Subtext Galore

I’ve not yet seen Skyfall, the latest installment of the James Bond franchise. I’m one of those difficult customers who feels that the current reboot has strayed too far from the original concept of the title character. I do want to see if the latest movie can overcome my sense of dissonance, but it’s not been a priority.

On the other hand, even similarly cynical people are finding good things to say about Skyfall, notable among them being praise for Naomie Harris’ performance as Agent Eve.

“Though,” one friend commented wryly, “I’m not sure Ian Fleming would have have approved.”

At this point, I smiled, and answered with an off-the-wall theory that I’d been bouncing around in the back quarter of my mind; but the more I think about it, the more certain I am that I’m right about this one.

I don’t think Ian Fleming would have had any problem with Naomie Harris’ casting in this movie, or with the modern lack of racial concerns that it represents. In fact, if you go back to the novels, I suspect the most iconic of all Bond Girls was written as an African-American.

I’m talking about Miss Pussy Galore.

I hope that’s still an arresting, striking, perhaps even shocking idea. After all, thanks to the movie version of Goldfinger, the popular image of Miss Galore is very blonde. Very English. And I’d imagine that if any expert fans of the Bond franchise are reading this, they’re already aching to point out that, even if she’s American in the novel, Fleming describes Miss Galore explicitly as “pale”.

Well, yes; but I think there’s more to it than that. Let’s look at her backstory in a bit more detail?

Pussy Galore is based in Harlem, where she started out as a burlesque artiste, assembling a troupe of trapeze performers who diversified first to cat-burglary, then in a fairly serious way to organized crime, under the name of “The Cement Mixers”. This much, Bond knows already before he meets her.

What he’ll also, therefore, know, is that are very few white dancing girls in Harlem. This is the centre of African-American culture, the home at that time of jazz and swing and important movements in poetry, theatre and the visual arts; but it’s also the home of the Cotton Club, the Savoy Ballroom, and an array of other vaudeville theatres, burlesque houses, “buffet flats” and whorehouses. That name, of course, that “inexplicable“, “outrageous” name of hers, is her stage name, as Goldfinger makes clear when he first mentions her – her act was called Pussy Galore and her Abrocats. It’s not exactly a stage name that suggests she performed at the respectable end of Lenox Avenue, either.

The name of the “Cement Mixers” is also part of this context: to the casual reader, it evokes the euphemistic “concrete overcoat”,  but it actually refers to the mechanical pelvic grind of burlesque chorus lines and cheap, synthetic sex.

So, by the time Bond meets Miss Galore, he knows what she is – an African-American ex-stripper.

So when Bond’s narrative voice describes Pussy as “pale”, he’s thinking of her as “pale” within the spectrum of Harlem showgirls. The twist of meaning becomes clearer if you look carefully at the whole description: “pale, Rupert Brooke good looks, with high cheekbones and a beautiful jawline”.

This is a wickedly-turned phrase, deliberately deceptive. At first sight, it seems to suggest a thoroughly Anglo-Saxon sort of beauty — Rupert Brooke was an iconic embodiment of Englishness, the great lyric poet of the British Empire at peace and war, and also the most handsome young man of his time; but “pale” is hardly a word that we should really associate with Rupert Brooke: his friends and contemporaries tended to describe him with words like “ruddy“, “richly coloured“, “tanned“, and his own choice of words tended rather towards “brown”.

A girl who has a Rupert Brooke complexion while remaining “pale” is not Caucasian; especially if she’s a former burlesque artiste from Harlem. She’s what the guys at the Cotton Club called teasin’ brown.

There are other hints, as well: as commentators have noted, Pussy’s hardboiled dialogue is “entirely foreign to representations of the American South”, but I think that may change if you drop the assumption that she’s white; and when Bond thinks of her as looking “like a painting by Vertes”, he’s not thinking of some obscure Spanish old master noted for his nudes, but the contemporary illiustrator and designer Marcel Vertès – and presumably, his ethnically mixed or racially ambiguous depictions of Paris jazz clubs and the Harlem demi-monde.

By this point, I’ve thoroughly convinced myself. I hope you’re still with me?

Of course, a writer doesn’t compare an African-American woman to Rupert Brooke unless he’s deliberately setting out to screw with his readers. In 1959, when Goldfinger was published, Shirley Bassey had just her first number one single, and McDonald Bailey’s 100 metres world record had only recently been bested, but the idea of pairing James Bond with an African-American woman would have probably still been shocking to a sizable percentage of the English reading public. It would have been even more unacceptable in the American market, where interracial relationships were still proscribed by varying levels of legal racism in twenty-four states.

There’s a lot I could say more about here. I think this twist in Miss Galore’s identity is designed to tie into more general themes about identity and oppression in the novel, and I think it’s particularly important to acknowledge that her sexuality is a part of that identity as well. She is, as Goldfinger crassly puts it, the leader of a “lesbian organization”.

The trouble is, I’m what you’d call a straight white man, and I’m not at all sure I feel confident to commentate on any of this. That’s also a problem which the author and his protagonist have: the ending of Goldfinger is regarded in critical circles as problematic, because the lesbian heroine ends up in bed with chauvinist arch-conservative alpha-male protagonist.

There is a certain awkwardness in that concept, but if I’m right, I think it’s possible to see some redeeming features in how Fleming and Bond negotiate it. Let’s look at that defining description again: Rupert Brooke was a man who men fell in love with; even straight men. Stuffy Victorian generals sound like starry-eyed teenagers when they describe him. When Bond compares Pussy to Rupert Brooke, he’s not only comparing a women who attracts women to a man who attracted men, he’s also implicitly transcending the usual gendered boundaries of sexuality, because in Bond’s thoughts, the quality that makes Pussy so beautiful and desirable is something you can also find in men.

That Rupert Brooke comparison is a subtle way for the author and his protagonist both to defer to the lesbian heroine, and in that context, the fact that Pussy beds Bond is ultimately her own decision. It’s not Mr. Bond who takes the initiative, and I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily Miss Galore whose sexuality is undermined or problematized in this novel. Insofar as the two of them meet as equals, it’s because the chauvinist protagonist allows himself to be seduced very easily by someone outside his official comfort zone.

I hope I’m at least allowed to speak up for straight while men’s ability to subvert themselves…?

To conclude, though, I want to focus on just one issue. A key theme of Goldfinger is its exploration of American organized crime – organized, that is, along ethnic lines: we’re introduced to fictionalized versions of the Sicilian Mafia, the Cuban mob from Miami, the Las Vegas gambling moguls (presumably representing Eastern European immigration, as in reality), an outwardly ultra-respectable German businessman from Detroit, and the Irish crime boss behind the Democratic Party in Chicago.

Yes, you read that last one right.

This isn’t about racial profiling. Goldfinger’s coalition is composed of immigrant minorities, who originally formed criminal cartels due to their exclusion from full participation in mainstream American society (you’ve seen Gangs of New York and Once Upon A Time in Americaright?); but now the leaders of those cartels have bought their way into that mainstream society, without divesting themselves of their core business: they’re planning a profitable revenge on the American state, while continuing to exploit it through their place in its élite. Not all of them are portrayed unsympathetically, either. The fact that Miss Galore is one of these characters emphasises that they’re not automatically, or inherrently, bad people.

It’s also important to emphasise that in this collection of the ethnic underclasses of the USA, Miss Galore’s Harlem outfit implicitly represents the African-American community.

(This James Bond theme will return….)