Page to Screen: Barbarella (1968)


based on the comics by Jean-Claude Forest


1968 • 98 minutes • Paramount Pictures

In the land of media plenty that is our wonderful modern age, it’s difficult to have pop culture white whales. Everything’s so available (assuming you, like me, are patient enough and don’t mind being behind the curve a little) that I have come to embrace scheduled and limited viewings as a way to keep things fresh.

But I have had one for a long time—Barbarella. It was one of the first films my college comedy troupe (think Mystery Science Theater 3000, just more inclusive and all ladies) watched, but they watched it before I joined. We don’t have any specific rules about what can be rerun—we have watched Dungeons and Dragons so many times over the years—but Barbarella was widely considered by the group to be one of those bad movies that was best endured in company. So it took about four years for it to finally bob back to the surface as potential viewing, and it was a… doozy.

But not in the way I expected. Barbarella is, of all things, dreamy. (Or stoned, in a less charitable light.) Most of this comes from the serialized nature of Jean-Claude Forest’s Barbarella comics which originally ran in France’s V-Magazine from 1962 to 1964. Instead of focusing on one episode, director Roger Vadim and a veritable army of writers instead have Barbarella bounce from action set piece to action set piece. Technically, she is given a single assignment by the President of Earth—find the lost scientist Durand Durand (and yes, that’s where Duran Duran gets their name, bless ‘em) before his deadly Positronic Ray falls into the hands of less civilized peoples, like the oversexed people of the planet Lythion, ruled by that Great Tyrant the Black Queen.

By action set pieces, I don’t mean blazing guns, although Barbarella does manage to fire off a round or two before the end credits and the bonkers leopard print skies roll. Barbarella—both the film and the comic—are remembered largely as soft-core sci-fi. The film, in particular (I’ve not read the original comics or Kelly Sue DeConnick’s intriguing English adaptation of the original text, so I can’t speak to them), is that peculiar kind of supposedly sex positive text from the sexual revolution that seems liberated at first but ultimately turns out to be a straight male fantasy instead of a woman’s vision of a world without sex or gender stigma.

Barbarella does try. Vadim and Jane Fonda both conceived of Barbarella as someone who simply doesn’t have the same kind of influences on her sexuality that people in our culture do. That’s probably the greatest speculation the film makes as a piece of speculative fiction—what would it look like if someone whose sexuality would be stringently policed in our country was raised entirely out of that context? To Fonda’s credit, her wide-eyed portrayal does manage to have something compellingly unique about it. Her Barbarella rolls with the punches, approaching everyone with a friendly and open heart, and has a sensuality that doesn’t insist on her being sexualized every second of every scene, despite her increasingly absurd and skimpy costumes. (At one point, she puts on a costume to walk five feet to another costume change. This is why this film is a camp classic.) With Fonda’s own feminist bonafides and the frustrating rarity of women headlining sci-fi films nearly half a century later, it’s no wonder that Barbarella has been reclaimed by certain feminist film critics.

But the film is made from the wrong perspective—it’s drenched in the male gaze. Vadim, who explicitly stated that he put the infamous astronaut striptease at the beginning of the film so that men who came to see Jane Fonda naked didn’t have to earn it by actually watching the film he made, was probably never the best candidate to turn Barbarella into a feminist icon, if that was ever anyone’s point with this production. (One wonders what the dropped aughts remake of Barbarella would have been like, politically speaking.) Is the film’s first sex scene Barbarella’s sexual awakening as a liberated woman or a headstrong woman uninterested in sex being “tamed” by Ugo Tognazzi’s hirsute and manly Mark the Hand? Is the Excessive Machine scene hilarious or a callback to stereotypes about women being the earthier sex that’s sexually insatiable? Is Barbarella’s total lack of combat prowess acceptable?

There is something feminist in the heart of Barbarella, I think, but the danger of a single story rears its ugly head by the film’s insinuation (especially in the marketing) that the reason anyone would be remotely interested in Barbarella’s adventures is that she’s conventionally attractive and sexually available to straight men. In short, her acceptably liberated sexuality is used as the explanation for why anyone would want to watch a science fiction film about a woman. If Barbarella were one of many, then I think her unique strengths, like how her lack of combat prowess doesn’t make her any less of a active agent (see also Jupiter in Jupiter Ascending), would shine through. But all alone? She’s trapped by the othering gazes what made her.

I watched this film on Netflix.

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