Why it’s time to view James Bond through a queer lens
As the 25th film, No Time to Die, is released in cinemas, we attempt to uncover the queer appeal of “warm-blooded heterosexual” James Bond. An LGBTQ+ 007? Never say never (again).
In 1963, Ian Fleming proclaimed that James Bond was written for “warm-blooded heterosexuals.” More than half a century later, it would be hard to argue that the presiding narrative has changed all that much. But look under the covers and you’ll find that there have been queer assertions in James Bond since the beginning: some overt, some less so.
The film franchise’s first reference to queerness, in 1964’s Goldfinger, was Pussy Galore’s rejection of Bond, purring her famous line, “You can turn off the charm. I’m immune.” Seven years later, in Diamonds Are Forever, villains Mr Wint and Mr Kidd are suggested to be a gay couple, although their union is never made explicit. In the same film, Bond’s nemesis Blofeld (Rocky Horror narrator Charles Gray) gleefully cross-dresses. Fast forward to 2012, when Javier Bardem’s baddie teasingly undoes the spy’s shirt buttons in Skyfall, saying “Well, first time for everything.” “What makes you think this is my first time?” Craig’s Bond claps back.
Speaking in Apple TV documentary Being James Bond recently, Bond producer Barbara Broccoli and Skyfall director Sam Mendes demonstrated how conversations around queerness and Bond are going on on the inside too, when they spoke about that particular Skyfall scene. “I remember we were told to cut that line by the studio and we said, ‘No, no, no.’ We resisted,” Brocolli said, with Mendes adding: “I think there’s a huge homoerotic undertow in a lot of Bond movies.”
As a teenager, years before I came out to myself, let alone to others, I would travel to conventions to meet former Bond girls and cosy up in bed alone watching ITV repeats from the Roger Moore era, which coincidentally (or perhaps not?) has routinely been called camp. Something about those pointy collars on oversized shirts left playfully unbuttoned, that artfully raised eyebrow of his, not to mention those endless scenes of Bond preening himself in the mirror…
I remember trying desperately hard to fancy Britt Ekland’s Mary Goodnight in The Man With The Golden Gun. At the time, I thought that was just the type of girl I should fancy. But when I realised bikinis did as much for me as they did for Mr Wint and Mr Kidd, I started to think more about just why Bond appealed so much to me as a young gay man, supposedly the opposite of Fleming’s target market. I’ve since slid into the DMs of other queer Bond fans and we’ve posed the same questions to one another.
Why us, why Bond and were we really outsiders, or were loads of queer Bond fans keeping their fan status as covert as Bond’s very own licence to kill?
“Until I started the website I wasn’t even sure that Bond had a big queer fanbase,” confesses David Lowbridge-Ellis, founder of the Licence to Queer Bond fansite, established in April 2020. “I was never so happy to be proven wrong; there are loads of us.”
Licence to Queer offers revisionist reviews of many of the Bond films, as well as takes on why Bond appeals to queer audiences, focusing on style, the LGBTQ+ individuals behind the films and queer themes. It’s taken Lowbridge-Ellis, who identifies as gay, the entirety of his twenties and part of his thirties to start coming to terms with why he’s so enamoured by Bond.
“I’ve found writing for the website quite therapeutic,” he says. “Every time I look at an aspect of Bond with queer lenses on I discover something new about these books and films – but I also find out more about myself.”
One question at the heart of the conversation about queering Bond is Bond himself. How important is the titular hero when it comes to questioning why LGBTQ+ fans relate to the franchise? Do many of us queers wish to be Bond, or do we wish to be saved – and, frankly, fucked – by him?
“Talking about either being or being with Bond is very binaristic,” believes Dr Claire Hines, a film lecturer at the University of East Anglia who specialises in Bond and gender. “It doesn’t allow for the complexities of how we might identify with, fantasise about or (queerly) re-read a character like Bond along lines that might cross or erase boundaries of gender and sexuality.”
If Bond is a prop carrying along our queer adventure, his meaning malleable depending on our desires or fantasies, then that would fit with my experiences. I have certainly felt like the wide-eyed Bond girl, ready to be wined and dined, but at other times I’ve felt more like Bond himself, strongly attracted to the way he expresses himself, as well as his power and freedoms. Growing up, Bond simply represented a vision of escapism that felt like a viable alternative to the socially conservative all-boys school I was spending my days at.
Lowbridge-Ellis, who always wanted to be Bond rather than with Bond, sees the character as presenting “a more accessible incarnation of masculinity for gay men”.
As he puts it, “He’s very particular about what he wears, what he eats, what he drinks. He knows more about perfume than football. We have to be careful not to stereotype, but Bond ticks most of the boxes for gay men. If Craig’s Bond was on Instagram his feed would be full of shirtless gym selfies and well-lit shots of artisanal gins, the Official Secrets Act notwithstanding, of course…”
As more and more research suggests social media can make us unhappy, could the modern incarnation of Bond as Lowbridge-Ellis sees him actually be as miserable as the rest of us?
“I’ve recently been writing a lot about the shame queer people feel from early childhood and how queer viewers might find solace in watching James Bond deal with trauma of his own,” he says. “So many people have said that this fits with their ideas about the character and what I’ve written (such as this queer “re-view” of Quantum of Solace) has articulated how they’ve been feeling about Bond – and their queerness – for years.”
But queers identifying with Bond aren’t specific to the Craig era. Lotte, a Bond fan who follows Licence to Queer and identifies as LGBTQ+, argues that Bond has been relatable in a queer sense “since the beginning”.
“Us Bond fans have always known it has deeper levels,” she argues. “Even in the often-derided masterpiece that is Casino Royale, the 1967 version, the underlying theme is that anyone can be Bond, not just a straight male sex maniac.”
The handful of more overt portrayals of queerness in Bond have felt less relatable. Mr Wint and Mr Kidd from Diamonds Are Forever, the franchise’s only gay couple, are villainous psychopaths.
“Problematic associations between villainy and queerness are longstanding in Bond, typical of mainstream cinema really,” explains Dr Hines. There is a long history in twentieth-century film of villainous characters who are widely read to be LGBTQ+. Vito Russo’s game-changing book (later a superb documentary) The Celluloid Closet is the ground zero of breaking down these onscreen stereotypes, covering decades of coded (and not transparent) villains: the obsessed housekeeper Mrs Danvers in Rebecca, an effeminate Peter Lorre in The Maltese Falcon, the killers from Hitchcock’s Rope, Tim Curry’s delicious (and misunderstood) bisexual baddie Dr Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Catherine Deneuve’s Bowie-and-Sarandon-seducing vampire in The Hunger, Sharon Stone’s bisexual author in Basic Instinct and dozens more.
The only time the Bond universe presented an out lesbian character was another villain, Pussy Galore (played by Honor Blackman) in Goldfinger, and she was forced to the ground by Bond and kissed to rid her of her queerness. Writing in 1959, Fleming explained how Bond “ruthlessly” kisses Pussy to “cure her” of her “psycho-pathological malady”. “Pussy only needed the right man to come along,” Fleming asserts.
These scarce characterisations are obviously dangerously homophobic by today’s standards, but given they existed more than fifty years ago, how might we assess their value for queer Bond fans both then and now?
Dr Hines believes these wonky representations would still have been vitally important for queer audiences at the time. “As much as she is contained by the franchise formula in some respects, she also remains a powerful symbol of independence,” Hines argues of Pussy Galore. “There’s a tension in this that is really fascinating.”
Other queer readings rely less on the characters and more on the viewer’s imagination. Mark O’Connell, whose book Catching Bullets is an ode to Bond from the perspective of “a dumpy, queeny Roger Moore fan and his A View to a Kill T‑shirt,” found a platonic appreciation for the Bond girls was his tonic, rather than Bond himself.
“My first obsession with a woman was with Maud Adams, Roger Moore’s co-star in Octopussy,” remembers O’Connell. “It was always about her poise, her flowing gowns, her Swedish accent and that she was the boss. I knew I was gay or different from an early age. Being into Bond didn’t hide that. Nor was it meant to.
Octopussy was emblematic of a 1980s Bond era that was scrutinised in the years following for “being seen as a less popular, less cool era of Bond,” says O’Connell, whose favourite Bond, A View to a Kill, falls firmly into that bracket.
What’s interesting is that O’Connell believes that status in itself is attractive to queer audiences. In the years since, he believes the “films and characters from the era have gained an added cult notoriety and affection,” he argues, “itself a very queer fan trait of loving the lesser-loved icons.”
Between them, O’Connell and Lowbridge-Ellis say they receive messages each month from queer Bond fans. Some want to contribute their own stories, others just say thank you.
Lowbridge-Ellis insists that queers won’t have to read between the lines when it comes to representation in mainstream cinema for much longer. He foresees a point in the not too distant future where film companies “lose more money by excluding queer characters than they do by including them”.
It’s not just Bond that’s getting more representative: Disney, for example, is making somewhat of an effort to include more queer characters in its films, even though the representation is thinly veiled enough to not put off the conservative factions of the viewership. And queer fanbases are well-established for many other cult franchises, like Star Trek and Doctor Who.
So, could future Bonds embrace their queer following by acknowledging some of the queer themes and motifs apparent in Bond? Let’s hope so. As well as providing opportunities to pinpoint ourselves within franchises which historically felt exclusive, there’s a simple pleasure to queering our favourite stories.
“To queer Bond is fun,” reminds Dr Hines. “And it’s a way of understanding how we might derive pleasure from a figure so closely associated with heteronormativity. Queer reading is a political act.”