Unlike Bond, though, when he takes it off we do not see some marbleized man, an ersatz creation of some trainer, but a fit man, effortlessly athletic and just as effortlessly sophisticated. Of course, he knows his martinis, but he also knows how to send out a suit for swift hotel cleaning. He is a man of the world. He is, in short, a man of a certain age — 55 at the time, to be more or less exact.
In “North by Northwest” and other movies, Grant — for all his good looks — represented the triumph of the sexual meritocracy — a sex appeal won by experience and savoir-faire, not delts and pecs and other such things that any kid can have. He was not alone in this. Gary Cooper in “High Noon” wins Grace Kelly by strength of character, not muscles. He was about 50, and Kelly was a mere 23.
Maybe the best example of the unmuscled hero is Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca.” Bogart was 15 years older than Ingrid Bergman and it did not matter at all. He had the experience, the confidence, the internal strength that can only come with age. As he did with Mary Astor in “The Maltese Falcon” — “I don’t care who loves who, I won’t play the sap for you” — he gives up the love of his life because age and wisdom have given him character. These older men seduce; they are not seduced. They make love. They do not score.
Men should not have to do anything other than be old in order to get whatever they want. Women, on the other hand, are desirable only when they are very young, and only if they are very thin and very white and very inexperienced and probably blonde. In Richard Cohen’s estimation, that is a sexual meritocracy, because “meritocracy” apparently means “I get whatever I want without having to work hard at it and also women are things.”
The new Bond is a zeitgeisty sort of character. “There has been a striking change in attitudes toward male body image in the past 30 years,” Harrison Pope, a Harvard psychiatry professor, recently told the New York Times. He said the portrayal of men in what amounts to the Bond image is now “dramatically more prevalent in society than it was a generation ago.” That same Times story reported that 40 percent of middle and high school boys work out with the purpose of “increasing muscle mass.” Many of them also use protein supplements.
This is all very sad news. Every rippling muscle is a book not read, a movie not seen or a conversation not held. That’s why Sean Connery was my kind of Bond. He was 53 when he made his last Bond film, “Never Say Never Again.” Women loved him because he was sophisticated and he could handle a maitre d’ as well as a commie assassin. Western civilization was saved not on account of his pecs but on account of his cleverness and experience.
Is it sad and bad that boys and men feel more body anxiety than they did a generation ago? Yes. Also: Welcome to how women have felt for forever. What do you think women have missed out on with our incessant dieting and make-upping and hair-doing and Zumba-ing and on and on? But right, our role in this sexual meritocracy is to look 23 and conventionally attractive forever. Once we hit 30 I suppose we simply cease to be relevant.
Also: Women are actually human beings and not prizes you win or deserve for the hard work of being a middle-aged white guy who happens to drink good whiskey. Also: Middle-aged men who only want to date 23-year-old women almost always have serious issues with egalitarian gender relations, maturity and self-esteem. Also: Ladies, don’t date Richard Cohen.