The Female Warrior Revisited: What ‘Barbarella’ and ‘The Hunger Games’ Tell Us About Who We Are, And Who We Were

Greg Ptacek reviews films of the baby boomer era and contrasts them with todays films

Greg Ptacek reviews films of the baby boomer era and contrasts them with todays films

For any actress today who fears being typecast as a sex symbol, one only has to point to Jane Fonda. Early in her career in the 1960s, she starred in “Barbarella” in which she played a futuristic space vixen. Fonda, of course, would become one of American’s cinema’s most respected actors, going on to a string of critically-acclaimed, incredibly diverse performances in films like “Klute” (1971) and “Coming Home” (1978), which both earned her Best Actress Academy Awards, as well as “Julia” (1977) and “The Morning After” (1986), which earned her Best Actress Oscar nominations.

Directed by her then husband, French filmmaker Roger Vadim, “Barbarella” features Fonda cavorting through a series of sexual escapades with increasingly skimpy costumes before handily dispatching the mad scientist who plans to bring warfare back to a “make love, not war” universe. Made at the height of the Vietnam War, the 1968 film is a not too subtle satire on the U.S. conflict, all wrapped up in a campy neo-Flash Gordon veneer.

But the film is also a statement on feminism. As the film’s title character, Fonda is a guardian of peace who is tasked by the galactic powers-that-be to stamp out any sign of primitive violence that might erupt in the cosmos. While she’s equipped with a ray gun or two, she really uses her feminine wiles to overcome her largely male opponents. Actually, she’s not even specific with gender in her quest to overcome evil, romancing and being romanced throughout the film by the devilishly ravishing Anita Pallenberg who plays the Great Tyrant (who is not only fond of Barbarella but black leather and whips as well).

Contrast the highly sexualized character of Barbarella with today’s most popular iteration of the sci-fi female warrior, namely Katniss Everdeen in the “The Hunger Games” film franchise. Katniss, played on the big screen by Jennifer Lawrence, who won her first Oscar last year for “Silver Linings Playbook,” reprises her leading role in the original 2011 film in this year’s sequel, “Catching Fire: The Hunger Games 2.” In both films, Katniss is an Amazonian character – every bit the equal in intellectual and physical prowess to her male opponents, whom she must battle in a futuristic gladiator-type game. In fact, she is better than them, twice vanquishing her male competitors and emerging victorious. But while she has two competing male love interests in the continuing story, Lawrence’s character, whom she plays with convincing vigor, is chaste. A kiss is about as deep as her sexuality runs.

While “Barbarella” use its sci-fi genre to depict a groovy utopia without sexual inhibitions, “The Hunger Games” uses it to predict a dark dystopia devoid of sex and love.

What happened to the sex in the sexy female warrior film? Are Barbarella and Katniss merely reflections of their times, or are other behind-the-scenes forces responsible for their pronounced difference in the depiction of the female libido? Yes, to both.

“Barbarella” was made when the Sixties Sexual Revolution was in full swing. In the two decades between the development of The Pill in the early Sixties and the advent of AIDS in early Eighties, there’s no doubt that we lived in a more relaxed sexual environment, largely free of life-changing and life endangering consequences of having sex like unwanted pregnancy and fatally transmitted diseases. Today, the worst of the AIDS crisis may be behind us, but it’s a minority who would have unprotected sex with a stranger without thinking twice.

Changing societal mores aside, however, the source material for the two films provides further clues as to how their lead characters are depicted. “Barbarella” was based on an adult comic book, written for and ready almost exclusively by men. “The Hunger Games” was based on the eponymous children’s and young adult novel by Suzanne Collins, which was read at least initially largely by pre-teen and teenage girls.

Now, for years rumors have been swirling about a “Barbarella” remake, complete with state-of-the-art digital special effects. I, for one, would buy a ticket to see Jennifer Lawrence in the tile role.


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