#TBT Reviews: Barbarella (1968) – Free Love as Feminism?

The 1968 sci-fi spoof Barbarella stars Jane Fonda as an intergalactic adventurer from the 41st century. We’re introduced to her as she strips off her space suit in exchange for her birthday suit in zero gravity.  The camera lingers over Fonda’s body, presenting Barbarella as a sex object rather than a fierce space spy.  Actually, it’s a little unclear what exactly Barbarella does on her space ship, but she is summoned by Earth’s President to find and destroy a particularly dangerous weapon called the positronic ray. Apparently in the 41st century peace and love rule the day, and weapons are seen as outdated and barbaric.  Barbarella is a futuristic hippy, who believes unironically in the power of love.

A true representative of its era, the film presents peace as the ultimate goal of the universe, with a side order of free love.  Barbarella is a doe-eyed, somewhat clueless heroine.  Knowing what we do about Fonda’s fierce activism and strong feminist convictions, it’s clear she took the role in an attempt to represent a strong, pacifistic feminist protagonist on film.  The movie was also directed by her then husband Roger Vadim, so that probably sealed the deal.  However, many critics argue the film is an abomination in terms of its sexualized, objectification of the title character.  The truth lies somewhere in between.

Based on a French comic strip, the film’s script was written by Terry Southern, who also penned Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove and Easy Rider.  Over the course of her hero’s journey, Barbarella is attacked by creepy mechanical dolls with sharp teeth, battles an evil lesbian queen, and gets it on with a blind angel of some sort.  Truthfully, some of the action is difficult to follow, as it is so absurd.  But that’s the appeal of this iconic film.  It’s cheesy sets and over-the-top acting are somewhat endearing, if you are a fan of camp.  Fonda considered it satire that skewered the morality of an uptight generation, but the way in which Vadim directs the film reinforces a male gaze that objectifies the star.  The skimpy, fetishized costumes don’t help, either. Yes, she triumphs in the end, defeating the “excessive machine,” which is basically a weapon that is meant to cause the victim to die by means of never-ending orgasmic pleasure.

The cultural impact of the film is hard to deny.  The costumes influenced fashion, both on catwalks across the world and in later films.  The film was the second-highest grossing release in Great Britain in 1968 (topping the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Rosemary’s Baby and Funny Girl).  And the film continues to be a cult classic here in the States.  There has been talk over the years of remaking the film, or producing a variety of spinoff sequels.  Robert Rodriguez had planned on creating a new, 21st century Barbarella starring then girlfriend Rose McGowan, but financing and studio backing fell through over a decade ago.

Whether you see it as exploitative trash, fun camp, or an important cinematic time capsule might just depend on your mood.  I’d suggest watching this film with tongue firmly in cheek, possibly while enjoying one or two of your favorite adult beverages.  If you don’t take it too seriously, you’ll enjoy the escapist campy romp.

Barbarella is currently streaming on Hulu.

Patty Williamson

I teach media-related stuff at Central Michigan University, and have been ruining film for students for nearly 20 years.

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