Article by Frieda Toth
“[There is] such a diverse depiction of Bond that almost any praise or criticism of him can find some justification in book or film.” – Taliaferro and Le Gall, “Bond as Chivalric, Comic Hero”, Questions Are Forever.
I’m a librarian and a feminist, and a sweet little middle-aged lady, and my favorite pro-choice, pro-sexual consent hero in fiction is James Bond.
If your initial response is, “What the heck is she thinking?” chances are good your Bond experience is mostly from the movies.
If your response is, “Yeah, but . . .” you are probably a Fleming fan, but not seeing things I see. That’s fine. Bond has a lot going on.
It would be insane to not admit Fleming’s offenses. They are there. But other authors have tackled them. There are also progressive and empowering tropes that I have found nowhere else in fiction.
To understand Bond, you have to understand masculine archetypes. One of the longest lived is that of the Great Lover. Don Giovanni and Captain Kirk in fiction, Casanova and JFK in fictionalized history, all symbolize the man woman can’t resist. More recently, there’s Barney in the American television show How I Met Your Mother.
When a character, or a real life man, for that matter, seems to fit that mantle, stats go out the window. It has been pointed out that James T. Kirk did not have satyriasis after all, having bedded only four women in seventy-nine episodes of Star Trek, and kissed only nineteen. But no one cares. Captain Kirk jokes are fun.
Have you ever met a woman who talks about her beloved new man, but when you hear what she is saying, you hate him? She says he is busy and important, but what you hear is that he doesn’t bother to spend time with her. What she says doesn’t go with who he is.
Bond is, often, a reverse of that common theme. He has long and nasty monologues about how he dislikes women and has no time for them, yet his actions toward them tend to be those of courtesy, respect, or even tenderness.
James Bond often reminds me of the curmudgeonly uncle who says he hates kids but waits until their mom isn’t looking to slip the grand-kids ice cream money. Bond complains that he hates women, and calls them “girls” but his actions tell a different story.
The fact that there is no monolithic experience of feminism and what inspires one woman may repulse another breeds several types of faux feminism, which can be as harmful as plain ol’ misogyny. Faux feminism can place superior women subservient to lesser men, or may pretend that a woman’s having equal opportunities to that of a man is a matter only of hard work.
What sets Bond apart from either overt misogyny or posturing false feminism is that Fleming realistically observes where women have it rougher in society and has them work with what they have.
Patricia Fearing, the osteopath in Thunderball, is a good example. You know that she has heard the sexist nonsense time and again when Bond expresses surprise that she is in her profession and she snaps at him to not be surprised because, “Nearly ten percent of osteopaths are women.” In that one response Fleming demonstrates that he knows it is a rough road to professional acceptance for a woman, and that Fearing is a professional.
Tiffy (“Artificial”) from The Man With the Golden Gun is another good example of feminism. She is a business owner—she manages a whorehouse. Bond does not shame her for being in the sex trade, and her personality is lively and kind. Fleming knew that her career choices were limited and treats the character with respect.
Neither Bond nor Fleming indulges in slut-shaming. Bond’s women have sex, and enjoy it. Fleming not only acknowledges women’s sexual desire, but that women deserve a good performance in bed. In From Russia With Love, Bond believes the women watching him and Tania “wondered whether he made love to her well.” In that seemingly throw away sentence Fleming acknowledges the sexual desire and curiosity not only of the young things he tends to bed, but also of middle-aged women.Fleming was ahead of his time (and thus without vocabulary) in acknowledging the existence of asexuality (Red Grant) and pansexuality (Rosa Klebb). It is a shame that these characters are baddies. Even allowing that anything other than het sex existed, in a mainstream thriller, seems a plus.
Pussy Galore is the yawn of a “lesbian” that begins, at least, as a bad guy, and for good measure she was a lesbian because had not found the right man. But Tillie Masters is not only lesbian and stays that way through the book, she is undoubtedly a heroic character.
Bond women use birth control (since the oral contraceptive was not available until the 1960s and Bond does not mention being inconvenienced, it’s reasonable to assume Bond women who used birth control used diaphragms) with no judgment from their creator. Rhoda Masters, in “Quantum of Solace,” complains to her husband that he is a poor provider by saying, “You know we can’t afford a baby.”
Just in case one thinks she is merely denying him sex, Fleming makes it clear in another part of the same story exactly what he is talking about when Bond says to his host, “The only problem with beautiful Negro women is that they know anything about birth control. I hope he managed to stay out of that sort of trouble.”
While that is an endorsement of contraceptives, that segment bears further scrutiny. It is at once a racist, sexist, offensive thing to say, and eye-openingly progressive.
Bond talks about, in the 1950s, that he has had relations with a black woman. And implies that he impregnated a black woman.
The host, standing in for the reader, responds to Bond’s frankness with undisguised irritation at Bond’s vulgarity.
If the reader knows something of Fleming’s personal life, that passage is baffling. How could Fleming blame a woman for not being responsible about birth control when he, Fleming, had two unplanned pregnancies with the woman who became his wife? And since you don’t get any whiter than Ann Charteris Fleming, how could he make it a race issue?
What happens when Bond has an unplanned pregnancy? We can make a guess based on The Spy Who Loved Me. Our heroine, Vivienne, is impregnated by the caddish Kurt, who arranges for her abortion.
The passage plays out that Vivienne is devastated about being dumped, but matter of fact about ending the pregnancy. The pro-choice, pro-agency message is clear.
Speaking of agency, Bond women exist in a world without Bond, with full lives before he appears. They are less frequently daughters or wives of people Bond talks to. More often they have careers at which they excel, whether respectable or no (osteopath, cat-burglar, smuggler) and they often return to their Bond-free lives when the story is over.
Bond women sometimes rescue him, and often give him advice, which he takes good-naturedly. Domino, in Thunderball, tells Bond his plan to turn on the lights in the day as a signal is stupid and when she comes up with a better plan he agrees. Mary Ann Russell not only comes to Bond’s rescue in “From a View to a Kill,” she shoots when none of the men will dare to do so. And fatally, with a 22, which means she’s one hell of a shot.
And then there is the issue of Fleming’s/Bond’s attitude toward domestic violence. Bond never hits a woman, and men who show violence toward them in the storyline are often dealt with harshly, either by Bond or circumstances.
Most revealing is the domestic violence in the short story “The Hildebrand Rarity.” The “rarity” is a fish found at sea by Milton Krest, who uses his yacht as a tax dodge while pretending to do real research. The rare fish, however, is real.
Krest is not a very compelling bad guy, because he is simply too bad. He not only dodges taxes and beats his wife, he’s unkind to the help, and to endangered species. Just in case we didn’t get that he is bad, he is a short American. With a lisp.
When Krest is found dead, murdered by someone shoving the fish into his mouth and causing suffocation, Bond reasons the perp either has to be the put upon crewman Fidele Barbey, or the abused wife, Liz. Bond understands that as a white man he has advantages neither Fidele nor Liz possesses, and disposes of the body over the side of the ship before there is time for anyone to realizes Krest was murdered. He pretends, and both Fidele and Liz are glad to agree, that Krest simply fell overboard in his sleep.
Bond’s attitude is that Krest had it coming, and he has an internal monologue justifying either Fidele or Liz murdering Krest. In a mind-numbing Lady or the Tiger moment, Liz calmly expresses her intent to give the fish to The British Museum, apparently unaware of its whereabouts. This makes her a most formidable character if she is the murderer, lying about her knowledge, and puts just a little doubt into the reader’s mind that it was she. If she was the killer, Bond is OK with that. The message is clear that if a man commits domestic violence, the woman has a right to defend herself.
Fleming probably meant for his thrillers to be read by men, and men have told me they don’t understand how a feminist can read Fleming. But a great many women enjoy Bond books, and feel his portrayal of women is keen, and I will side with Kingsley Amis here, quoting from The James Bond Dossier, “I’m putting forward an idea not very popular with men when I say that a women’s opinion of whether a man understands her sex is more valuable than a man’s but put it forth I will.” As I am not the only woman I know who loves Ian Fleming while being told by men I should not, I am grateful to Amis.
It is worth noting that Fionn Morgan, Ian’s stepdaughter, who was sixteen when her mother married Ian, adored him. She, who knew him personally and not just from his writing, thought he was nothing of a misogynist.
Some people have cast Hermione of Harry Potter fame as their feminist hero, which has me puzzled. Quote for quote and action for action, I’ll take a Bond woman over Hermione any day.
For all that Bond sometimes is rescued by his women, Bond is good at his job, better, in fact, than Rosa Klebb or Vesper Lynd, which is largely why he survives thriller after thriller and they don’t. Bond women tend to be in other lines of work; he can’t do their job and they can’t do his. (Can you see Bond as an Acrobat?)
And it is this fact that makes Hermione so annoyingly anti-feminist: in every way she is better than Harry. She is better with magic, harder working, more compassionate. Yet, for all her superiority, the book is about Harry. Why is it about Harry when he is so inferior to Hermione? And this is a work of fiction, of fantasy, J.K. (who used her initials because of fear that no boy would read a book by a woman) Rowling made choices in her stories and her heroes. She chose to make the boy inferior to the girl, but to make the boy the hero.
Of course, Harry Potter books were meant for children, so back to the adult world of Bond. Bond is the star of his books, over the women, not just because he is a guy, but because he is better at what he does. In addition, thrillers are by their very nature more reality based than fantasy, and more secret agents, at least at the time Fleming was writing, were men, so that’s what he wrote about.
And here it is: in an escapist, idealized world, women are independent, have fulfilling careers and lots of unattached sex.
I’ll take it.
The James Bond Dossier, by Kingsley Amis
Questions Are Forever: James Bond and Philosophy, edited by Jacob Held and James B. South
Ian Fleming: The Man Behind James Bond, by Andrew Lycett
She is the author of the feminist picture book Help Wanted (illustrated by NYT best-selling author Marika McCoola, and is also a frequent contributor to ALR. More on The Spy Who Loved Me can be found in her excellent article “The Spy Who Snubbed Me.”