Is James Bond loathsome?
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 "**** 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
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."
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.
"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.
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.
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 cd 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.