Discussing the implications of ethnic prejudice in James Bond through the framework of postcolonial media culture.

This essay will analyse the cultural and social reverberations of selected James Bond films from the 1960s and ‘70s. Utilising the framework of Edward Said’s seminal model of Orientalism (1978), it will discuss the manifestation of racial and social inequality in mass media and how it can inculcate transcending imperialist ideology amongst society. Furthermore, the stereotypical and banal depictions of eastern characters will be identified, discussing their representation within the hierarchy of transnational characters featured in Bond. Parenthetically, this essay will compare these peripheral characters to Bond himself; discussing their representation in correlation with Albert Memmi’s (2003) scaffold of The Colonizer and the Colonized.

A transnational cultural icon, James Bond has become ubiquitous across the globe. Indeed, as a franchise, ‘there is none more British than Eon productions family-run juggernaut’ (Harrison, 2017). Bond is the one ‘women want, and men want to be’ (Amis, 1965, p. 44), the ultimate symbol of western grandiloquence. The Bond films’ global reach, and its ‘system in dominance worldwide’ (Mirrlees, 2013, p. 8), bequeath them the capacity to form and disseminate a message to a mass audience.

Specifically, the ‘message’ which this essay will discuss is the concept of ‘ethnic prejudice in thought and talk’ (Van Dijk, 1987) – the way in which stereotypical and libellous racial and ethnic profiles, forged in the crucible of colonialism and imperialism, are produced and protracted in the action and distraction of James Bond. The disparity between white and ethnic representations in early Bond films, Goldfinger and Live and Let Die, will be identified, culminating in a ‘point de capiton’ (Lacan, 1956): a final assertion or understanding of how said representations are constructed and the effects these depictions have on transcending global racism.

For the effectiveness of this analysis, one must first consider the presence of two ethnic profiles within the postcolonial structures discussed previously. In the forthcoming examples, it is necessary to ascertain the disparity between black and white characters. Here, white characters are emblematic of, what Memmi terms ‘the colonizer’, and what Said refers to as ‘the occident’, whilst black characters embody both Memmi’s ‘colonized’ and Said’s ‘orient’ – these labels will become ubiquitous in the evaluation which follows.

The first example, and its subsequent implications, that this essay will discuss is Goldfinger (Hamilton, 1964). The third film in the chronology of Bond, Goldfinger’s ‘masterplan’ to ‘detonate an atomic bomb in Fort Knox, making America’s gold reserve radioactive for 58 years’ (Billson, 2012) is a seminal and infamous narrative of the global franchise. As discussed previously, the herculean power of Bond: the ‘British and American hybrid’ (Bignell, 2010, p. 84), bestows it a platform to disseminate ideals, specifically, those of the western culture in which it is conceived. This prospect of cultural imperialism, ‘the process of cultural flow, ideas, values, a way of life, around the world’ (Mirrlees, 2013, p. 38), is an example of storytelling on a transnational stage: the opportunity to dictate the western perception of right and wrong, or good and bad, for example.

Indeed, these binary opposites are prevalent in the construction of Goldfinger. There is a trident of representations one may consider here. First, Auric Goldfinger himself, the ‘petty-minded plutocrat who cheats at cards and golf’ (Billson, 2012). A white character, Goldfinger is certainly not one whom aligns with the morality of the west. Instead, he forms part of the antagonistic ‘SPECTRE’. Ever-prevalent in James Bond, the villainous group, embroiled in similarity with the Soviet Union, embodies the brutal and barbaric enemy; a total antithesis to Bond. Secondly, we must consider Bond, himself – the ‘suave, distinctly un-American warrior against communism, whose very image conjures up nostalgia for British imperial might’ (Hutchings & Miazhevich, 2009, p. 221). Bond, throughout the chronology of films, enacts the archetypal ‘white saviour’, ‘a timeworn vehicle for celebrities in Hollywood film, where actors perform as heroes who save the day against dark and ominous adversaries’ (Bell, 2013, p. 1); he is truly an icon of western power. His very construct is a lesson in capitalist, western grandiloquence, ‘from the tuxedo and martini to the one-liners, stuff blowing up, the gadgets and the weaponised car’ (TV Tropes, 2019). As a result of this, Bond ultimately embodies, what Memmi (2003) would describe as, the ‘colonizer’. Here, the white, western Bond is reminiscent of the imperialism of the British Empire: a perceptibly modern and imperial force with the cultural and economic power to inculcate western ideals upon other, seemingly, minor or impeachable nations.

Lastly, and most importantly when assessing the pertinence of postcolonial representations in Goldfinger, is the character which may represent the ‘colonized’ – Oddjob: the ‘thickset Korean henchman’ with the ‘deadly steel-rimmed bowler hat’ (Billson, 2012). ‘Just as the bourgeoise proposes an image of the proletariat, the existence of the colonizer requires that an image of the colonized be suggested’ (Memmi, 2003, p. 123). In this instance, Oddjob is the manifestation of the ‘colonized’. His ethnicity immediately places him parallel to Bond: the ‘colonizer’ with the ‘virtuous taste for action’ (Memmi, 2003, p. 123), something of a crass and recurrent technique used in the disparity between good and bad in early James Bond films and one that will be further explored later.

Oddjob’s most overt characteristic, throughout Goldfinger, is his ‘tendency to violence and despotism’ (Said, 1978, p. 205). Saddled with ‘extraordinary deficiency’ (Memmi, 2003, p. 124) in language and communication, Oddjob’s only real value to Goldfinger is his taste for vehemence. This is, perhaps, an example of Memmi’s (2003, p. 132) ‘situation of the colonized’, whereby Oddjob is ‘dispossessed’ of everything from ‘history to language’ – he does not utter a single word in the entirety of the film. Instead, Oddjob is removed from the central conflict of Live and Let Die as a mere other, belittled and dehumanised by the colonizer with his ‘condescending’ (Said, 1978) name, and occasionally weaponised as an incarnation of violence.

Oddjob’s tendency to despotism and violence is a recurring theme within the somewhat banal narrative of his character. Scenes including, the now famous, steel-rimmed bowler hat slicing the head off a stone figurine and shooting a man, proceeding to dispose of his body in a heavy-duty car-crusher are evidence of this. Despite being conceived in 1964, the notion of the despotic, brown man is one that now plagues western attitudes more than ever; specifically, in the post-9/11 era. Discussed by Dabashi (2011), ‘brown’ skin has become the new ‘black’ skin. Stemming from ‘the emergence of Islam as the enemy of the west’ (Dabashi, 2011, p. 11) – the brown man, becoming synonymous with terror and the emergence of the Islamic State, rather than the black man, is now often posed as contrapuntal to the white man.

Next, this essay considers representations selected from Live and Let Die (Hamilton, 1973). Accused of being ‘blaxploitative’ (Hutton, 2015), essentially, the exploitation of black characters, the 1974 film featuring Roger Moore, is explicit in its disparity between black and white characters and their subsequent morality. As discussed previously and, obviously, recurrent in each James Bond film, 007 himself is the congruent icon of the western colonizer. Predictably, though, the villainous Dr Kananga, a ‘Harlem drug lord’ attempting to ‘distribute two tons of heroin’ (Hutton, 2015), and his entirely black entourage are icons of the ‘colonized’, depicted through orientalist ideals.

Kananga’s crew, regularly referred to, throughout the film, as “black muscle”, are iconic of the west’s ‘condescending and paternal’ view of the east (Said, 1978, p. 204). Indeed, the black characters in Live and Let Die, just as Memmi (2003, p. 124) identifies as a key characteristic of the colonized, are only ‘asked for [their] muscles’. The disparity between the colonizer and the colonized, and their subsequent places within the social hierarchy, is no-better demonstrated in Live and Let Die than a scene involving a boat chase and a police interception. According to Memmi (2003, p. 55), ‘every act of the [colonizer’s] daily life places him in a relationship with the colonized, and with each act his fundamental advantage is demonstrated’. This is evident here, as, after a series of thefts, deaths and damage, Bond is set free by the local police whilst a member of Kananga’s black entourage is handcuffed, as the Sheriff exclaims, “This ain’t your first rodeo, is it, boy?” in reference to his stolen car. As Memmi (2003, p. 56) describes, ‘if he (the colonizer) is in trouble with the law, the police and even justice will be more lenient to him’. This concept of leniency, and the overall attitude of law enforcement towards the colonizer and the colonized, is demonstrated in this short, but evocative, sequence.

A recurrent theme in early James Bond films, and one that has become salient in the short analyses in this essay, is the disparity between black and white, and, consequently, good and bad. This is evidence of, what Memmi terms, ‘the mythical portrait of the colonized’, whereby the good always generates from the colonizer (the white characters, in this instance) and the bad from the colonized (the black characters). Here, the ‘stereotyping of black people and the co-opting and mis-appropriation of diasporic religion’ (Hutton, 2015) contributes to the crass and anachronistic western representations of the orient as violent and despotic. Ultimately, the criminal Dr Kananga and his cadre, all of whom are black, are tarred with the same brush of villainy – to the audience, then, every black character in Live and Let Die are seen as villainous the film ‘frames a world where black people can’t be good’ (Hutton, 2015). The only white member of Kananga’s group is Miss Solitaire, played by Jayne Seymour, and, according to the dialectic of black versus white, she becomes transformed by Bond and, herself, joins the right-thinking side of the colonizer.

As a result of this ethnic based disparity of good and evil, Live and Let Die creates an ‘us versus them’ (Hutton, 2015) relationship between black and white characters, and, subsequently, those who we may consider represent the colonizer and the colonized, with white characters forming the ‘dominant in-group’ in relation to the ‘ethnic or racial out-group’ (Van Dijk, 1987, p. 361). Referred to previously, the James Bond franchise’s platform to broadcast and influence global audiences, bequeath it the power of a modern form of imperialism. This time, rather than the brute-force and exploitative methods of the British empire, western ideals can be remotely inculcated using the power of proliferating technology and mass media. The binary opposites harnessed in Live and Let Die, that of Bond, the colonizer, as the ‘white saviour’ (Bell, 2013) compared to Kananga and Co., the colonized, as the villainous ‘black muscle’, further perpetuates racial inequalities forged in the fire of colonialism.

Perhaps, though, the stereotypical way in which these characters were conceived was not deliberate, but the result of a subconscious process. It could be argued that, during the conception of Live and Let Die, ‘latent orientalism’ (Said, 1978) was influential, as the ‘elite groups’ responsible for the film’s production ‘provided the initial formulations of ethnic prejudice’ whilst harnessing ‘the media’ as ‘the major channel and the communicative context for such discourse’ (Van Dijk, 1987, p. 361). This involves a subconscious process whereby the Orient and its people are a fixed negative entity that could never transform or enter into dialogue with modernity. Essentially, this revolves around the negative image of the east perceived by the intransigent west, and, additionally, how those values transcend and are maintained throughout generations, ‘reproducing ethnic prejudice in thought and talk’ (Van Dijk, 1987, p. 359). The way in which the west perceives the east, as having ‘a tendency towards despotism’, (Said, 1978, p. 206) is evident in the villainous nature of the black characters featured in Live and Let Die.

These examples of ethnic depictions and disparity in Bond are evidence of what Said (1978, p. 206) refers to as ‘manifest orientalism’. This involves the ‘stating of views about Oriental society’ manifested in ‘language, culture and actions’: in this instance, though, the same message is being communicated through film, with ‘research showing that the portrayal of ethnic minority groups in this discourse genre’ can be ‘equally negative as that in news media’ (Van Dijk, 1987, p. 362). Here, the latent orientalism, discussed previously, influences and shapes creative decisions and the subsequent representations of ethnic characters made by the western colonial powers in the conception process of Bond.As a consequence, and in correlation with Bond’s global ubiquity discussed previously, racial and ethnic prejudice is further ‘systematically produced’ (Van Dijk, 1987, p. 359) and protracted, this time through the transnational cultural icon of James Bond where ‘the media play an important, active role in the public reproduction of ethnic prejudice’ (Van Dijk, 1987, p. 340). These surviving orientalist ideals are centric to the stereotyped and archaic depictions of the east – becoming further embroiled as a ‘willing partner of racism’ (Said, 1978, p. 206). Here, the general populace do not merely ‘invent negative opinions about ethnic minority groups’ (Van Dijk, 1987, p. 359) as ‘people hear and read’ about them and ‘infer their opinions’ (Van Dijk, 1987, p. 361) from the culture they consume.

In conclusion, the way in which James Bond, and the specific cases identified in this essay, harness the ideology of ‘latent orientalism’ and reproduce it as ‘manifest orientalism’ has the power to maintain a modern form of imperialism: born from technological proliferation and cultural diffusion. Whilst it may be lazy to imply that mass media and popular culture are solely to blame for racial stereotyping prevailing in the twenty-first century, their complicity is certainly a contributing factor. Both Memmi and Said’s frameworks contribute to our understanding of the socio-political reverberations of mass culture like James Bond and enlighten us to the reality of their collusion as a willing partner of racism.



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TV Tropes. (2019, December 9). James Bond. Retrieved from TV Tropes: https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Film/JamesBond

Van Dijk, T. A. (1987). Communicating Racism: Ethnic Prejudice in Thought and Talk. Sage: London.

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