Brigitte Bardot was an iconic sex symbol during the 1950s and 60s. She was an inspiration and muse for many artists and intellectuals, from The Beatles and Bob Dylan to Simone de Beauvoir. However, she was much more than just an object of attraction, Bardot represented new strides in female liberty, freedom of sexual expression, social nonconformism, and artistic rebellion.
Having made the cover of Elle magazine at just 15, she was made a household name with the release of Roger Vadim’s (Bardot’s husband at the time) seminal directorial debut …And God Created Woman. In the film Bardot plays a sensually liberal 18 year old, who attracts the attentions of various male suitors in a little French provincial village. Bardot’s character marries the brother of the man she loves, nearly tears the family apart, affects business deals and essentially the fate of the entire town’s economy. Her character is a powerful and influential figure within the film, and actively disrupted an otherwise harmonious and patriarchal social hierarchy. One of the final lines of the film “that girl was made to destroy men” can be dually interpreted to apply to both the romantic desires of men she encounters, and to the progressive destruction of the male dominated society in which she lives.
Whilst being an unobtainable and uncontrollable force standing as a representation of liberty both on and off the screen, Bardot was perhaps ironically trapped within the male gaze for much of her early film career. Her on screen characters were repeatedly fighting to break free from not just a patriarchal society, but literally a possessive male figure, to varying levels of success. She was generally publicised as a ‘sex kitten’, billed as the object of attention for both male figures within the film, and to male audience members. Though she certainly released herself from this brand image later in her career.
The promiscuousness of Bardot’s characters was often used as a direct revolt against various theological, cultural and social constraints. Whilst these expressions of liberty were ironically (or perhaps fittingly) censored at the time, the media took great interest in the events in Bardot’s tumultuous personal life, which repeatedly mirrored her character portrayals, with a string of marriages and affairs being heavily publicised.
Bardot retired from the entertainment industry at the age of 38 and has popped up in the public eye for remarkably contrasting sentiments since. She began commendably, deciding to use her fame to promote animal rights. She auctioned off jewelry to fund the Brigitte Bardot Foundation for the Welfare and Protection of Animals, became a vegetarian, and has campaigned against the consumption of horse meat and hunting of seals. She then took a somewhat regrettable u-turn, she began propagating ignorant and ill-advised right wing extremist sentiments. Amongst other things, she complained about the overpopulation and ‘dangerous infiltration’ of France by foreigners and referred to ‘contemporary homosexuals’ as ‘fairground freaks’. Despite knowingly and blatantly delivering offensive statements, and repeatedly receiving fines for charges including ‘inciting racial hatred’, Bardot unconvincingly and perhaps ignorantly assured a recent jury that she ‘never knowingly wanted to hurt anybody’.
Whilst Bardot’s intentions and influences have certainly gone down hill (and into a very deep and cavernous ditch) in recent years, she was an undeniably important and iconic figure in the progressive transformation in views towards sexual expression and liberty in both artistic and social spheres. Her soft and fragrant voice on Serge Gainsbourg tracks, and her enigmatic and mystifying performances in films like Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt or Louis Malle’s Viva Maria are as influential and evocative as they were upon their release.