Barbarella (1968)

I watched Barbarella thinking it would be a nice campy, kitschy, cheesy 60s SF film and what I got was that, and a whole lot more.  Honestly, I was stunned that the film opens, not just with a dis-robing Jane Fonda, but with a totally naked Jane Fonda.  I know we were in the middle of a cultural revolution of sex at the time, but for whatever reason I just wasn’t expecting her to be totally nude in the opening titles. 

What stands out about this film to me isn’t the sophsticated plotline or character development, but the mere fact that it is a vehicle for Jane Fonda and sex.  Much like my thoughts on Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C., Barbarella clearly was a way to show off Miss Fonda’s attributes and her highly-developed acting skills.  Of course, I’m being ironic here (with the highly-developed acting skills part).

It also seems plausible that the film was a vehicle to broadcast the cultural acceptability of promiscuous sex and male sexual dominance (in its many variations–the scene with Fonda and Hemmings shows the viewer an alternative to the other instances of Barbarella’s promiscuity, and the trope of male sexual dominance–and thus female sexual submissiveness–that runs throughout).

The way Barbarella spread herself around amongst the men she encounters is interesting–no one can escape an encounter with her, not even the viewer, who in the first few moments of the film, is treated to a very intimate moment of voyeuristic pleasure.

In the same vein, the way she breaks the ‘death-by-pleasure’ machine shows the extent to which the viewer is to become enrapt in her sex appeal–she is so sexually resilient that she’ll wear you out before she does. 

I call it promiscuity because Barbarella immediately sleeps with the men she encounters–sometimes as repayment for help, sometimes because she wants to (because she’s now obsessed with the idea of intercourse after having been ‘starved’ of it).

Perhaps it is showing how “powerful” Barbarella is, that she can take charge of her sexuality and her self by lording it over the men.

But I doubt that. Rather, Barbarella is almost always in a submissive position:  in the beginning, she is totally naked, being viewed by her “boss” on the telescreen who is completely clothed–she asks, should I put on some clothes, and he, of course, says ‘no, don’t worry about it’; then when she encounters the man on the ice she lays down waiting for him to assume a dominant position on her–she is naked, he is clothed until he reveals his grossly hairy chest–the ULTIMATE male, I suppose; when she is in the ecstacy-machine, she is literally pinned in by Durand Durand who essentially molests her with the machine, but much to her delight and pleasure–so forced pleasure is still acceptable, I suppose; and when she is with the Angel, she is in a submissive position, waiting for him, greatly desiring what he can give her. 

At least when she is with Hemmings’ character (who was a great character, by the way), and they’re sitting up and touching hands, they are both on equal terms.  I would like to note, however, that when she is having this moment of ecstacy with Hemmings’ character, it is clear that she is getting no pleasure, but he is–he is still mid-climax and she is already bored and has taken her hands away from his.  Perhaps this is making a comment about female-sexual-satisfaction-at-the-expense-of-ensuring-male-sexual-satisfaction.  It’s almost like she’s lying there, waiting for him to finish.

So it appears that either Barbarella is being dominated, or is just waiting for it to be over with.  Neither bodes well, I’m afraid.

Doesn’t lead me to believe sex means power for women.  Just the opposite, in fact.

My initial reaction was shock at the naked Fonda.  But now I see what it was all for: just another rung in the ladder of female suppression.  I suppose I’m just as guilty of objectifying her as the patriarchal culture that finds (and makes) it acceptable–I did watch the film.

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