In one of those bouts of curiosity that may overpower even the most cautious reader, I have gone through the twelve James Bond novels by Ian Fleming (there are two more books, with short fiction, and other novels by living authors). I am by no means a Bond fan but, like many others who don’t particularly care, I end up seeing all the new releases and even (mildly) bothering about who should play the MI6 spy next. Blame the nagging advertising campaigns.
Bond functions much like Dr. Who in the sense that every few years he is played by a new actor, thus remaining perpetually in the 35-45 age bracket, roughly corresponding to the novels. I found Daniel Craig’s proposal that Idris Elba should be the next Bond appealing and was appalled by the subsequent racist reaction. I suppose that Tom Hiddleston will play Bond eventually (I’d much rather have Tom Hardy play a villain) but, really, it’s all the same. There is also some debate about whether the seventh official Bond actor should be a woman, inspired, precisely, by Dr. Who. The current one, number twelve, is played by Joddie Whitaker, a choice that caused some ripples in the misogynistic waters but that has been on the whole welcome. If it were up to me, I would simply bury the Bond franchise.
The James Bond series has been a relic of the past for decades. In our better enlightened times its racism, homophobia, misogyny and ridiculous British patriotism can only be approached in the spirit of an archaeologist digging up ancient tombs. The film franchise is pretending to correct the novels in all these fronts by, for instance, turning Bond’s boss M into a woman, or his American colleague Felix Leiter into an African-American. Much was written about the casting of 50-year-old Monica Bellucci in Spectre (2015) as a Bond girl, the oldest ever (Craig was 47 at the time). Although this might seem an improvement over the archaic, the ‘Bond girl’ is not yet a woman. This is a typical pseudo-feminist trap: you change some details to get progressive kudos but the bottom line remains the same. Indeed, the girl’s bottom still must be pert and pleasing to Bond’s touch.
A complication in any analysis of the Bond saga is that there is actually very little analysis of the original works because they are obscured by the far more popular films. The original fiction was published between 1953 (Casino Royale) and 1966 (Octopussy and The Living Daylights) and is, then, a product of the time right before the onset of Second Wave feminism (officially begun in 1963 with Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique). The women in the Bond novels are, thus, stranded between the traditional homemaker model and the liberated girl of 1960s Swinging London; above all, the are the figments of a male imagination that sees them primarily as sexual objects. All are extremely beautiful and never past thirty. I’ll leave aside the preposterous names that Fleming came up with, some elegant (Vesper Lynd), some inexcusable (Pussy Galore), to explain that perhaps what most surprised me is that, for despite the deep misogyny, Fleming prefers his ‘girls’ to be fond of sex and not just passive dolls; none is stupid, and, on the whole, all are much better balanced people than Bond.
James Bond, himself an insatiable womanizer, never criticises the promiscuity of the women he beds (he even often justifies it as freedom) and if he consumes the ‘girls’ as he consumes his gourmet food, drink and cigarettes, it can equally be said that he is consumed by his sexual partners. This does not mean that the women are empowered in any way–not at all! Some are literal slaves of a specific villain and are more than willing to grant Bond power over them as soon as he shows any interest. For he is, here is the key word again, handsome.
The basic formula is this: he meets a truly interesting sexy and clever girl who seems unconquerable, she is eventually conquered to their mutual sexual satisfaction; next, either the relationship is soon over with no mutual grief, or love complicates matters so much that it needs to be over. When Tracy, Bond’s wife of one day, is murdered by the villain Bloefeld, Bond is hypocritically devastated–he seems, rather, relieved that he does not have to play husband and, God forbid!, become a father. Maybe this is the key to his characterization: Bond might settle down with a woman who loves sex as much as he does but could never accept her becoming a mother and himself a father. That would mean the end of his perpetual adultescence.
Let me focus on one of these women (I’m making an effort not to call them ‘girls’), a bit at random: Solitaire in the second Bond novel, Live and Let Die (1954).
This young woman is introduced in a scene with her master, Mr. Big, who is holding Bond captive. Buonaparte Ignace Gallia is unusual in Fleming’s gallery of villains because he is black. The absurd plot supposes that this Harlem boss gangster is interested in aiding “the Soviet organ of vengeance, SMERSH, short for Smyert Spionam–Death to Spies” by funding it with the earnings of the illicit traffic in the colonial treasure lost in the Caribbean. Jurisdiction problems are habitual in the Bond novels and, so, this one is set mainly in Jamaica, a colony until 1962, to justify the alliance between the MI6, the CIA and the FBI.
Back to Solitaire: she is, like all the others that appeal to him, “One of the most beautiful women Bond had ever seen (…)”, in this case, a black-haired white woman born in Haiti with “The face of the daughter of a French Colonial slave-owner”. Frigid Solitaire bears that name because, Mr. Big explains, “For the time being she is difficult. She will have nothing to do with men”. Actually, this is the bogus excuse which Fleming uses not to present this woman as the villain’s mistress for, as I am supposing here, inter-racial sex enslavement would have been too much for his readers. Unlike the other Bond women she is not, then, so openly sexualized.
Mr. Big, who does want to marry Solitaire but has not forced despite being a most cruel villain…, presents her as “my inquisitor”. He dislikes torture (at least at this point in the story) and uses the woman’s mental powers to deduce whether his prisoners are lying–the silly man. Solitaire has, then, a strange kind of power for although she really has no supernatural abilities, she classes Mr. Big’s prisoners “according to whether she sensed these people were good or evil”. She knows “that her verdict might often be a death sentence” but she cannot care–until she sees Bond and is smitten at once. Like all the other women in his life.
Naturally, she lies about Bond to Mr. Big, sending to the spy the message that she is his ally by “nonchalantly” drawing “her forearms together in her lap so that the valley between her breasts deepened”. He quickly gets that “He had a friend in the enemy’s camp” and rescues her as soon as both can fool Mr. Big. Grateful, Solitaire warms up to Bond: “You’ve given me a new life. I’ve been shut up with him and his nigger gangsters for nearly a year. This is heaven”. Bond, typically, never hesitates about his capacity to undo Solitaire’s dislike of men: “She seemed open to love and to desire. At any rate he knew that she was not closed to him”.
He imagines for her a ‘romantic’ colonial background (later recycled for Honeychile in Dr. No): the lonely white child in Haiti that becomes an orphan and is raised by a devoted servant, then the “struggle against the shady propositions” as beauty is her only asset. Next, “the dubious, unknown steps into the world of entertainment”, where she gains fame by exploiting her mentalist tricks, until she is charmed by Mr. Big’s promise of a Broadway career. Simone Latrelle, her real name, age 25, is a ‘solitaire’ virgin because Fleming cannot imagine a white partner for her in Haiti, much less a black one.
Soon Bond sees Solitaire as part of his professional rewards, “the ultimate personal prize”. The reward, however, takes a while to reap because both are kidnapped by Mr. Big and, this being a Caribbean tale, exposed to the sharks and to the nasty consequences of being dragged through a coral reef. Fleming, always the sadist, puts the pair naked together in a sort of alternative sexual encounter–guess which part of women’s anatomy he was obsessed by: “Their bodies were pressed together, face to face, and their arms held round each other’s waists and then bound tightly again. Bond felt Solitaire’s soft breasts pressed against him. She leant her chin on his right shoulder. ‘I didn’t want it to be like this,’ she whispered tremulously”. Are you sick yet…? Bond, logically, rescues himself and Solitaire, the villain get his come-uppance. In the chapter called “Passionate Leave” Bond gets finally his reward, once she learns to mix martinis to his taste. When Solitaire (never once called Simone) looks at him there is “open sensuality” in her eyes. How could it be otherwise?
Bond is not, then, a blunt sexual predator but a man actually capable of connecting with the willing, pliable women he meets, if only for the time his cases last. Whether she is sexually active or less so, the pattern is similar: the relationship with the women is always presented as a reward for Bond as a protector in one way or another. Perhaps what is incongruous is that although Fleming seems incapable of showing Bond’s deeper emotions he tends to involve his hero in relationships beyond the merely sexual. Nevertheless, one must wonder why if everything is so satisfactory the women disappear to easily from Bond’s life. Simone is simply gone by the next novel and when Bond wonders whatever became of her, we, the readers, also wonder.
Bond only proposes to one of his many women, Tracy, yet all seem good potential partners for him. You can see, then, that the problem lies in the seriality of the novels. If Bond were the protagonist of just one novel, then the plot would be straightforward: the hero slays the dragon and marries the princess. Seriality, however, turned Bond into a combination of the classic rake that will not reform and the modern serial monogamist. The ‘Bond girl’, excuse me!, is a stereotype (Bond’s preferred type) that must also be a variation, always within the pattern of the extremely beautiful, sexy, clever woman. Once Bond succeeds in bonding with them, excuse the silly pun, the problem for Fleming is how the end the relationship: some die, others leave or let Bond go, for who can imagine Bond married for life?
On the other hand, arguably the Bond women embody the beginning of the late 1960s rebellion. Tiffany Case, the strongest among Bond’s women, abandons him, which suggests that the real question is: who would want to marry someone like Bond? Fleming possibly understood that a change was coming, this is why he fantasised in his novels about how Bond conquers all these active women–though for that he had to transform them into passive princesses. Still, with Domino Vitali of Thunderball, his first 1960s woman, Fleming even came close to presenting a better hero than Bond, which would have made him superfluous.
Even so, no, thanks, I don’t care for a renewal of the franchise with a Jane Bond in the main role–and a string of Bond boys, what a terrible thought. As far as I am concerned, it is about time to let bygones be bygones and allow Commander Bond to retire. After all, if he were alive the guy would be nearing his hundredth birthday. Time to move on (or to start ignoring the films!).
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