Posted by: Jeff | April 13, 2010

Women in a James Bond World: A Review of Casino Royale

I recently had the opportunity to read Casino Royale (1953), the novel by Ian Fleming that started the franchise that has since spawned over 20 films and established one of the most famous characters in all the world: James Bond.  I’ve seen my share of the films, and was blown away by the reinvention of the series by 2006’s Casino Royale prequel, starring Daniel Craig as a more human and emotional Bond.

So I was interested to see what depth, if any, the book lent the character.  And, much to my dismay, I discovered that Fleming’s Bond is perhaps even more shallow than the one frolicking across the world on the silver screen.  Indeed, having access to the internal monologue of Bond’s thoughts proves an unwelcome intrusion into a world shrouded not so much by moral doubt as by confused gender politics.

To be clearer, the misogyny in the novel is somewhat overwhelming.  For those who have seen the film, Vesper is an Aristotelian tragic hero, a figure noble and serene in appearance and action, whose singular deep flaw leads to a path of destruction.  Vesper is motivated to betray Bond out of love for her betrothed, kidnapped by a ruthless crime syndicate (or, in the book, the Soviet Union) that threatens to kill him without the complicity of Vesper.  Her actions are from the start confused and the result of clouded moral judgment in the face of acute emotional stress.

In the film, Daniel Craig’s Bond treats Vesper tenderly.  When she is confronted with violence and visibly reacts, he comforts her.  When she is torn by indecision and internal torment, he is patient.  More than professing his feelings toward her, he shows them.  And at the end of the film, when Vesper’s treason is revealed, Bond does the remarkable: he forgives her, acknowledging that her actions were not chosen but forced upon her by a greater force that eventually consumed her and took her life.

What a startling contrast the book provides, then.  In the novel, Fleming’s Bond rarely views Vesper as an individual.  Upon learning that she has been assigned as support for his mission, Bond grumbles that women are not qualified to conduct men’s work.  After meeting her and noticing her beauty, Bond ponders both physical violence and rape.  He openly admits to himself that his intention is merely to sleep with her.  When later rebuffed, he grows frustrated, and contemplates forcing the issue in her hotel room.  As he begins to notice Vesper’s odd behavior, he chalks it up to the deceitful nature of women.  And finally, upon learning the full weight of her betrayal, Bond jumps in the opposite direction of forgiveness – he distances himself through objectifying her, denouncing any emotional connection he may have felt to pronounce that “the bitch is dead.”

Clearly these are two different Bonds.

The novel was written in 1953, and while it is certainly true that social norms have changed drastically since then, it is worth noting that the Bond film franchise has enjoyed a healthy reputation for misogyny as well – some have noted that while several Bond films forgo the need for an evil villain, none have passed on providing a “Bond Girl” for audiences to savor.  In fact, the search for the female actress who will next portray one of Bond’s conquests is highly scrutinized, drawing as much attention as any other facet of the film’s production.

A study in the journal Sex Roles (via Marginal Revolution) suggests that recent Bond movies have proven even more misogynistic than the originals in the series.  The physical characteristics of Bond Girls have remained largely the same – however, the way they are portrayed and treated has devolved – specifically as they relate to sexual activity and violence:

“Sexual activity is predicted by race, attractiveness, size of role, and aggressive behaviors. Being a target of weapons is predicted by size of role, sexual activity, and weapon use, while being harmed is predicted principally by role. End-of-film mortality is predicted by sexual activity, ethical status (good vs. bad), and attempting to kill Bond. This identification of a link between sexuality and violent behavior is noted as a contribution to the media and sex roles literatures.”

The stereotypical misogynistic sex-type attitudes portrayed by Bond in recent films lends itself society’s normalized notions of gender roles, according to the authors.  In the novel, where readers have intimate access to Bond’s internal thoughts regarding women – and Vesper, a woman he wants to marry, in particular – these hierarchies are even more pronounced.

It is interesting to note that this recent study examines only 20 Bond films – of the 22 released, only the two most recent are omitted by the authors.  This is an interesting caveat because it seems that the reinvented Bond is far more empathetic to Vesper, treats women with some amount of deference, and shows a Bond clearly devastated not by Vesper’s betrayal, but by her death.  In the sequel to Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, Bond is drawn to another woman because of, and not in spite of, his lost love for Vesper.  Truly, this is a feminized version of the franchise and one that will hopefully reverse a lot of damage to gender norms that the old Bond (and Sir Ian Fleming) spread across the world.


Responses

  1. Is that a sweat stain on James’ shirt or some kind of stitching detail?

  2. The books are a product of their time and of Fleming’s own personality, which was rooted in an essentially Imperialistic mindset. By contemporary standards the Bond books are racist and mysogynist but it would be interesting to see if reviewers at the time commented on those aspects or if they simply accepted Fleming’s world view.
    Reading them now I find they provide an interesting insight into attitudes of the time and to give Fleming credit where credit is due, he knew how to craft a plot, weave atmosphere (his description of the submerged airplane in Thunderball is terrific) and create suspense.
    I thought Casino Royale the movie was a very effective update on the original story.

    • I think you are right that it is useful to look at the film not as an update on the book – in many ways the movie is pretty upfront about the fact that they have changed things. They acknowledged from the start that this movie would stand apart from previous films as a restart and not a continuation of the same Bond character. As such, we now have a younger, greener Bond than in either the books or the previous films, and one that is living in a post-Cold War world with very different social norms.

      As for Fleming’s other books, I’m finding myself intrigued to read some of them to see if some of these patterns continue, or whether Bond’s relationship with Vesper is, like in the movies, somewhat different than his relationships with the other women that are so prolific in his world.

  3. I’m not persuaded that Daniel Craig’s Bond shows a more enlightened attitude towards women at all. As disgusted as Fleming’s Bond’s internal monologue is, he certainly does the bare minimum of his duty to be vaguely gentlemanly.

    Craig’s Bond’s supposed tenderness and empathy, prior to the formation of his relationship with Vesper may be nothing more than an updated version of the bare minimum (caveat: in Quantum of Solace, the idea of his greater humanity is more developed, but that’s unfair to bring into the comparison since there is no Fleming counterpart).

    The huge difference is in the updated perspective of the narrator/director. Through M and through camerawork, we the audience are led to disapprove of Bond’s casual use of a Bad Guy Girlfriend (another Bond stock character), and applaud Bond when he comes around to truly love Vesper. Fleming instead encourages us to think less of Bond for falling under the spell of “the bitch.”

    • You’ve raised two very good points that I didn’t consider. First, film Bond operates in a different time period obviously, but he also interacts with women in a different way. The mere fact that M is a woman in the movie shows that Bond has at least some ability to work with women in a professional setting. Women are no longer mere sexual objects in other words – they can also be in positions of power. This subtle reconfiguration of the workplace is a nod to the sexual revolution and gender politics of the 60’s and 70’s, where general attitudes about women in the media (supposedly) underwent a shift.

      Second, it is true that I am unfairly incorporating the Quantum of Solace chapter of the modern Bond story arc. Since Quantum of Solace exists outside the world of the novels, it is a very poor comparison to highlight Bond’s grief, guilt, and search for revenge as a juxtaposition to the novel’s cold ending. Had the novel continued, perhaps we would have seen a Bond admit his grief and repent his callous outward demeanor. In fact, at the end of the Casino Royale film and throughout Quantum, we have a Bond that deflects questions about his emotional state – as an audience we knew that inwardly he was torn up, but his exterior remains cold and calculating. Only Camille Montes (the Olga Kurylenko character) is able to reach the inner tortured Bond.

      Anyway, thanks for the comment and the thoughts – I find myself thinking back on the book more now having read that article than I did after first reading the book.


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