What makes a Bond Girl? Ever since Ursula Andress’ Honey Ryder walked out of the ocean 50 years ago in Dr. No, the term has meant a sexually independent, attractive woman with whom 007 shares a flirtation…or more than a flirtation. Sometimes she turns out to be evil and a good chunk of the time she ends up dead, but she always makes an impression. (Not included in the category are early female villains like From Russia with Love’s Rosa Klebb as well as more recent strong female recurring characters like Judi Dench’s M, who heads M16.)
And in every one of the 23 Bond movies that has been released since, including this year’s Skyfall (out Nov. 9 in the U.S.), James Bond has been accompanied by at least one Bond Girl—but while Bond is always Bond, his feminine foils have evolved to fit the times, each one shedding light on what her era believes a woman can do. (Otherwise, says Stephen Watt, a co-author of Ian Fleming and James Bond: The Cultural Politics of 007, “it’s a category that groups together characters that are not really equivalent.”)
Skyfall is no exception.
One of Skyfall‘s female characters, Sévérine (Bérénice Marlohe), adheres to the sexy damsel-in-danger model by asking Bond to rescue her from a terrifying villain. But Naomie Harris’s Eve, one of 007′s co-workers at M16, seems like a Bond Girl with her banter-filled flirtation with the MI6 agent, but she doesn’t need to be rescued. She can drive a car through crowded streets, handle confidential information and is a decent (if not excellent) shot. Harris, who tells TIME that she was asked by the movie’s producers to give her role “a modern twist,” doesn’t see anything strange about that.
“I’m quite happy to go along with [being called a Bond Girl]. I don’t find it offensive or anything like that,” Harris tells TIME. “That’s just the title that’s assigned to women who are in Bond movies—although today we’ve moved on so far in terms of the nature of these roles that they’re not really stereotypes anymore, they can be anything.”
That flexibility, though hidden under Playboy-friendly imagery and characters who constantly need to be saved (classic case: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service‘s Tracy Bond—the only Bond Girl whom 007 actually married, in 1969), means that Eve has been a long time coming.
“There’s a sense in which the Bond Girl tries to pick up on popular images of strong, independent women from the period,” says Yvonne Tasker, author of Spectacular Bodies: Gender, Crime and the Action Cinema. “In the ’60s, the Bond woman represents a ’60s ideal of sexual independence. In the ’70s, she’s more a figure of fun—if you think of the ads at the time that celebrate that independence, like Charlie, they’re very similar to the way the Bond Girl appears in those films.”
(SLIDESHOW: The Best of the Bond Girls)
So what does it mean for Harris to modernize her version of the Bond Girl? Tasker says that, starting with Michelle Yeoh’s role in 1997′s Tomorrow Never Dies—which came out shortly after Terminator 2 and set a high bar for female action characters—many Bond Girls have gotten more athletic-looking and more comfortable being violent, just like the other heroines of the turn of the 21st century. ”When the Bond Girl gets discussed in popular accounts, she’s always passive and compliant and quite innocent,” says Tasker. But that’s not how women in action movies show up these days: “The culture over the last ten years is really invested in an idea of strong women, as long as they conform to certain types, as long as they’re still young and sexually desirable.”
That transition to an action-hero Bond Girl—of which Harris is perhaps the best example—may seem to be in some ways a return to the independence already seen in 1962, when Honey Ryder wanted to take care of herself when she first met James Bond. But seen in context, it’s a major step forward—mostly because the importance of her physical abilities is a given. ”[Early Bond Girls] were quite exceptional in some ways. They did seem more part of a younger generation that was challenging in a new way,” Tasker says. “That idea of female strength is taken for granted in popular culture now. That is a really significant shift, because it involves giving credit to the idea of a female hero, someone who could be at the center of the story.” Even Halle Berry in 2002′s Die Another Day, who plays an NSA agent more than capable of matching Bond’s field prowess, still pays homage to Andress’ bikini with her clothes; the way she looks is just as important as what she does. Eve’s looks clearly matter (she is a Bond Girl, after all), but the audience won’t be surprised that she cares more about business than she does about Bond.
It’s unlikely we’ll see a female 007 as the true center of the James Bond story anytime soon, but perhaps Eve, a character influenced by the actress’ meetings with real MI6 agents, is just the latest example of how Bond Girls have become less likely to need Bond to save them and more likely to be capable of saving Bond. And Harris says that one 2012 woman in particular helped her accomplish that progress.”I think [modernizing the role] was bringing a lot of myself to it and not being frightened to make her different, not allowing the legacy of the past and the roles that have been played and the way they’ve been played to influence my performance,” she says.
Or perhaps Eve isn’t a Bond Girl at all: although there are certainly sexy scenes between her and Bond, the actress tells TIME that a fade to black isn’t meant to imply that something more goes on when the scene ends. As the Bond franchise catches on to the fact that women in action cinema have evolved into their own heroes, the Bond Girl label could shrink to include only the more traditional flirting/sex/possible rescue/possible death version of the archetype, pushing women like Eve into M’s category, where gender doesn’t matter much at all.