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My racist Action Hero – James Bond

Knowing the reality of a society that had the power to treat you as though you were actually inferior, but knowing within yourself that you were not, you were thrown into a position in which you were either going to develop a sense of humor or… die of frustration.

– RALPH ELLISON

A few years back I came across another broadcast of Diamonds are Forever. I tuned in on a scene showing the Bond girl being chased into some kind of tent where a magician was performing his legerdemain routines; one of which included the transformation of a scantily dressed black woman held in a cage into a raging gorilla. Back then I instantly felt that something in this scene went entirely wrong. I very vaguely figured there was something about that association of blackness with animality that disturbed me, but I wasn’t really able to put my finger on what it was exactly that struck my as odd.

In this Post I want to look at the strategic deployment of stereotypes and racial signifiers in the James Bond texts. According to Gerd Reinholds “Soziologie-Lexikon” the term “stereotype” describes a pattern of behaviour and thinking that eventually leads to an oversimplification of persons and situations.  This means that the stereotype for itself does not lead to racism, as it is not motivated by vicious preconceptions. Speaking in sociological terms, the stereotype is more of a structure that helps the individual to orientate within society, although it is very likely that the application of stereotypes will result in racism. When I talk about “stereotypes” I am referring to racist stereotypes that whites have about blacks in the first place and only secondly about those that blacks have about whites. James Bond movies and novels tend to use a large variety of stereotypes and wield them directly against Blacks. Ian Fleming’s use of stereotypes makes the conceptual structure of oppression absolutely clear.

Most of these racist stereotypes have their origin in what Sartwell calls “ejected asceticism”; a concept that Whites have unconsciously established “to keep the Nigger runnin’” (Ralph Ellison). “White Americans practice the purification or the mortification of the body by ejecting the body imaginatively into black persons, who become associated with the physical per se: sport, sex, violence, and dance, for instance” (Sartwell). So, while Blacks become connected with instinctive behaviour and nature, whiteness denies its instincts and associates itself with civilization and culture. The “race dichotomy” therefore consists of the two mutually exclusive parts: (1) Black = Nature / (2) White = Mind. The tranformation of the black woman in Diamonds are Forever confirms the race dichotomy: The white mind is able to cast a spell that does not simply transform a black female but also exposes its true nature. A nature that needs to be caged and locked away. Even before the transformation / revelation the woman is inside the cage, lolling seductively in  a bikini – the black body needs to be locked away and ejected because of its inadequate, dirty, alluring features that might otherwise challenge the purified white mind.

Stereotypes used in this way obviously represent an instrument of white supremacy as it deliberatley dehumanizes and degrades blacks to an extend that forces them to ‘duck and hide’. The Live and Let Die plots (Novel and film) are set in Harlem mostly and since both evolve around a black villain plenty of possibilities to touch on racial and racist stereotypes reveal themselves throughout the movie and the novel.

That within blackness lies a sexual threat is obvious. The Live and Let Die texts highlight this point even more explicitly. At one point in the novel we witness Bond and his friend Felix Leiter visit a black club “The Boneyard”. Inside the club a black woman performs a strip act to the sound of drums.

‘And now friends,’ announced the MC, still turned towards the drums, ‘G-G…’ he paused, ‘SUMATRA.’ The door behind the drums flung open and two huge negroes, naked except for gold loincloths, ran out on the floor carrying between them, […] a tiny figure, swathed completely in black ostrich feathers, a black domino across her eyes. Her body was small, hard, bronze, beautiful. It was slightly oiled and glinted in the white light. […] The sweat was shinning all over her now. Her breasts and stomach glistened with it.She broke into great shuddering jerks. Her mouth opened and she screamed softly. […] The drums went on into a hurricane of sexual rhythm. She started to lower her body down on the floor and up again. Faster an faster. Bond could hear the [black] audience panting and grunting like pigs at a trough. He felt his own hands gripping the tablecloth. His mouth was dry. The audience began to shout at her. ‘Cmon. Grind, Baby, grind.’ She sank to her knees and as the rhythm slowly died so she went into a last series of juddering spasms, mewing softly. (Fleming)

From the very beginning of this excerpt the race dichotomy is not only kept intact but supported in many ways. The strippers name Sumatra links her black beauty directly to the natural wilderness of the jungle. Her being attached to nature is also emphasized through the fact that she dances to the sound of such primitive and rudimentary instruments like drums – the arch-stereotype-instrument concerning blackness. The one-dimensional depiction of Sumatra turns out to be the incarnation of the “stereocentred”  race dichotomy.

2 thoughts on “My racist Action Hero – James Bond

  1. I’m white, so maybe my opinion doesn’t matter, but I think you’re looking too hard into that scene where the black woman „transforms“ into a gorilla. It was an obvious stage act, and the fact the woman performer was black means nothing.

    I think what should be pointed out, though, is that black house servant statue with big pink lips that’s in Bond’s hotel suite. You know, when he and Tiffany are in bed, and Bond goes to answer the upstairs door, and it’s Felix. The statue is right beside the door. I finally noticed it during one of my regular Bond marathons.

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