In her Director Spotlight on Quentin Tarantino, the Grrrl on Film Asks the Question “Is He a Feminist?”

August 3, 2009 at 3:27pm

After several years, a lot of script work and much trademark frenetic verbosity, writer/director Quentin Tarantino’s long-awaited Inglourious Basterds – his “bunch of guys on a mission” film set during the Second World War – finally premieres on the 21st of this month.

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With a nearly all-male cast it’s arguably a return to the tough-guy roots of his earlier movies Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994), where manly-men bantered over such topics as the meaning of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” and the global appeal of hamburgers – regardless of whether they’re measured in imperial or metric units.

But the famously fast-talking cinephile’s works of the past decade have not been meditations on masculinity, rather they are odes to women warriors of B-movies past – women we've been highlighting and exploring to some extent in this blog. Tarantino drew influence from such iconic characters as the hot-headed go-go dancer Varla of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965), the vigilantes Coffy & Foxy Brown, and the Samurai, Lady Snowblood, (as well as his own mother), to create some of the most intriguing and racially diverse female characters in contemporary American film.

Though they often repeat the contradictions inherent in representations of women in Exploitation films, and thus come from already problematic source material, the kick-ass heroines of Jackie Brown (1991), Kill Bill (2003 & 2004), and Death Proof (2007) still show visceral examples of female power that women can get excited about.

So this week we’ll take an in-depth look at these characters and Tarantino’s work, and hopefully have a discussion regarding the question: “Is Quentin Tarantino a feminist?”

Considering his obsession with guns and gore, as well as his fetishistic recreation of B-movie tropes, such as gratuitous violence, vociferous claims of YES counter just as loud NOs in response from critics, scholars, activists, and audiences.

There are both feminist and sexist elements throughout Tarantino’s oeuvre. In his public life, the auteur has expressed inconsistent sentiments regarding women, telling one interviewer that he secretly hoped the kick-ass chicks of Kill Bill proved inspirational to teenage girls who were lacking in role models, and yet later enthusiastically promoted an action figure based on his character “Rapist No. 1” from Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror.

Ultimately, the important questions are, does Tarantino have to be a feminist for his work to have feminist appeal? And, do the sexist tropes he borrows from Exploitation and other B-movie genres negate the raw visceral power felt when watching the women in his movies triumph?

It’s true that regardless of his intentions – and his non-stop mouth that has the propensity to spout “Oh-my-God-what-hell-did-he-just-say” material – women have engaged with some of his female characters in emotional ways, particularly with those in Kill Bill, and in Death Proof—each Tarantino’s love song to its particular lead actress (Uma Thurman and Zoë Bell, respectively).

The Godmother of Them All

In between Tarantino’s first two feature films and what he calls his contributions to the bad-ass chick genre, he adapted Elmore Leonard’s 1992 novel Rum Punch with Blaxploitation icon Pam Grier in mind for Jackie Brown, a movie which, in its centering of a female protagonist serves as a stepping stone between Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction and his next two projects.

Empowerment and exploitation were exaggerated in the Blaxploitation genre, particularly in films starring the extraordinary Grier (Coffy (1973), Foxy Brown (1974), Friday Foster (1975) and Sheba, Baby (1975)). While on the one hand the genre’s depiction of pimps, whores, drug pushers, addicts, and easy women reinforced negative stereotypes about African Americans, Grier also presented a tough, independent woman who worked (albeit outside-the-law) to protect her community from pushers and mobsters, often by using her sexuality to infiltrate their crime syndicates and taking them down from the inside. The actress’s ability to make an impression, with generally weak material, sealed her status as one of the premiere action heroines of film, and certainly, outside of martial arts cinema, one of the only ones of color. As she told Essence magazine in 1979, “I created a new kind of screen woman, physically strong and active, she was able to look after herself and others. If you think about it, you’ll see she was the prototype for the more recent and very popular white Bionic and Wonder Women.”

Grier’s street fighting foxy mamas, as well as the villainesses, covert operatives, and assassins of 1970s B-movies were impressed upon a young Tarantino and later served as Baaad-Girl catalysts for his own kick-ass femme fatales. Only unlike Coffy, the majority of his female characters would use their skills as trained warriors rather than their sexuality. In fact, perhaps it could be argued that “sexy” was redefined.

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While Jackie Brown—a movie that was part mid-life examination, part romance, and part crime story — lacked the kinetic umph of his next two pictures, it was exhilarating enough to see a 40-something, savvy, poised, woman of color dominate the narrative; a rarity in Hollywood for sure.

Here Comes The Bride (and possible spoilers)

Tarantino’s next movie, Kill Bill, arguably his most ambitious and exciting, was first conceived of over drinks while filming Pulp Fiction. The initial story the director and his “muse,” actress Uma Thurman, brainstormed – an assassin left for dead by her former colleagues on her wedding day – was simple enough, but sat on hold for several years. When it was finally released in two parts, Vol. 1 in 2003 and Vol. 2 in 2004, the four hour saga had elements of Spaghetti Westerns, Samurai films & Hong Kong cinema, as well as Anime – with specific visual references to the women of The Doll Squad (1973), Modesty Blaise (1966), Honey West (1965-66), and Lady Snowblood (1973).

The Bride, also known as Beatrix Kiddo, was formerly a member of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad—a group led by the ruthless and enigmatic Bill (David Carradine). When she discovers she’s pregnant with Bill’s baby, Beatrix, determined to bring the child up with some sense of normalcy, takes up residence in a nowhere town and gets engaged to a nice guy. But Bill and the rest of the Vipers (comprised of Bill’s brother Bud, Vernita Green, Elle Driver, and O-Ren Ishii) track her down and murder the entire wedding party, leaving behind a gruesome scene at the chapel. Only The Bride survives. Four years pass before she finally wakes up from a coma. Her baby is gone.

She quickly discovers that while in the hospital her comatose body has been rented out for sexual pleasure by an orderly named Buck – a man who has also been taking advantage of her. Tarantino commented on this scene with troubling enthusiasm, telling Vanity Fair: “If there was some patient in a coma for four years, a total Jane Doe, no one knows who she is, no one cares who she is, and she looked like Uma Thurman, I bet you people’d be fucking her! If no one gives a damn—Jane Doe? Yeah, boy!”

To be clear, in this scene itself, Tarantino follows a rape-revenge movie formula in which, as Tammy Oler noted in her article “The Brave Ones” for Bitch No. 42, “women are attacked and raped, and, seeking revenge, they pursue and murder their assailants.” Originally, these films were designed to titillate men with their extensive and gratuitous sex scenes and violence. And today, feminist scholars, like Rikke Schubart in Super Bitches and Action Babes: The Female Hero in Popular Cinema, 1970-2006, argue that they are deserving of, at the very least, a proto-feminist reading and critique. Tarantino spares us the vicarious experience of the assault by having it happen offstage, but his nod to the genre convention allows the audience to still feel an extra visceral thrill when we see Beatrix exact vengeance on the men who’ve raped her. (The addition of her stealing Buck’s car, which has “Pussy Wagon” painted on the side, is a bonus; it’s both a joke and a clear reclamation of her body and her sexuality.)

But can someone who creates such extraordinary female characters, claims he wants them to be role models, and yet laughs over sexual assault truly be interested in gender equality and female empowerment? Is it enough to see that the bad guys always pay out to women they’ve wronged? Or are those of us who appreciate and thrill at The Bride’s resilience and fearlessness compromising too much?

The very fact that there is a woman at the center of the narrative in an action film is in itself progressive. As Carol Pope and Katherine Pearson write in their book The Female Hero in American and British Literature, “any author who chooses a woman as the central character in the story understands at some level that women are primary beings, and that they are not ultimately defined according to patriarchal assumptions in relation to fathers, husbands, or male gods.” They argue that, whether explicitly feminist or not, “works with female heroes challenge patriarchal assumptions.”

And though Bill is clearly the patriarch of this tale, and Tarantino even goes so far as to refer to him as a “pimp” with the DIVAS as part of his “stable” of “whores,” The Bride is the focus of the movie and the story is about her journey. Additionally, it is talented, driven, powerful women who rule the school here. O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), a Chinese-Japanese-American, is the head of the Tokyo Yakuza; and she’s always flanked by her left and right hand women, Sofie Fatale (Julie Dreyfus) and Gogo Yubari (Chiaki Kuriyama).

Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox), the first ex-DIVA we see The Bride kill, doesn’t go down without a fight—one we the audience feel with its smashed glass and fierce punches. But this ain’t no catfight, people. The confrontation between Beatrix and Vernita is in no way fetishized (even if cinematic styles within the film are). They both remain fully clothed, and the scene gratefully lacks the sexy grunts and gasps that usually plague other women warriors in battle.

Some feminist critics, like Bitch’s own Lisa Jervis, feel that while the first volume of the movie presented The Bride as a skilled, determined, fierce, and resourceful warrior and avoided catfights in favor of downright brutal fist-fights, stylized martial arts, and modestly clothed superwomen, who were still totally sexy, got dirty, and bloody, the second half of the story—which focused on the reclaiming of Beatrix’s daughter, B.B.—served to normalize Beatrix by shifting her role from Warrior to the more socially appropriate “Mother.”

Indeed, even in Kill Bill Vol. 1, Beatrix attempts to assume her culturally proper gender role, even if it means leaving a career she excels at (albeit a morally questionable one), as well as a life of luxury and excitement, for one of poverty in a go-nowhere town. She gives it all up to become “Mommy”—the name of the final role Beatrix assumes in the two-part film.

Grace, a reviewer for the website Heroine Content, gives a positive reading of the mommy angle: “The Bride and Vernita are mothers, and motherhood The Bride's big motivating factor. However, this didn't bother me as much in these films as it normally does, if only because non-mommy figures are portrayed as well (O-Ren and Elle), and because Bill takes fatherhood pretty seriously, too.” (Tarantino has said that the inclusion of B.B. was inspired by Thurman’s daughter -- perhaps, his “mini-muse.”)

While some audiences condemned the gratuitous violence in Kill Bill, it’s undeniable that The Bride had an effect on many women viewers who so rarely have the opportunity to see such a self-confident and powerful woman headlining an action film. It may be irrelevant to argue whether she herself is a feminist character. What is perhaps more important is that her agency helped women to recognize the potential in themselves; and it was cathartic.


Stay tuned for Part 2 of Spotlight on Quentin Tarantino Week coming at ya this Wednesday. But in the meantime, what are your thoughts on feminist elements and/or themes in Tarantino’s work? Do they exist? How are they complicated for you? How do his homages to the kick-ass women of Blaxploitation and camp, and Samurai films compare to their source material?