Wednesday 6 October 2010

Is Ian Fleming's James Bond Really a Sexist, Misogynistic Bastard?

One of the questions I'm invariably asked when I tell people I'm reading Ian Fleming's James Bond novels is: "Aren't they a bit sexist?" (The other question is even shorter: "Really?" – often accompanied by an arched eyebrow.) This line of enquiry probably dates back to Paul Johnson's 1958 New Statesman review/essay "Sex, Snobbery and Sadism", which he wrote after reading the sixth book in the series, Dr. No, but more recently the question of Bond's misogyny in the novels has become conflated with the on-screen antics of the movie Bond(s) (see here, here, here...). Because for some people, many of whom I suspect have never read Fleming's novels, the Bond of the films and the Bond of the books equate to pretty much the same man: a smirking smoothie who shags his way through at least two floozies every story.

I haven't read Dr. No yet, so I'm not going to mount a blow by blow defence of that particular book. But I have read the five novels preceding it (well, nearly; I haven't quite finished Diamonds Are Forever yet), so as part of Espionage Week, I thought I'd examine James Bond's attitude towards women in those five books from Casino Royale to From Russia, with Love, disentangling the novels from the later portrayals of 007 by messers Connery, Moore et al to see if that sexist reputation is really deserved.

While much of the criticism of how Bond regards and treats women stems from the films, there is one line in particular from the novels that regularly crops up in critiques, and which, so far as the accusers are concerned, lends weight to their argument. It's the closing line of dialogue from the debut Bond novel, Casino Royale (1953), where Bond is informing his superiors of the fate of Vesper Lynd, and it runs thus:

"Yes, dammit, I said 'was'. The bitch is dead now."

What's worse is that this isn't the first time Bond refers to Vesper as a bitch in the book. Much earlier, before he's even met her, he broods on how, having been told by Mathis he'll have a female number two on the mission to bankrupt Le Chiffre, he thinks she'll get in the way, closing out chapter four with a couple of hearty exclamations of "bitch" to the four walls of his hotel room. But the key phrase here is, 'before he's met her'. Yes, at this point in the very first novel, Bond has little regard for women, considering them essentially as little more than recreation. However context, as ever, is all. At this juncture Bond is also seething over the fact that his cover's been blown and the Russians are on to him, and so his anger also gets directed at Vesper, who he thinks he'll have to protect.

Now, I don't want to be too much of an apologist here; Bond's attitude towards women is frequently chauvinistic. But it's worth remembering that these novels – at least the ones I'm considering – were written in the early- to mid-1950s, when chauvinism wasn't exactly out of the ordinary. On top of that, Bond is really only reflecting the attitudes of his creator, Ian Fleming (which is why he's also such a snob for the more luxurious things in life): Fleming, at least in the early books, tends to write women as fairly simpering sorts (the Vesper of the Casino Royale novel isn't nearly so sassy as the Vesper of the 2006 movie).

Thing is, the Bond of these early books really isn't the unfeeling shagger of the movies. In Casino Royale he falls hard for Vesper; he finds in her something which has eluded him in previous relationships, to the extent that he's on the verge of proposing to her before her treachery is finally revealed. And it's the revelation of that treachery and the letter that Vesper writes to him that drives Bond to tears and causes him to utter that last line. As a consequence, we're left with the impression that Bond will henceforth be unfeeling, uncaring: a hater of women, even.

What's surprising is that this couldn't be further from the truth. In the next book in the series, Live and Let Die (1954), Bond again falls for a woman – not as hard as he did for Vesper, sure, but it's also clear that Solitaire doesn't merely represent a fling for him. He reflects at length on her allure, telling her, "You kiss more wonderfully than any girl I have ever known." And if you think that's simply a line on his part, I should point out that it's much, much worse than that: Bond actually means it. In fact, the picture that develops over the course of the next few books is of a man who, far from being a serial sex fiend, is actually more of a serial monogamist. Book to book, when it comes to women, Bond is a big ol' softy.

One thing to bear in mind here, I think, is that although the Bond novels are obviously a series, they're also designed to be standalones, and lean much more towards the latter design than the former. You can pick up any Bond book and dive in, with no knowledge of previous books required. Historically, particularly in the years before the internet made finding out in which order to read books in a series a hell of a lot easier, that's almost certainly the way they were read – bought at random, devoured equally haphazardly. In which light, Bond's romancing of a different woman in each book perhaps isn't so objectionable: for many readers, there wouldn't have been a previous book to compare it to.

But even not taking that into account, the evidence on the page is irrefutable. Moonraker (1955), the next book in the series, presents Bond with a slightly more feisty female in the shape of Gala Brand, a Special Branch agent working undercover at Hugo Drax's missile facility. What's interesting in this book is that 007 doesn't get to sleep with Gala. They share a kiss on a beach and an emotional moment after surviving a bomb blast, but that's as far as it goes. Gala is engaged, and the novel finishes with Bond resolving to "get out of these two young lives and take his cold heart elsewhere". Despite Bond's misgivings about the relative temperature of his heart, however, it's abundantly clear throughout the novel that, once again, he's tumbled head over heels for a dame; for evidence, look no further than a couple of lines earlier, as a tortured 007 ponders, "Why had he imagined that she shared his desires, his plans?" James Bond: denied.

Indeed, by the time we get to Bond #5, From Russia, with Love (as I say, I'm still reading #4, Diamonds Are Forever, although two-thirds of the way through it looks as if Tiffany Case will have the same effect on 007 as every woman before her), it's become so evident that Bond will go utterly gaga at the sight of a pretty lady that the Soviet spy organization SMERSH actively plays on this weakness to bring about his downfall. They dispatch a secret weapon in the shape of Tatiana Romanova, who poses as a defector carrying a stolen decoding device. Ostensibly that's the hook for the British Secret Service... but in reality SMERSH know that Bond will lose his senses at the sight of Tatiana and consequently prove no match for their assassin, Red Grant. Which is very nearly what happens.

I can't yet comment on the books following From Russia, with Love, but if those first five are anything to go by, it's a safe bet that Bond will continue to be beguiled by the birds and frequently determine to down tools and take whichever lass he's besotted with in that particular book off to live in a farmhouse in the country and raise chickens/goats/pigs/children. There's a pattern of behaviour established for 007, one which doesn't really tally with the idea of him being a sexist pig – at least no more than countless other characters – and indeed real live actual men – from the same era.

Based on the novels I've read so far, you could, I think, accuse James Bond – and possibly Ian Fleming – of being many things: a snob, certainly; a masochist, definitely; a homophobe, potentially; a racist, casually – although again those last two are more a product of their time than an active agenda. But a misogynist? I'm not so sure. If anything, I'd suggest that James Bond is, in fact, an illustrious example of that most unfortunate and ultimately doomed of beasts: the incurable romantic. And it'd be churlish to criticize a man for that.


  1. Well, he does like a woman to know her place

  2. I just finished reading Casino Royale, the first Bond book i have read, and even taking into account the above three parts in particular jump out at me in this regard.

    The first is the part you mention where he has just found out that he is to be paired with Vesper, and he says something along the lines of (paraphrasing) "women are for sex only, on the job they get in the way with their emotional baggage". Not as bad as it could be, but certainly very dismissive.

    The second is where Vesper has just been kidnapped and he almost snarls with irritation saying something like "stupid bitch, why couldn't she just stay and home and cook dinner and let men get on with men's work. This will result in a shoot out and if she gets shot, so be it.". Again, indicitive of an annoyed Bond but still a 'women, know you place' piece.

    The last part that almost made me recoil with disgust is very odd, because it is at the point where Bond is actually falling in love with Vesper and plans to marry her. He talks about how she intrigues him by keeping something of herself hidden and internal. He muses that he now sees Vesper as exicitingly sensual and knows that this private nature of hers will mean that when they have sex it will have "the sweet tinge of rape".

    That last part is just revolting, but very odd context as Bond seems to think that this is a NICE thing to think! Evidence, in this book at least, of misogeny i think.

  3. Ha, OK, I'll give you that: that line is reprehensible. Thanks for the comment; I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on subsequent novels, if you can bring yourself to read 'em!

  4. a bit sexist? bond films are tremendously, cringe inducingly sexist tripe of the worst sort. e.g. choking women w/ bra straps? really? it's as if these films were a reaction to the women's liberation movement that took off in the 60's; a desperate attempt to put women back in their place. same thing with a lot of, but not all, slasher horror films. it's painfully obvious which films/filmakers like women and which ones don't. the bond franchise, unfortunately, falls into the latter category. Flemming is 100% correct. love him :)

  5. Firstly, I love the covers on these Pan editions.

    Secondly, The Bond books, to me, are vastly superior to even the best of the films. And that's from someone who has been a fan of the films since he was a child.

    As for Bond being all those bad things that are met with sheer terror by any politically correct person today, I say:

    So what? That's Bond's character, and it doesn't have to be endorsed or agreed with by people who love the books. Bond is Fleming's alter-ego, and Fleming was a product of his times, but even if Fleming was alive and writing Bond today, he has the right to be whatever he chooses. And it'd be rather unbelievable for Bond, who is essentially an Assassin more than anything else, to be politically correct in every situation, no?

    BTW, this isn't related to the post but Nick, if you are a fan of the Bond comics, have you ever read Mike Grell's Permission to Die mini-series? Exquisite artwork and pretty good story. He draws Bond better than anyone I've seen.

  6. Well put, Dave. And nope, haven't read Grell's series. The only Bond comics I've read are the old newspaper strips, the collections of which I edited at Titan. I remember Mike Grell's John Sable Freelance and Starslayer stuff for First in the '80s though. I shall have to investigate...

  7. I think you'll like Permission To Die, Nick. And yeah, Jon Sable, Freelance was one of my favorites when I was a kid. First Comics put out Sable, American Flagg! and Badger, all great series.

  8. You are arguing, I think, that a character (fictional) is deeply unpleasant because he is a little rude - for the time, this was not outrageously unpleasant, after all - to women, if I read this aright?

    The character, for God's sake, was a serial killer or mercenary in the pay of a government. If you're going to get upset about something to do with him, I'd have thought routine murder was a better target!

  9. Actually I think I might be arguing the opposite, Michael (I could be wrong; I wrote this post over two years ago); give the post a read again. Seems a bit odd to take issue with Bond's killing though, though: he's a secret agent, licensed to kill!

  10. I'm just reading Goldfinger. Here's a passage:

    "Bond came to the conclusion that Tilly Masterton was one of those girls whose hormones had got mixed up. He knew the type well and thought they and their male counterparts were a direct consequence of giving votes to women and 'sex equality'. As a result of fifty years of emancipation, feminine qualities were dying out or being transferred to the males. Pansies of both sexes were everywhere, not yet completely homosexual, but confused, not knowing what they were. The result was a herd of unhappy sexual misfits -barren and full of frustrations, the women wanting to dominate and the men to be nannied."

    Tell me Fleming wasn't sexist.

    1. Great example! Sexist and heterosexist. And, blantly obvious, it is a reaction to the feminist movement (and later the gender equality movemetn that started to also comprise people with non-traditional sexual orientation)

    2. Fleming exercised his literary license with the same freedom as you criticize his views. In history there is a phrase regarding perspective, "autres temps, autres moers (other times, other customs). Readers should place themselves in the time and culture of when the passages in were written rather than in current context. There is also this other pesky item called the first amendment. Refer to my first sentence.

  11. My name is Dinara. Writing under anonymous because it is too tedious to register. Well, what I have to say about your reflections. I understand it is probably hard when something you like is being slammed (by a politically correct person). And one would go to a great deal of rationalizing to find an excuse for these things s/he likes, such as James Bond novels and/or movies. The problem is not so much with the books but the fact that James Bond is still such a figure in modern culture. I dare say British culture. He is still seen as a role model, a certain kind of alpha-male, an escapist fantasy that is ingrained in our culture. What what does this escapist culture actually allows one to escape from - a culture that is politically correct, where women and people of other races are looked upon as equal to white males? This argument is so tiring. The sole idea that one needs escaping from a culture, in which women/non-whites have been able to achieve a relatively equal footing with the dominant white male (and you actually do say that this was certainly true in Fleming's time) is what should be worrisome. The fact is that many of these misogynist tropes (and racist) still pervade modern European societies.
    But the situation is definitely much better than it is in my country of Kazakhstan. Here, such gender stereotypes are normal and it is actually great that many people question the Bond character in Britain and elsewhere. It is not great to being apologetic of this kind of cultural mega-character.

  12. I have trouble with terms like, sexist, since I acknowledge sex as a reality of the human condition, misogynist on the other hand, has a currency that doesn't offend those sensibilities. Is Bond a misogynist? Yep, he pretty much is, that's the way Fleming wrote him but...

    There's not much room for interpretation with the 'The bitch is dead' line in Casino Royale, in fact it leaves you scrabbling with the leaves of the paperback looking for a hint of irony, what brilliant way to finish a novel.

    ...Bond's caustic character traits came in for some moderation from Fleming. There's even some judicious retconning throughout the cannon, as Bond's significance as a commercial property became more significant, by the time the films come along he's getting married and turned Scotch. You can reconcile that as a maturing process for the character, which kinda works within the context of You Only Live Twice, which balances that by scrutinising Bond as damaged goods.

    There's a dichotomy within the Bond cannon, he's not an heroic archetype but, to lapse into tabloid talk, he became glamourised (yuck) as a the super-secret agent, with the guns and the birds and that's what offends people. The notion that their kids, would try and emulate him, yeah good luck with that one. It's all pretty dumb and nothing new, the outrage stems from the, Seduction of the Innocent mindset.