James Bond: A feminist’s nightmare

James Bond is a phenomenon. A brand that represents luxury, decadence and style. This fictional icon was created by British author Ian Fleming in 1953. His first book featuring the world famous hero was ‘Casino Royale. The last one was -‘Octopussy & the Living Daylights’. Ian Lancaster Fleming was born on 28 May 1908 in London. In October 1931, he was given a position as a sub-editor and journalist for Reuters. During world war two, he did espionage work as the personal assistant to the British naval intelligence. His journalistic background coupled with his experience in the world war proved helpful for the James Bond novels. These novels were immortalized in celluloid in 1962 (the first one being Dr. No)

However the books were criticized heavily by the highbrow critics. Paul Johnson in 1958 disapproved of ‘Dr. No’ in an essay titled “Sex, Snobbery, and Sadism”. John le Carré criticized Bond ’s decadence. Feminists have also expressed their disapproval over the objectifying of women in the book. Despite all this James Bond has always remained popular among the public. President Kennedy included ‘From Russia with Love’ in his list of favourite books which added to its popularity. Ian Fleming saw 40 million copies of his books sold in his lifetime. Even after his death in 1964 the allure of James Bond has not faded, if anything it has increased. James Bond has now become an icon for a consumerism culture, Aston Martin and vodka martinis among other things.

Ian Fleming has been under fire from the feminist audience for showing his women characters as vapid and one dimensional. For example in Dr. No Bond goes as far to call his love interest Honeychile Rider who is introduced in the book completely naked as ‘Botticelli’s Venus seen from behind’ and ‘Girl Tarzan’. Fleming isn’t subtle when he describes the heroines’ sexuality. And like the stereotype, Honeychile doesn’t win any scores in the intelligence department as her character is quite naïve and uneducated compared to Bond. This is seen when she is skeptical about Dr. No capturing them and subsequent trouble that would follow. However her extensive knowledge of nature and its critters helps her escape her doom.  Her insecurities are something Bond finds endearing and his protective instincts for her kick in. This damsel in distress pattern is visible in other books too. She gets attracted to Bond quite easily, which is again part of the usual blueprint.

Fleming’s books offer a different reading experience to men and women. It is likely that women readers do not respond to the dominant structure of identification as seen in the novels. The blatant sexism in the writing may cause women to be offended by the Bond books or even adopt an indifferent or hostile attitude. In the Bond universe if a woman doesn’t fall the normative heterosexual equation like Pussy Galore, Bond ‘corrects’ it. This dependence of women on men to bring them back into the traditional fold of sexuality represents the dominance of men over women in the society. Thus the traditional order of sexual differences is maintained. The girl is put in subordinate position to men and she is happy about it, owing her newfound state of submissiveness to Bond ’s charms. Questionable lines like – “All women love semi-rape. They love to be taken. It was his sweet brutality against my bruised body that had made his act of love so piercingly wonderful”, have obviously raised hackles.

Bond however does fall for the girls in his book. However fleeting the romance, Bond does seem enamored with his lady leads. In most books he certainly shows traits of a monogamous man infatuated.  And not all women return his affections immediately. In Moonraker he does seem to have genuine affection for Gala Brand, who initially is very cold towards Bond viewing him as a handsome but not so useful secret agent.  Some may call him a hopeless romantic for which there is certainly enough evidence. This differs from movie Bond which shows him as a capable and efficient womanizer. The literary Bond while sexist is not brutal towards his ladies. Kingsley Amis mentions, “However much amateur lip-curling towards women in general Bond may go in for, he never uses an individual woman unkindly, never hitting one, seldom so much as raising his voice.”

Regarding Bond literature it is important to remember the first book of the series- in Casino Royale, Bond falls heads over heels for Vesper, his love interest. He finds in her what he couldn’t obtain in other relationships. But she betrays him which is a saddening and infuriating experience for our hero. This is not the only romantic tragedy Bond faces. In the book On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, his wife is killed immediately after their marriage. Bond gets hurt in relationships too. He is not nearly as careless as the archetypal Bond seems to be. This is certainly not a justification of a chauvinist attitude but helps us understand Bond and his dynamics with his heroines better. Also it is important to note that this was a 1950s creation, it shows the misogynistic attitude prevalent in that era. After World War II, women were encouraged to embrace domesticity even though during the war most women worked outside the home and participated in the war effort. After it ended they were encouraged to assume roles of wives and mothers.

Also the Bond books were like frothy fodder for the action loving types. Although they were part of a series, Fleming also wrote them in such a way that they could be read out of order, without knowledge of any previous editions to the series. So Bond romancing a new woman in a new adventure in very new book helped from a commercial point of view.

Bond girls whether they are allies or villains or even eye candy, may not be poster girls for feminism but are an integral part of the Bond universe. Hate him or love him James Bond is ingrained in our pop culture consciousness.


Vaibhavi Parmar
An article by:
Vaibhavi Parmar

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