The first erotic comic: that’s what Barbarella was famous as in 1964. And four years later, it hit the big screen under the direction of Roger Vadim. But it was star Jane Fonda who immortalized the soft-core tale as Barbarella herself: a sex kitten space cadet lost on a sci-fi adventure. The role solidified Fonda’s place as a face of the sexual revolution. But its politics are murky.
“I try not to [think about it]. Because I worry about what it’s going to be,” Fonda recently said, reflecting on the news of a potential remake starring Gen Z bombshell Sidney Sweeney.
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Jane Fonda married the older French director Roger Vadim when she was 28 years old. Prior to their relationship, Vadim had made a name for himself directing (fairly) erotic films like And God Created Woman: a star-making vehicle for his then-wife Bridget Bardot. Vadim had a high-profile relationship with his buxom star before crossing paths with Fonda in 1963.
But even after they married, Fonda was never quite secure in the relationship. Soon after tying the knot, Vadim revealed that he did not consider cheating a betrayal. He wanted an open marriage. And the lovestruck Fonda went along with it. He encouraged Fonda to have her own affairs and often brought women home for he and Fonda to share. “I took my cues from him and threw myself into the threesome with the skill and enthusiasm of the actress that I am,” Fonda told The Daily Mail.
At that time in her life, Fonda also struggled with her body image. She was bulimic, exercised compulsively, and relied on the upper dexedrine to keep her weight down. The paranoia wasn’t helped by constant comments from Vadim, comparing her to his ex Bardot.
Like Bardot, Fonda also starred in a slate of movies by Vadim. The most famous among them: Barbarella. In 1964, the pair set off to Rome for filming. But Fonda was not confident in the ultra-sexy part. “Every morning I was sure Vadim would wake up and realize he’d made a terrible mistake. ‘Oh my God, she’s not Bardot!'” Fonda later said.
Based on the popular French comics by Jean-Claude Forest, Barbarella follows the story of the titular space explorer on her intergalactic quest. Barbarella, an Earthling from the future, is technically on a mission to find a scientist called Durand Durand… but most of her quest is overtly sexual.
After crash-landing in the Tau Ceti planetary system, she is rescued by a handsome stranger — and told to repay him through sex. At that point, it’s revealed that on Earth, sexual contact has been replaced by pills. She is completely unfamiliar with the act, setting Barbarella up as a nubile, virginal plaything. Over the course of the rest of the film, she shacks up with a blind angel — Pygar! — and a dominatrix queen… all while finding herself in plenty of compromising positions.
Barbarella bombed at the box office but, unsurprisingly, was an instant cult classic.
Was ‘Barbarella’ Empowering?
Premiering the same year as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes — and 10 years before Star Wars — Barbarella attempted to conjure a visual future fantasy that was still new and exciting. But the movie looks cheesy and cheap; Roger Vadim’s low-budget film was not exactly high art.
It’s part of Barbarella‘s classic camp appeal. But the biggest part of Barbarella‘s appeal was Jane Fonda herself: her famous body was the focal point of every scene. The film opens with a weightless Fonda, floating, undressing mid-air. From the start, it’s pretty obvious that even though Barbarella (the character) is powerful, Barbarella (the movie) is not empowering.
Vadim’s hungry lens lingers on his wife to a lascivious degree. Barbarella is so oversexed, so eager to hop into bed, that it’s hard to take seriously. The character exhibits so literally the free love mentality that defined the decade — almost like a future-coded time capsule. But it was wishful thinking. The presentation of Barbarella, with her skimpy space costumes and exaggerated naïveté, suggests a decidedly male perception of the sexual revolution. Barbarella is good fun but it’s not women’s lib. Not like some of Fonda’s later roles.
Just one year later after Barbarella, Fonda took a more mature part in Sydney Pollack’s psychological drama, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? To play dancer Gloria Beatty, Fonda cut off her long hair — the chestnut waves that flowed so beautifully in Barbarella — and began a new, activist phase of her life. She and Vadim split soon after.
“In her marriage and in some of her movies, Jane had been playing characters who take what men deign to give them w a smile on her face. The entire character of Barbarella is about presenting a male fantasy of female sexuality as though it’s a woman’s empowerment fantasy,” the critic Karina Longworth explains, quit succinctly, on her podcast You Must Remember This. (An entire season of the show, “Jean and Jane,” is dedicated to the biography of Jane Fonda. Check it out here.)
The ‘Barbarella’ Remake
In a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Jane Fonda opened up about the Barbarella remake. Sony is reviving the film with Euphoria breakout Sydney Sweeney attached to star. But Fonda, who is not involved with the production, did not sound too enthusiastic.
When asked what she thinks about the movie, she said, “I try not to. Because I worry about what it’s going to be. I had an idea of how to do it that Dino De Laurentiis when he was still alive, wouldn’t listen to.” De Laurentiis was the original Barbarella producer. Fonda added: “It could have been a truly feminist movie.” Unfortunately, it wasn’t.