This is the third essay in a 24-part series about the James Bond cinemas. I encourage everyone to comment and join in on an extended conversation about not only the films themselves, but cinematic trends, political and other external influences on the series’ tone and direction.

Of [In]human #Bond_age_ #3: Subtext and the Rape of Pussy Galore

by James David Patrick

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The following essay intends to discuss the cinematic subtext and potential cultural factors that may have influenced the creation of the “barn scene” in Goldfinger. It is not meant to undermine the real horror that many women have had to overcome as a result of rape or sexual assault. I hope to treat the topic with sensitivity but still allow for a clinical but frank discussion about how or why the way we view this scene has changed in the nearly 50 years since its release.

James Bond confronts Pussy Galore (played by Honor Blackman) in a barn. His aim, of course, is to have a figurative and literal roll in the hay. She is reluctant.  She flips him. He flips her. It is aggressive yet supposedly playful courting, punctuated by a Mickey-Moused score (just in case you didn’t grasp the supposed innocence of it all), the stubbornness of James Bond’s womanizing and Pussy Galore’s shield of chaste cynicism (a chastity we presume to be false), mano a femano. With both of them on the ground, he forces a kiss. She struggles beneath him before, inevitably, giving in and returning his embrace.

Taken outside of the context of the Bond oeuvre, particularly the 60’s-era Connery films, the scene leaves the viewer discomforted. Red flags go up, sirens go off, many triggered by our modern sensitivities on the topic of rape and sexual assault.  It’s been a healthy number of years since I last wrote a paper concerning anything resembling feminism in cinema, but I’ll do my best to avoid blundering over specific turns of phrase that might prove offensive. And since this is a blog format and not a thesis, pardon the shorthand that is required to keep this under 15,000 words.

The first complication we must consider is historical perspective

…both inside the velvet walled of the cinema and out.  Goldfinger was released in 1964, the doorstep of the sexual revolution. Sexuality had yet to become fully politicized, gay and lesbian liberation remained a few years away, but the “permissive” attitudes towards sex and the depiction of sexual activity had crossed over into popular culture, ushered in by film (the growing popularity of European cinema introduced more liberal depictions of sexuality), mass marketing and literature. Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, for example, purported that women should rebel against the role of nuclear housewife and that they should engage in and enjoy more frequent sexual relations. Considered one of the most influential books of the 20th century, Mystique sold more than three million copies and helped catalyze the second wave of feminism in the United States.

Using Feminine Mystique to inform the barn scene subtext, one could read that Pussy Galore’s struggle and subsequent acquiescence represents the housewife’s struggle to break free from domestic shackles (the employment by a criminal mastermind), to think independently (fall in love with the enemy), to seek fulfillment in sex (the roll in the hay) and interests outside of domestic responsibility (aiding Bond in foiling Goldfinger’s plot to destroy Fort Knox).

To intellectualize away the discomfort

The early 1960s were a muddy, confused time for sexual politics. Thus, it stands to reason that a scene as uncomfortable as this would arise from a time of great transition. Having just unlocked the rusted chastity belt of the 1950s, minds were ready to embrace Bond’s serial womanizing (the success of the Bond films surely indicates this) but the filmmakers may have struggled to find new ways to titillate after the first two films. They upped the ante by keeping Pussy Galore’s name true to Fleming’s novel (Director Guy Hamilton reportedly wooed American censors by claiming to be a devout Republican), but depicting a woman named Pussy Galore as something other than a one-dimensional harlot was necessary for creating an interesting adversary for James Bond.

By this point, movie audiences were conditioned to know that A) Bond gets the girl and B) The girl, whether she knows it or not, wants Bond. Consider it a contract signed between the film goer and the filmmaker. Any other outcome is a breach of contract. If each flirtation is another miniature narrative, there must be some conflict, or impediment to success to raise the stakes before our hero wins the day, or in this case, the girl. In Goldfinger, Bond meets three women: Jill and Tilly Masterson and Pussy Galore. It could be argued that James Bond’s repeated missteps in Goldfinger result first from his drive toward domesticity (Jill) and then the subsequent reaction against it (Pussy).

If you watch Goldfinger with Bond’s repeated fallibility in mind, you’ll notice how many times Bond needs a refresher course in remedial tactical espionage. It’s a fragile argument and one that needs to be established alongside the many times that Bond bobbles this particular mission. The most repercussive gaffe takes place at the beginning of the movie when Bond interferes with Goldfinger’s card game by forcing him to lose and then sleeping with his girl, Jill Masterson. Surely a spy of Bond’s caliber could project how the dominos might fall… or he fully understands the consequences and pursues Jill Masterson with disregard for the repercussions.

What would drive Bond to do something so frivolous? I suggest that Bond has fallen in love with Jill, Goldfinger’s girl. The movie suggests more than casual sex through the subtext of the post-coital scene. The camera lingers on her in bed, a fixed gaze rather than a rapid cut or transition to Bond knotting his tie. Rather than departing, Bond returns to her side in bed, under the guise of Dom Perignon maintenance. The post-coital scene offers an unprecedented measure of damning domesticity. Bond in the kitchen, making idle comments about music. (Sidenote: His statement “That’s as bad as listening to the Beatles without earmuffs,” sounds bizarre to our ears, trained to consider the Beatles the I Ching of modern pop music. Consider, however, that the only two Beatles records released by this point were Please Please Me and With the Beatles. Not exactly timeless classics.) I say “damning” domesticity because the result of their temporary domestic stasis is that Bond winds up unconscious, clubbed by an unseen figure (presumably Oddjob). Jill winds up dead, the condemned housewife, painted entirely in gold. Thus begins the Goldfinger narrative proper. It’s not Goldfinger’s criminal plot that catalyzes the film; it’s a battle of hubris and revenge between Goldfinger and Bond.

But now, more about Pussy. (It may be a shock, but I’ve never been able to write that sentence before). She, on the other hand, represents an ultimate conquest. Not only a resistant target, but a resistant enemy target with the most alluring name of any woman James Bond has ever met. During their introduction Bond is unusually cautious. When Pussy tells him that she is Goldfinger’s “personal pilot,” Bond wants to know the specific nature of the relationship. He asks, “Just how personal is that?” Since when does Bond care about a woman’s ties to another man? Since Jill Masterson wound up painted gold. He’s been burned by Goldfinger before.

Once Bond has determined that Pussy Galore isn’t Goldfinger’s sexual property, he pursues her aggressively. Her resistance only fuels his desire. Not because he loves her, but because she claims to be off-limits and immune to his charms. This is anti-domesticity – the fling for the sake of the chase. Honor Blackman claims that she played the role with the understanding that Pussy Galore had been physically abused in her past, thus explaining Pussy’s initial reluctance. This explanation is complicated further by knowledge of Ian Fleming’s original text.

In the Fleming novel, Pussy Galore is a lesbian. In the movie, it’s not as clear, but it is suggested. I have to wonder how much the actors were aware of the novel’s discrepancies during filming. Pussy’s resistance (we are trained to understand that no heterosexual female can resist Bond) and her “Flying Circus” of fellow female pilots are two extraordinarily telling details. Again, consider where we are at this time in the 60’s: housewives have been given a green light to discuss their sexual activity, but gay and lesbian openness remains a few years away. It was open enough that Ian Fleming made Pussy’s lesbianism explicit in the novel, but the Goldfinger filmmakers shied away. Mainstream audiences weren’t likely to accept an openly gay character in a high-profile production like a James Bond film. With this now in our critical arsenal, the barn scene becomes, through the infinitely recursive powers of subtext, even more thrilling.

The reconciliation of theory with reality

These theories work very well to explain some of the marvelous subtextual components found throughout Goldfinger. There’s this sexual/domestic interplay and at least a few thousand words worth of Oedipal posturing between Bond and Goldfinger. Bring all of this knowledge into our viewing of the film. How does this, specifically, inform out understanding of the scene between James Bond and Pussy Galore in the barn? I am of the mind that we must respond from the basis of three different perspectives. Too much vigor in any one direction and we’re losing sight of the truth, delving too far into emotion or flaccid theorizing.

At the most basic level, we have the action depicted on screen. A man forcing himself on a resistant woman. This is sexual assault. We should feel uneasy. In Fleming’s novel “The Spy Who Loved Me,” the main character Vivienne Michel says, “All women secretly want to be raped.” This too should make us feel uneasy, because it is an oft-repeated line born of ignorance, but it informs the barn scene immensely.

From the perspective of film criticism, the scene is awkward, out of place and uncharacteristic. When has Bond ever physically forced himself on a woman? Since this was only the third Bond movie, the character has not yet been fully developed (at least in the way that we now understand the James Bond character). Still, the scene is strikingly unsexy. That the act of violence triggers acceptance feels like rushed narrative. Goldfinger is a packed film. To add yet another subplot where Bond gradually woos Pussy Galore just to get in bed with her would have caused bloating. (Not to mention that a drawn-out Victorian courtship would have been more out of character.) Though ridiculous, the instant conversion of Pussy Galore is convenient, but not comfortable. The comic score that punctuates the scene serves as the barrier between discomfort and revulsion. It’s the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. Or in this case, the awkward and uncomfortable plot point.

Finally, the subtext. Subtext helps us understand what we can’t otherwise explain easily. Like religion. Like “the barn scene.” How many different ways can we pick this movie apart to look for explanations for the way Bond pursues Pussy Galore and Goldfinger (and, in turn, how Goldfinger toys with Bond)? Bond’s relationships with the women in Goldfinger provide fascinating fodder for conversation. The parallels between Bond’s girls and the real world sexual revolution of the 1960s allow us to wax theoretic, poetic and, lest we forget, critical. Placing these relationships in the context of the time in which they were filmed becomes a kind of sociological archaeology. The interplay between domestic and sexual. It’s all there, filling out a perfectly tailored suit.

If you analyze the plot of Goldfinger, it makes little sense. But because we are entertained, we go along for the ride, and the more we are entertained the fewer questions we ask. A film like Goldfinger becomes timeless because it thrills and there’s plenty of background noise to keep us discussing trivialities in long-winded blogs until the end of time. And these conversations feed our impulses to watch and rewatch, looking for the next great epiphany in a movie that many people wrongly consider mindless entertainment. Because it’s entered into the canon, overlooking moments like the “barn scene” becomes easy. As long as we can remember it’s always been there. We also inject our understanding of the Bond character. Of course he wouldn’t sexually assault anyone! He’s James Bond! It’s also reasonable to be offended, but scenes like this are more complicated. They were born in pop culture and vetted by censors and audiences for decades. That doesn’t mean they get a bye. They need to be discussed. And only by analyzing the film and the historical context can we obtain any real understanding of why nobody balked when Bond (allegedly) raped Pussy Galore.

Previous James Bond #Bond_age_ Project Essays:

Dr. No / From Russia With Love / Goldfinger / Thunderball / You Only Live Twice / On Her Majesty’s Secret Service / Diamonds Are Forever / Live and Let Die / The Man with the Golden Gun / The Spy Who Loved Me / Moonraker / For Your Eyes Only / Octopussy / A View to a Kill / The Living Daylights / Licence to Kill / GoldenEye / Tomorrow Never Dies / The World Is Not Enough / Die Another Day / Casino Royale / Quantum of Solace / Skyfall

Goldfinger: Subtext and the Rape of Pussy Galore

by 007hertzrumble time to read: 9 min
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