By Barbara Lewis, Womens Feature Service
She hasn’t made a film since 1973, she rarely appears in public and she has been prosecuted for inciting racial hatred – and yet in her native France, the public, male and female alike, still adores Brigitte Bardot (BB), who last year celebrated her 75th birthday and the first exhibition in her honour.
“Les Annees Insouciance” (the carefree years) ran until the end of January in the commune of Boulogne Billancourt to the west of Paris, where several films featuring Bardot were shot in studios located there and now used for television.
The publicity poster showed Bardot sitting scantily-clad on giant pink letters BB, lined with gingham, recalling the chequered dress she wore when she married Jacques Charrier, the second of her four husbands.
The dress was among the exhibits, together with hundreds of photographs and other momentos spanning the 1950s, when Bardot began her film-making career, to her retirement at the age of only 39. They attracted more than 20,000 visitors over the course of the exhibition opened last September.
While Bardot’s obvious sexuality in her heyday held men in thrall, she also appealed to women as an embodiment of sexual liberation.
Defying international uproar over Bardot’s role as the amoral Juliette, “a demon-driven temptress”, in the 1956 film ‘And God Created Women’, feminist and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir leapt to her defence and analysed Bardot’s power in her work ‘Brigitte Bardot and the Lolita Syndrome’.
For de Beauvoir, Bardot was a totally natural woman. In contrast to the women of the bourgeois background from whence she sprang, Bardot squared up to men on their own terms, although she did so innocently and non-intellectually.
“In the hunting game, she is both hunter and prey. Males are an object for her, as much as she is an object for them,” de Beauvoir wrote. “This is precisely what hurts males’ pride.”
Some of today’s feminists are less than convinced and tend to be appalled by Bardot’s sex-kitten image, which can still be found on calendars sold in stationery shops across France.
“Unfortunately BB’s life has unfolded in ways that make de Beauvoir’s account outdated,” said Christine Battersby, reader emerita in philosophy, at the University of Warwick in central England. “BB’s … fascistic views on race, immigration and gays make her extremely unpopular with any feminists that I know.”
Few dispute BB has become a highly contentious figure. “It is difficult to divorce her iconography from her racist, homophobic commentary,” said Corinna Tomrley, a doctoral student at the Centre for Women’s Studies at the University of York in northern England. But she also acknowledged the fascination of Bardot. “Bardot of the 50s and 60s does hold some appeal, however, especially to those interested in the hip, kitsch culture from that era,” she said further. “In the girdled 50s and 60s, it cannot be underestimated how extraordinary Bardot’s nudity and seemingly free sexuality may have appeared to women.”
Beyond university faculties, Bardot still has many fans, especially among the French. According to a survey of 967 people carried out at the time of her birthday in September by the regional French newspaper
‘Sud-Ouest’, 72 per cent of women had a favourable opinion of Bardot, compared with 65 per cent of men. Agnes Poirier, a French-born journalist, found much to praise in the national icon in another birthday tribute in Britain’s Guardian newspaper. “She has never stopped being herself: plain-speaking and natural,” wrote Poirier. “Bardot has retained her authenticity. Her story is that of a refusal not only of hypocrisy and moral grudges, but also of caution, calculation and premeditation.”
On one level, Bardot has resisted the pressure on beautiful, famous women to resort to cosmetic surgery. On another, she has throughout her life flouted convention – whether by displaying her sexuality, or by making no secret of views condemned as racist.
In a further rejection of society’s expectations – especially perhaps of the hopes she excited among men that she could be their ideal woman – Bardot refused to be a good wife and mother. After she divorced her second husband, the actor Jacques Charrier, the Charrier family brought up the son they had had together.
Apart from Vadim and Charrier, Bardot’s two other husbands were German millionaire playboy Gunter Sachs and her current husband Bernard d’Ormale, an associate of far-right political leader Jean-Marie Le Pen.
In her youth, Bardot was linked to numerous men – reputedly demonstrating the kind of voracious sexual appetite that drove the character she played in ‘And God Created Woman’.
While other films of the time presented demure, elegant, romanticised women, ‘And God Created Woman’ included a scene, regarded as ground-breaking in the history of cinema and of feminism, in which Bardot dances barefoot, sweaty and dishevelled to a furious drum-beat.
The image is all the bolder when set against Bardot’s own background in a bourgeois Parisian household, where she reportedly called her parents by the polite form “vous”, rather than the more intimate “tu”.
Eventually, however, the strain of breaking free was too great. After a surfeit of scandal and celebrity, she retired to southern France to establish herself as an animal rights activist – indifferent to fame and to feminism.