Queen of Outer Space is a work of pure hatred, and a bundle of contradictions. The film follows four astronauts crashed on Venus, who are there sentenced to death by the masked, man-hating Queen Yllana. They are aided in their escape by Talleah (Zsa Zsa Gabor) who looks to overthrow Yllana and reintroduce men to the now all-female planet. They succeed, and the men remain on Venus (until their rescue ship comes from Earth within a year). The film is stereotypically sexist. The astronauts call their armed captors “doll” and “baby,” they try to overthrow Yllana with “romance” (she is a woman, after all), and jokes are made about women being bad drivers. But this narrative is so poorly constructed that it cracks – it cannot be a strong image of how bad women are, because it is too dumb. Women in the film need to be made a threat, but to give them power undermines the sexism and the notion that women really are nothing but stupid objects who want love. This begs the question: what is wrong with men? Are they ok? Do they understand what they’re doing?
The women villains in this film must be given power if they are going to be a threat, but by nature of their femininity, they must be weak. As a result the threat, and anger towards it, is unconvincing. While in captivity, the astronauts query how Venusian technology could have become so powerful if it is made by women. Talleah then explains that Yllana was able to take power as no one took her seriously because of her gender. From this point we see a confusion: we know that the main threat, a woman who lead a revolution and became queen of a planet, was not taken seriously. She is obviously capable, for if she was not, could she have achieved this? This is almost immediately backtracked – she’s still a woman, and can be defeated with romance. A smarter film might have worked with this. A powerful woman never taken seriously is once again reduced, only to reveal her power and strength. This film is not smart, however, and we find that, truly, all Yllana wants is “love,” and her frustrations over this are conflated with her crazed political power. Her hatred of men stems from their violence, with war resulting in radiation burns scarring her face, hence her ever present mask. She still wants love, but she’s ugly, too ugly to be loved. The astronaut meant to seduce her cannot bear to kiss her for her ugliness, and is sent back to the prison room. Could it be a comment on men’s hatred, then? Men caused real damage, they caused wars, they harmed living beings, leaving permanent scars. Yllana’s anger towards men, and war, is by all means justified. And her trauma is met with a man who rejects her for her ugliness, something which is repeated humiliatingly throughout the film – when the astronauts return after their escape attempt, they rip her mask from her, exposing her face as she desperately tries to hide herself. She and her allies briefly regain power and she attempts to kiss the lead astronaut, only to have him recoil in repulsion. We are given a history of men concerned with only violence and conquest, and are given a present reality of men concerned with only a woman’s beauty, treating the non-beautiful with abhorrence. They should then be the villains.
This potential subversion of the film’s misogyny is furthered by a love-scene during the escape, where the reversal of gender roles is played for light humour. One woman calls an astronaut pretty, and he calls her handsome. Another woman is blocked to be in a dominant position to the man she kisses, framed to be bigger, taller, and taking charge. Talleah affirms compliments and expresses what she wants: she knows she’s beautiful – perhaps she doesn’t need someone to tell her so?
The confusion of this film is that the scenes undermining male dominance are then re-undermined to re-assert male dominance. Though Yllana’s ugliness, cause by men, is met by cruel rejection, she is maintained as irrational, violent, and incapable, fighting back till the very end despite being met with failure upon failure, concluding in her being roasted to a crisp in a final attempt to destroy Earth and kill all men. As Earth spectators, and we must see ourselves as essentially good, peaceful people, and her anti-war attitude is nothing but emotional, foreign illogic. While the romantic escape showcases untraditional sexual roles where the women can take control, this is met with excitement over the women’s honesty and willingness, which is so unlike Earth girls who connive to catch their men. You’re not like other girls, you’re a cool girl. But then again, these are undermined. The film opens with one of the astronauts bidding farewell to a woman before he departs for space: she clearly states that she is concerned for his safety (said breathily, “Spaceships are dangerous!”) and wouldn’t be able to go on without him. He tells her he must leave. On Venus he meets a new woman, who he is more than happy to stay with while they await their Earth rescue ship. She expresses that he had said that he loved her, which he does not necessarily confirm. In fact, when he joins his fellow astronauts he says “I was just being polite to her.” Then to the Earth message stating “I know you’re anxious to get home,” he responds, “Are you kidding?!” and goes back to aggressively kissing his Venusian girl: he is unwilling to give her what she wants (emotional connection) but will skirt the issue to get what he wants (sex). This character is the typical playboy, and it is his entire being, which makes sense within a film that does not look deeply at individual psychology. But at the same time, we are presented with the only person who actually does lie about his emotions to get what he wants, manipulating others and disregarding their feelings. And there is no afterthought for the Earth woman who’s left behind, who said she couldn’t go on without him.
It’s hard to tell definitely how much of the men’s behaviour in Queen of Outer Space is meant to come off as rage-inducingly sexist, or average for the time. A contemporary review from Variety describes the film as “a good-natured attempt to put some honest sex into science-fiction,” which leads me to think it is the latter. Scenes of men referring to their captors as “dames,” discussing the bodies of women in power, legitimately thinking that women are simple-minded, seem to be nothing but straightforward: there is no irony, there is no subversion. Which is what is confusing about this film. A film that is so intent on tearing down women repeatedly, degrading the ones who are wrong and reducing the ones who are acceptable, functions as a capsule of masculine hatred and stupidity. Despite the intent to show the threat of female power, it does a better job at showing just what men appreciate in women (submission, beauty), and just what they hate (ugliness, power), but not in a coherent way in the least. To look back on this film it is impossible to see it as anything other than the work of angry boys who don’t know how to hate properly without infecting their discourse with their own unavoidable violence, disgust, and ability to harm. For it is impossible to forget men’s cruelty and dismissal within this film, even when the focus is on how horrible women are, how they must be objects not agents, how their attempts to be agents will fail because they are not smart enough to be anything more than “woman.” The reduction of women in this way is in itself hateful and stupid, and this stupidity is enhanced by the inability to make men worthy heroes.
The exploitation of men’s stupidity in this manner would become key to Zsa Zsa Gabor’s star persona. Known for her multiple marriages, she become more famous for one-liners about men and sex than her acting. This is exemplified in her workout tape It’s Simple, Darling (1993). Flanked by two absolutely enormous men, Gabor performs easy exercises while making non-sequitors about love, sex, and marriage. Advice to always give back the ring after breaking an engagement, but never the stone, or to keep your body trim to drive a man wild while undressing litter the video. She frequently discusses her past husbands. “Girls really dress for men…” [cut to a straight close up of Gabor] “…when they’re undressing!” The video seems less like a real workout than a showcase for Gabor and her persona. Doing standing push-ups (“my type of push-up”) off the backs of her “gorgeous guys,” this is obvious. Not really a push-up at all, it’s an excuse for her to touch men while discussing the other men you could touch: a husband, ex-husband, gardner, pool boy, lawyer, etc. “I like it!” she moans. This is not about exercise, but Gabor’s notorious relation to men. And this is where stupidity plays in again. The whole tape works off of the premise that it is very easy to seduce, and so manipulate, men through your body and appearance. The refrain of “it’s simple, darling” reflects this: not only is it simple to workout, but it’s simple to get a man. Then get his jewels, his house, his money. Then get another man, perhaps one like the “gorgeous” bodybuilders in the tape.
To argue that men’s inability to properly hate women, or that women needing to resort to using their bodies to get things, is empowering, is tenuous at best. But what is clear is that Gabor’s trajectory from the sexist Queen of Outer Space to her expression of sexual power in It’s Simple, Darling describes a specific problem of stupidity in the relation men have to women. Unable to view women as real people and reducing them to objects in incoherent ways, Gabor demonstrates a way to very easily manipulate this hatred and reduction (if you possess beauty, of course), getting what she wants in terms of sexual gain, financial gain, or general success. Gabor laughs in the face of fragile masculinity and stupidity, reflecting the line she spoke in Queen of Outer Space: “They didn’t take her seriously. After all, she was only a woman.” Not taken seriously and reduced to a ditzy glamour girl, Gabor gained her success and her men, culminating in her workout tape, a distillation of her persona. It is a necessity of survival when men cannot come to terms with women as people not in service of them to exploit this perceived servitude for personal gain. And it speaks to the state of our society that women must navigate structures of oppression without outright destroying them in order to have anything.