Something for the Weekend: On Language and Pop Culture Prejudices

Ian Morris continues his new weekly column, and after reading Ian Fleming’s Bond novel Moonraker, considers the changing nature of language over time. Does erasing evidence of past prejudice run the risk we forget it ever existed?

Language is a wonderful thing. It evolves and changes and is a thing of beauty, but it can also be very destructive and highly offensive. Over recent weeks, much has been written about language used historically, which when judged through the lens of today, can make us very uncomfortable; the person using the language can seem to be less of the person we thought they were. 

I finished reading the book Moonraker by Ian Fleming last week. Many of you may know it as a James Bond classic. It was written in 1955, and it was a fascinating read, but if you don’t want to know the plot cease and desist now… 

Anyone who has ever watched a James Bond film would be very clear that Fleming’s understanding of inter-sectional feminism is pretty poor, perhaps non existent, so I braced myself for some pretty misogynist language and themes.

It didn’t start well as Fleming described Bond’s secretary in a reasonable and positive tone, but ended the description with:

‘…but if she doesn’t find a husband or take a lover in the next couple of years, she risks turning spinsterish.’

I am not sure I have ever heard the word ‘spinsterish’ before. 

The plot starts as Bond has an interview with the iconic M, who describes a member of his club, ‘Blades’ as a ‘decent fellow, a Jew, but a decent man.’

My eyebrows were over the top of my head at this point: the descriptor of ‘a Jew’ appearing to imply that, by default, Blades would not also be a good man. It seems that casual anti-Semitism was perfectly acceptable in 1955, but it’s a topic still making the headlines.

Last week Rebecca Long-Bailey was sacked as shadow education secretary for re-tweeting an article that contained an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory. It wasn’t as overt as M, but the bit of that story I couldn’t get my head around was that Labour is accused of having an anti-Semitism problem, particularly those on the Left of the party, so good sense says you wouldn’t go anywhere near anything that could be perceived to be anti Semitic, would you? But I digress.

Back to Bond. There is a smattering of casual racism; the villain turns out to be German and I am sure this played well just 10 years after the war. He is also in league with the Russians who supply the getaway submarine – yes, submarine. So we can see the beginnings of the Cold War starting with Russia and replacing the Germans as public enemy number 1. 

What did surprise me is the relationship between Bond and the female lead, an undercover policewoman, Gala Brand, or should that be police officer? Bond starts by pulling out Brand’s police file, admiring her ‘vital statistics’:  36-24-36. I realised I haven’t heard numbers like that since the late ’70s and the days of Miss World (younger readers might not realise that the numbers refer to hips – waist –  bust measurements in inches). I  couldn’t establish whether official police files would have carried such details or if this is artistic license. 

If you have watched any Bond movies, you know what happens next. Bond is cool and suave, suddenly they are alone, her clothes fall off and Bond gets the girl? But no.

They do end up naked at one point, but this is when a cliff falls on them, and the author is very clear this is a non-sexual situation. Everything else is innocent and chaste, and Bond soon realises he has fallen in love with Gala. At the end of the book they are sent away to Europe for a month to recuperate, and while away Gala tells Bond she isn’t going with him but is going to marry her fiancé instead. 

Bond doesn’t get the girl at all. 

So it’s fair to say I enjoyed Moonraker, despite the language being pretty grim in parts. On balance, I think it was worth the read.

There is a final twist, I couldn’t remember Gala’s full name so I asked the interweb.

In 1979, the film of the book was released, directed by Stephen Spielberg. Gala Brand was now Holly Goodhead, yes, Good Head. By the late 70s, we had evolved from a chaste and untouchable police officer to a cartoon-named sexual stereotype. 

I  guess this brings me to the point of this ramble. If you look back in time you will find the language and beliefs held there offensive.

This week we have seen Charles Dickens museum in Kent daubed with the phrase ‘Dickens racist’, and you don’t have to look too hard to find evidence that supports this when looked at through today’s lens. Similar accusations have been levelled at Winston Churchill  and if you read his 1937 speech to the Palestine Royal Commission you will not like it if you are a Churchill fan.

Agatha Christie’s novel And Then There Were None is on its third title. The first title will have you wide-eyed in astonishment.

It’s not just literature, either. 1972 saw ITV air Love Thy Neighbour, an Afro-Caribbean family move in next door to a racist northerner and racist hilarity ensues. They even made a second series, watch at your own peril. 

I think the risk is that we start embracing cancel culture and all of these wrongs of the past are buried or swept under the carpet. Our language and understanding has grown and evolved, and we recognise today how offensive those shows are. That said, we can’t judge them by today’s understanding and values, to do so is a gross over-simplification and we risk condemning the whole of history to the bin.

I am not offering a defence of ‘these were different times’ here. The thinking was as wrong then as it is now. But the understanding of the impact of that language and expression was very different. 

If we are going to make a journey of enlightenment together, we have to find a better way forward. As language evolves we will all make mistakes. Surely we should encourage people to correct themselves and learn in a way that doesn’t brand someone as an eternal ‘-ist’ or a  ‘-phobe’. 

Oppressive beliefs don’t stand the test of time at all. Ian Fleming wrote in The Man With the Golden Gun: ‘there is a popular theory that a man who cannot whistle has homosexual tendencies.’  

Who knew?


This article was amended on 4th July 2020 to correct an editing error.

Something for the Weekend will be back next Friday, tackling national issues from a local perspective. In the meantime, you can check out all of Ian’s writing for S&C, here, along with past editions of the Pompey Politics Podcast.

Image by Peggy_Marco from Pixabay.

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