Sexual Subordination in the James Bond Novels: Bond Unbound
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
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 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.
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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