• Joe Pace

Favorite Fictional Characters, #139: Barbarella


Spare exaltation transference pellet, anyone?

Let's not mince words - Barbarella is some weird, funky stuff. It's very much a product of its time, a sexploitation classic from the hedonistic, boundary-testing late 1960s. Director Roger Vadim conceived of the project as exaggerated camp, a kind of adult tribute to mid-20th century comic strips. The movie is a wild and often bewildering aggregate of images and noise, with a nominal plot and the strangely magnetic presence of Barbarella herself, portrayed by a young Jane Fonda (Vadim's then-wife).

I'm not really interested in discussing Fonda's politics, which many have strong feelings about. As Barbarella, she brings a vixenish sex appeal, invested with a certain improbable naivete for a supposed veteran of space travel. Denizen of a distant future in which humans no longer engage in physical acts of love, Barbarella is reintroduced to the practice by a sequence of new friends as she explores Tau Ceti on a mission to bring back rogue scientist Dr. Durand Durand. But as I said, the plot is secondary to the thematic exploration of...of...

OK, I tried. I really did. I tried to impose some intellectual framework here, some deeper meaning, but this is really just spectacle and Fonda bouncing scantily clad through a bizarre spacescape. But here's the thing - it's fun. It's oddly entertaining, and even sort of quaintly innocent. Barbarella is charismatic and engaging, and became the source material for all sorts of archetypes, from comic book heroines to science fiction blaster babes (think Star Wars, The Fifth Element, and more). Not all of that is to the good, of course, and we can certainly deconstruct the negative impacts with a withering feminist critique. But pop culture as we've known it since 1970 wouldn't have been the same without Barbarella. And if nothing else, it inspired the band name for Duran Duran.

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