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Is James Bond a Misogynist?

Nov
24
2006

How do we judge if James Bond is a misogynist? And if he is one, should that spoil the Ian Fleming novels and the big popcorn movies that feature the character?

My answer to the latter question: Probably not. Fleming and the moviemakers created entertainment, not social commentary. Even then, Bond’s attitudes may not speak so much to the age as to his creator’s personality. In a perceptive essay on Bond, Bryan Curtis quotes Fleming’s biographer Andrew Lycett: “Ian used to say he wrote Casino Royale in order to take his mind off the horrific prospect of matrimony.” And the whole idea of the super-suave secret agent was inherently spoofable: witness the first film adaptation of Casino Royale (1967) as well as the popular Austin Powers goofs.

But Bond as an artifact, not as entertainment, is another story.

If we judge Fleming’s Bond by current-day standards, of course he is a misogynist – as would be Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Machiavelli, and Aristotle. “Women were for recreation,” Bond reflects in Fleming’s Casino Royale (1953), the first of the series. “On the job, they got in the way and fogged things up with sex and hurt feelings and all the emotional baggage they carried around.” His one word summary of the woman who spurred this generalization (and who he is yet to actually meet), which he speaks aloud to no one but the room and the reader: “Bitch.”



Casino Royale

And that’s his feeling about his colleague and ally, Vesper Lynd. What must he think of women working with the bad guys?

When they first meet, Vesper looks at him “with a touch of ironical disinterest which, to his annoyance, he found he would like to shatter, roughly.” This antipathy blossoms even though she has said nothing to him: imagine if she had mouthed off at Bond. And it develops despite—or is because of?—what his French colleague grinningly described to Bond as her “splendid…er…protuberances. Back and front….”

So Bond’s view of women is hardly enlightened by our standards, but what about the standards of 1953? After all, Bond is a member of what many people today refer to as “the greatest generation.” He had fought in the Second World War, and was one of the few people at the time to have actually killed members of the Communist menace. John F. Kennedy certainly admired the character: From Russia With Love was one of his favorite books.

Social significance aside, certain aspects of the storytelling are superb. The author and his main character’s attitudes toward women may be dated but Fleming is worth reading for his powers of description alone. And the new “serious” version of Casino Royale is worth seeing. Among its virtues: It faithfully captures much of what is delightful about the book – other Bond novels have been unrecognizable in the movies that carried their titles – down to the composition of the cocktails and construction of the furniture.

The milieu in which the books were written and many of the earlier films made was not marked by over-concern with the equality of the sexes. At one point in Casino Royale Bond “wondered about Vesper’s morals. He wanted her cold and arrogant body. He wanted to see tears and desire in her remote blue eyes and to take the ropes of her black hair in his hands and bend her long body back under his.” Her morals might be an obstacle to this fantasy; his own are not.

Later, after settling the issue of Vesper’s morals, Bond “knew that she was profoundly, excitingly sensual, but that the conquest of her body, because of the central privacy in her, would each time have the tang of rape.” The “tang of rape” does not put him off. “Loving her physically would each time be a thrilling voyage without the anticlimax of arrival.”

Bond’s attitudes about gambling are entwined with those of violence and women. “Bond saw luck as a woman, to be softly wooed or brutally ravaged, never pandered to or pursued.” Nothing original about that thinking: “I consider that it is better to be adventurous than cautious, because fortune is a woman, and if you wish to keep her under it is necessary to beat and ill-use her…,” Machiavelli wrote over 400 years before Fleming.



“Ian Fleming” by
Andrew Lycett

Our hero’s attitudes about sex are not the only elements of the story that ring peculiar today. For example: Of one of his enemy’s henchmen, “Bond guessed that he would kill without interest or concern for what he killed, and that he would prefer strangling. He had something of Lennie in Of Mice and Men, but his inhumanity would not come from infantilism but from drugs. Marihuana, decided Bond.” Marihuana?! I hope the people creating anti-drug ads for the government do not now decide to enlist James Bond in their TV war on teenage drug abuse.

These views of Bond, then, are not necessarily signs of misogyny. Yes, if today’s reader finds himself in agreement with 1953’s Bond, then that would put the reader firmly in the front ranks of women-haters. But Bond then, and Bond in the new film version of Casino Royale, is not a misogynist but a gynophobe: he does not hate women so much as he fears womankind.

In the passage where Bond reveals his thoughts about luck as a woman, he also admits to himself that someday “he would be brought to his knees by love or by luck,” and he takes it as a sign of fallibility. Later, when he puts aside his notions of women as things and basks in the equally puerile idea that his new love will be one without discord, he nevertheless reminds himself that the “conventional parabola” of romance—make out, break up, make up, then farewell—is “to him shameful and hypocritical.”


Casino Royale
(1967 spoof)

The makers of the new movie do a fine job of capturing this aspect of Bond’s gynophobia. To make it go over more appealingly, they have Bond (at least at the start of the movie) not afraid of womenkind but only wary of single women. Married women are fair game. Today’s audiences would not want their hero to be a misogynist, but an adulterer is just fine.

Share  Posted by mzeringue at 8:30 AM | Permalink

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