The common perception of a Bond girls, as damsels in distress waiting for our hero James Bond to save from the clutches of the villain and also themselves, is not without its flaws. In a recent interview I did with Robert Caplen, author of Shaken & Stirred: The Feminism of James Bond, when asked this same question he stated:
I think the literary James Bond is a combination of womanizer and anachronism. James Bond perpetuates the male fantasy, as seen through the prism of Ian Fleming, but James Bond also depicts an approach to and treatment of women that is not sustainable in a post-feminist world.
Fleming saw his hero as a blunt instrument for the government, a creature of his time and line of work and the atypical Anglo-Saxon bachelor but to stop there could be a mistake. Bond was not the English gentleman nor misogynist dinosaur of the kind of his predecessors such as Buchan, Sapper and Dornford Yates. Fleming wanted to his man to be tough and vulnerable in equal measure and his women to be the same.
In his introduction to Live and Let Die (Folio Edition, page xiv, 2007), Ken Follett argued:
Bond has a different lover in every story, and this arouses hostility amongst some feminist critics. But I think it is unfair to say that he uses women. In Live and Let Die he rescues Solitaire from the man who is holding her prisoner: what can be more liberating?
Bond’s attitude to the beautiful women he meets is not exploitive. He is usually tender, romantic, and chivalrous.
Regular contributor Revelator agreed:
Follett is spot-on and earns my respect with an observation that cannot be repeated enough. The original Bond is not a cad, he is not a sexual predator, and he is not a macho boor. It’s hard to imagine the literary Bond acting with the predatory force of Connery or the caddishness of Moore (in the Mankiewicz-scripted films). Unfortunately, this is something the public and many critics have failed to grasp.
If there is a fault line to be drawn it’s Bond’s cynical attitude towards women, which was formed in the beginning after his betrayal by Vesper Lynd – a woman he loved. He has a license to kill and a job to do to rid the world of some pretty unpleasant villains. The coldness of the job would transfer at times to his dealing with women labeling him a misogynist and womanizer.
Novelist Candia McWilliam described Casino Royale in these terms:
A tale of chivalry for a pornographic century at its cusp, the old world falling to rubble and smoke, nostalgia, disdain and over-cultivation. Throughout, ‘cold’ and its derivatives and synonyms are terms of approval. Dissociation, distance, irony, poise, scrutiny, anathema, they all add to the layers of pleasure to be derived from reading these novels.
The Bond of Casino Royale is more explicitly more misogynistic than in the other novels, but that is intentional on Fleming’s part, to emphasize Bond’s coldness and harshness as a cold-hearted professional. His affair with Vesper softens that harshness until the revelation of her treachery triggers his former mentality. Fleming’s point is that Bond’s job forces him to be less than human.
John Bayley of The London Review of Books, writes in his review of The Life of Ian Fleming by Donald McCormick:
James Bond may have come about as a defence mechanism, a charm against the way of life Fleming saw himself threatened with after his marriage; rather in the same way that Kenneth Grahame produced another potent bachelor fantasy, The Wind in the Willows, when he found himself committed to a matrimonial existence so definitively outside it. Perhaps the most compelling natural fantasies are composed by nature’s bachelors, forlornly trying to recapture the snug routines of a celibate existence? Certainly Fleming’s wife despised James Bond with total sincerity and virulence, and made no secret of the fact to her husband or anyone else, while at the same time, as a famous hostess, pursuing her own extravagant projects on the Bond earnings.
In From Russia With Love and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service there are also some rather unpleasant sexual references uttered from the mouths of Darko Kerim and Marc-Ange Draco. The phrase ‘you are the friends you keep’ could be leveled here.
Bond is often given to having outrageous thoughts, but these, which often seem to be used for shock value by Fleming, should be distinguished from his actual conduct with women, which is almost entirely honorable and gentlemanly (and in contrast to those of his allies).
The Spy Who Loved Me is also notable in telling the story of an independent woman who pursues her won course in life–and at the end of the novel she resumes that course, traveling onward to seek her own path. She might say Bond can’t be captured and held, but neither can she.
Revelator on The Spy Who Loved Me
Male reviewers displayed true misogyny in dismissing Vivienne Michel (in The Spy Who Loved Me) as an “upper-class tramp”, but The Spy Who Loved Me had a better reception from female critics. Fleming doesn’t get enough credit for his “literary tranvestism”–he convincingly writes in a female voice and revels in his feminine side (the fanciful, coy side that loves shampoos, exclamation marks and melodramatic pronouncements).
But that notorious line about “semi-rape” rudely breaks the illusion and gives critics a reason to dismiss thousands of convincing sentences because of one bad one. Why Fleming chose to include it is a mystery. What woman would think such a thing? The error glares in light of because of Fleming’s prior success in establishing a female voice.
Fleming himself described Bond’s sexual prowess in an interview with Playboy in 1964:
Seduction has, to a marked extent, replaced courtship. The direct, flat approach is not the exception; it is the standard. James Bond is a healthy, violent, non-cerebral man in his middle thirties, and a creature of his era. I wouldn’t say he’s particularly typical of our times, but he is certainly of the times. Bond’s detached; he’s disengaged. But he’s a believable man – around whom I try to weave a great web of excitement and fantasy. In that, at least, we have very little in common.
Of course, there are similarities, since one writes only of what one knows, and some of the quirks and characteristics that I give Bond are ones that I know about. When I make him smoke certain cigarettes, for example, it’s because I do so myself, and I know what these things taste like, and I have no shame in giving them free advertising.
If Fleming is admitting he has Bond smoke because he does, is he also implying that Bond’s disengagement with love vs. sex, is also a reflection of himself? Bond does in fact fall in love multiple times – as did Fleming.
William Boyd weighs in:
The Bond girls of the films are shadowy simulacra of the real women in the novels. Bond isn’t interested in arm candy or one-night stands with anonymous bimbos—his love affairs are altogether more intense. The women who attract him—and vice versa—are flesh and blood and three-dimensional.
Vesper Lynd, Honeychile Ryder, and even Bond’s very short-lived wife, Tracy di Vicenzo, for instance, led troubled lives themselves—Bond saves Tracy from committing suicide—and something in Bond’s dark and unusual personality sets off the initial frisson.
Something can be made of the fact in contrasting Bond’s romances in the books (in several he doesn’t even have sexual relations until the end) with the relentless collection of women in the movies, where Bond goes through three women per film, many of those women ending up as sacrificial bedmates (a device Fleming had little interest in).
Jeffrey Deaver on the misogynistic charges leveled at Fleming:
I refer readers to Mad Men. There’s an element of how life existed then, and the disparity between the genders at that time. Fleming, if I could level any criticism, some of the terminology, some of the packaging was a bit inappropriate. And yet, he created very empowered women – Rosa Klebb, for instance, in From Russia With Love, was a mastermind.
Characters like Pussy Galore, of course there’s the name, but she was head of a gang. And I’ve actually heard the theory that the word pussy did not necessarily mean what we now think of it as meaning. It was a not uncommon endearment in the late 1950’s and early ‘60s, fathers would refer to their daughters that way, as either “kitty” or “pussy.” I do not have Bond girls in my book. I have Bond women. Bond only responds to powerful women.
The American Bond women are often did not fit with the ‘traditional’ mould either. They all handle themselves fairly well and although may have needed Bond’s help at times, have the impression that they could have toughed it out by themselves including Tiffany Case, Pussy Galore, Tilly Masterson and Judy Havelock. Handy with guns and crossbows too.
Never mind the “damsel in distress” trope; most of them either rescues Bond (Tiffany, Kissy, Tracy) or rescues themselves (like Honey and Domino). In The Hildebrand Rarity – Milton Krest’s abused wife Liz Krest – has the final word we can presume as Krest’s murderer, choking him to death with the Hildebrand fish. Bond’s bacon is also saved in From A View To A Kill by Mary Ann Russell.
Samantha Weinberg writes:
In the Goldfinger book, Pussy Galore was the only female gang leader in the United States; in the film, she was a stunt pilot and, until it suited her, impervious to Bond’s charms. Honeychile Rider set a deadly black widow spider on the man who tried to rape her in Dr No. Solitaire was a psychic who got her name in Live And Let Die because she refused to have anything to do with men, while Tilly Masterton – in the book of Goldfinger – found her heart beating faster for Pussy Galore than it did for 007.
Yes, these were tough women who saved Bond’s life on several occasions. He’d be dead if Tatiana Romanova hadn’t shot the murderous Rosa Klebb in From Russia With Love. Or Tracy di Vicenzo – later the only woman to become Mrs Bond – hadn’t saved him from Blofeld’s men. Fleming’s most iconic women were undoubtedly beautiful and sensuous, but I can’t for a second imagine any of them standing behind an ironing board or slaving over a hot stove.
Sam Weinberg’s reference to ironing boards reiterates another important point–that there are no housewives in the Bond books, nor any valorization of female domesticity. There are not even any children in the books. The Bond novels go directly against the happy homemaker expectation of the 1950s.
Sexuality by contrast is valued and free of shame in Fleming’s world–such as in Thunderball, where everyone else in Naussau views Domino as a little more than a upper-class hooker, Bond sympathizes her, says she has nothing to be ashamed about, and even falls in love with her.
The author once said that the target of his stories lies “somewhere between the solar plexus and, well, the upper thigh.” Still, I don’t think the relatively infrequent moments of nudity and arousal would have been enough to make me love James Bond novels if the heterosexual male gaze were really as pernicious and pervasive as the critics say — and as it is in the movies.
Were Bond’s women are far more than eye candy accessories and truly never needed Bond’s help at all?
The Sensitive Bond by Emily Jenkins (Salon)
The Spy Who Loved Me – Ian Fleming: Review by Intellectual Mediocrity
In Defense of Ian Fleming: Moral Reading and Fictional Characters by Benjamin Welton
‘Bond Girls ARE Feminist Icons’ by Samantha Weinberg (Daily Mail)
Building a Bond Girl by William Boyd