Sexual Conquest in the Future: Barbarella, Under the Skin, and the Paradigms of Women in Science Fiction
This paper was originally written for the “Sci-Fi Cinema” course within the Film and Media Studies graduate program at Arizona State University, completed April 28, 2020.
Science fiction has been seen as a leveling force in film in regards to strong portrayals of female characters. Genre favorites like Alien have its Ripley, The Terminator its Sarah Connor. But within sci-fi’s niches, both old and new, gender and sexual dynamics show a prescient and post-modern twist, respectively, on the bold and aggressive women of blockbuster hits. Two such films, Barbarella and Under the Skin, take radically different aesthetic approaches to rethinking the role of women in sci-fi movies. And yet, they both rethink the paradigms the genre, and indeed film at large, had defined for women through a sexual lens.
When examining Barbarella as a key film in the process of women assuming equal roles as science fiction protagonists, it’s hard to argue that the 1968 release is explicitly feminist. In fact, it doesn’t attempt to subvert the “male gaze” that dominates the portrayal of women in film. Director Roger Vadim and cinematographer Claude Renoir shoot Jane Fonda (then married to Vadim) as the title character with a lascivious eye. Fonda is photographed in Jacques Fonteray’s now-retrofuturist, revealing costumes, and often out of them, without much objectivity. The character of Barbarella represents a naive sexuality by way of her innocent misunderstanding of the “old-fashioned” way of “making love” away from Earth; there, physical passion is reduced to popping a pill and pressing palms together. But Barbarella’s unrestrained sexuality, perhaps informed less by the sexual agency of the women’s movement and more by typical male desire, nevertheless makes her an early female sci-fi protagonist on the path to parity. Barbarella is still a prominent part of the tradition of portraying increasingly powerful women in science fiction film, retaining a relevance beyond a predatory pop culture product like others from its time, and is not a throwaway, offensive result of an even more patriarchal society. The film isn’t a subtle redefinition of female sexuality, but it’s a step towards the postmodern reflection of a movie like Under the Skin, which also uses a science-fiction premise to render its message more fantastically and, therefore, communicable.
The over-the-top template set by Barbarella was reevaluated by the likes of the aforementioned Alien, released 11 years later in 1979. Directed by Ridley Scott, it continued a tradition of male behind-the-camera talent most often defining the roles of women on-screen. But Alien is in a sort of middle period of constant change for the female presence in sci-fi, relating its female protagonist’s agency to larger-than-life problems. The postmodern takes on this change, still often helmed by men, seem to put message first, utilizing simpler aesthetics and “low sci-fi” settings to subsume genre tropes into visible filmmaking techniques and communication, as opposed to the “invisible” style of Hollywood pictures. Low sci-fi is used here as a term to indicate sci-fi elements in an otherwise close approximation of our reality, echoing the term of “low fantasy” to describe works like the Harry Potter series. High fantasy would represent The Lord of the Rings, for example, and “high sci-fi” would represent Alien, which takes place in a future world with interstellar travel.
This is the context to which Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, an entry in this low sci-fi subgenre, was released in 2013. It, like Barbarella, also stars an international sex symbol, Scarlett Johansson, utilized as an obvious avatar for female sexuality. While still made under the male gaze, Under the Skin, which clearly benefits from modern progressive views, amps up Barbarella’s intent of female equality. Glazer’s film initially codes female sexuality as predatory and sinister, ironically presenting it as parallel to male behavior, and ends up defining it as still in danger of male sexuality. Under the Skin is more effective than Barbarella at fostering progressive, feminist ideas, certainly benefitting from 45 years of those ideas, although its themes too are communicated unevenly and are not without criticism.
At the beginning of Barbarella, the title character is traveling in a spaceship from Earth, and our first look at her is through a striptease out of a typical astronaut uniform. She receives a call from the President of Earth (Claude Dauphin) and receives a briefing — while entirely naked — about a Dr. Durand Durand (Milo O’Shea), who left Earth after inventing a weapon. This is significant because weapons are no longer necessary, as Barbarella points out, in its utopian society. She embarks for the planet where Durand Durand has apparently fled to, and crash lands and enters a series of bizarre settings and adventures in her quest to stop the doctor’s “positronic ray.” Constantly defining her encounters with the denizens of the alien planet (all apparently humanoid, with one significant exception) are sexual escapades.
While Barbarella is often aided by various male characters, accomplishments are often centered as hers through sex. The unique science fiction setting of Barbarella may communicate a different message with Barbarella’s sexuality. In this fantastic reality, she has no preexisting notions of physical intimacy, and is in fact skeptical of it when propositioned by her first male “conquest.” The brazen yet bizarrely respectful request of Mark Hand (Ugo Tognazzi) for sex after rescuing Barbarella is sudden and mirrors typical, overwraught male domination. However, Barbarella’s decision to try it is not forced, but presented as a strange, alien experience, not unlike the representation of supernatural powers in other sci-fi films. So when she discovers she enjoys sex, Barbarella uses it as her primary tool to overcome obstacles for the rest of the film. In dismissively describing the film as “a series of sex scenes taking place in a succession of visually astonishing locations” (91), Bonnie Noonan actually hits the nail on the head of the significance of Barbarella’s existence as a wide-released Hollywood film.
Barbarella next uses sex as a solution to someone else’s problems as well as her own. After she crash lands in the subterranean “Labyrinth,” which leads to the city of Sogo, Barbarella meets Pygar (John Phillip Law), a blind “angel” who has lost his will to fly. With no coercion, she has sex with the angel, giving him the morale boost to take to the air once again. Once Pygar is able to fly, he takes Barbarella to Sogo, where they fight the guards of the city in the sky with typical science fiction laser guns. While Barbarella resorts to weapons in conquering this obstacle, the impetus for the plot point was her sexual success. She uses her body to control the will of men, a reversal of fortune for typical genre women. And when she refuses sex, Barbarella is out of control. In a not-so-subtle, near-lesbian encounter, the Black Queen, also known as the Great Tyrant of Sogo (Anita Pallenberg), tries to get “pretty pretty” (our heroine) to “play” with her. But Barbarella’s unwillingness to play lands her in captivity. Bringing misfortune upon our protagonist when she doesn’t engage in physical intimacy is a slip in the logic defining most of the rest of Barbarella, while also reinforcing its heterosexual focus.
Barbarella escapes a death by bird torture thanks to the help of a resistance movement within Sogo, led by a man named Dildano (David Hemmings). Ironically, he’s one of the few major male characters that Barbarella encounters who doesn’t want to have “sex” with her. When Dildano says he wants some recompense for his aid, Barbarella quickly, casually, and preemptively cuts him off and begins undressing. However, he stops her and professes his desire to do things “the Earth way.” And while this conquest for Barbarella is not traditionally sexual, the experience between the two is quite obviously “charged,” literally. The touch between them brings Dildano’s hand to smoking, and sets both his and Barbarella’s hair on end. The further connection to a sexual experience is their facial contortions and final orgasmic moments, right up to Dildano’s last moan before snapping out of his tantric trance. Here, Barbarella acts as the conduit to an alien experience like Mark Hand did for her earlier in the film, reestablishing the agency of the heroine after rendering her powerless in a potentially homosexual encounter.
Barbarella’s final conquest is, most importantly for its science fiction setting, over technology. After being captured once again by Durand Durand, she is subjected to the “Excessive Pleasure Machine,” placed into the cavity of a piano-like contraption played with keys by the villain. Barbarella begins this torture by saying it feels kind of nice, but the intention of the machine is to kill its victims by pleasure. However, as she sweats and writhes in obvious, cliche female orgasmic behavior, the Excessive Pleasure Machine runs into excess itself; Barbarella’s female sexuality literally breaks down the cold, impersonal pleasure of a future technology. “In…Barbarella, the woman, however, is not with her lover; the mysterious orgasm speaks through the woman who surrenders to its power. It is precisely because her lover is absent that the woman is able to surrender fully to the orgasm’s desires…” (Creed 146). Barbarella’s encounter with the Excessive Pleasure Machine, as Creed’s statement could imply, indicates a woman’s ability to achieve sexual climax without a partner (re: a man), a trope-y fear among male lovers. It’s the movie’s boldest subversion, with the situation somehow standing as Barbarella’s single most ridiculous scene; it’s often the reference point for modern coverage of the film.
But Barbarella’s ultimate thematic thrust is hard to pin down. Its symbolic imagery and the messages they’re meant to communicate are all over the place. “As far as taking an ideological stance or assuming a particular point of view, Barbarella is essentially inchorent” (Noonan 91). Noonan points out the inconsistencies of Barbarella’s declaration of hatred for weaponry and her subsequent use of it. Or Pygar’s rescue of both the purely good Barbarella and purely evil Black Queen. Or Barbarella’s apparent preference for traditional sex in face of the seemingly fantastic “liberated sex” of Earth; “it literally curls her hair” (Noonan 91). But if there’s something that’s most significant about its title character’s series of sexual conquests, it’s the triumph of a (sexual) woman over the literal machinations of men, a theme in common with the infatuation with capital L “Love” in the late 1960s. “In seizing the sexual zeitgeist of the Sixties so immediately and so enthusiastically, Barbarella introduced the act of sex as a plausible theme for the science fiction film” (Noonan 92).
Where the gender “revolution” of Barbarella comes into play, in spite of its exploitative intent, is the simple portrayal of a woman making progress and achieving success with her sexuality. While, by 1968, leery attention had almost entirely been paid to the female body, the over-the-top sexual conqueror role of Barbarella came closer to parity with that part men typically played. The placement of this mantle into the fantastical world of a science fiction reality avoids the obfuscation a real-world setting might employ, defining the nature of Barbarella more strongly to match her extraordinary surroundings. The sexual agency of a character like Barbarella has been praised and criticized in equal measure, in much the same way the discussion is centered around pornography performers and sex workers and their free will in the industry. Fonda, herself a sex symbol turned feminist icon, recontextualizes her title character in the modern age, assigning a retrospective agency that reveals Barbarella as more than a sci-fi, soft-softcore porno. It is still effective in illustrating the growing roles for women in sci-fi, even if it is too hobbled by male gaze to stand triumphantly as a feminist work. Ultimately, Barbarella represents a troubled yet significant evolution of the portrayal of women in science fiction and film at large, granting an agency to a female character that, for all its problematic elements, was rare.
Under the Skin is a polar opposite to Barbarella, aesthetically. Set in current day Scotland, the film offers no exposition as to the nature of “The Female’s” (Johannson’s) motivations or agenda. But in its earliest scene, the film sets its sci-fi premise by showing The Female, apparently an extraterrestrial, taking the clothes from a paralyzed woman in a blank white space that seems to stretch to infinity. The woman was taken to this space by “The Bad Man” (Jeremy McWilliams), who is apparently a sort of “supervisor” of The Female; he is constantly in a motorcyclist guise and chases after The Female when she runs off and precipitates the climax of the film.
Glazer and cinematographer Daniel Landin shoot Under the Skin with a sparse, close-up-filled eye, cutting from grey Glasgow locales to screen-wide faces and strong colors. The film’s few sci-fi visuals are mostly represented by The Female’s serial sexual conquests. Her mission, apparently, is to seduce local males with no ties or nearby family, cruising the streets in a van that brings to mind cliche portrayals of male sexual offenders. She even asks the questions you might expect a man with sinister designs to ask; variations of “Are you alone?” or “Where do you live?” are in her repertoire. The irony, of course, is that The Female’s ability to fool a number of men is apparently quite easy, underlining the lack of male suspicion of a member of the opposite sex. It’s not even made clear that The Female even necessarily has supernatural powers in seducing her targets; they just seem to fall in line due to their lust for the attractive woman.
But their seduction does lead to the victims’ demise. In a black void that reverses Under the Skin’s beginning scene (in which The Female victimizes a woman in a white void), Johannson’s character tempts the men on, who are apparently unaware they are in danger before being drawn down into black liquid. Their fate is at first unclear, but after another victim falls prey to The Female, he is shown floating in space while a previous victim’s life is apparently sucked out of his body. To what end The Female and The Bad Man are doing this is never made clear. But Under the Skin illustrates a world where men can actually be treated like women, in a negative sense, as sexual victims.
The Female eventually diverts from this mission, however, seemingly attempting to embrace the humanity of her former victims. When she picks up a severely deformed man, she lets him go and strikes out on her own, with The Bad Man attempting to track her down. Failed attempts to eat food and have “real” intercourse with a human man lead her to a national park. There, a logger attempts to rape her and tears her skin in the process, revealing the pitch black, nearly featureless alien underneath. He runs away, leaving The Female to reflect on the human face in her hands. But the logger returns, and in his fear of what his aborted sexual conquest implies, he sets The Female on fire. She burns in a grassy field, while The Bad Man surveys a snowy one on a mountaintop.
Under the Skin, with its limited dialogue, subjective camerawork, and lack of exposition, does not necessarily communicate its troubled message as clearly as Barbarella. However, its relative nuance leads some to praise the film as a knowing pushback to a patriarchal society. “The alien’s journey from dispassionate, femme-fatale temptress to the woman who meets her demise through gendered violence is marked…by a greater empathy with the human race…” Robert Munro writes (107). “…Under the Skin is an insightful film about female desire, and, I would argue, one of the most important feminist interventions in recent cinematic history,” Ara Osterweil declares (44–45). Flipping the script to mark a female sexual predator highlights the disparity between the male and female sexual experience, and that is Glazer’s greatest achievement with the film. But undermining the potential of such a thematic revision is Under the Skin’s inability to foster a connection with its characters. Its oblique narrative and the briefest of interactions with The Female’s victims do not foster a warm empathy; the sole exception is “The Deformed Man” (Adam Pearson), and it is no coincidence that the most sympathetic character is associated with The Female’s longest on-screen interaction.
Where both Barbarella and Under the Skin fail to make a lasting impression lies with their headlong plunges into incredibly different yet radical aesthetics. Barbarella is full of ridiculous sets and moments; Under the Skin is an understated, quiet film with minimal special effects to augment its sci-fi story. Both styles fail to foster a truly human connection. But the films do succeed in making broader points with their strange visual language, and stand as prime examples, totems, in the trend of defining stronger female roles through science fiction.
Creed, Barbara. “Orgasmology: What Does the Orgasm Want?.” Feminist Formations, vol. 28, no. 2, 2016.
Munro, Robert. “‘To See Oursels as Ithers See Us’: Textual, Individual and National Other-Selves in Under the Skin.” Intercultural Screen Adaptation: British and Global Case Studies. Edinburgh University Press, 2020.
Noonan, Bonnie. Gender in Science Fiction Films, 1964–1979: A Critical Study. McFarland & Company, 2015.
Osterweil, Ara. “Under the Skin: The Perils of Becoming Female.” Film Quarterly, vol. 67, no. 4, 2014.