As I said in my review of FASTER, PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL!, Russ Meyer's formidable film about three go-go dancers involved in murder resists easy summation. The same applies to the film's foremost star, Varla. In a technical sense, Varla, Billie and Rosie form an ensemble of eccentric characters, but Varla is the one that has become immortal in pop culture.
There had been, as this blog has detailed in depth, many female characters who demonstrated facility with the martial arts, though admittedly the cinematic medium doesn't have a very strong showing in this department. Varla, however, is something beyond characters like Nyoka the Jungle Girl. While Nyoka might occasionally best a male opponent, the factor of her lesser degree of strength always made her victories a little forced.
Varla, however, has something different: karate. It's important to remember that even in 1965, karate was a relatively new idea to Westerners. Though Meyer's film doesn't expatiate on the dynamics behind the martial art, it takes on a meaning in his film that it doesn't have in the spy-films: karate is an equalizer for the female.
Varla only has two female-versus-male fights in PUSSYCAT. Today a martial female besting a grown man means nothing, but in 1965, it was a rare beast. Significantly, Varla never punches her male opponents, and only rarely kicks them. The karate chop is her signature move, and it serves her in the same way that a punch serves a male fighter. I don't know if Meyer was aware of the theory behind the karate discipline-- that in some traditions practitioners allegedly "hardened" their hands so that they would possess greater striking power. But I tend to think that this idea was in the public mind at the time, supported by dozens of exhibitions in which practitioners chopped through wood or stone objects with the edges of their hands.
Varla then is a contradiction in terms. Her mammoth mammaries, like those of her co-stars, code her as "soft," yet her hands, her legs and to some extent her handling of a car code her as "hard."
Varla is not a deep character, but the script is smarter about her than she is. Though her 'take-no-prisoners" attitude is admired, it's obvious that she's also a cheat and something of a hypocrite (she rails against the Old Man for having used his son for murder and procurement, when Varla herself has involved her followers in acts of murder and attempted robbery). It's unlikely that she could have been played adequately by anyone but Tura Satana, who possessed both real martial arts skills and experience as an exotic dancer. Varla isn't precisely the whole show in FASTER PUSSYCAT-- but she is the show-stopper.