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Is James Bond loathsome?

Roger Moore, Daniel Craig and Sean Connery as Bond

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

When a new Bond film comes out, it is invariably to a frenzy of positive press coverage far outweighing that given to any other mere action flick. But is it okay to hate James Bond?

Maybe it's in the line "Bond, James Bond". Maybe it's the way a raised eyebrow is enough to captivate the most combative alpha-woman. But there's something that makes some people hate the Bond phenomenon.

The journalist Paul Johnson started it all, with his famous 1958 New Statesman review of Ian Fleming's novel, Dr No, entitled "Sex, snobbery and sadism".

Ideologically, none of us should like the Bond films they are sexist, heterosexist, xenophobic, everything that is not politically correct
Prof James Chapman
Bond expert

The key ingredients were "the sadism of a schoolboy bully, the mechanical two-dimensional sex-longings of a frustrated adolescent, and the crude snob-cravings of a suburban adult". The review got Johnson into trouble, he recalls, 50 years on.

"Shortly after I published that piece I found myself sitting at dinner next to Annie Fleming, who was Ian Fleming's wife, and she gave me a tremendous [ticking off] and rapped me over the knuckles with her spoon. I thought she was well suited to be married to the creator."

The first charge that has to be levelled at Bond is the curious attitude towards sex and women.

On the one hand, women often get interesting roles as crusading goodies and marauding baddies. On the other hand, they seem barely to get going before they are harpooned or shot.

'Sewer of misogyny'

Then there's the portrayal of sex. Whole generations of teenage boys have had to cope with the realisation that the real world does not contain legions of Honeychile Riders and Mary Goodnights, eager to please.

Novelist Bidisha, author of Venetian Masters, is one of the Bondophobes, having written of her hatred of the spy franchise.

"Ian Fleming hates women and I don't buy into anything to do with that," she says. "The Bond films are generally sexist. I don't like anything that descends from a sewer of misogyny."

Sean Connery and Ursula Andress in a publicity still for Dr No
Some believe that the Bond franchise offers strange view of womankind

Then there's the allegation of racism, or at the very least xenophobia that rears its head. The baddies are never English. Even when they appear English, they turn out to secretly have German or eastern European heritage.

In one of his works on Bond, Kingsley Amis wrote that it seemed that no Englishman could be found doing anything wrong. All the villains were foreign.

And there's something else about the baddies. They always have a dodgy eye, a medical condition or an odd scar to really hammer home their evil outsider status.

Their foreignness squares with the line of interpretation that sees the Bond novels and films as a reassertion of Englishness or Britishness in a world where Britain was suddenly losing its empire and struggling to find a new role.

"It's not racial superiority, it's cultural superiority," says Professor James Chapman, of Leicester University, author of Licence to Thrill, a Cultural History of the James Bond Films.

And of course, if the films were truly hostile to women and foreigners, how would one explain why both flock to them in droves?

Brand fetishisation

"Ideologically, none of us should like the Bond films. They are sexist, heterosexist, xenophobic, everything that is not politically correct," says Prof Chapman.

"Either the audience don't notice these ideological issues or the films provide a different kind of pleasure."

But the third major charge against our superspy is harder to excuse - excessive brand usage. Fleming's novels were full of name checks for products. Bond drank Smirnoff vodka and Dom Perignon champagne and wore a Rolex. But the film franchise has taken this to even greater lengths. In the run-up to a Bond release the tie-ins come in thick and fast. Bond watches Sony televisions. Bond flies Virgin Atlantic. In Die Another Day he changed his mind on the vodka issue and preferred Finlandia.

Pierce Brosnan next to a car
Why bother with ejector seats when you can have a car that goes invisible?

It reached a nadir in Casino Royale when Bond, best known for Aston Martins, suddenly decided he fancied a drive in a Ford Mondeo.

But the purpose these brand adverts served in the Fleming novels wasn't as a generator of filthy lucre, but rather as an indicator of class. Bond was posh, not too posh, but just posh enough to get on in life in a suave manner. In the years of post-war privation, his choice of marmalade and grooming products showed that.

"Those were real indicators of social value and cachet," says Prof Chapman. "But these days you can buy your posh jam from the supermarket. These kind of snob value indicators don't have the kind of cultural resonance that they had in the 1960s."

Then there's the issue of Bond's representation of spying. For Bond it appears to consist almost entirely of global travel and a relaxing espionage itinerary featuring only minimal interruption to the poolside cocktails.

At the heart of any execration of Bond is the formulaic nature of the films. Rich but psychologically flawed mastermind builds big base at sea/under dormant volcano/in space. James Bond despatched by M to spy on rich but psychologically flawed mastermind. Conspiracy uncovered with minimal detective work, leaving plenty of time for bedroom activities. Bond captured but still manages to destroy rich but psychologically flawed mastermind. The end.

Over-elaborate killing

The dots are never really joined. If these baddies have already got enough money to build massive subterranean bases and purchase matching jumpsuits for their armies of henchmen, why do they carry on plotting?

And why do they always decide to kill Bond in a stupidly elaborate way? There's a whole internet cult, the Evil Overlord List dedicated to dealing with the kind of silliness that sees Bond doing battles with sharks or squid, or tied up and left to die, after being told the full details of the mastermind's conspiracy.

The last charge to aim at Bond relates to just how seriously these films are taken. Very is the answer. There are oodles of academic treatises analysing the cultural importance of the books and the films.

Bond's defenders will point to the humour of the films, insist that nothing is really taken seriously, that it's all a bit of fun.

But there is a very fine line between tongue-in-cheek and just plain stupid. Moonraker crossed that with its ludicrous let's-have-the-climactic-fight-in-space schtick. And there have been some ridiculous gadget moments. The invisible car in Die Another Day left even fans wincing.

And it's that underlying seam of corniness that is the real problem with Bond. The political incorrectness can be forgiven, or even celebrated, but the lurking silliness cannot.

Below is a selection of your comments:

James Bond is nothing more than an adolescent boy's wet dream. Expensive cars, sexy women with really stupid names, villains with cranky medical condition, and lots of explosion and car chase. Yawn. Daniel Craig, however, managed to pull it off. He is the first Bond who doesn't induce me to vomit.
Wing, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

It wouldn't be entertaining if it wasn't over the top, brash and down right corny.
Warus, Birmingham

Oh please, like pirates of the Caribbean wasn't "silly" too? Would you say that Jack Sparrow was loathsome, sexist etc. and that plots involving curses or falling off the edge of the world were "just plain stupid"? This article is little more than journalistic "trolling".
Franchesca Mullin, Belfast, Northern Ireland

Bond films ended up sending themselves up, it was all getting so ridiculous - when Judy Dench's M called Bond a "sexist misogynist dinosaur" that about said it all. Then the Austin Powers series pretty much put a lid on it (especially the ludicrous ways of - not - killing Bond).
Stephen Gidney, Norwich UK

All well and good. Except Bond is Scottish NOT English.
Gordon, Zürich, Switzerland

As a man I have no problem with Bond, I and other men understand it's just a bit of fun and escapism. It's just another attack on male culture by sad politically correct, limp-wristed, hand-ringing liberals. Just accept if for what it is a bit of escapist fun. If you don't like it then don't watch it. If you must look for sexism then analyse soap operas like Coronation Street and EastEnders. It's an anti-male rant for the 30 minutes.
Mike, Liverpool

So essentially the author is unhappy that a few so called "academics" treat the Bond films as some sort of high-art... Guess what? It's not! It's pointless fun! I'm not surprised to see someone publishing an article slamming Bond films with the premier of Quantum of Solace coming up this weekend. Cheap trick to get readers... tut tut, shame on you.
Kidder, Derby, UK

Bond films have always left me cold. I take offence at the sexism and can not see the point in most of the plots! Of their time they were great books. They are no longer of their time, they are outdated. Let them RIP as so many of the characters in the films are left to do after Bond has his way.....
Rebecca Heath, Worthing, West Sussex

I've never liked James Bond. Its always baffled me as to why he could possibly be so popular. The films aren't great by any standards with the over the top stunts & the way JB practically stumbles over some massive world-conquering plot and then quells it. Often without even breaking a sweat.
Fred, Bristol

Isn't the underlying silliness the key to it all? With that it portrays a day beyond our gritty ordinary lives, full of mortgages and the school run, showing us glamour, adventure, and escapism that otherwise we wouldn't have. Inherently it all has to be about entertainment, and let's face it, for all cinema verite is great, there are times when I want James Bond much more than "I am curious (yellow)". If the author is looking for a sombre, serious James Bond who is a true mirror of society then they're welcome to it.
Ulrich Zwingli, Croydon, UK

I agree! I'm currently writing a book about Jing Bindi, an ethnic Pakistani-Chinese lesbian single mother from Belgium who joins MI6 and saves the world by tracking down disgruntled middle class British citizens, listening empathically to their issues and then persuading them with empassioned emotional appeals to just get along with everyone. Does anyone want to read it? Anyone at all?
Mark Saunders, Bath, England

Short and simple, how can millions of people all over the world be wrong? Bond has updated his image with the times, there may even be a female Bond one day. People don't always want reality at the cinema that's why they go. Bond Forever.
Paul, Caerphilly

I used to think that there was nothing wrong with James Bond that a good kick in the happy sacks couldn't sort out. However, although I got my wish in Casino Royal, it seems that I was wrong given that ends the film the same sexist, charmless SOB. Still, I take comfort from the fact that any so-called alpha female who succumbs to his "charms" after Casino Royal will find it a - ahem - stunted experience.
Charlotte, London, UK

The books were juvenille, poorly-written rubbish and the films are pretty much the same. If your voice has broken and you find yourself still liking James Bond, then get either a) a girlfriend or b) help.
007 and 3/4, Dreamland

Sure. It's fine to hate James. I can't stand the music of Paul McCartney .... how's that for heresy !!!
Mark, Haslemere

Surely the very nature of working for MI6 means that the baddies will always be foreign. Any English baddies would be dealt with by MI5
Matt, Plymouth

But surely the 'lurking silliness' is the only reason we still love the films, and can forgive the ridiculous and occasionally offensive political incorrectness!!
Penny, London

It surprises people from an otherwise unreconstructed Neanderthal like me, but I've always been revolted by Bond and all he (or at least his films) stand for with their nasty misogyny and small-boy (and small-something else) power fantasies of fast cars and pyromania
Andrew Schofield, London UK

Although it is impossible to avoid the trailers, I am proud to say I have never seen any of these stupid films. It is escapist nonsense of the worst sort.
Charles Markuss, Bolton, UK

Ah, I was so pleased to see this article. I can't stand James Bond and it seems that I cannot even mention this to some people, it is a religion for them. Curiously, they are some of the same people who ridicule Star Trek fans. Thank you, BBC for a wonderful article.
Glampers, Scotland UK

It's a fictional book and movie that provides a good read and a good watch (most of the times. Moonraker was dire). People really over analyse things and are so easily offended!!!!!!! I for one love them!
Andrew, Belfast

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