The Secret Life of the Man Behind James Bond’s Women Problem

Lara Pulver, star of the new mini-series Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond, talks about the spy's sexism

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Dominic Cooper plays Ian Fleming in the new miniseries

In one of Judi Dench’s first appearances as M in the James Bond film Goldeneye, she memorably dubs the spy (then played by Pierce Brosnan) “a sexist, misogynist dinosaur.” Those who tuned into the BBC America miniseries Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond on Jan. 29 might have found themselves thinking the same of Ian Fleming, the series protagonist and real-life creator of 007.

The four-part drama centers on Fleming (played by Dominic Cooper of Captain America fame), a playboy-turned-naval intelligence officer, who meets the married baroness Ann O’Neill (Sherlock‘s Lara Pulver) at the outbreak of WWII; the two begin a long and twisted affair. The series also attempts to show Fleming’s real life as a blueprint for the world of Bond. There’s Fleming’s colleague, Second Officer Monday, who obviously inspired Miss Moneypenny; there’s Fleming, bossily ordering a martini “shaken, not stirred.” And, most noticeably, there’s Fleming repeatedly mistreating every woman he encounters, dropping one woman as quickly as he’s forcing himself on another.

“His relationship with women was just so destructive and dysfunctional,” says Pulver, who researched her role as Ann O’Neill — Fleming’s eventual wife — by pouring over diaries and letters of the real-life Ann. She describes Ann as “a very spirited woman who was wearing canary yellow dresses and hosting big soirees at the Dorchester on the eve of the war.”

Anyone with a passing familiarity with James Bond is sure to recognize the film’s dismal treatment of women, as the franchise is often condemned for its blatant sexism. “Bond girls” are routinely belittled or used for sex before being cast off, generally while parading around on-screen in tight clothing. As it turns out, Fleming’s original novels aren’t any better. The novelist Bidisha once summed up the backlash, writing, “Ian Fleming hates women and I don’t buy into anything to do with that. The Bond films are generally sexist. I don’t like anything that descends from a sewer of misogyny.”

Pulver can understand the anti-Bond sentiment. “I think about some of the Bond movies where Sean Connery is grabbing a woman to deflect a bullet, using her almost as a human shield and I’m like, ‘My God, is that really what Ann Fleming stood for?'” But she also says that Fleming did actually have “this huge skill or charm with women”; accordingly, many women — Ann in particular — thought of him as a “god-like” man. “There was a quote in Ann’s diary that said how privileged she was because she was the only woman who Fleming had gone to bed with and then woken up next to the following morning. As if that was some sort of medal of honor!”

Watching Fleming, it’s easy to see where the Bond franchise’s women problem stems from. Though Pulver dubs Fleming’s Bond the “ultimate anti-hero,” she admits the root of the author’s anger towards women is far less sexy. “He had a very, very dysfunctional relationship with his mother, which I think impacted on all his relationships with women.” But where the Bond franchise has made moves in recent years to counter its sexist reputation — casting Dench as Bond’s boss, or even having the cast appear in PSAs for women’s charities — the miniseries seems to revel in Fleming’s brutish behavior towards women. Unfortunately for viewers, that’s pretty boring.