I love Barbarella–the 1968 film starring Jane Fonda which was based on a number of French comic strips published in the early 60s. One of the local cinemas was playing it a couple of weeks ago and I decided to watch it for the second time as part of research for my series on female action heroes. However, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out exactly what I want to say about this movie and its title character. Is she really a bad ass? Is her character troubling from a feminist perspective or does the humorous light in which the movie is cast absolve it from being offensive? These questions are further complicated by the film’s place in history and my complete lack of familiarity with the comics it was originally based on. Instead of blathering on about my internal conflict about the merits of Barbarella as a bad ass, I’ll simply tell you about the movie and point out the positives and negatives as I go.
Barbarella, standing naked in front of her space ship’s telecommunicator after the movie’s opening scene, is tasked by the President of Earth with finding the scientist Durand Durand (yes, Duran Duran is named after the character) whose last known location was the planet Tau Ceti. She is given weapons, something considered uncivilized in the year 40,000, and a device which will detect Durand Durand’s presence. With the tools needed to complete her mission and a change of wardrobe, she sets off toward her destination to find the lost scientist.
What follows is 98 minutes of clever scenarios in which Barbarella must overcome some difficulty–all of which resulting in damage done to her clothing and a subsequent change of costume. She meets a handful of people who help her out, be it by fixing her spaceship or rescuing her from a pack of rabid budgies. As a token of gratitude for the help she receives, she has sex with several of the individuals; sometimes in the barbaric old way of making love and sometimes in the new, civilized manner.
What kind of a girl are you? Have you no shame?
Upon finding Durand Durand, it’s revealed that he is evil and he puts Barbarella into his Excessive Machine to kill her through pleasure. However, the machine “can’t keep up” with her and it sets fire. Durand Durand eventually locks her in a dream chamber with the evil city’s ruling Black Queen, leaving both women to be devoured by the Matmos–the energy-filled lake beneath the city which thrives on evil. However, because of Barbarella’s overwhelming goodness, the Matmos must protect itself against Barbarella by forming a bubble around her and the queen. Eventually, with the help of blind angel Pygar and a group of rebels, Barbarella defeats Durand Durand and escapes the city having saved the universe.
The problem I have with the character boils down to this: with the exception of saving Pygar once, she doesn’t do anything on her own the whole time. Every single thing she does is facilitated by someone else and she is always saved by someone else or saves herself by way of circumstance. Someone else has to fix her ship and her weapons are given to her by the President–it’s a small wonder she knows how to use either of them.
Her pseudo-helplessness aside, the movie is largely a device to unclothe and redress Jane Fonda. Due to the obviously self-aware and humorous ways in which this is done I don’t really take much issue with this aspect of the movie. However, I can’t help but think of the numerous video games that virtually force all female characters into what amounts to chain mail bikinis complete with actions scenes created just to get a close up of jiggling, barely-contained breasts. I then wonder why I am all right with Barbarella but not the borderline offensive, non-satirical representations of and attitudes toward women such as those becoming almost standard in comic books and other popular geeky media.
I think the difference here is two-fold. First, the entirety of Barbarella is basically a sex comedy in a science fiction setting. While partaking in the over-the-top displays of sexuality and overt under-dressing of women that can be seen in modern games/movies, Barbarella doesn’t take itself seriously. Additionally, it pokes fun at male sexuality and isn’t just focused on Barbarella being hot and liking sex.
This brings me to the second reason Barbarella gets a pass: Its place in history. The comics, while created by a man, were written during the early days of the sexual revolution and were the author’s (admittedly over the top) representation of a sexually liberated woman. The comics, according to their wikipedia page, were even considered highly scandalous despite its supposed limited sexual content which would likely pale in comparison to what is being made today. The movie followed several years later, but this is all still highly relevant.
The point is this: Barbarella was created well before gross over-sexualization was normal and I think its representation of a female character enjoying sex and still being considered good was a highly positive thing during its time. Would I consider Barbarella to be one of my female bad asses I would model myself after? For being a sexual revolutionary (in the real world 1960s era, not the fictional year 40,000 setting), yes.
What do you think? What media representations of women do you find positive or negative? What do you think of Barbarella if you’ve seen it? I would love to hear what our male and female readers think.