Why did a top-ranking British intelligence official write a letter to the Economist about James Bond?
Yes, really. On September 30, 2017, Alex Younger, the Chief of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), wrote a letter to the editor of the Economist claiming that he would “take the quiet courage and integrity of [John le Carré’s spy-hero] George Smiley over the brash antics of 007, any day.” Younger—who goes by the code name “C”—conceded that the magazine’s readers ultimately would judge for themselves “whether or not a country’s spy fiction provides an accurate guide to the country itself.” He also boasted that, were they not highly classified, stories of the real-world actions of SIS operatives would inspire feelings of glowing national pride.
Younger sent his letter in response to a column the Economist printed on September 9, 2017, under the auspices of the late journalist Walter Bagehot. The columnist argued that British spy novels are the world’s best; they owe their singular beauty to the fact that “spying provides Britain with a way of reclaiming its greatness, by excelling in the most sophisticated form of foreign policy.” Younger, as personal representative of Britain’s “““““shadow government,””””” was only too happy to agree about the extraordinary grace of his agency’s work. However, no one should get the idea that the SIS condones the roguish behavior of one Bond, James Bond. Certainly not!
It’s bizarre, to say the least, that a top-ranking intelligence officer took the trouble to write to an internationally recognized economics magazine about a person who does not exist. James Bond, a stock spy character, was created in 1953 by the novelist and former naval intelligence officer Ian Fleming, appearing first in Casino Royale. Fleming wanted Bond to be “an extremely dull, uninteresting man to whom things happened,” and selected the name James Bond specifically for its dullness, he told the New Yorker in 1962.
Not only is Bond boring, he lives the same story over and over. As the film critic and television commercial director Drew Moniot pointed out in a 1976 article for the Journal of the University Film Association, the Bond franchise owes its success to its repetitive formula. Each movie follows the same basic plot structure—pre-credit sequence, title theme, introductory action sequence, rendezvous with M and Q, then whisk off to various exotic locales for a madcap adventure—adding to it whatever technological, cultural, and stylistic elements are fashionable that year. The point of it all, Moniot explains, is to offer comfort by being exactly the same, indicating “that the existing social system could still be cleaned up rather than being discarded.”
In its quasi-official attempt to distance the SIS from Bond’s silhouette, Younger’s letter echoed an incisive criticism of the Bond property advanced by the literary scholar Christine Berberich in “Putting England Back on Top?” (the Yearbook of English Studies, 2012). Berberich’s article argues that, despite Bond’s immense popularity—case in point, the most recent Bond movie, Spectre (2015), pulled down a worldwide box office gross of more than $880 million—its depiction of Britain as an espionage superpower represents the indulgence of a dangerous fantasy of perpetual hegemony. Berberich writes:
In Fleming’s “nationalist fantasy,” England always takes the leading role. His attitude towards his all-conquering, supremely superior, and always victorious super-spy could, potentially, be read as a mere figment of his imagination, a harmless fantasy, were it not for the nationalist and, by extension, ideological message.
Fleming’s novels, despite his claim for their apolitical content and message, are not only products of their time but also, inevitably, the expression of their creator. In them we can see Fleming’s personal bewilderment at the changing times: the liberation of women, for example, which he welcomes on a purely sexual level but which he fears for the impact it might have on society as a whole; and the rapid decolonization, which saw Britain’s role in the world diminish and his predominantly white England slowly changing into a more multicultural society.
That pretty much says it all: The attitudes reflected in the James Bond franchise are wildly out of touch with social reality.
So, does Bond, undoubtedly the most influential personage in modern British spy fiction, offer any moral compass, “an accurate guide to the country itself?” In speaking to the sadness of Ian Fleming, the person, perhaps; in all other respects, of course not. In an article headlined “Sex, Snobbery, and Sadism” for the British publication the New Statesman from 1958, the journalist Paul Johnson called Fleming’s Dr. No, the sixth James Bond novel, “the nastiest book I have ever read.” The Bond books, he noted, traffic in pornographic language, emphasizing lurid, cheap sexuality as a way of glamorizing a life spent killing for Queen and Country, which Fleming tries to justify with offhanded gestures toward a vaguely utilitarian moral philosophy. Pussy Galore. Shaken, not stirred. And hurry, damn you, British lives are at stake!
Johnson’s sentiments were picked up much later by the novelist and literary critic Chuck Klosterman, who cut Bond down to size in Esquire in 2006. Klosterman claims to have seen only a single Bond movie, 1987’s The Living Daylights, and yet, he says, he has seen all of them. This seeming paradox is possible because of Bond’s universal appeal, i.e., the fact that all Bond movies are basically the same (as Moniot noted).
According to Klosterman, James Bond embodies a hyper-specific yet widely shared masculine fantasy of complete emotionlessness, the kind of trait one would imagine must be necessary to murder with ice in one’s veins. And the core-defining characteristic of James Bond, the character’s psychological route to total apathy, is vicious misogyny, “a staggering fusion of primitive violence with Girls Gone Wild” that impels him to talk to “all attractive women as if they are hookers.” This evidently is a trait many men (and some women) find irresistibly compelling. To be a Bond Girl, thus, is to be treated as a sexual object, to be pressed to accept a status approaching chattel slavery at the hands of a master whose naughty quips will border on criminality—as the name implies.
Alex Younger’s condemnation of Bond may be just a tiny bit disingenuous, in other words. By pressing viewers to deny emotions and trading on common male fantasies of unrestricted sexual access, James Bond effectively functions as a kind of advertisement for the British secret service—mostly seeking political support but not averse to actual enlistment—and it is the longest-running advertisement of its kind.
Eon Productions has made multiple efforts to rehabilitate Bond’s image as an arch-misogynist, each time by selecting a new actor to play the character. In the 1995 Bond movie GoldenEye, the first starring Pierce Brosnan, Eon cast Judi Dench as the new M. When she meets Bond for the first time, she calls him “a sexist, misogynist dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War.” Ah, we sigh, things are going to be different this time; they’re finally going to update the retrograde Bond mindset. But the movie proceeds apace, with all the fetishized sexual violence we’ve come to expect, as though acknowledging the series’ deeply problematic content is the same as changing it.
The same thing happened when Daniel Craig took over the role in Casino Royale (2006). When he first meets Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), a Royal Treasury accountant and the canonical Bond Girl, she gives him an extended dressing down, pointing out that he is but one among many “maladjusted young men” of MI6 “with easy smiles and expensive watches.” She continues: “Now, having just met you, I wouldn’t go so far as calling you a cold-hearted bastard… but it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine you think of women as disposable pleasures rather than meaningful pursuits.” But this lecture is just Eon’s attempt to perform the same trick again—keeping the misogyny going by tipping the hat to its existence. The entire conversation bears a flirtatious undertone that culminates in a passionate relationship between Lynd and 007. She even concludes her Bond Girl Power speech with a remark about Bond’s “perfectly formed ass.”
The communications scholar Robert Arnett, in an article for Film Criticism from 2009, examines Eon’s decision to “reboot” the Bond concept in the superhero era by—what else—recasting Bond as a kind of superhero, which necessitated that Casino Royale make some attempt to soften the misogyny. Following the example of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005), Arnett writes, Casino Royale “also mixes in a darker take on the hero than previously seen in the feature films and suggests maturity through impressions of the hero’s psychological instability (e.g., Bond begins as emotionless assassin and recovers a sense of self with Vesper, but then is damaged by what seems a betrayal).” The point of these psychological machinations, on Arnett’s account, is not to revamp Bond’s basic values, but to appeal to new, younger audiences. Indeed, the 2006 Casino Royale still includes Fleming’s famous last line, the very spirit of 1953: “The job’s done. The bitch is dead.” The attempts at re-branding conceal the series’ fundamental denial of women’s agency.
HOWEVER, a fairly tragic personal history evidently underlies all this misdirected hatred. You can judge for yourself whether it redeems an openly misogynist product that doubles as an advertisement for British espionage: Fleming’s inspiration for Vesper Lynd—and subsequent Bond Girls—was his longtime lover Muriel Wright. Wright, an aristocratic model and polo player when she first started dating Fleming at the age of 21, carried on a nine-year romantic relationship with the author, who frequently cheated on her, though she turned a blind eye. In March 1944, Wright, who served as an air warden in World War II, was killed by Nazis during an air raid. Fleming himself identified Wright’s body, and he felt overcome with guilt over his infidelities. Even knowing this histoire triste, it’s hard to find compassion for Fleming, who seems to have thought that a fitting tribute to Wright’s life would be to refigure her as a tough-talking sex object for mass consumption.
Still, perhaps a total rejection of Fleming is too hasty; perhaps we owe it to ourselves to try to understand the grief that must have filled his heart, leaving him “blinded by inconsolable rage,” to quote Judi Dench’s M in Quantum of Solace (2008). But to find empathy with Fleming, we have no choice but to kill off our empathy with his dearest creation. For lifelong Bond addicts like myself, it should be easy: Years of viewing have prepared us to feel nothing while we do it.