Sexual Subordination in the James Bond Novels: Bond Unbound

Natalya Simonova and James Bond
Natalya Simonova cowers behind James Bond as he gets the job done.

Over the Japanese sea, a man dangles from an enormous helium balloon. The castle that he has just escaped from explodes, the force sends him farther out to sea. Exhausted, the man lets go and plummets into the salty wash where he bobs, face down in the foreign waves. He thinks once more of his childhood before his vision fades and he drifts toward an eternal peace. He is rescued, however, by a woman. She is a strong swimmer and a native to the island. She pulls the man to shore as he struggles in an amnesic daze. He does not know who he is. He does not remember that he has just killed a man who has plagued him for many years, a villain who killed his wife in a previous adventure. When he awakes, the man asks the woman who he is, what his name is. She tells him the only name she has ever known him by. “You are my lover. Your name is…” and in that moment a man’s identity is erased, the man who was James Bond is gone, the only man left is “Taro Todoroki,” a Japanese fisherman who lives on the island of Kuro with his lover Kissy Suzuki (You Only Live Twice 230).

These events transpire in the second-to-last Bond novel written by Ian Fleming. The closing chapters of this novel are essential to understanding the true nature of the James Bond character that Ian Fleming presents in his twelve novels and two short story collections. These chapters offer a character who is unfettered by the roles and values that England, his government, and his agency have prescribed for him. In this novel, the reader is presented with a character liberated from the identity that has slowly built over time, an identity created through a constant internal struggle of dominator over dominated. This new character represents the most authentic presentation of the James Bond character, ironically manifest when he cannot remember who he is.

Looking at James Bond with a sexually charged lens runs the risk of labeling the character, and thus the author, as traditionally misogynistic and sexist. This is the way that most scholars have understood the character in recent times. However, when James Bond’s true nature is uncovered in the final chapters of You Only Live Twice, it is apparent that Fleming had something else in mind when he created this character in his home in Jamaica in 1953. Strikingly, Bond without identity is a Bond without sex. From the moment that his memory is erased, Fleming reverses the sexual roles of the male-female dynamic: “[Bond] allowed [Suzuki] to man-handle him out of the kimono.” Bond “docilely” allows his saviour, Kissy Suzuki to take him to shore (You Only Live Twice 229). This reversal extends beyond Bond’s time of injury. After she spends a few months with him, Kissy becomes distressed that Bond’s “body seemed totally unaware of her, however much she pressed herself against him and even caressed him with her hands. Had the wound made him impotent?” (234). In this scenario the female becomes the aggressor in the relationship, even going as far as consulting a “sex-merchant” to provide an erotic magazine that finally gets Bond in the mood for lovemaking (235). Fleming does this in order to demonstrate to the reader that throughout the series Bond is not hyper-sexualized of his own volition. Instead, his sexuality is only a construction of his environment that has created the man they thought that they knew. This opens the rest of the series up to the reader, encouraging him or her to reread the Bond character and question the stereotypical male traits that he exhibits throughout the series.

Masculinity in Postwar England

The more women he dominates, the more masculine he becomes.
The more women he dominates, the more masculine he becomes.

So what was the environment in which Ian Fleming was crafting James Bond? A critical component to understanding the masculinity of the time stems from a decreased sense of freedom following World War II. Despite having been victorious, English and American cultures were left with the frameworks for a highly hierarchical and regimented network that did not dissolve after the war ended. In Cuordileone’s book on manhood during the Cold War, the author writes that by the 1950s man, “began to see the power of ‘The Group’ everywhere” including “the corporation he worked for, which required junior executives to ‘adjust’ their behavior to its norms and values in the name of teamwork” (Cuordileone 124). For 007, this group consists of a sprawling web of bureaucratic positions as anonymous and regimented as the agent’s own numerical code name. The dominance of Bond by the group represents the emasculation that the Englishman felt following the war. The stripping of man from his autonomy curtailed his own masculinity because his aggression, reason, and patriarchal tendencies are constantly called into question by a higher authority.

The seed of friction between man and “Group” is planted early on in the James Bond series in Casino Royale, the first novel that Fleming wrote in 1953. After Bond’s monoinitialed boss, M, outlines his first mission and adds in passing, “Two heads are better than one and you’ll need someone to run your communications… It’ll be someone good,” Bond reflects that he “would have preferred to work alone, but one didn’t argue with M” (Royale 18). This deference to the agency or “The Group” is two-fold. Bond expresses the desire to work autonomously, but by having Bond defer to his superior, Fleming also sets the tone of the boss-agent relationship that will be continued throughout the series. For instance, in the 1958 novel, Dr. No, M forces Bond to use a different firearm than he prefers, or in 1959’s Goldfinger Bond feels obligated to donate his winnings acquired from a poker victory over the titular villain to a company charity.

Fleming’s Bond is not the self-sufficient man that is portrayed in the films; however, he longs to be that man. His character represents a desire to return to a time, “when men were men, when they confronted the conflicts and tasks of a rough, competitive world and had no irrational craving for approval from their peers” (Cuordileone 120). Bond is emasculated by his inability to act on his own volition, but he nonetheless attempts to break away from the group at multiple times throughout the series. To do so, he simply lies to his higher-ups. Bond cannot directly challenge his group and win, so he resorts to petty lies and hiding information. Fleming uses these feeble attempts at autonomy to mock James Bond’s, and indeed all English men’s, attempts at autonomy. Bond is thus only a construction of masculine values. For instance, when Bond learns that the man he is investigating in Japan is actually Ernst Blofeld, the man who killed his wife in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, he does not divulge this information to M because he knows that such a personal connection to his case would result in his removal from the hunt. “There would be no revenge!” he thinks, then says aloud, “Good lord, no!” (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service 141). Moreover, Bond reflects in Thunderball after disobeying a telegram to contact his superiors immediately: “He had disobeyed many orders in his life, but this was to disobey the Prime Minister of England and the President of the United States. A mighty left and right. But things were moving a damned sight too fast” (Thunderball 145). However, Fleming demonstrates that things are not moving so fast that Bond could not assist the female protagonist by sucking sea urchin spines out of her feet before having sex with her and only then getting on with stopping the destruction of the Western world. Bond is not willing to completely yield himself to the group. This is meant to parody a desire for self-reliance in a time when solidarity and regimentation are increasingly becoming a requirement.

The Castrating Villian

Bond’s group is not the only factor that contributes to his sexual subordination. The most literal interpretation of active emasculation occurs in the first novel when Le Chiffre has captured Bond and is tormenting his testicles with a carpet cleaner. “It is not the immediate agony,” he explains through a red mist of pain, “but also the thought that your manhood is being gradually destroyed and that at the end… you will no longer be a man” (Casino Royale 89). The rest of the series is not only colored by this instance of mental and physical torture, but it is a theme that occurs in many different scenarios. This is a literal castration anxiety that exists throughout the entire series. Bond’s phallus is mentioned less when he is having sex then when it is put in immediate danger. This demonstrates Fleming’s intention to play on the masculine anxiety of the time. In his essay entitled “James Bond’s Penis,” Toby Miller observes that, “Many British critics of the mid-1960s interpreted Bond as a symptom of imperial decline.” The loss of his genitalia is symbolic of a threat “of losing authority, a site of potentially abject that must instead be objectified as an index of self-control and autotelic satisfaction” (Miller 233).

Bond's first villain threatens to relieve Bond of his manhood.
Bond’s first villain threatens to relieve Bond of his manhood.

Bond’s phallus is not merely an autotelic satisfaction; in fact, that is not its primary purpose. Bond’s penis is valuable to him because it is what it means to be a man. The penis, Margaret Jackson points out, serves “as the primary organ of sexual pleasure for both sexes” (Jackson 73). So it is not the fear of a loss of self-satisfaction, but the fear of a loss of service to others, the loss of his ability to fulfill the most masculine act of all. The potential loss of his penis represents for Bond the concrete loss of the role that he is playing. However, it is not always the case that the villain is threatening literal castration. A far more effective means of emasculation is the villains’ mere presence.

In order to overcome both his higher-up and world-threatening villains, Bond seeks to win back his masculinity by subjecting women to countless sexual advances. However, as he demonstrates in his amnesic episode, it is not in his nature to act this way; his hyper-sexuality is only a created trait, not something our instinct or something inherent in who he is as a man. In dominating female characters throughout the series Bond is able to find an outlet for his masculinity that has been curtailed by his role in the agency, especially by his boss M. Bond’s behavior is a reflection of masculinity theory of the time. Because Bond cannot successfully act against his own group, he takes every opportunity to subject women to his rule.

Elements of Parody

This subjugation of women is parodied by Fleming by creating a character who is so over-reliant on traditional masculine roles that he should not possibly be attractive to actual women. Bond’s over-reliance on aggression, dominance, and physical strength should result in a sacrifice of his sexual potency. For instance, in Casino Royale, the first novel, it is mentioned when Bond returns to his hotel room from a late night of gambling that he “then lit his seventieth cigarette of the day and sat down at the writing-table” (Royale 9). In Moonraker, the third novel from 1955, in order to defeat a man who cheats at cards, Bond tells his boss “I’ve got to get a bit tight tonight. I’ll have to seem very drunk when the time comes” (Moonraker 353). Bond doesn’t see his drinking as a fault, but rather it is an advantage that gives him an edge over his enemies. To offset these vices Bond merely does twenty press-ups and day and sit ups until his abs scream, practices woefully inadequate at counteracting night after night, day after day of substance abuse. All of this it leads the reader to wonder just how this man is found attractive enough to seduce at least one woman consistently per novel! In order to understand the James Bond character we cannot make excuses for his actions. However, we can also, if we are to save this character’s true identity, not afford to make a demon of this man.

In rereading the James Bond series it is apparent that what scholars have commonly taken to be simply misogyny is something more nuanced — a parody that has yet to be absorbed into the understanding of the James Bond series. In order to, as Christine Bold suggests, “recuperate Bond not as the heroic agent of the masculinized nation but as an entry-point into… the unrelenting subordination of women” (Bold 171) we must reread and retroactively understand the Bond character. Efforts have indeed been made to reimagine James Bond as a person more suitable to today’s social and political views. Recent Bond films have acknowledged the character’s background of being a “sexist, misogynistic dinosaur. A relic of the Cold War” as Judi Dench calls him in her iteration of M in Goldeneye. However, such an interpretation only condemns the roots of the character without understanding the true nature of the James Bond figure. As an ironically comedic representation of traditional masculine traits, it is dangerous to watch the most recent James Bond films without a knowledge of his satirical roots. The presentation of masculinity and sexism are repeatedly reinforced by the films without an understanding of the character’s anxiety or his subversive background. Rereading the early novels foregrounds the satire of the original Bond’s masculinity, and highlights Fleming’s socially constructive spirit.

Works Cited

Bold, Christine. “‘Under the very skirts of Britannia’: re-reading women in the James Bond novels.” The James Bond Phenomenon: A Critical Reader. Ed. Lidner, C. Manchester and New York: Manchester University P, 2003. 171. Print.

Cuordileone, K. A. Manhood and American Political Culture in the Cold War. New York: Routledge, 2005. Print.

Fleming, Ian. The Bond Files. Three James Bond Novels. New York: Book-of-the-Month Club, 2007. Print.

—-. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. New York: MJF Books, 1991. Print.

—-. You Only Live Twice. New York: New American Library, 1965. Print.

Jackson, Margaret. “‘Facts of Life’ or the eroticization of women’s oppression? Sexology and the social construction of heterosexuality.” The Cultural Construction of Sexuality. Ed. Caplan P. New York: Routledge, 1993. 73. Print.

Miller, Toby. “James Bond’s Penis.” The James Bond Phenomenon: A Critical Reader. Ed. Lidner, C. Manchester and New York: Manchester University P, 2003. 233. Print.

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  1. A really fresh way to look at Bond – thanks for the insight.

  2. Billy Hunter

    Wow, thought I knew everything about Bond. Guess I was wrong!

  3. I actually think the whole Daniel Craig series of films has been quite interesting and are in fact the first non-appalling Bond films to have ever been made. People who like the previous ones remind me of people who think the Carry-On films are funny (ironically of course) as opposed to just infantile crap for morons.

    The first two Craig films portray Bond as an unpleasant socio/psychopath who says he doesn’t have any friends, but is ruthlessly effective in performing his role: that of killing people. It’s not realistic, in terms of his survival when 20 people are firing machine guns at him or whatever, but it’s not childish in the sense that the previous films were. Bond is called out by M in the previous two films, for getting women killed, by his somewhat cavalier attitude to putting them in danger. He should probably come with some sort of health warning, as sleeping with him seems to result in death more often than not, however I think the films have gone from being misogynist themselves, to having a misogynist hero within them, and if that’s not progress I don’t know what is! However, I would think the box office success of Skyfall is probably less to do with a feminist awakening among blokey Bond fans and more to do with the carpet-bombing stype marketing campaign, the likes of which I don’t think I’ve ever seen/heard/felt before.

  4. Bond lives in a fantasy world, where he is virtually superhuman, bulletproof and defying he laws of gravity.

  5. Neil Clark

    Plenty of my female friends liked Skyfall because they fancy Daniel Craig. His torso seems more important than his character’s vulnerability. They seem entirely at ease with objectifying his hypermasculinity, which means I intend to enjoy the delectable women with a clear conscience.

    • Joe Holland

      Plenty of my male friends liked Skyfall because they fancy Daniel Craig.

    • Carrie Fich

      I enjoyed Skyfall a lot more than I was expecting to, but a couple of the time-honoured Bond tropes really need to go. The ethnically exotic doxie who falls for Bond and gets killed was already a pretty dodgy power fantasy when Fleming wrote the books: it looks like the Stone Age now.

      • ERik Porter

        Things have changed with this new Bond. This is made clear in the first Daniel Craig film where it is Bond himself who emerges from the sea half naked as a gym bunny sex object rather than an Ursula Andress or equivalent. In the new film Bond has a very perfunctory seduction of the ‘Bond girl’ who is then almost immediately bumped off, there is instead a much more effective gay scene between Bond and the villain.
        A far cry from the novel of Goldfinger where one female character is killed off for being gay and resisting Bond’s charms, whilst her gay lover is cured of her lesbianism by a good seeing to from James.

        Interesting that the film writers have re-modelled the character’s looks and personality to appeal to modern times and a wider market (eg gay men and women who hadn’t previously enjoyed the movies.)
        There is danger here for me though, a politically correct Bond is potentially a disaster, so the writing needs to tread a narrow path…

  6. H

    Nice article–makes me think of the contrast there must be when studio execs watch the film and think, “this is great!” and people in the audience are laughing saying,”this is ridiculous” yet both groups are happy with the product. I’m interested to see what happens in the next bond films seeing as strong female protagonists are becoming more desired than ever before.

    • Joe Holland

      I’ll be interested to see how they fill the gap that Judi Dench is leaving. Without her as M the female roles in the films will be restricted to what they have been for the past 50 years. I’m sure they will come up with something.

  7. Mclaugh

    Ludicrous male fantasies the women in Bond films might have been, but even going back to the 60s and 70s films there are female pilots, agents, scientists, astronauts…
    Now compare that to the ludicrous female fantasy of woman-oriented films – just as obsessed with appearance, unrealistically lucrative desk job, great shoes, days spent mostly shopping or chatting over lattes, baby which interferes with none of those things, but ultimate true happiness is found only with Mr Right (they usually end up getting rescued by a man, only instead of mortal peril the danger is unhappy spinsterdom) – which is really more empowering?
    Don’t misunderstand me, I agree the less casual attitude to women in Bond is a good thing, but in terms of inspiring women to achieve things in their own right, to look at ambitions beyond material possessions and a great husband, it’s arguable there are more positive role models in traditionally male genres like action and comic-book stuff than there are in romantic comedies.
    Sorry about the slight related rant.

  8. I thought that this was an interesting and cerebral article about the classic spy, James Bond. I think we can learn more by watching the movies again and rereading the books and analyzing them for hidden references.

  9. I thought that this was an interesting and cerebral article about the classic spy, James Bond. I think we can learn more by watching the movies again and rereading the books and analyzing them for hidden references. Thank you for the interesting retrospective.

  10. Fleming had a lot of sexual desires and fantasies that I think he was able to sublimate through these books. He worked for British intelligence during World War Two and he had an encounter with a women who was in the service and he developed feelings for her, but she tragically died. He created bond in his image. Bond was the man he saw himself as, or at least wanted to be. In a way, Bond was his means of experiencing the excitement, sex, and adventure that he could have had during his service.

  11. I never thought of Bond as a satirical figure before. I always imagined him to be a kind of wish-fulfillment play-thing for Fleming himself, but reading this article has given me some food for thought. Definitely interesting that, when M was a woman, it could be argued that his subservience to ‘the group’ was magnified tenfold, as he was taking orders, not just from above, but from someone belonging to the group he, as you assert, exercised power over: women. Either way, interesting stuff.

    • Joe Holland

      Thanks! Judi Dench definitely adds a layer to the entire scheme. It’ll be interesting to see what direction they take the franchise now that she’s not around.

  12. WesleyHicks

    I’ve never liked Bond (the movies).

    Materialistic, fatous, sexist, anti orange jumpsuit underground volcano freelance army worker…. …whatever.

    I’ve enjoyed the big iconic action scenes ,of course, and some of the memorable characters as they are part of the entertainment cultural landscape.

    In general, I think that it is good what they are trying to do withe the franchise; inject more emotional realism, relationship and story dynamics etc.

  13. It’s good to see someone actually apply close-reading to Fleming, especially since “You Only Live Twice” is likely the strangest and richest of the Bond books, one where Bond is indeed stripped of everything that makes him Bond.

    It’s definitely true that most scholars have understood the Fleming/Bond as traditionally misogynistic and sexist. Christine Bold’s essay is exemplary in that regard, a case of data-mining in order to support a pre-determined thesis (Bond as unrelenting subjugator of women).
    I think that if Fleming were really interested in traditional misogyny, then he made a mistake in giving his heroines more resourcefulness, independence, and intelligence than they needed. He could have simply portrayed them as bimbos, as in the truly misogynistic Bond films of the early 70s. As it is, Kissy in YOLT was not the first strong woman in the Bond novels to rescue Bond, nor the first he falls in love with, nor the first sexually aggressive heroine. (Readers are directed towards Tiffany Case in “Diamonds Are Forever,” Honeychile Ryder in “Dr. No,” Domnino Vitali in “Thunderball,” and Tracy di Vincenzo in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.”)

    You make an excellent point regarding Bond’s constrained identity as an organization man (which sets him apart from the gentleman-amateur heroes of the previous decades), though Bond tends to be more contemptuous of his orders and rebellious in the movies. And I think movie Bond is probably more deserving of being called a character “who seeks to win back his masculinity by subjecting women to countless sexual advances.” The literary Bond is a gentler, more chivalric character, and in comparison to Connery’s Bond much less of a sexual predator (and less of a cad than Moore’s Bond).

    I’m not sure if Bond is “so over-reliant on traditional masculine roles that he should not possibly be attractive to actual women.” Perhaps there’s support for that in “Casino Royale,” when Vesper is warned by her superiors that Bond is cold and harsh and that she shouldn’t have romantic relations with him. Fleming purposely made Bond cold and harsh in the first book–toward the end Bond falls in love and threatens to become a more human being, rather than a “beautiful machine,” until the tragic climax intervenes. But as the series went on, Bond nevertheless became more human–in YOLT Bond is a much more vulnerable and warmer character than in CR.

    As for Bond’s substance abuse, that actually catches up to him on occasion. He suffers a mighty hangover in “Moonraker” and in “Thunderball” gets packed off to a health farm, which actually does him some good. That aside, Bond’s ability to smoke and drink and still be functional/attractive is part of the male fantasy element of the books. It’s a convention, like how every beautiful women in the books eventually finds Bond attractive.

    I don’t think Fleming was necessarily satirizing Bond’s masculinity. But I think the nature of that masculinity has been caricatured by socially well-meaning critics. Perhaps that partly explains why there have yet to be any first-rate scholarly studies of Fleming.

  14. I found this an intriguing article. Ian Fleming took an abiding and not entirely explained dislike to the architect Erno Goldfinger, whose name he borrowed without permission. When Goldfinger threatened to sue, Fleming considered substituting “Goldprick”. The phallic theme continues…

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