"The Tenth Victim" screengrab via Amazon Prime.

How a 1965 Italian Sci-Fi Movie Inspired the “Austin Powers” Fembots

The bullet-firing bra was brought to life in Elio Petri's “The Tenth Victim.”

by Emma Specter
Oct 10 2018, 7:23pm

"The Tenth Victim" screengrab via Amazon Prime.

When I was seven, some family friend or other came to my house with a VHS copy of the 1997 film Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery and forgot it. I can’t imagine the friend intended for me to watch the movie, in its entirety, every night for a week, but that’s what happened. (My parents certainly weren’t thrilled.) I liked Austin’s accent, Dr. Evil’s hairless cat, the jokes—even if I didn’t understand all of them—but what entranced me most of all were the fembots.

As an impressionable youth, I was spellbound by the fembots. With their teased blonde hair, mile-long limbs, and pink faux fur pom-pom breasts, they gave me the same confusing “I want [to be] THAT!” feeling that my Barbies did (note: gay foreshadowing!). Looking in the mirror at the end of my Austin Powers binge, my own knobby knees, lack of breasts, and dark brown bowl cut made me despair: why couldn't I be blonde and beautiful and, well, femme enough to tempt my own Austin?

Never mind that the fembots were, crucially, not real; they still represented everything I thought a woman should be—hot and dangerous, to borrow a phrase from Ke$ha. The fembots drew men in with their perfectly engineered feminine wiles, then—spoiler alert, if you've somehow managed to avoid seeing Austin Powers over the past two decades—shoot them to death with machine guns that emerge from their bras. From their bras! As a kid, I mainly just loved the visuals (boobs! Guns! Pink fur!), but I think I also understood on some inchoate level that that kind of power over men—the power to draw them in, to turn them stupid, to hurt them before they could hurt you—was something no woman could afford to underestimate.

But the fembots’ boob-firing guns didn’t emerge fully formed from the Austin Powers franchise. Director Jay Roach drew inspiration for them from Elio Petri’s 1965 Italian sci-fi film The Tenth Victim, starring Marcello Mastroianni and consummate Bond girl Ursula Andress (a bit of an Easter egg for viewers who recognize the winking parody of Bond represented by Powers, which Daniel Craig himself has bemoaned).

In the film, which one site called "a combination of Austin Powers and The Hunger Games," Andress plays Caroline Meredith, a hunter looking to take out her (you guessed it) tenth victim before going into retirement. Caroline is fleeing a man after a shoot-out, and she entrances him with a sexy dance before blowing him away with her fully loaded metal bra—which, kids, is what I believe they call a “big mood.”

I understood that that kind of power over men—the power to draw them in, to turn them stupid, to hurt them before they could hurt you—was something no woman could afford to underestimate.

Like the fembots who came after her, Caroline weaponizes stereotypical male fetishization of the female body to her advantage, using her robot titties to seduce, distract, and kill. Petri’s image of the femme fatale turned literally fatal helped inspire the Austin Powers fembots’ hyper-feminine look, according to CaliforniaHerps (...yes, you read that right. It's a website about alligators in movies).

Of course, the weaponization of female sexuality is not without its myriad dangers, but the version of it presented in Austin Powers and The Tenth Victim is frothy enough to be—dare I say it?—wish fulfillment. I’m no longer an insecure preteen idealizing femininity, but in a particular political moment, there's still something endlessly seductive about Petri and Roach‘s fembots, their smiles wide, their hair set just so, coaxing men in only to fire off a few rounds from their bullet bras and disappear into the night.

Austin Powers
the tenth victim
Femme fatales
Robot Day