To what extent can James Bond's career as popular hero be explained in terms of broader cultural and ideological concerns? Refer to at least three films.

Nicola Wraight

This essay will attempt to discuss how the James Bond films have established Bond as a popular hero by connecting with popular experiences and how he has become representative for the ideology and culture of Britain at various times in his career. There are a number of wider ideological and cultural factors at work in the films including Cold War, Imperialist and Sexist codes. There is the suggestion of a Phallic code in the texts though this is mainly in conjunction with the novels. Another aspect of this essay will be to establish the external environment at the times of the film's production and how this influences their content. Other theories of the popularity and significance of Bond films will also be discussed, as much has been researched in this area. This discussion will refer to a number of Bond films such as Dr No, Goldfinger, Thunderball, and GoldenEye, and therefore, the term "text" will refer to the films rather than the Ian Fleming novels from which they are adapted, as there are significant differences, even though the books have helped to prolong the idea of popular hero. As much of the academic work is based on the novels, many of the references come from the films themselves.

Firstly, to explain how ideology is at work in Bond films, it is necessary to examine the theory of Hegemony. The films can be deemed as persuasion and thereby challenges classic propaganda theory of a dominant ideology being forced upon society, without alternatives offered. Instead, the films deal with the Gramscian idea of hegemony (as discussed in Strinati 1995). This means that other ideologies are offered and discussed, and therefore allows for dissent. But these ideologies are presented in such a way, mixed and weaved together, so that they appear inferior and that the main ideology that people choose and identify with is the dominant one after all.

Tony Bennett in the Open University book, "Unit 21, Popular Culture" (1982) suggests that a number of ideologies can be identified in Bond films, which relate to the idea of hegemony. One of these is the Imperialism ideology and the myth of Britishness. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Britain had lost her Empire, and was seen as second rate to America, and not a power to be reckoned with in terms of either economy or influence. This needed to be changed, leaving behind its traditional, old-fashioned image. In this way, James Bond himself, embodies a more modern Britishness, as opposed to the traditional stereotype offered by M. and the eccentricity of Q. The national identity of Britain was very uncertain, and Bond offers a new identity whilst maintaining aspects of tradition. Jowett and O'Donnell (1992) would argue that, through the techniques of persuasion, this uncertainty was resolved through playing on the values of people towards imperialism and the Cold War by reinforcing beliefs that villains are deviant (more on this later) and that any country that is not England is evil or merely of lesser importance. Bond represents a new, Elite set, enjoying a cosmopolitan lifestyle with the luxury of Dom Perrignon 55, vodka martini, fast cars, exotic locations and women. Yet he can be referred to as classless, as he displays a gutsiness reminiscent of the working class, and rebels against beurocracy. Due to the contrast of this background he is made a popular hero:

"He was, in effect, the ideal popular hero (taking "popular", here, to mean for the people but not of them): "progressive", yet, at the same time "conservative"."(Bennett 1982:32)
Yet we are offered the alternative of other nationalities: the US for example, in the form of Felix Leiter in Thunderball (amongst others). He is there to help and assist Bond, but it is clear that he is not Bond's equal, instead Bond gives the orders and Felix merely provides him with information and transport. This is deliberately constructed so that England comes out on top:
"The effect of Leiter's subordination to Bond is to mythically recentre England internationally during a period when Britain's international role and status were visibly declining." (Bennett 1982:17)
A similar tone can be detected in GoldenEye, M. shows contempt for the States: "Unlike America, we prefer not to get our bad news from CNN." Here, Jack Wade is Bond's aide and is represented as bigoted and disrespectful, calling Bond "Another stiff-arsed Brit." and referring to him as "Jimmy" or "Jimbo". Although he provides troops to help Bond, they are simply not needed, as Bond has already, almost single-handedly, defeated the villain and everyone else. This evidence counteracts the argument that Bond has become Americanised.
"Bond uses English guile to overcome American money and Russian evil to win the Cold War or restore international order, and construct a new, modernised role for Britain after the decline of the Empire."(Harris 1992:133)
There is also a Cold War ideology in the novels from which most of the films were adapted, making specific reference to the Cold War and Russia: the underlying message of the films is the same. The films have adapted and broadened this ideology to suggest that the threat and villainy comes from the global criminal organisation SPECTRE, with the intention of destroying not just England, but the world. This is achieved in order to stop the films becoming dated and to broaden their appeal, making them more commercial. However, Soviet references can still be found, as in Dr No:
Bond: "With your disregard for human life, you must be working for the East."
Dr No: "East. West. Just points on a compass, both are as stupid as each other. I work for SPECTRE."
However, Cubby Broccolli has insisted that the films are not meant to be political: 
...he [Broccolli] has shown a constant desire to play down the overtly anti-Soviet views of Fleming's Bond."(Curran & Porter 1983:218)
In GoldenEye, reference is made to the Gulf War, which brings the political aspect of the films up to date. Though Bennett's ideology theory does not suggest this, it is worth noting that the villains are often of a complex origin (Dr No is the unwanted child of a German missionary and well-to-do Chinese girl), and are deviant or disfigured, or both: Goldfinger cheats when gambling to win money even though he is already amazingly rich, and Dr No has disfigured hands.

Perhaps one of the most obvious codes in the Bond films is the sexist ideology. The novels had a tendency to depict women as "out of place" in the sense that they are subordinate to Bond or are sexually deviant in some way: this may be in terms of fetishism, frigidity, or some past sexual abuse, and because of this are on the side of the villain. Although the women in the films are largely played for the fulfilment of the male gaze, this element has been retained to a certain degree: In Thunderball alone, the nurse likes to be stroked with a mink glove, and it is implied that Domino has been sexually abused by Largo: "What can he do to me that he has not already done?" The subordination of women is clear from the beginning: they are referred to as Bond Girls, and are depicted on publicity materials as considerably smaller than Bond. It is a well known notion that knowledge is power, in this respect, it is interesting that while we know almost nothing about Bond's background, Honeychile Ryder, in Dr No, gives her life story within the first twenty minutes of her arrival. This leaves the women vulnerable and Bond in a position of power over them. It can be said that the women are liberated and free, that they are not confined to stereotypical wife and mother roles. However, this can be interpreted as they are free and available to be enjoyed by Bond at his will and then easily dropped. A female M. sums up this attitude of Bond: "Because I think you're a sexist, misogynist dinosaur: a relic of the Cold War, whose boyish charms are wasted on me, obviously appeal to that young woman I sent to evaluate you." (GoldenEye). A strong female M. is very convincing, until her maternal side is exposed, and she says: "Bond, come back alive." Having said this, women do initiate sex with Bond, as in Dr No, when a woman turns up in Bond's room, having slipped in to the proverbial "something more comfortable". If the woman is on the side of the villain, her encounter with Bond will make her see the error of her ways, as parodied by Jill St. John in Thunderball: "She repents and immediately returns to the side of right and virtue."

Bennett and Woollacott's book, "Bond and Beyond" notes the role of women is to:

"signify Bond's sexuality."(Bennett & Woollacott 1987:161)
This is clear from when the receptionist watches Bond leave in Dr No and when Leiter exclaims: "On you, everything looks good", in Thunderball: even the men admit to Bond's attractiveness. 

Bennett also argues that there is a symbolic code at work in Bond texts: that of the Phallic code. Again this idea has been played down in the films and when it is identified, it is usually dealt with in a comic way. A prime example of this is the "castration" scene in Goldfinger. Auric demonstrates his latest toy, a laser, by pointing it in the direction of Bond's groin, whilst lying spread-eagle on a table. Less is made of the relationship between M. and Bond, which could be said to be rooted in the Oedipal Complex, than in the novels. M. is seen as a father/mother figure, and as Bond's initiator, by providing him with his missions, licence to kill, his gun, and preparing him for action.

These ideologies can be used to explain Bond's position in the sense of persuasion and it also gives an idea as to how Bond has become a popular hero, by appealing to ideologies that have interpolated individuals in society. This popularity has transcended almost forty years and five Bonds: this means that there are also cultural concerns that give reason as to how Bond films have changed and adapted to suit the environment.

The early films of the sixties set the precedent of depicting a Swinging Britain image. As previously mentioned, Bond is a classless figure and Sean Connery as the original Bond portrayed this in the fact that he had a Scottish accent and so was freed from traditional clipped tones and therefore tradition in the general sense. At this time, Connery was featured in a Sunday Times supplement alongside fellow sixties icons such as Mary Quant and Michael Caine. There is even a reference by Bond to popular music of the time in Thunderball: "Some things just aren't is listening to The Beatles without earmuffs on", and themes of the 1990s explored in GoldenEye include bungee-jumping and computer hacking. The character of Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker is a parody of the film Jaws of 1975. The development of (now) cult television series such as The Saint (Roger Moore) and The Avengers (Honor Blackman) helped establish popular roles for these actors and so brought these images to the films.

The films are seen as escapist, and as fantasy films, with their gadgetry and exotic locations, so in this sense they can be regarded as a reaction against the British New Wave films, popular just a few years before. Pieces such as Look Back in Anger and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning depicted real-life, gritty dramas, where women were tied to husbands and children, and where promiscuity ended in abortion or some other penalty. With the availability of the Pill, women in Bond films were allowed to be promiscuous. The Women's Liberation movement was also a notable force when the Bond films began, and this (or the desire to appeal to more women, at least) was incorporated by women being portrayed as something more than mere sexual objects or as damsels in distress. Kingsley Amis, in Bennett 1982, noted that women are out-doorsy types: they are athletic, play golf (Dr No), scuba dive (Thunderball) and play an admirable game of poker (Dr No). This of course makes them more of a challenge, in which sense Bond is more of a man, as he still manages to win them over. As the films have progressed over the decades, the role for women has become more substantial, in conjunction with the cultural and societal changes for women. However, dominant women still seem to come to an abrupt end: May Day in A View to a Kill dominates Bond sexually and in terms of power: yet she ends up exploding. The traditional role of a sex object is played upon in GoldenEye, when Xenia uses her sexuality to her advantage- by killing men whilst in frantic sexual acts. This could be seen as empowerment, or as exploitation: just another chance to see a woman with very little clothing. When Xenia initiates sex with Bond and therefore tries to kill him, we see Bond significantly drop his gun, representing the Phallus, making him defenceless and vulnerable to her attempts to kill him. It is significant progress to find a female M. who has power to initiate Bond's actions and has control.

The myth of the Bond Girl has been exploited in the growing pornography industry. In one respect, the films have been careful to steer clear of graphic or excessive sex or violence so they appeal to the whole family, thus making them more commercially viable. However, pornographic magazines such as Playboy (first published at the same time as Casino Royale in 1953), give the opportunity for members of the audience (namely males) to continue the suggestion of the Bond Girls, who were, and probably never will be, shown fully naked. In this respect, men can put themselves in the position of Bond, the only other person to see the women naked.

The comic elements in Bond films are also essential. They succeed in sending up the myth of Britishness that they themselves establish, and are ladden with irony and sexual innuendo. This appeals to a traditional British sense of humour, similar tactics to those of the Carry On films, also popular at the time of the earlier Bond films, and who have also lasted a number of years. In Goldfinger, the bomb is stopped with just 007 seconds to go, and Bond is unable to make it to dinner, because "something big's come up", whilst being in bed with Jill Masterson. In GoldenEye, Q. reminds Bond of his limits: "You have a licence to kill, not to break the traffic laws."

We are given the opportunity to see the conflict of ideologies at work in the Bond films, by looking at Bennett's work, and by de-coding the films. Umberto Eco in "The Structure of Fleming" in "Popular Culture: Past and Present" (1989) describes other conflicts within the texts which can also account for the longevity of Bonds career as a popular hero. The structure of the novels and films is built upon the juxtaposition of the characters and their values; examples of this include Bond and the villain, Free World and USSR, love and death, chance and planning. These oppositions are worked in to wider ideologies, through hegemony and the preferred option is accepted. For example, In Thunderball, Bond takes a chance and acts spontaneously, when he stops to eat a grape whilst escaping from a room, whereas the villain will meticulously follow bureaucratic orders or have specific plans that must be adhered to. These oppositions are explored in a wider sense, creating a contest between the conflicting countries' (Anglo-Saxon and non Anglo-Saxon) values:

"The result is that a series of ideological equations is established by and through the way in which the relationships between the central characters is signified." (Bennett 1982:9)
Eco also suggests that the structure of the texts are a formula, made up of nine classic "moves", (discussed in Waites et al 1989:256) such as M. moves and gives a task to Bond, Woman moves and shows herself to Bond, villain captures Bond. These moves can be played in various sequences, but are present nonetheless. This repetition of events makes the films pleasurable to audiences as they have the knowledge of the predictability of the rules of the film. The "moves" and the binary oppositions, suggests Eco, make the texts an adult version of classic fairytales:
"...Bond is the Cavalier and the Villain is the Dragon; the Lady and Villain stand for Beauty and the Beast; Bond restores the Lady to the fullness of spirit and to her senses, he is the Prince who rescues Sleeping Beauty." (Waites et al 1989:260)
Even the character's names are like those in fairy tales: Snow White and Cruel De Villa have been replaced by Pussy Galore (female anatomy, offering much pleasure) and Oddjob (Korean Villain using the unusual means of a bowler hat to kill his victims). The exclusivity, luxury and success of Bond Street connotes perfectly the personality of 007. As well as this similarity and the predictability, Eco preposes that more educated readers of the texts will identify Bond as a classic literary figure; noticing comparisons between: 
"..the physical description of James Bond and that of a typical Byronic hero." (Strinati 1995:106)
"Bond and Beyond" (Bennett & Woollacott 1987), claims that there is a concept of inter-textuality at work in the texts, and in this respect, it is not just the text itself that constitutes a Bond experience, rather there are a number of external factors- publicity posters, the novels, previous Bond films, films of a similar genre, and ideologies and constraints of the production team Eon Productions, which can influence the reading of the films, as well as the interpretation of each individual. In this respect, Bond is a "textual shifter" (Bennett & Woollacott 1987:95) and can therefore be adapted to suit the times and social conditions. As if to prove this, a report in the Daily Telegraph tells how the director of the next Bond film, Michael Apted, is attempting to adapt the genre to suit cultural changes:
"...I want to change the sexism of the films, although we are going to keep the gadgetry and the humour." (Daily Telegraph, 19 October 1998).
This is all very politically correct, but surely it will remove part of the essential attraction of the films and therefore will lose some of its appeal. Indiscriminate killing is not very politically correct. What is to become of Bond next?

By sticking to the Bond formula of its ideological codes, with the focus of hegemony, comedic element, gadgetry and special effects, it has been possible Bond to maintain his popular hero image, despite actors being replaced. The films and novels continue to be an institution, not just in Britain, but internationally. Ideologies have shifted over time, as has culture, and Bond has been able to adapt to his surroundings. In other words, as a representative of British culture, he has:

In this way, Bennett and Woollacott claim that he is 

"...a figure capable of taking up and articulating quite different and even contradictory cultural and ideological values, sometimes turning its back on the meanings and cultural possibilities it had earlier embodied to enunciate new ones." (Bennettt & Wollacott 1987:19)
This is how Bond has remained a popular hero for almost four decades in cinematic form: his sexist attitudes have been challenged and adapted to include powerful females. The introduction of an international criminal force means that a specific emphasis on the Cold War is not dated and makes the film more commercial whilst maintaining the myth of Britishness which, although appealing to global audiences, makes the nation proud of the fact that, if only in films, little Britain is a force to be reckoned with and that if Bond is a "stiff-arsed Brit", and still lead the lifestyle he does, then it is nothing to be ashamed of.


Bennett, T. James Bond as Popular Hero, Unit 21. In Bennett, T.  et al (1982) Popular Culture. Politics, Ideology and Popular Culture 2. Block 5 Units 21, 22 & 23. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.
Bennett, T. and Woollacott, J. (1987) Bond and Beyond: The Political Career of a Popular Hero. Hampshire: Macmillian Educational Ltd.
Eco, U. The Narrative Structure in Fleming in Waites, B. et al (eds) (1989) Popular Culture: Past and Present. London: Routledge.
Harris, D. (1992) From Class Struggle to the Politics of Pleasure. The Effects of Gramscianism on Cultural Studies. London: Routledge.
Strinati, D. (1995) An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture. London: Routledge.
Woollacott, J. The James Bond Films: Conditions of Production. In Curran, J and Porter, V. (Eds) (1983) British Cinema History. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Daily Telegraph (1998) 19 October.


Caughie, J. with Rockett, K. (1996) The Companion to British and Irish Cinema. London: BFI Publishing & Cassell.
Harris, D. (1998) Analysing the Bond Movie-Three Approaches. Basis for website material.
Jowett, G. and O'Donnell, V. (1992) Propaganda and Persuasion. Calafornia: Sage Publications Inc.
Murphy, R. (1992) Sixties British Cinema. London: BFI Publishing.
Turner, G. (1988) Film as Social Practice. London: Routledge.

Magazine Article

Empire Magazine    (1998) January. 


Dr No          Dir. T. Young        1962 
GoldenEye    Dir. M. Cambell    1995
Goldfinger     Dir. G. Hamilton    1964
Moonraker     Dir. L. Gilbert   1979
The Spy Who Loved Me   Dir. L. Gilbert   1977
Thunderball       Dir. T. Young    1965
Jaws    Dir. P. Benchley    1975
Look Back in Anger   Dir. T. Richardson    1959
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning    Dir. K. Reisz   1960

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