BARBARELLA (1968) is often lumped in with the soft-pornographic, MAD MEN-era brand of sexist iconography. It’s erotic imagination is as unsophisticated as an ad for a manly fragrance: if only all beautiful women were as chill as Barbarella, life would be easier. If only all women would stop having preferences, and just enjoy the underside of the boot. While there's a deliberate lack of physical contact on screen, the movie doesn't need actual sex to remind us of porn.
Barbarella could easily have been a throw-away role - blandly seductive or childishly passive. But, we're talking about Jane Fonda here. As Karina Longworth put it, referring to any Fonda performance: "She's almost always the most active presence in any given scene... There's no way you could watch a Jane Fonda performance and not know what her character wanted."
In BARBARELLA, she takes the concept of agreeability and turns it up to 11. She's so alert and eager to please that her agency breaks through the two-dimensionality of the character. She's the overly precocious, straight-A student of sexual awakening. Some of this eagerness is built in to Fonda as a performer. As Pauline Kael would write, much later, "Jane Fonda's motor runs a little fast... she's always a little ahead of everybody, and this quicker beat--this quicker responsiveness--makes her more exciting to watch."
This quickness - almost jumpiness - doesn't just fit the character. It transforms it. Fonda-rella candidly delivers cheeky one-liners, presenting as a genuinely likable human being, instead of an icy bombshell like Brigitte Bardot, director-husband Roger Vadim's first wife and "discovery". She takes the sex goddess off the pedestal.
Even discerning modern audiences are taken in by BARBARELLA's pseudo-feminism. She carries a gun and shoots it. She has a motive outside domesticity and male pleasure. She enjoys sex. The film cherry picks motifs from the budding culture of psychedelia and sexual liberation. We buy into it because the bar is still low, and we're all starved for a retro feminist superhero. Fonda herself has asserted that "it could have been a really strong feminist movie." Modern audiences detect this, as well as the distance between the could-have and the reality.
Fonda knows how to sell the character, even if she doesn't sell the sex object with the same oomph the producers may have intended. Nothing she does in the Orgasmatron looks like a real woman having a real orgasm. It's a spoof of an orgasm - it's hammed up for the male gaze. When she sells sex in KLUTE, we see the difference - right before she looks at her watch and let's us know it's all an act. (Tori Galatro)
Tori Galatro is a current AFS Marketing Senior Intern.