The Man with the Golden Pill

Article by Frieda Toth (an abridged lecture originally for the SAMLA92 conference).

It is amazing to me, in light of Bond’s tomcatting around, that so little attention is paid to his creator’s attitudes toward reproductive freedom. Although he might have resisted the labels at the time, Fleming’s work is unashamedly pro choice and pro reproductive freedom.

Frequently, when I bring this up, the responses center on Bond’s wanting not to take responsibility, himself. Of course, they say, a man with so many partners would be open to abortion because he wants to be free of parenthood. The reality is that Fleming’s position on abortion was a good deal more nuanced than the mere avoidance of parenting, and also that his writing is replete with women who have full bodily autonomy.

The most famous use of abortion in Bond is, without a doubt, that of Vivienne Michel in The Spy Who Loved Me. The most vocal and confident of social justice warriors could not have written a better or more realistic pro-choice story.

Viv doesn’t just terminate a pregnancy. She does everything right. In the field of anti-choicers, there is usually a chorus of “Why didn’t you use protection?” but Fleming has that covered. Viv uses a contraceptive, provided by a doctor, and a woman doctor, no less. When the contraceptive (likely a diaphragm, given the time) fails, she has a faint hope that her hopes boyfriend, Kurt, will want to marry her. His disinterest in marrying Viv seals it for both of them; she will have an abortion and he will pay for it. There is no hesitation, no handwringing.

No, far from handwringing. When it comes down to it, Viv has to fight for her choice, and Fleming shows the steps she takes. She must first go to Switzerland. There, she pretends to be a married woman, and when the doctor secured to provide the service hesitates, Viv prevails on him to get the abortion without delay. Fleming bestows agency on his heroine and makes sure the reader sees that there is no waffling in her decision. She is proud of her newfound strength and of her standing up for herself. “. . . having learned to take it, [I] decided, for a change, to dish it out. The business of my abortion, not to mince words, was good training for my new role.” (Fleming, Ian, The Spy Who Loved Me, Pan Books, 1967, page 69).

Illustration © 2020 Fay Dalton from The Folio Society edition of The Spy Who Loved Me

Again Fleming has anticipated the anti-choice argument, in this case, the myth that women are tricked or intimidated into ending pregnancies. Viv fights for her choice.

When it is over, she is, like most real women are, relieved and not in anguish. After the story of the abortion is over, Viv does not mention it again. Considering her frequent trips down memory lane, this is no mere omission on the part of the writer. We hear again and again about The Ink Spots, and she mentions Glens Falls twelve times in a book of only one hundred pages, but the abortion is one and done.

It is remarkable, in literature, that Viv terminates her pregnancy and gets on with life. Abortion is not seen as a tragedy; Viv is far more upset over having her heartbroken and bemoans her heartbreak repeatedly. In contrast, she describes her abortion only once, and as “mentally distressing but physically painless.” Her “mental distress,” it must be noted, is short-lived; in the same paragraph, she describes moving, getting rid of belongings, and making an appointment with a Vespa dealer.

But here’s where the use of abortion is truly remarkable: Viv remains the heroine, and the story unfolds in a far different manner. It is difficult to think of another fictional heroine who ends a pregnancy and remains sympathetic. It is nearly impossible to think of a main character who has an abortion where this experience is not the main story.

People in their fifties, as I am, will remember the movie Dirty Dancing. This movie was daringly pro-choice in that a character who is a good person gets an abortion. But she is a supporting character, and the abortion is a terrible experience as well as being that character’s main story. Most depictions of abortions in living memory in movies and television are those of tragedy or even danger.

It is important therefore to put abortion in historical context: For most of history, ending pregnancy has been legal. Abortion before the time of fetal movement became criminalized in western countries only as the fight for women’s right to vote to be recognized took shape. Even the Catholic Church was largely “don’t ask, don’t tell”, with light taboos, until the late 1800s; it was at this time that the church reversed its position on “ensoulment.” Previous to five months’ gestation, a fetus was not considered to have a soul (Sadock, B.J., Kaplan, H.I., and Freedman, A.M. The Sexual Experience. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins Co., 1976. p. 352.) and therefore abortion was not wrong and it was only in 1869 that Pope Pius declared that the soul was received at conception after all. (McGarry, Patsy, “Catholic Church Teaching on Abortion Dates from 1869” Irish Times, July 1, 2013)

The book Mary Poppins, published in 1934 in England, mentions family planning on the first page. Mrs Banks is described as having made the choice to have a bigger family rather than a bigger house.

However, by the time Ian Fleming was writing The Spy Who Loved Me, abortion had been criminalized to one extent or another in many countries, notably England and the United States (whose laws varied from state to state, and still do). That Viv has to travel to Switzerland to obtain her abortion is historically solid.

And Ian mentions abortion several times after Viv’s.

In You Only Live Twice, Tiger Tanaka, in talking about customs of Japan, says, “abortion is legal.” He passes no judgment on it, merely states the fact. In Thrilling Cities, Fleming goes through the process, step by step, of how one obtains a Swiss abortion, a process very similar to the one described by Viv in The Spy Who Loved Me.

Ian also mentions or alludes to birth control with some frequency in Bond books. Here I am using the term “birth control” widely, not referring merely to hormonal birth control pills but to any method of preventing or stopping a pregnancy.

‘Quantum of Solace’ Bob Peak illustration

The short story “Quantum of Solace” has a veiled reference to birth control when the main character, Rhoda, snipes to her husband, Philip, “You know we can’t afford a baby.” At this point in the story the marriage is breaking down but it is implied they are still having sex. It is interesting that being unable to afford a baby is observed by Fleming as a legitimate reason not to have one, given the current rise of groups such as Quiverful which have as their main tenet the notion that every family have unlimited children. Later in “Quantum of Solace,” Bond is more direct.

In You Only Live Twice, Kissy Suzuki, despairing of ever inducing James Bond to make love to her, goes to a “Happy Shop” for help. She is supplied with aphrodisiacs. She is not supplied with contraceptives, but it is clear that the shop provides them. Her sexual agency is clear: She wants to be pregnant, by Bond. At the end of You Only Live Twice Kissy wonders whether she should tell Bond of her pregnancy. She is not sure she should; therefore we can safely conclude that she was not trying to “trap” Bond into marriage. Kissy has agency: she wants a child and makes that happen.

In Fleming’s world, a woman is free to have a baby (Kissy) or to have an abortion (Vivienne) without judgment from the author. A woman in Bond’s world also has the freedom to defend herself from physical harm. When Honey in Dr. No reveals that she killed the man who raped her and that he suffered an agonizing death, Bond merely tells her not to make a habit of it. Bond’s belief that a woman has a right to defend herself, and in a physical manner, is not merely hypothetical. Honey later confuses Bond with one of Dr. No’s bad guys and hits him in the testicles. Fleming is specific that she gets in a good hit, and describes Bond’s agony. Later, Honey apologizes for her mistake, telling Bond that this is where her Nanny told her to strike a man. His response? He kisses her.

Far from slut-shaming, Ian Fleming was ahead of his time in viewing sex work as real work. Bond not only does not use the word “whore” or any of its synonyms as a pejorative, (Fleming, Ian, Thunderball, Viking Press 1961, page 110) he specifically states that he does not employ the word unless this is the woman’s actual job. And he treats sex work like the legitimate job it is; when Honey says her goal is to become a call girl and asks Bond how much she should charge, he doesn’t react with horror. He says it has been a long time since he has had a prostitute so he doesn’t know how much to ask. He does suggest that Honey would not like the work, and tells her she should save her body for the men (plural) she loves, but does not do more than that to try to talk her out of what she intends to do for a living. In addition, Ian has a sympathetic character in The Man With the Golden Gun who manages a brothel. This character, Tiffy, is intelligent, generous, spirited, and arguably the best-written character in this book. Bond treats Tiffy with kindness and respect, and the reader is meant to be bothered by the contrasting disrespect and brutishness with which Scaramanga treats her.

Tiffy says to Bond that there is a woman who will be free soon, “She’s a big girl. If you like them big, she’ll be free in half an hour,” (Fleming, Ian, The Man with the Golden Gun, New American Library of World Literature 1965, page 56) which brings us to body positivity. Bond books, in sharp contrast to Bond movies, are strikingly body positive. While Bond has a preferred body type, it is tall and muscular rather than tall and thin, and Fleming occasionally uses words such as “big” “healthy” and “plump” to describe women we are meant to see as attractive. In “From a View to a Kill”, Bond daydreams about telling his date to order “what will make you happy and fat.” (Fleming, Ian, For Your Eyes Only, Signet 1960, page 11)

Illustration © 2019 Fay Dalton from The Folio Society edition of Ian Fleming’s Moonraker

Bodily autonomy, it should be noted, includes the right to not have sex as much as the right to indulge in it wholeheartedly. This is precisely why the character of Gala Brand (Moonraker) is so ingenious. Bond never beds her. She uses her body as she sees fit. And yet, neither Bond nor Fleming paints her as any lesser of a person for turning Bond down. Bond doesn’t mutter about her being a bitch, Fleming doesn’t suddenly make her ugly or otherwise undesirable. She remains beautiful and intelligent, as much so toward the end of the book when Bond knows he will never bed her as in the beginning when he first desires her.

Why, when it is so glaringly apparent that Fleming is so prochoice, pro bodily autonomy, pro body positivity, does Bond have the opposite reputation? In my researches, several things stand out. The first and most obvious is that the movies have eclipsed the books for fame and influence, and Hollywood is inarguably anti-feminist. The second is that Fleming’s turn of phrase in the caddish, even misogynist is present in abundance, and has been disproportionately quoted. The third is that while women have always made up a large portion of Bond readers, men tend to be the reviewers of the books, and they are unlikely either to notice feminism or to be delighted by it. The last is that the most feminist Bond book of all, The Spy Who Loved Me, remains the least successful of Fleming’s full-length Bond adventures.

Could the feminism of The Spy Who Loved Me have contributed to its underperformance? Undoubtedly. Although the book sold better than its current reputation would indicate (just the American paperback went into eleven printings before Fleming’s death) some reviewers mentioned the female main character and the graphic sex scenes as minuses. I have not found a review which directly mentions the character’s abortion but it would seem that in 1962 reviewers would be unlikely to use the word itself. A general dislike of the character could really indicate a specific disinclination to ally with a woman who unapologetically had full body autonomy, or to an author who championed this.

Rereading the Bond books while knowing the prochoice, the pro bodily autonomy, and — dare I say it? — feminist language exists therein, can give the reader a new appreciation of the greatness that was Ian Fleming.

Incidental Intelligence

Secret Agency Man: How Bond and Fleming Feed my Feminism

Visit the SAMLA93 event page, this year on Thursday, November 4 – Saturday, November 6, 2021 at the Atlanta Marriott Buckhead Hotel & Conference Center.

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8 thoughts on “The Man with the Golden Pill

  1. Very interesting.
    I have long viewed Fleming as a feminist in the true sense of the word.
    Certainly ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ is the Bond novel that should debunk the misogynist dinosaur theory forever and as Freda’s excellent article mentions, there are other examples as to Fleming’s views in other works.
    As an aside, it has long been my experience that those that criticise Fleming over these matters, are mainly those who are yet to read his works !

  2. Despite having been a long-time defender of Fleming’s The Spy Who Loved Me, I had never thought about its treatment of abortion before reading your truly informative article. Fleming’s treatment of the issue, which you have superbly examined, shows where his sympathies were.

    In The Bond Dossier Kingsley Amis made the point that female critics were much kinder to TSWLM than male ones. From what I can tell, this was indeed the case. Perhaps they recognized the book’s sensitivity to the problems faced by women in a sexist world.

  3. This phrase. THIS: sensitivity to the problems faced by women in a sexist world.
    That’s the phrase I have been looking for for years. May I borrow it?

    Thank you for your kind words.

  4. Pingback: Fleming scholar on the trail of 007’s creator | The Spy Command

  5. Interesting perspective. However, just because Fleming had Vivienne–the same character, mind you, who states that “all women love semi-rape” in the same book does not mean that he himself was pro-choice.

    • It doesn’t mean he wasn’t either. Fleming was generalizing (badly) about female sexual fantasies (and perhaps his own), and for once his grasp of Vivienne’s inner life faltered. The entire book has been frequently dismissed because of that sentence, which hardly seems justifiable.

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