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

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.

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

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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.

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.)

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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."

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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).

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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.

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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?

 

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Comments

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sexy?

I'm a bit taken aback whenever a powerful female figure in cinema or in literature is qualified as being "sexy, too!" It's always tacked on as a necessary element for a woman to be considered "strong" or even taken seriously. "She's powerful, assertive, and a leader - not to mention sexy!" I suppose that in mainstream film, people of all genders must be sexy in order to hold a powerful leading role, but this isn't how it plays out in real life. There are plenty of powerful men who are pretty hard on the eyes. Women not only need to work extra hard to assume positions of power, but they need to be physically attractive, too. I understand the feminist ideals behind a healthy expression of women's sexuality, but must every powerful heroine also be drop-dead gorgeous? God forbid there be a Bride-like protagonist in a movie who isn't of Uma Thurman's caliber when it comes to physical appearance. Then again, God forbid there be any "ugly" actresses at all...

Off the record, on the QT, and very hush-hush.

Sigh. I, like a lot of peeps, have really mixed feelings on QT. I grew up loving his movies and the Kill Bill duo jumpstarted my love of female action cinema. I even programmed Kill Bill vol. 1 into the film class I taught in high school and brought my Beatrix Kiddo action figure (complete with trademark phrases!) to class with me. As I've grown older, though, I've had to come to terms with the fact that QT ain't all he's cracked up to be. Jackie Brown is the only one of his movies that has aged well. I don't know if this is the case for everyone, but I can barely stomach Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs these days because every line of dialogue is so grating and, yes, even cliché. Tarantino's style has become so engrained into the pop culture lexicon that none of it feels original, snappy, or even cool anymore. I can still stomach Jackie Brown because he brought all of the best parts of his filmmaking persona - his timing, pacing, and sense of character - to the table and adapted someone else’s snappy story. Plus, Pam Grier is without a doubt the best actress he’s ever worked with. I love Uma and Zoe, but Pam Grier is the real deal. He often says that it’s the only one of his films that he wouldn’t die for because it’s not entirely “his,” but I think that’s why it works so well.

The Kill Bill series, as entertaining as it is in certain segments, just proves that he should stick to adapting other people’s material. His collage aesthetic is masturbatory and revisiting his work feels like you’re reusing yesterday’s bodily fluid encrusted rag. I would much rather watch his idols’ work, like Godard’s or Jack Hill’s, because those films feel truly genuine. Tarantino’s flicks are just Splenda incarnations.

To whatever my however, that doesn’t mean I still don’t appreciate the guy. I’m not sure I consider him to be an auteur, but Tarantino’s movies are some of the most structurally interesting films we have in this day and age. I might have grown past them, but I’m sure future generations will discover Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill just like I did when I was younger and hopefully they’ll feel the need to watch Lady Snowblood and Band of Outsiders )guess the reference! ) because of them. I just wish Tarantino would grow up a bit more and attempt to make something other than fan boy genre homage’s. He says he loves the work of Robert Bresson as much as he does B movies and claims he could do his work justice as well, but I’ve yet to see him try that. What will happen to the magical world of QT when he’s done with Inglorious Basterds? It’s the last of his “talked about” movies.

As far as his being a feminist goes, I think QT has brought some of the most intriguing female characters to life in the past fifteen or so years. Mia Wallace, Jackie Brown, Beatrix, and the second set of gals’ in Death Proof are full of more verve and pepper than almost every female character of the ’90s and definitely the ’00s. They are three-dimensional kick-ass ladies and they’re always on a mission to better themselves or their situation in some fashion. However, there are so many contradictory feminist statements in his flicks that it’s really hard to decipher if they’re truly feminist-minded or not…like leaving Lee behind with Michael Bowen in Death Proof, the all too clear division between the smart and dumb (that’s not what I really mean, but it’s the easiest way of saying it) women in Death Proof, Mia Wallace’s faux confidence, and Beatrix’s asexuality. He’s just so darn messy with his messages! I’ll think about this some more and hopefully have a better summation of his work for your next post.

QT does have a great taste in movies, though. Everyone should go watch Rio Bravo! You’ll be a better person for it. Trust me.

Something's Missing

I enjoy Tarentino's films quite a bit, though I wouldn't consider myself a dedicated fan. That being said, I think the element missing from this conversation is a macro analysis of Tarentino's work in a cinematic and socio-political context. Tarentino came up in the midst of a budding "2nd wave" feminist movement and made his cinematic debut at the cusp of the "3rd wave." This positioning is apparent his films' content and style. In his versions of self-referential gritty realism that is heavily influenced by off-the-beaten-path pop culture and ironically witty humor, Tarentino aims to make the audience uncomfortable by piling on heavy doses of reality in all its unattractive glory while providing moments of comic relief just when you think you might squirm right out of your seat. He doesn't go for the obvious, and I highly doubt he'd call his work a political statement. But the politics are there--like a mirror held up to reflect so many of the things that are really f*ed up in our society (including our political ideologies). In some ways I think Tarentino is asking you, "Do you like what you see?" Which is what makes the reactions people have to them so interesting.

Anyway, I wrote a review of Grindhouse where I explore the feminist themes in Death Proof, which I think is more about showing a pop feminist fantasy than making a serious statement about patriarchy.

That is...

certainly true. And having a "real" badass woman (Zoe Bell, for example) play a "fictional" badass woman blurs that boundary of what is contrived and what is not while making the audience reconsider the idea that women can only be badasses in films because "that's all fake."

Don't care!

I'd rather save my time and thought for filmmakers male and female who are actively feminist, as a reward for their bravery and effort.

I'm usually a pretty careful reader

I totally could have missed it, but did you mention Tarantino's upcoming remake of Faster, Pussycat? I also believe that I heard a rumor about Britney Spears being cast as Varla.

I go back and forth on Tarantino as far as the quality of his movies go...there have been some real stinkers...and he tends to copy certain movies so extensively that it sometimes feels like less of a "tribute" and more of a rip-off. I am happy, however, that he is able to bring those older movies into the mainstream with these tributes, and that he creates worthy characters in his kickass women while still "selling" his pictures to teenaged boys. Its good that the public, especially the young male public, can appreciate these women as more than just sex objects.

I'm not totally versed on

I'm not totally versed on the film/social theory, but as I understand it the aesthetic of some of these films from the 70's was originally put forth by people of color. These people wanted to reject the traditional type of political film, which seemed designed to implore the sympathy and assistance of white people. In the place of the old type of social protest/political film, filmmakers of the 70's offered up kick-ass heroes who took care of it themselves.
Without being over simplistic about identity then, I think the fact that Tarantino is a white dude complicates his work in this type of genre. As is pointed out numerous times in the post, beyond his identity, his own words muddy whether (based on his intentions) his movies are subversive or just the same old shit. Does Tarantino make these movies because he wants to subvert traditional film images of women, or does he just have fond memories of Tura Satana's cleavage from his childhood?

Is it even possible...

to know Tarentino's "true" motivations or intentions? Probably not. And I think Jennifer's follow up question hits the nail on the head. Once one's work is put into the world, the creator no longer fully owns it. At best, she/he co-owns it in tandem with the viewer/reader/audience whose interpretation(s) of the work most times become the predominant discourse surrounding it.

People Are Complex

Yes, even sometimes men. I love most of Tarantino's films - sometimes in spite of their flaws or because of them. Even with the straight rip-offs, he brings originality to it. I think of myself as a feminist - in fact, if you want to be specific, call me WOMANIST baby! - and yet to this day, I will bump the Mystic Styles album that Three 6 Mafia put out in the mid-90's. O yayis. And I refuse to feel conflicted about it. So it doesn't matter to me whether or not Quentin Tarantino is a feminist. It looks to me like a lot of his characters are, and I say this as an artist - sometimes it's a wonderful thing when the characters you flesh out become something greater than what you can put into them. I wouldn't call Tarantino a feminist, but some of his characters are whether they know it or not.

Violence

Tarantino frequently tells interviewers that people get his views on real violence mixed up with cinema violence. They are not one in the same and our first mistake is to pair them up.

He states that he doesn't have problems with someone getting shot on screen because it's fake. Real violence, that's unsettling.

Basterds star is really a woman

I'm curious what people think now that the movie has come out. I saw it yesterday, and although Brad Pitt may get all the press, the real star of the film is Melanie Laurent. (Spoiler Alert!) Taking a page from Kill Bill, she's a woman hell-bent on revenge, and it is ultimately she, not the Basterds who bring down the whole Nazi party. She's also a business owner in a relationship with a black man who can barely disguise her contempt for the youthful Nazi war hero who has fallen for her.

Tarantino is clearly a man who loves women, and is attracted to women with power. Even early on, he was championing writers like Julia Sweeney (who had the most adorable cameo in Pulp Fiction), and while he can be fetishistic in his shooting, I think the fact that he continues to revisit the notion of female power is definitely a positive. While men may love his violence, his past four projects have been built around female protagonists, from different ages, races, and socio-economic backgrounds. But they did have one thing in common - they all kicked ass.

I like QT's work for its

I like QT's work for its artistry and transgressivenes but, no, he's not a feminist. He lacks true empathy for women and their plight in real life. The cartoonish themes Quentin uses are not authentic; even when they favor female characters, they are not intended as empowering.