feminism noun fem·i·nism \ˈfe-mə-ˌni-zəm\
1 : the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes
2 : organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests
Quentin Tarantino has been accused of most every -ism you can think of, sexism being a particular hot topic button. I, as a woman, am baffled by this. Feminism, by definition, is the equal treatment of men and women. This means if there’s a movie where the men get beat up, the women get beat up too. Feminism DOESN’T mean that the girls get out of every situation scot-free. No one in a Tarantino movie does.
I’m not arguing. Sometimes he misses the mark a bit. Not every movie he make is great in the lady department. But I’m gonna take his movies on a case by case basis and point out the feminism, or lack thereof, in each of the 8 feature films he’s both written and directed in their entirety (which means I’m not including True Romance (aside from a mention), Natural Born Killers, Sin City, Four Rooms, From Dusk Till Dawn, or TV/short films).
There are no female character in this film. Aside from some featured extras. They talk about women a fair amount, including a nod to Pam Grier who would later star as the title character in Jackie Brown, but there really aren’t any women in the film. But there was in the script, Jodie. As a matter of fact, they shot all her scenes, only for them later to be cut from the movie. She works with Freddy and Holdaway. A fellow undercover cop, she’s part of the police investigation.
There are also two notable women mentioned as they tie into the Tarantino-verse: Alabama (as in Alabama Worley, the female lead from True Romance, who we find out was Larry’s ex-crime partner) and in another deleted scene Bonnie (as in Jimmy’s wife from “The Bonnie Situation”).
It’s not that there aren’t any women in this world, it’s that there aren’t any women on this job. They make the occasional sexual comment, but nothing jumps out at me as being overtly sexist. In the end, it’s sort of a wash.
(Weird side note: it’s my favorite film of his for its simplicity.)
I think people forget how many featured women are actually in this film: Mia Wallace, Fabienne, Honey Bunny, Jody, Trudy, Esmerelda, and Raquel. Granted, they’re mostly minor characters with some major exceptions, Mia Wallace being one of the most central as well as one of the most memorable.
The movie opens and closes with a woman robber just a dangerous as her male counterpart, a cab driver non-plussed that her fare just killed a guy, said murderer’s girlfriend (though does Fabienne know Butch killed the other boxer?), a couple of heavily-pierced suburban drug dealers, a woman who disposes of dead bodies in hot cars, and the wife of a crime boss. Not women to be trifled with.
The women aren’t in the roles of the hitmen (yet), but are just as dangerous. And all these characters have agency. Many films use women to drive a plot forward or make a male character spring into action, fewer allow the woman to act for herself.
So, let’s talk about Mia. The interesting thing about her is, she seems very innocent. But given who her husband is, this is unlikely. She knows what she wants, says so, and then gets it. It’s just the sorts of things she wants are dance trophies from kitschy dinners.
When she O.D.’s, it yanks the rug out from under the audience’s feet. She’s gone from being the fun character to driving one of the most intense sequences in the film. By the time she’s revived, she’s covered in blood, snot, sweat, and saliva with a massive needle sticking out of her chest. It’s tough to watch. But does she look any worse than Butch by the end of his sequence? It’s not pretty, it’s what equality really looks like. We didn’t need the lead actress to be glamorized. What happens to her isn’t glamorous. It makes it real and it deepens our concern that something really bad might actually happen. And all the while we never lose sight of who her character is (“…something”).
Jackie Brown is the first Tarantino film where the lead character was well and truly a woman. While the style is a little atypical of his other films, it’s just as grungy, disturbed, and cool. So cool. Point me in the direction of a cooler female protagonist, because I’m not sure there is one.
And this movie’s all about Jackie.
The fact that she’s a woman? It matters and comes into play. The fact that she’s black? It matters and it comes into play. The fact that she’s a black woman? Oh, yeah (which is funny, since Tarantino didn’t realize the character in the book was white until he reread it. He just pictured Pam Grier).
The other prominent female, Melanie is frustrating and sometimes obnoxious, but is in total control of her own actions. Even when doing what Ordell tells her to, she does it on her own terms. Jackie even briefly tries to have a sort of “us girls” comradery with her, though it doesn’t really pay off.
Jackie Brown isn’t as popular as Tarantino’s other films and probably wouldn’t normally draw quite the same crowd. There’s something a little more grown-up about. Sure, she can hold and point a gun, but she’s not the same violent tearaway protagonist of Tarantino’s earlier films. But that’s what makes the character of Jackie Brown so powerful.
And so we come to the Bechdel-smashing samurai-western cinematic epic that is Kill Bill. AND IT’S ONE FILM. I WILL NOT ARGUE THIS POINT WITH YOU. THE STUDIO MADE HIM CUT IT IN HALF FOR LENGTH IN IT’S THEATRICAL RELEASE.
This has to be the goriest movie Tarantino’s made to date. the amount of blood spilled is over the top and often played for laughs, but the ear poor Marvin Nash lost in Reservoir Dogs simply can’t compare to the limbs of the Crazy 88.
The protagonist is a woman, 3 of the 5 people on her kill list, numerous members of the Crazy 88, the band playing (the 5,6,7,8’s), O’Ren’s translator, Gogo, the assassin sent to murder the Bride, all women. The Bride’s motivation? Vengence for her daughter.
Examine the 5 fights with the people on her list. The sequence with O’Ren, especially if you include everything that led up to it, is the most extravagant. The fight with Vernita kicks off the movie. Her fight with Ellie is the penultimate battle before she takes on Bill. Budd’s death is practically an afterthought. While Budd’s killed by a Black Mamba (the Bride’s code name), Elle sets him up. He’s an alcoholic bouncer, barely holding onto his job. Okay, sure, he buries the Bride alive, but she just busts out. He’s hardly worth her time. The fight with Bill takes place while they’re both seated and lasts about 60 seconds. I’m not saying it’s not a big moment, it’s a huge moment, but very little time is spent on it.
Kill Bill features women out-bloodying and outfighting men. And has maybe the happiest ending of any movie on this list, with the Bride riding off into the sunset with her daughter, who turns out to be alive and well.
Death Proof is another film with a predominantly female cast. It pulls a Psycho on us and kills the 4 lead women halfway through the movie. The second half follows 4 new characters as they also get entangled with the villain, Stuntman Mike. While the 4 original women are cool, the 4 new women are badass.
Whereas the scope of Kill Bill is epic with a cast of hundreds, Death Proof is of a much smaller scope. Not that everyone’s limbs manage to stay attached (that shot of the leg *shudder*). That would be asking for too much. But it’s all music and muscle cars and there’s nothing wrong with that. As the second half of Grindhouse, it actually is of itself an antidote to the zombie apocalyptic Planet Terror (not that there aren’t some good female characters in that too). It feels more exploitative than a lot of Tarantino’s films, but by the time the end winds around…I think that was actually the point. While you were busy ogling these women, they were preparing to fuck you up.
The standout of the film is real life stuntwoman Zoe Bell, playing herself. Since being Uma Thurman’s stunt double in Kill Bill she’s starred as her own character in both this and The Hateful Eight.
And so we move on to the historicals.
I get that, given the title of the film, people have a tendency to say that Aldo is the main character in this movie. And then I argue with them about how Shosanna is. The story is 100% about her. The bastards (or should I say “basterds”) are just along for the ride. They didn’t need to blow up the theater; she had already burned it down.
The two most intense sequences, the strudel scene and, though she barely appears in it, the opening, center around her. It’s her theater the Nazis have the premiere in. It’s her relationship with Zoller that makes that happen. Everything with the bastards is just happenstance. Their inclusion makes for some fun scenes and serves to break up the tension, but if you remove all their scenes, the outcome would have been about the same. She never even interacts with them.
Of course, there is a woman working with the bastards. German actress and spy for the Americans, Bridget Von Hammersmark. Another great character, who was doing really well until her lost shoe gave her away. In some ways she’s Shosanna’s opposite: German, privileged, sophisticated, stylish, presumably with a fair bit more money (though Shosanna does own a theater). Yet they both want the same thing and both die for it.
Shosanna’s death is bloody and Bridget’s is savage, but they both go out fighting for what they think is right.
From the feminist perspective there’s not as much to say here. There is a female lead, Broomhilda Von Shaft. Finding her is Django’s motivation. The one thing you can say is, they seem to have a genuine and respectful loving relationship.
We see some truly grueling things happen to her. Both men and women in this movie are treated horrifically (there are a couple of near unwatchable scenes, but the ones springing to mind are delegated to men).
Unfortunately, Broomhilda is basically trapped until Django is able to rescue her. She wasn’t exactly mishandled, she just wasn’t given a lot to do. She becomes a bit of a damsel in distress. But the character is compared to a princess in a German fairy tale, so that was likely the intent.
That’s not to minimize the intensity that Kerry Washington brings to the character, nor the difficult work that she had to put into playing her. She’s successful in making us like her and showing the hell that is Candyland, and we certainly want her to be saved, but the character’s purpose is more for the hero than herself.
The Hateful Eight
No heroes among these. Like Reservoir Dogs, The Hateful Eight is a movie about bad guys. I’d say this intriguing bunch are even less likeable than the dogs.
I get why this one is tough for some people. Daisy is the literal punching bag for much of the movie. The only comfort to be taken is the fact that Daisy is a psychopath and, had everything gone to plan, the few people who weren’t in on her escape should have all been killed (how didn’t than plan work? Tough luck, Daisy).
But you can’t say that she’s not a strong character. To be honest, she might have fared better had she kept quiet, just drawn less attention to herself, not have spit in people’s faces and laughed maniacally every time she was hit in the face. She’s the only character kept in handcuffs for much of the movie, and she’s the most terrifying. And she knows things some of the other character don’t. It gives her power over them. It’s no coincidence that Jennifer Jason Leigh scored one of the two Oscar nominations the movie got.
Like I mentioned when I talked about Pulp Fiction, it doesn’t over glamorizing the female character just because she’s the female character. In a way it’s liberating. It’s horrible to look at, but it’s a weirdly genuine. She’s an evil scheming psycho who just got punched in the face, she shouldn’t look like a prom queen dammit!
The thing that Tarantino probably does best, is create interesting characters. I can name you a dozen male filmmakers off the top of my head that create great male characters, and feel they can stop there, toss a hot girl in, and call it a day. Look at this list. That’s just not the case here. Half these films have woman as the central character and each one is different from the last. All his characters are fucked up people in fucked up situations in a fucked up world. And they all get fucked up. Whenever I hear someone going into a rant about how Tarantino’s films are harmful to women and the sexist fantasies of a misogynist, all I can think is: