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James Bond novels still sexist despite revisions

Christine Lehnen
March 5, 2023

Amendments to Ian Fleming's novels have modified racial references, but the misogyny remains.

Film poster of "From Russia With Love", depicting Sean Connery as James Bond wearing a suit, toting a gun, and surrounded by scantily-clad women
The film poster for Ian Fleming's 'From Russia with Love,' starring Sean Connery as James BondImage: Everett Collection/picture alliance

It's 70 years since British author Ian Fleming published the first James Bond novel: "Casino Royale". The book, published on April 13, 1953, introduced the world to British secret agent James Bond, code number 007, who would go on missions to defeat villains in a total of 14 books, which also served as the basis for a popular film franchise.

To mark the first novel's 70th anniversary, the James Bond books are to be reissued in revised form. Some outdated racist language and descriptions have been removed, among them the use of the N-word.

This was announced by Ian Fleming Publications, the company managing the author's literary estate.

"Some racial words likely to cause great offense now, and detract from a reader's enjoyment, have been altered, while keeping as close as possible to the original text and the period," the Fleming family said in a statement published on the company's website. 

The decision has triggered controversy in the UK and among Bond fans around the world.

Some critics see this as a form of censorship. Meanwhile, others point out that even though references to Black people have been reworded, terms mocking other ethnicities, such as East Asian and Korean characters, remain in the books, as reported by the UK's Independent.

The books also include a disclaimer saying that the contents may contain expressions and attitudes that a modern audience could find offensive.

Ian Fleming smoking a cigarette in a black and white photograph
British author Ian Fleming invented the spy James Bond, known under his code number 007Image: imago images/Everett Collection

Misogyny remains

The revisions have avoided tackling sexist and homophobic terms and descriptions, however, which the novels retain, including phrases such as the "sweet tang of rape,"  and "blithering women," while homosexuality is referred to as a "stubborn disability," the UK's Daily Telegraph reports.

One scene in a striptease club has been slightly revised, but altogether, it would be impossible to change Bond's sexist attitude, which remains central to the character. As Sam Barsanti wrote for culture website AV Club, "editing that stuff out of the James Bond series might make them structurally unsound."

For Australian author Clementine Ford, who has written on sexism in the Bond universe, the goal of retroactively erasing the racism of the Bond universe is "to ensure Bond remains both admirable and popular in a modern climate," she told Time magazine. 

In that context, "one has to ask why sexism and the dehumanization of women is not considered anathema to Bond's appeal but central to it," she added.

James Bond "has a history of raping, objectifying, and using women. And Bond movies often glamorized that behavior. The character taught generations of men that misogyny was cool," wrote Eliana Dockterman in 2021, in her Time magazine review of "No Time to Die," the latest 007 movie starring Hollywood actor Daniel Craig.

This is not set to change in the revised editions of the books.

Ford points out that this creates an implausible character: "Consent is an absent concept in Bond's world, but somehow audiences, and women in particular, are expected to embrace this as part of his cultural appeal," she told the Independent. "Are we to have a Bond who rails against the scourge of white supremacy, yet somehow overlooks the impact misogyny has on women?"

Edits follow controversial changes in Roald Dahl books

The revisions made to Fleming's novels follow a heated debate about revised editions of works by beloved British children's author Roald Dahl. Dahl's novels have recently been revised with the assistance of "sensitivity readers," who pointed out content that could offend or be construed as harmful.

For example, a woman in Dahl's books will no longer be referred to as "fat" but as "enormous." Author  Salman Rushdie, who fell victim to a knife attack in 2022 for speaking out for freedom of expression, called the changes "absurd censorship."

Even the British Queen Consort intervened: Camilla, wife of King Charles III, called on authors "to remain true to your calling, unimpeded by those who may wish to curb the freedom of your expression or your imagination."

In the case of Roald Dahl, and prompted by the Queen Consort's comments, the publisher rowed back: Publisher Penguin Random House will now put out two editions, one of which will contain the original text.

Ian Fleming Publications, on the other hand, has called on readers to grab a copy of the revised editions and "make up your own minds."

This article was originally written in German.