No Time to Die is here, with its accompanying moral panic over Feminism. No James Bond launch — and this is the 25th — is complete without this moral panic. It is, with the list of Aston Martins he will drive, the marketing campaign. It is surely all dreamed up by Bond’s maker Eon Productions, perhaps inside a volcano, because how else do you keep a man who is either 99 or 100 years old (depending on which Bond scholar you ask) relevant in the identity politics age? If you cry sexism, it is evidence of breathing.
Is James Bond sexist? Of course, he is sexist, and has been in every incarnation. He cannot be anything else. Every Bond will speak some platitude about his personal journey towards equality and every new Bond woman will say she is different from the last Bond woman while essentially remaining the same. Everyone in this franchise behaves like a hostage, particularly Daniel Craig, who treats the role like a corset he can’t shift. More than £5 billion in profits will do that to you. Moneypenny may have forsaken a filing cabinet for a gun, and she drools less, but she is still the basic Bond girl of these last 60 years: a beauty. In fact, Moneypenny has got more beautiful. Give me a Moneypenny who looks like a real civil servant, and I will call it progress.
It is true that Bond now has a desolate back story: “He’s very fucking lonely. There’s a great sadness. He’s fucking these beautiful women but then they leave and it’s…sad,” Craig told Esquire magazine before Spectre was released. It is true that M, for a bit, was a woman, in Judi Dench; she even called Bond “a dinosaur”. Yet she managed to overcome this feminine disability by dying in his arms in Skyfall, dinosaur to dinosaur. When W H Auden wrote, “All the dreaded cards foretell / Shall be paid” he could have been talking about M’s death scene. Like all Bond women, she was killed for the crime of being female and was duly replaced by Ralph Fiennes.
Bond can’t change his nature, and he shouldn’t, because then no one would want to buy him. The moral panic is mere denial and excuse, and then we have more of the same. Perhaps this nonsense is nothing more than righteous and repressed shame. Because the critics are right: it is an Imperialist fantasy without responsibility, down to the dregs. Bond is the drowsing dream of Ian Fleming, a sometime intelligence officer and, laughably, Sunday Times executive. Bond was spat out by a newspaper back bench, then, and he makes sense that way: it is another revenge of the nerd. Bond, in this reading, is a British cousin to the super-heroes who sprouted in America at the same time; a Batman without bats. Fleming, though, named his fantasy self after an ornithologist called James Bond, whose Birds of the West Indies was on his bookshelf at Goldeneye. This is a nod to the universalism of this fantasy: if an ornithologist can be a secret agent with a secret life, who can’t?
Almost no one is exempt from Bond’s power. Kingsley Amis, for example, a very serious novelist, wrote a Bond novel — Colonel Son — and a guide to the novels called The James Bond Dossier which includes a chapter called, simply, Beautiful Firm Breasts. And that, squeaks about equality in the entertainment press aside, is it: Beautiful Firm Breasts. Possibly with the chapter: Cars. The only comforting thing is that women do not have a similarly sculpted dreamworld. Perhaps we do not need one.
I do not find Bond a suitable proxy for discussing Feminism, because he is both fictional and absurd. Perhaps it is because he gets a new head and body when he threatens to get old, like Dr Who, and is thus a victim of ageism like his women. Rather than free women from Bond, should we not consider freeing Bond from himself? I have always longed for a self-aware Bond film with an ancient, crabby spy — all sex and murder stripped out — played, perhaps, by Paul Scofield but he is dead, and it is too late. If you seek something trying to be this profound, try season 10 of Spooks.
The Bond of my childhood was no more than a pun: Roger Moore (later Sir Roger Moore, which is both better, and worse). This name, being real, is more stupid than that of any Bond woman. They are sometimes named for body parts or sexual positions or sexual acts: Holly Goodhead, Pussy Galore, Xenia Onatop and Octopussy, the fantasy woman with eight fantasy vaginas, and not a serious point about Feminism in any of them. Then there were the chat-up lines. Can you be punned into bed? Maybe by a husband, and Bond wasn’t one for long. Mrs Bond lived less than an hour by my watch.
Can you oppress women by naming them after puns, or film classification categories, or sex positions or sex acts? You can try, but only if you aren’t looking for oppression in other, duller places, by which I mean real life. Bond’s obsession with his relationship to women is another signpost of the silliness of the age: it is easier to deal with fictional sexism and fictional crimes than real ones, and it is obviously more fun. But we cannot pretend it is a serious undertaking. It is only more of that terrible modern sickness: treating cinema as reality.
If you seek a serious analysis of Bond and women, I have this: he is effectively a necrophile because dead women don’t have needs, and his treatment of women is less a grope lingering from the Carry On era than a complete erasure, but most novelists want to be alone, and Fleming was no different.