Queering James Bond

I’ve just got back from watching Skyfall. Twice. I was kinda double-booked this weekend. There’s a great scene in it where the villain, Silva, captures Bond. He ties him to a chair in a pose painfully reminiscent of his unforgettable encounter with Le Chiffre in Casino Royale, and proceeds to examine the scar of a bullet wound on Bond’s shoulder. But then the mood changes, his touch turns lingering, he undoes a button too many on his shirt. He trails his fingers delicately over Bond’s skin. He leans in close, hands on Bond’s thighs, and tells him, There must be a first time for everything…

Deadpan, Bond looks back. What makes you think this is my first time?

I’m working (off and on and more the former than the latter) on an epic analysis of the Bond canon. I call it epic because it’s been on the backburner for about three years.

I know what you’re thinking – James Bond, what’s radical about that? He’s so straight he’s gay. If ever there were a lady protesting too much, there she goes, with a dinky little Beretta tucked into her bra shoulder holster. (Hey, it wasn’t me who called it a “ladies’ gun”…).

Okay I’ll behave now. Now I’m not going to give away all my secrets, because I do intend to write that book one day. But, just for the curious among you, here’s a little taster of what’s queer about a very British secret agent…

We’re going to start at the end, with The Man With the Golden Gun. The last and, – in my opinion – most significant book in the canon. Bond returns to England from a brief spell living on a Japanese island as a fisherman following a small bout of insomnia, via a journey through Russia during which he was captured by the enemy and brainwashed. He rocks up at MI6 and promptly makes an aborted attempt on M’s life. To atone for his disgrace, M decides to send Bond on a make-or-break mission: to kill a hitman called Scaramanga.

Now Scaramanga might seem like small fry compared with Spectre and Smersh and Blofeld, which begs the question, why him? What could possibly be so significant about a small-time Caribbean crook that makes him the ultimate adversary? Because he must be significant. This is Fleming’s farewell to his hero, his last stand: so why not have him go out in a blaze of glory, defeating Russia, saving the world, Rule Britannia? Why a grubby showdown in a marshy swamp taking out a globally insignificant foe?

The small threat posed by Scaramanga on the global stage makes this an unusual novel. As Bond himself acknowledges, Scaramanga is a “frog in a small pond”. Why then introduce him at this crucial stage in the series? It is my contention that Scaramanga is introduced to address and resolve elements of Bond’s character that Fleming has only alluded to in earlier novels.
We are introduced to Scaramanga via his Secret Service file, in particular a character assessment complied by ‘C.C.’, a psychologist used by the service to analyse those who fall on the Service’s radar. Reading between the lines, C.C. himself is queer, and he offers the now-infamous hypothesis that a man who cannot whistle has homosexual tendencies – and Scaramanga cannot whistle. C.C. cheekily suggests that those reading his notes test the validity of that theory for themselves. M, reading the file, promptly whistles.That action by M does not prove his heterosexuality – it does not follow, even if it were true that non-whistlers had homosexual tendencies, that all whistlers are heterosexual. Moreover, C.C. has suggested that his readers test the rule – and the only way to test a rule is to attempt to disprove it. M’s whistling, therefore, suggests more that he is queer than that he isn’t.

Scaramanga, then, is overtly queered by C.C. before we have even met him. He is described as fetishistic, elevating his gun fixation to a phallic obsession; a man fussy in his habits and manners. In short, effete.

That these parallels have been drawn is hugely significant because Scaramanga basically is Bond; his doppelgänger. Bond also takes his obsession with guns to the point of fetish; Bond too is fussy (he actually describes himself as “old maid-ish” about food); Bond is the man, let us not forget, who lit his seventieth cigarette of the day. If that’s not an oral fixation, I don’t know what is.

When C.C. urges his readers to look to Freud to learn the truth about the man he is studying, we have to believe that Fleming was urging his readers to do exactly the same thing – and not just with Scaramanga.

Bond catches up with Scaramanga at a brothel in Jamaica (in Love Lane, read into that what you will…), where Scaramanga picks him up and offers him a ‘job’. Bond goes willingly. Now remember that Scaramanga’s death is the only thing standing between Bond and redemption; that he needs no information from him, there is no dastardly plan to foil. This is the simplest remit he’s ever been given. Find him, kill him, go home.

So why, when he’s sitting in the car in the seat behind Scaramanga, doesn’t he put his gun to the back of his head and kill him? He certainly considers it, but talks himself out of it with arguments that sound weak even to his own ears. He’d probably have to kill the driver as well; Scaramanga might be up to something bigger than anyone realised; he doesn’t like killing in cold blood.

Scaramanga takes Bond back to a hotel that he’s in the process of building and installs him in the room next to his own. He has employed Bond as his bodyguard for the duration of a series of meeting with the investors in the hotel – some of the biggest crime bosses in the world. The American gangs, the Mafia and the Russians are all in attendance at this little nondescript hotel in the swamps of the Caribbean. After a party that evening Bond notices that Scaramanga has vanished to his room with a young lady who performed a not-so-ladylike act with a model hand during the evening’s entertainment. Bond retires, alone, to his own room.

Bond’s secretary then appears and clambers through his window, making enough noise in the process to wake the dead. Bond, belatedly realising he’s sprung out of bed naked, grabs a towel and drags her into the bathroom, turning the shower on to mask their conversation, because the poor little airhead was worried about him being alone with the big, bad man. Scaramanga has, of course, heard her come in and bursts into Bond’s bedroom through a door connecting their two rooms. Convenient. Bond hustles the girl back out the window and then comes a very interesting little spat between the two men, where Scaramanga demands to know if Bond was having sex with her and Bond replies that yes, he was, but that’s none of Scaramanga’s business when he’d been sleeping with the girl from the show.

Let’s just go back and picture that scene. Bond, naked save for a small towel, sat on his bed in the dark, the reassuring weight of his gun against his thigh. Scaramanga, also in a state of undress, his own pistol aimed directly at Bond while the two of them bicker about whether or not they have a right to be offended that the other has taken a girl to bed. That Bond was lying about sleeping with the girl we know for a fact, but we’ve also got to consider the possibility that Scaramanga was using his girl as a beard and that he too was sleeping alone.When we’ve also been told from the offset to consider guns as phallic symbols, the subtext is clear.

The action comes in a showdown on a model train. Tipped off by one of the Russians as to Bond’s true identity, Scaramanga initiates a shoot-out. Just as things are looking black for our hero the cavalry arrives in the form of Felix Leiter, who was also investigating the posse at the hotel and had been working undercover as one of the hotel’s staff. Felix shoots at Scaramanga, winging him, but doesn’t kill him. Bond and Felix jump off the train, but just before it reaches the bridge where Felix has arranged for a little ‘accident’ to befall it, they see Scaramanaga jump off. Bond finds Felix, his leg badly broken from his fall and unable to go on. Felix urges Bond to go after Scaramanga and finish the job.

Here follows another pivotal scene. Felix, in the course of spying on Scaramanga, had wired Bond’s room for sound. He heard their little spat in the middle of the night. He also heard whatever came after, and whatever it was he heard led him to conclude that Bond didn’t want to kill Scaramanga. He tells Bond that he tried to kill Scaramanga for him because he knew he didn’t want to do it. Having failed in his attempt, it now falls to Bond to grow a pair and do the job he was sent to do.

Bond heads off through the swamp and eventually finds Scaramanga lying in a clearing. Bond approaches slowly, keeping himself hidden from Scaramanga’s view while he watches him. He quickly concludes that Scaramanga isn’t seriously hurt and will survive the wound Felix has inflicted. As Bond watches, a snake appears from the undergrowth and approaches Scaramanga, who kills it with a knife. Once dead, Scaramanga ran his hands down the full length of the snake, removed the skin from the red-veined flesh and began eating it, absorbed by his hunger and thirst for the blood and juices. In a novel where we’re primed to look for phallic signifiers, I don’t think Fleming could be any more transparent.

Following a final confrontation between the pair, they both shoot at and hit each other. Indeed, when a policeman finds their bodies in the clearing later that day, he thinks they’re both dead. Bond, however, clings to life. Hit in the abdomen with a bullet laced with snake venom (and if the snake is the phallus then the venom becomes metaphoric of the ejaculate: the snake/gun, bullet/venom pairings blur the distinction between sex and violence; death and petit mort) he is rushed to hospital.

The novel closes with Bond in hospital, recovering from his wound. He and Felix are secretly honoured for their roles in taking down Scaramanga, but the final conversation is between Bond and Felix alone, and once again Scaramanga is the subject. Felix says that he knows Bond never wanted to kill him – that he knows why – but he can’t understand Bond’s feelings towards Scaramanga; moreover he doesn’t want to understand. That final conversation with Felix reads as much like a goodbye as anything else. The conclusion is left with Bond: alone in his room he accepts for the first time that he will never marry again.

In his farewell to his hero, Fleming finally exposes him for who he really is. In his last outing (ha!), Bond becomes once more a man, rather than the machine. Commencing with Casino Royale, we have watched Bond struggle with his conscience throughout the canon, becoming a machine, a blunt instrument, a tool. Killing dehumanised him, he quashed his fears for his soul by becoming the ultimate weapon, a phallic object in his own right. In ending the series Bond is reborn through the death of Scaramanga – and his own near-demise – the two men, so alike, merge; the doppelgänger – long considered a harbinger of death – is himself killed and Bond becomes once more the man, his soul intact, his heart forever changed. The man who leaves the hospital at the end of The Man With the Golden Gun is not the same man who first arrived in the Caribbean to gun down another in cold blood. At the last we finally realise that what Bond had been running from was himself. Confronted with that truth, he finally accepts who he is for the very first time.

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Kate Aaron is the bestselling author of contemporary and fantasy gay romances.
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2 replies on “Queering James Bond”

  1. Lucas H says:

    Brilliant essay! You know, I think Daniel Craig (yum) even hinted at Bond’s sexual ambiguity once in an interview. I would Google for it but I’m at work 🙂

    • Kate Aaron says:

      He did indeed, when he first took the role he read all of the original books and said in an early interview that he thought it was about time Bond had a gay love interest: as an agent he’s trained to use his body however he has to in order to get what he wants, after all…

      And for the pervy, if you want to see Craig lock lips with another man check out Infamous, the Capote film 😉

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