Last week in my Gender and James Bond course, we discussed the deeply troubling scene at the beginning of Thunderball (1965) in which Bond sexually harasses and coerces a nurse at the health clinic Shrublands. On multiple occasions, Patricia Fearing rejects the physical and verbal advances of Bond making it clear that she is not interested in sexual activity. Bond does not accept her rejections or respect her bodily autonomy, and eventually blackmails Fearing into sleeping with him.
While my students typically find this scene problematic and uncomfortable to watch, my class this semester found it to be especially troubling. Unlike recent depictions of sexual violence featured in shows like Game of Thrones, which are more graphic but clearly framed as being bad/wrong/immoral, the sexual violence in Thunderball is (re)coded via music as playful and seductive, thus normalizing Bond’s tactics. When Christoph Lindner teaches Thunderball, he shows the scene first with sound and then screens it again without sound in order to underscore the role that the soundtrack/music plays in (re)coding the sexual violence as flirtatious and ultimately consensual. Thus, it was the framing of scene rather than the quantity and degree of explicit sexual violence that was most/more concerning to my students.
A similar tactic is utilized in the opening scene of Diamonds Are Forever (1971) when Bond, looking to ‘uncover’ the whereabouts of Blofeld, interrogates Marie who he finds sunbathing in a gold bikini. He approaches the woman, swiftly unclips her bikini top, and proceeds to choke her with it, briefly exposing her breasts in the process. As Bond tightens the noose, the woman gasps for air and her frightened face fills the screen in a close-up shot. The film arguably tries to downplay the brutality of Bond’s actions by having Marie moan in a sexually suggestive way. This sound, likely added in post-production (given the frequency of dubbing across the Connery era), does not negate the violence she endures or the lack of consent she expresses through her body (since Bond has taken away her ability to speak).
Like other Bond women, Patricia Fearing has a double entendre for a name but the sexually suggestive secondary meaning highlights her trepidation of Bond on personal and professional levels. As a result, her name FEARING challenges the libidinal masculinity of Bond given his use of forceful tactics that appear similar to those employed by villains in this era. For instance, in From Russia with Love (1963) as well as its 1957 source novel, Klebb’s sexual harassment of Romanova is deemed inappropriate in light of her position of authority (via rank) over Romanova as well as broader notions of sexual deviance prominent at the time. By comparison, Thunderball tries to (re)code Bond’s sexual harassment of Fearing as harmless fun. Given that his actions take place outside of an official mission, they are personal rather than professional. In other words, his sexual misconduct cannot be justified as a field tactic or explained away as a product of the sexual expectations (of women) in spy culture. As a result, Connery’s Bond comes across as predatory.
In popular culture, James Bond is known for his sexual magnetism and ability to attract women. This scene in Thunderball challenges the way we “remember” Connery’s Bond while forgetting his use of deception, intimidation, and sexual violence to accomplish his professional and personal goals. In the #MeToo era, is important that we see the full picture and examine the messages being relayed through popular culture and its icons about gender, sex/sexuality, and power.
For a detailed discussion, see my forthcoming article “Delightful Duties?: Sexual Violence in the Connery Era James Bond Films (1962-71)”