January 2, 2013

"Barbarella" by Nancy McGuire Roche

When I teach Barbarella: Queen of the Galaxy (1968) as a feminist film text, my students usually think I have lost my mind.  Later, I often find them posting pictures of Barbarella on Facebook after they “get” the camp and sexually savvy text. And well, after all, Jane Fonda’s Barbarella is just plain fun. Barbarella, however, does more: it pushes a counter-culture narrative and boasts a liberated female astronaut who attracts both males and females in her adventures.  And best of all, she is not only liberated, but also empowered. The film is based on a comic strip character created by Jean-Claude Forest, which appeared in the French V-Magazine in 1962.  In its native France, the female astronaut soon became a pop culture sensation. Two years later when Eric Losfeld published Barbarella as a graphic novel, it immediately sold 200,000 copies, but French censors also ruled that the book could not be publicly displayed.

Jean-Marc Lofficier states, “Barbarella was the first female hero to enter French comics since World War II and the country’s first science-fiction character. Her unconventional attitude gave her a fragile, yet invincible aura. She became the incarnation of the ’60s budding eroticism” (36). Forest admits that Barbarella was patterned after American comics such as Flash Gordon; he also wanted the comic to have the same kind of whimsy as Louis Carroll, but with a comedic slant. The graphic novel was a resounding success: “Dubbed the ‘first comic strip for grown-ups,’ Barbarella attracted rave reviews from a varied assortment of magazines including French literary weekly Arts (‘a modern epic’), Newsweek (‘a mythic creature of the space age’), and Playboy (‘the very ‘apotheosis’ of eroticism’)” (36).

In 1968, the French director Roger Vadim convinced his American wife, Jane Fonda, to star in a film version of Barbarella. The movie, however, was immediately controversial due to the scantily clad or nearly naked figure of Fonda, who is placed in an ongoing series of sexual situations. The Barbarella text was faithfully reenacted and interpreted by screenwriter Terry Southern, who wrote other controversial 60s films such as Dr. Strangelove; or, How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), The Collector (1965), Casino Royale (1967), and Easy Rider (1969). Southern emphasizes many of the sexually bizarre components of Forest’s original narrative, such as the heroine sado-sexually attacked by mechanical dolls with teeth, vampire children, and an evil lesbian queen.  In one scene, Barbarella is placed in a glass dome with birds that attack her and flay her skin, a la Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963). This pop culture reference, among others, creates a cinematic record of the zeitgeist of “hip” Sixties culture.  Thus, Barbarella is also an early example of a postmodern film text.

If taken out of the context of camp, however, Barbarella highlights Laura Mulvey’s theory of scopophilia, or pleasure in looking.  In “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Mulvey theorizes:
The first avenue, voyeurism, on the contrary, has associations with sadism: pleasure lies in ascertaining guilt (immediately associated with castration), asserting control and subjugating the guilty person through punishment or forgiveness…. Sadism demands a story, depends on making something happen, forcing a change in another person, a battle of will and strength, victory/defeat, all occurring in a linear time with a beginning and end. (Mulvey 22)
Barbarella, however, thwarts Mulvey’s notion, because Barbarella always triumphs over her subjugators and tormentors.  Because she is open, innocent, and clever, she defeats everyone who seeks to control her, confronting the sadism of her captors with good will and negotiating her own terms for physical pleasure.  Southern’s understanding of both the decadent and the grotesque certainly informs the film, rendering a cult text in the guise of a Hollywood narrative.  Yet, Barbarella is very much a product of its day.  Reflecting both the sexual revolution and revolutionary chic, as evidenced by David Hemming’s absent-minded, feminized rebel who needs Barbarella’s help to manifest his plans, or the pop culture icon Anita Pallenberg as The Great Tyrant, a black-leather clad lesbian seducer who refers to our heroine as “my pretty, pretty.”

In her essay, “Bringing Barbarella Down to Earth,” Lisa Parks praises another dimension of the film, “While scientists and politicians positioned feminine sexuality as a threat to the scientific rational and nationalist imperatives of the American space program, Barbarella represented a dangerous alternative: a female astronaut who was sexy, single and political—a highly volatile combination” (253-4).  Parks sees the character of Barbarella as a female with agency, “Barbarella’s hyperbolic sexuality … enables the female astronaut to assert power and control within the narrative …  Barbarella’s body is also a tool of personal pleasure and political power” (254).

Jane Fonda commented that Barbarella was “a kind of tongue-in-cheek satire against bourgeois morality” (qtd. in Parks 261), while Vadim deemed it “ruthless satire.”  Although controversial, Barbarella is certainly made from the sexual revolution of its day: a melding of pop culture and camp, where the “low art” of comic book meets the capitalism of Hollywood to create an American and French version of the Swinging Sixties set in the future.  After all this time, shouldn’t she be praised for these achievements?
Lofficier, Jean-Marc, and Randy Lofficier. “Cruising The Galaxy With Barbarella.”  STARLOG.  Issue 92. March, 1985. Web.  15 January 2011.
Mulvey, Laura. Visual And Other Pleasures. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
Parks, Lisa.  “Bringing Barbarella Down to Earth.”  Swinging Single: Representing Sexuality in the 1960s.

Ed., Hillary Radner and Moya Luckett.
Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota Press, 1999.  253-274.
Nancy McGuire Roche is a Lecturer in English at Vanderbilt University and a Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at the Watkins Film School in Nashville, Tennessee.  She holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Brown University and a Ph.D. in English from Middle Tennessee State University. She currently teaches courses in Postmodern Literature, American Independent Cinema, Adaptations, and British and American films of the 1960s.  She is published in The LBGTQ America Today Encyclopedia and in the forthcoming Modern American Drama on Screen from Cambridge University Press.

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