When Daniel Craig criticised the character of James Bond in 2015, labelling him a ‘misogynist’ from whom audiences could learn ‘nothing’, he offered an opportunity to reflect upon a character who is at once a British icon and doubtless the world’s most beloved (fictional) spy. Craig elsewhere told Esquire that he hoped that his Bond “is not as sexist and misogynistic as [earlier incarnations]. The world has changed.”
For one Telegraph commentator, this comment was “unceremoniously disrespecting” and “delivered a withering hammer blow to 007’s credentials as Hollywood’s last surviving alpha male.” This tragically insecure filmgoer bemoaned that Bond “is sacrosanct: he’s almost masculinity’s last Hollywood outpost.”
This apparently contentious dispute of the personality of a fictional character, whose literary creator died back in 1964, appeared to raise its head once again two years later, following the BBC’s casting Jodie Whittaker in the title role of Doctor Who, another fictional character beloved by British audiences. Indeed, such is the offence that British tabloids attempted immediately to undermine the actress’ status by publishing nude photographs of her.
“007 becomes relevant to this debate when people seek to defend their outrage at a female Doctor by querying the feasibility of a female Bond.”
I’ll confess that I have never watched Doctor Who and quite possibly never will, so therefore have little invested in the issue – aside from contemporarily scandalous interests such equal rights and public decency. However, 007 becomes relevant to this debate when people seek to defend their outrage at a female Doctor by querying the feasibility of a female Bond – as indeed they did, nowhere less prominently than in the Twittersphere.
The argument over a female 007 is, to me, comical. Whether or not James Bond is an “alpha male” – whose spiritual character is untouchable – is moot when we stop consider the characteristics he demonstrates. The gender of the lead itself could in no way lower the status of the fictional spy any more than the original characterisation. Anthony Horowitz, who authored a new Bond novel in 2015, was remarkably out of touch with his source material when he criticised Skyfall (2012) for its portrayal of Bond as “weak” and “with doubts”. “That’s not Bond”, he contended.
“At times, Bond shows compassion, emotion and empathy. Most of the time though, he is a selfish with an abhorrent attitude towards the opposite sex.”
In fact, when we take a look at Bond as written by Fleming, beginning way back in 1953’s Casino Royale, we find that Horowitz is wrong on both counts. At times, Bond shows compassion, emotion and empathy. Most of the time though, he is a selfish, self-interested bastard with an abhorrent attitude towards the opposite sex. From this perspective, gender itself is irrelevant; it is the character which is deserving of criticism. Let’s explore this side of 007.
“To hell with her!” Bond tells himself in For Your Eyes Only (1960). “It was time to clear the silly bitch out of his mind and concentrate on the job”. Nevertheless, “Bond’s mind luxuriated briefly in the thought of what he would do to the girl once this was all over”. In fact, he had told this ‘bitch’: “if we get out of this you’re going to get such a spanking you won’t be able to sit down for a week.”
“Fleming knew Jamaica well; it was there that he penned the Bond stories. Maybe it is this fact that makes the racist language so uneasy?”
This is perhaps a tad harsh of Bond, given that the 25-year-old woman’s wealthy parents have been murdered by people attempting to extort their property from her – the property in question a plantation, complete with a “huge blue-black Negress” housemaid and “a pretty young quadroon” (For Your Eyes Only, 1960, pp. 91-3, 101, 60, 46). In fact, after multiple killings, the poor girl breaks down due to the (implied) weakness of her (female) character. Killing, Bond twice emphasises, is “man’s work” (For Your Eyes Only, 1960,p. 84).
The language regarding race merits comment. Fleming knew Jamaica well; it was there that he penned the Bond stories. Maybe it is this fact that makes the racist language so uneasy? To take one particularly repellent example, in the final scene of Dr No (1958), Honey, “one of the most wonderful girls [Bond has] ever known”, undresses, climbs into bed and tells him: “Take those off and come in. You promised. You owe me slave-time”. Bond protests. “Do as you’re told”, she replies (Dr No, 1958, pp. 326, 329). For the record, the argument that these are products of their time and that everybody spoke or thought this or that way, doesn’t hold water. It was just such attitudes which were used to justify – to take the Jamaican example – slavery.
In Diamonds Are Forever (1956) one uncharacteristically-tough (for Bond’s world) female protagonist challenges him on his womanising, saying:
“I’m not going to sleep with you… so don’t waste your money getting me tight. But I’ll have another and probably another one after that. I just don’t want to drink your Vodka Martinis under false pretences.”
Bond laughs this off. Our hero is still in control, however; for as she later leans across the table to light a cigarette, “the valley between her breasts opened for him” (Diamonds Are Forever, 1956, pp. 94, 97). The premise that woman’s body is the property of 007 is found again in the opening chapter of 1963’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, wherein two French girls in “exciting bikinis”, having finished their game of Jokari “which they had been so provocatively playing”, leave Bond “wondering why it was that French girls had more prominent navels than any others. Was it that French surgeons sought to add, even in this minute respect, to the future sex-appeal of girl babies?” (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, 1963, p. 4)
But perhaps 007 simply cannot help himself. After all, while he “liked private girls, [who] he could discover himself and make his own… if there was one thing that set James Bond really moving in life, with the exception of gun-play, it was being passed at speed by a pretty girl.” And so, as he and a pretty girl race one another between Abbeville and Montreuil, the spy contemplates stalking her, wondering “whether he shouldn’t… just follow where she went, wherever it was, and find out who this devil of a girl was.” His fantasy is fulfilled when the woman, who has lost all desire to live and is (she later tells him) on the edge of a nervous breakdown, offers herself to Bond later that evening: “Be rough with me. Treat me like the lowest whore in creation” (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, 1963, pp. 22, 17, 29, 18, 42).
Later in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, we witness Bond going through formalities in order for another woman’s “splendid body” to become “all his”:
“She gave a small groan and reached down for his hand and held it. ‘You do love me a little bit?’
That awful question! Bond whispered, ‘I think you’re the most adorable, beautiful girl. I wish I’d met you before.’
The stale, insincere words seemed to be enough. She removed her restraining hand.”
Ian Fleming wrote over a dozen installments of his James Bond literary canon. As we can see, it takes little effort to find regular instances which evidence the fictional character’s negative attitude towards women. Whether or not a female James Bond would exhibit similar character traits in the opposite direction is possibly not as interesting as the question of whether or not the bruised and fevered egos of male audiences would be outraged by the traducing of their onscreen male counterpart in who they so apparently find comfort. Regardless, those hung up on the notion of the licensed killer Bond serving as a role model for alpha males would do well do steer clear of the original books.
How would they feel if they read – in the aforementioned novel – of 007 failing to contain his tears when his bride-to-be is changing his wound dressings? And who would’ve guessed that all of James Bond’s “untidy, casual affairs” have left him with “a bad conscience” (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, 1963, pp. 328, 241)?
Perhaps our lionising of such a character should leave us with one too.
Image via Screenmusings.org