December 6, 2008
Women in Death Proof and Kill Bill
Feminists are united by “the assumption that western culture is fundamentally patriarchal”. As a result, few aspects of culture are left without influence and one heavily affected area is the film industry. Finding a film in any genre, from any time period, that doesn’t exploit or objectify women in some way is very near impossible. Mainstream society has accepted and embraced the patriarchal order which places women below men and conditions people to notice their mistreatment less and less. The Feminist movement attempts to create an equal balance of power between men and women. However, somewhere along the line, our culture starting telling women that the advancement of their gender could be achieved by taking on masculine characteristics. A woman who is a strong female is still considered to be weaker than a masculine female. Such films like Death Proof and Kill Bill by Quentin Tarantino represent the male perspective which dominates our society, the mainstream sexual objectification and exploitation of women, and the emerging role of the masculine female.
The character Stuntman Mike, from Death Proof, is representative of the male population as a whole in his desire to gain power over others. He gains his power by taking power from women, much like how society gives males the power by making women powerless. This desire is a result of the socially constructed ideology of man as the protector and provider. He is also fascinated with the female body. Mike watches the girls from afar before he attacks them. On several occasions he takes pictures of them from his car and spends a great deal of time “stalking” his victims. Society does this with women constantly. A person walking down a typical city street will see billboards with half-naked women selling alcohol, buses with girls in underwear selling Calvin Klein, and the chances of seeing a sex worker, prostitute or stripper, is a lot higher than it used to be. No matter what these images are intended to directly sell, they also sell the weakened position of the female gender. By sexually objectifying women, all of the hard work the feminists have done is lost not improved.
We live in a society where female U.S. Olympic athletes pose on the cover of Playboy. We live in a society where a man can make money by filming drunken girls who take off their clothes. People, women in particular, are manipulating the values and intentions of feminism. Sexual promiscuity is sexual empowerment and being “one of the guys” isn’t equality but bending ourselves to a masculine image. These two particular Tarantino films depict women who try to be stronger females by acquiring masculine characteristics. The problem lies in the fact that women are choosing to imitate chauvinistic characteristics.
The most strikingly obvious example is Uma Thurman as an actress and Beatrix Kiddo as a character. As an actress, Thurman is playing out the male fantasy of a beautiful tough woman. Some would argue that at the same time she is pushing the limit of the female stereotype but then the question must asked, why must she be six feet tall, blonde, and skinny? The male influence has such a strong place in our culture and has warped the female perspective to such an extent that women no longer feel objectified but empowered. Beatrix as a character is stereotypical of the “hot ass-kicker”. She is a woman fueled by the things done to her; she is a victim. Tarantino makes her even weaker, to counterbalance the masculine strength, by playing into gender stereotypes. Beatrix is also referred to as “The Bride” and “Mommy”. She wasn’t just done wrong but done wrong on her wedding day, pregnant, and even becomes the victim of multiple rapes. She may be physically strong like a man but she is portrayed like an emotionally weak female.
Vernita Green, played by Vivica A. Fox, is also a character who retains her stereotypical femininity. She embodies the “working mom”; the women who can juggle both the man’s world and the mother’s world. The Beatrix-Vernita fight scene is meant to make men cringe and show women what can happen if they try to tough and motherly. Tarantino was trying to connect with the belief that women are pure and dainty, not crime fighters. Men are supposed to protect women from danger and by having the violence occur onscreen the men in the audience can only watch and squirm in their seats.
During a phone interview about Kill Bill, Tarantino said, “the more brutal they are to each other the more you wince. But, it’s a strange kind of wince because you are enjoying it at the same time” (NYDailytimes.com). Not only is the film intended to make a man feel like going out and saving a woman but they are also supposed to get turned on. Tarantino thinks that pretty women who wear tight fitting clothes while kicking ass are hot and he expects his male viewers to feel the same way. Why wouldn’t they be? They were all raised by the same patriarchal order.
Jungle Julia, from Death Proof and played by Sydney Poitier, is a very interesting character because at one point she acknowledges that she is being objectified. She is alright with the billboards, the sexual favors, and the overall sexuality of her representation because it will get her what she wants. Julia wants her own record label; she wants a place in the man’s world.
Her character takes on the “one of the guys’ attitude”. Julia is street tough and able to keep up with the men around her. Men don’t need to hide their language around her and she can drink as much liquor as any man. Ariel Levy, writer of Female Chauvinist Pig, found that her friends believed a way to show “themselves and the men around them that they weren’t ‘prissy little women’ or ‘girly-girls’” was to go to strip clubs and idolize porn stars (Levy 4). What happened to the days of showing a boy you were just as tough by touching a slimy frog or getting a higher grade on a science project? When did it become acceptable for women to sexually exploit other women?
Julia sexually exploits her friend Arlene. Jungle Julia, the early morning radio host, has told her listeners that if they buy Arlene a drink and recite a particular poem, Arlene will give them a lap-dance. Julia has turned Arlene into a prize, something that can be owned and used. Julia went so far as to promise a lap dance, not an innocent kiss which would have been far more realistic, although still exploitation. Julia went “balls out” as they say, in her attempt to exploit women the same way a man would. When Arlene says that she will not give strangers a lap-dance just because Julia says she would, Julia coerces her like one of the guys from “Girls Gone Wild”. She tells Arlene, “Everybody in Austin is gonna think you’re a chicken-shit and I don’t think you want everyone in Austin thinking you’re a chicken-shit”. Arlene caves because Julia has insulted her credibility and toughness.
***insert story about the girls on the beach in levy book***
The second group of girls, who appear after Stuntman Mike has violently killed the first group, is comprised of a semi girly-girl make-up artist, a completely girly-girl actress, and two masculine females who pay the bills as stuntwomen. Kim, played by Tracie Thoms, is one of the tough stunt-women. Her life is heavily influenced by masculinity. She is a stunt-woman, curses like a trucker, and packs a gun. She is certainly a strong women but not a feminine one, she is a masculine female. At this point in time, would a strong feminine female even be possible? Could there be a strong feminine woman in a patriarchal society that has excluded us from the development of anything besides the home?
Kim is represented as one of the strongest women in Death Proof; she is able to kill a man. Her strength, and Zoë’s and Abby’s, comes at a heavy price. The viewer is able to realize that Stuntman Mike is a bad man, maybe even so bad that he deserves to die. The viewer also knows that the women don’t know Mike is a murderer; all they know is that he played a sick joke on them. Kim, Abby, and Zoë, kill Mike on the grounds that he messed with them; the grounds that he bested them and they wanted revenge.
Revenge is a masculine emotion. Sure many women feel revenge towards those who have done them wrong but revenge also fuels most male hero’s like Rambo, Batman, Spiderman, the Punisher, and many others. The idea of blind rage as a result of this need for revenge is also an emotion associated with men. The girls acquire the masculine trait by killing Mike and thereby move to the next level of masculinity.
Death Proof begins with a cartoon that is intended to warn off the weak at heart and the young in age from the film. The cartoon is very old, just like the rules governing the dominant female stereotypes. There is a young cartoon-like jungle animal walking peacefully through the jungle. Suddenly, the screen flashes to a dark, sleek jaguar stalking the naïve animal. Women are represented as weak, as unable to fend for themselves. They are creatures who are in need of protection as they cannot protect themselves from the voyeuristic and intrusive male eye. This cartoon represents an ideology that women should live in fear of the ever prowling male eye and their unpleasant intentions. In act two, Kim says, “If I got down to the laundry room in my building at midnight enough times, I might get my ass raped”. A major aspect of this film is that women are not safe in their own world because a male can interject at any time.
Both films were created under a masculine lens which results in many sexualized and objectified shots of the women. The actual film begins with a close-up shot of Jungle Julia walking barefoot. The camera slowly moves up to her backside and she is only wearing underwear. The camera continues upward and reveals that she is topless and in the process of putting on a shirt. We have already not only seen skin but have been informed that we are going to be watching this film with a man’s eyes. A hetero-sexual woman would not have immediately gravitated towards her naked body.
Once Julia has her shirt on, she lies down on her couch, extending her long, clothing-free legs. Just above her is a giant black and white poster with a woman in the same position. Julia isn’t the first woman to be objectified and Tarantino either used this duplication of images for aesthetic purposes or an attempt at social commentary, which seems unlikely considering the films blatant misogyny. The camera switches perspectives to show us Julia’s perspective of the room. She is looking at a poster of a naked girl on her knees in bondage, looking back at the viewer with pleading, teary eyes. Julia is sexually objectifying women in her apartment while the camera is objectifying her at the same time. ***female chauvinist quote***
One of the most common images in this film are feet, bare female feet. The first image within the film is of Julia’s feet. She always has her legs and feet showing especially when she is in a car. Ironically, at the end of act one, when Stuntman Mike drives his car head on into the girls, her leg is ripped from her body. Tarantino is taking the women’s feet and sexualizing them. Later on in Act Two, Abby is in the backseat of Kim’s car trying to get some sleep with her feet sticking out the back window. Stuntman Mike has been listening to their conversation and slowly walks up to the car when Kim goes inside. Lee is conveniently pre-occupied when Mike leans down and licks the ball of Abby’s foot. She wakes up startled, but has no idea what has happened to her. This scene can be used metaphorically with women not always realizing that they are being sexually exploited or objectified.
What stands out to Stuntman Mike about these girls is their sexuality. When he comes up to Arlene she comments that she saw him before and wants to know if he is stalking them. In fact, he was stalking them but he says that’s just what happens in a “small” town like Austin. He says, “You noticed me, I noticed your legs”. This aspect of the film seems to imply a “that’s what you get” attitude. The girls died because they were sexual and beautiful creatures.
Stuntman Mike exploits there sexuality and turns it into something just for him. He sees them from afar and chooses them as victims because of the way they look. The very tool that they use for power is turned against them. Some people in our society hold the andocentric belief that a woman who acts and dresses in an overly sexualized manner “deserves” what happens to her. The idea continues with the scene that comes between the girls of act one and the girls of act two.
The local sheriff and his son are talking in a waiting room of the hospital where Mike was taken after the accident. The sheriff believes that Stuntman Mike purposely caused the accident, possibly for sexual reasons, but cannot do anything because the girls were drunk and Mike wasn’t. The sheriff says that he would do something about it, investigate the case for awhile, but that he won’t because he would much rather spend the time following NASCAR.
Kill Bill begins with the image of a victimized female. Beatrix is battered, bloody, and pregnant on the floor. Her body is being destroyed under the direct orders of a male and Bill is looking over her pitiful body from above placing himself in a role of power. When Beatrix gains consciousness she finds herself in a hospital bed about to be raped and she realizes that it has happened before. Beatrix was not only robbed of her wedding party and her baby but she was robbed of the ability to stand up for herself.
The hospital scene is probably the most openly misogynistic because of the character Buck. Buck has been raping Beatrix while she has been in a coma and who knows how many other female patients have suffered his abuse. Buck even has a car called the “Pussywagon”. His character is an exaggerated depiction of the men in society who like to think of women as nothing more than things to have sex with.
The women in these films are trying to appear as strong, as equal to men by taking on male characteristics. The male tendency to exploit the female body is one characteristic that would appear off limits to a woman who wants to enhance female equality. Somewhere along the line feminism must have been distorted because women are doing this.
Laura Mulvey put forward a political argument against the phallocentric norms that place men in an active role of “looking” and the female role of being “looked at”. In her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Mulvey refers to this phenomenon as the result of Scopophilia, which Freud believed to be the reason why people view others as objects and subject “them to a controlling and curious gaze” (Mulvey 835). Mulvey believes that one of the two reasons people go to the movie is to gain pleasure from looking at people which is then linked to voyeurism, a trait of the antagonist Stuntman Mike (Mulvey 835). She also insinuates that viewers of film are like “Peeping Toms” who view films for sexual gratification. In this sense, Tarantino depicts women in a highly sexualized manner for the men, and women, who watch the movie with the intent of releasing sexual tensions. Since these films were written and directed by a man, assuming that the presentation of women was intended to give something men to “look at”, in a sexually manner, is not far fetched.
**talk about the girls gone wild woman**
When Arlene and Nate emerge from his car, they have a story about the “pretty girl sitting by herself at the bar” but Julia is more interested in what they had been doing in the car. The film later hints that Pam, the girl at the bar, was tossed out without a ride by her date; she is a woman done wrong by a man whose female acquaintances do not care. Julia knows Pam, the girl at the bar, from High School, and is unwilling to put aside past differences. Unfortunately for Pam, someone does come to her rescue – Stuntman Mike and although the other girls think he is strange, they express no concern for her well-being. They actually make fun of her for it.
The women of Kill Bill are also strong but they have adopted masculine characteristics to get there. Beatrix is a strong fighter because she was trained by Bill and her motives are focused on the actions of men. O-Ren-Ishii’s, played by Lucy Lui, character is a fighter because she watched a man kill her family. As an adult, she has chosen to join a male dominated industry and assume a typically male role as head mob boss.
The films could be looked at as a disclaimer for the independent, masculine female, “This is what happens when you act like a man, are you up for it?” The idea that film could be used to dissuade women from masculinity is not uncommon. In Mark Jancovich’s article “Female Monsters: Horror, the 'Femme Fatale' and World War II”, he argues that the ‘Femme Fatale’ and ‘Female Monsters’ were used to get women back in the house and out of the jobs they worked during the Second World War. He writes, “It (The Female Monster) was part of a concerted effort to persuade women to leave the jobs that they had taken on during the war, and return to their roles as wives and mothers in the domestic sphere” (Jancovich 134).
The films Death Proof and Kill Bill, both by Quentin Tarantino, attempt to portray strong women who have overcome the gender roles, the gender restrictions, and the constraints of their societies. However, since the films were made from a male perspective the camera takes on a male lens thus leading to an andocentric view of women. The women seem in control but they are actually still being controlled by their patriarchal societies and are objectified in the same manner as the women who came before them.
Jancovich, Mark. "Female Monsters: Horror, the 'Femme Fatale' and World War II." European Journal of American Culture 27(2008): 133-149.
Levy, Ariel. Female Chauvinist Pig: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. Tampa: Free Press, 2006
Mulvey, Laura. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Screen 16(1975): 6-18.
Udavitch, Mimi., Quentin Tarantino. Phone Interview: “Quentin Tarantino’s Girl-fights”. Nytimes.com. 5 October 2003. 29 November 2008