Tarantino’s gendered violence

April 14, 2013

Rocking the celluloid veil

by Emily Beeson

QuentinTarantino It is oft said of Quentin Tarantino that he boasts wonderful success in achieving poster-boy status in the eyes of the cult film critic. Kicking back against film industry royalty, Tarantino has been hailed as the absolute embodiment of zero to hero; a video-shop fan-boy making it big among the giants of Hollywood. This status and rolling success is arguably due to the admirable and stylish balance between violence and erudition present in all of Tarantino’s films.

As a director, he has been quizzed on the matter of his responsibility to the public when toying with certain social themes. Whenever it has been suggested that the hyperbolic violence which saturates his movies is anything other than an entertaining trope of filmic falsehood, Tarantino responds with defensive rejections of social critique, vociferously stating his convictions regarding the brio of the filmmaker. He pointed out to The Independent that “violence in the movies can be cool. It’s just another colour to work with. When Fred Astaire dances, it doesn’t mean anything. Violence is the same. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s a colour.”

There is no convincing Tarantino of any accountability for moral or ideological discrepancies in the content of his films, considering his unmoving stance and unwillingness to discuss the subject. In a recent Channel 4 interview with Krishnan Guru-Murthy talking about his latest film Django Unchained, the director balked at questions on links between movie violence and realism, anxiously explaining that it is in no way his job to flesh out his existing statements on filmic violence, and retorting with, “I’m shutting your butt down!’

It is therefore highly unlikely that Tarantino is to acknowledge and respond extensively to feminist critiques of sexual violence in his films. Specifically, interrogative questions on the purpose and impact of sexualising violence which includes women, whether sexual violence is trivialised in cinema and most importantly, whether Tarantino, or his fans for that matter, are even aware of the ways in which violence and power are gendered in his cult-classic creations.

The writer and director has stated in the past that presentations of violence where women are concerned, particularly in the double-feature films Grindhouse and Kill Bill, are intended to be  ironic and empowering. To the untrained eye, he is correct. The identities and actions of female characters in all of Tarantino’s films seem ironic and empowering, albeit only absolutely in the minds of those who prescribe to traditionalist ways of seeing or are unaware of alternative presentations of women in cinema.

It is widely agreed that Tarantino’s female characters, whether they are heroines or extras, are the pop-fantasies of an overgrown teenage boy, that they behave exactly as this sort of writer and director would want and expect them to. It certainly would not be out of line to suggest that the cinephile psyche of their creator reflects the confines of patriarchal gender roles, and appeals directly, though by no means exclusively, to a highly-conditioned audience used to presentations of women as sexual objects in cinema.

Sexualised bait and prey
Reservoir Dogs’ Mr Blonde cuts off Nash’s ear in a shocking act of violent torture while dancing cooly to Stealers Wheel’s Stuck in the Middle With You, rendering the act a pastiche of the classic torture scene, while Pulp Fiction brings us in on a casual conversation between hit-men Jules and Vincent, played by Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta, as they drive back from a job. In an instant, Marvin the informant’s brains are plastered over the backseat as he is accidentally shot in the face mid-sentence.

Tarantino’s male on male violence is bursting with entertainment value, irony, parody and stylish cinematic influence. Conversely, Grindhouse‘s Cherry Darling, the vengeful heroine of Planet Terror, played by Rose McGowan is, arguably by default, an exotic dancer, never granted the luxury of wearing much. She sports an impressive machine-gun prosthetic leg, but there was no way she could have been a slightly overweight, suit-clad heavy like John Travolta in Pulp Fiction; though that would have been a real subversion of seventies cinema.

While exclusively male violence is offset with a blend of black comedy and cool, a great deal of Tarantino’s female violence is sexualised de facto. Movies are a sexual minefield, you rarely get far without coming across an explosive, totally carnal representation of both male and female characters, however, the dismal reality of this cinematic trend is that women, regardless of how much violent retribution they are granted within a certain role, are objectified and presented first as bodies, secondly as women. Tarantino willingly and seemingly unawarely submits to these misogynist presentations and the cool, high style of his films means that this outmoded presentation of gender goes unnoticed. Kira Cochrane of The Guardian wrote of watching Grindhouse that, “I felt fundamentally depressed […] such films seem to be part of a wider trend towards the mainstream depiction of women as highly sexualised bait and prey.”

Between all that is crass, violent and sophisticated, there lurks a conceptual grey area of gender-specific violence and objectification in Quentin Tarantino’s creations, for which he accepts no accountability. Screenwriting and directorial genius, the underdog poster-boy and king of subverted, kick-ass style, Tarantino is also one of the most influential misogynists of the contemporary Hollywood film industry, and is seemingly unaware of this.

Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Kill Bill Vol.2 are undoubtedly cinematic masterpieces, yet these movies do nothing to alter the image of the heroine as a sexual object, despite other innovative features and well-balanced triumphs. Beatrix Kiddo, played flawlessly by Uma Thurman, is dually, cinema’s epitome of female strength, and a marionette in the filmic arena of male supremacy, strutting from one blood-bath to the next, sexily claiming retribution. She behaves as her cinephile creators would expect an autonomous heroine to, not as anyone aware of how disempowering it is to equate action heroes with sex objects would expect. Beatrix Kiddo may have the capacity to look good in a catsuit and to cave in her rapists’ head with a steel door, but the ability to smash anyone’s head in is not necessarily equivalent to real empowerment.

Blood for blood
Nobody wants their cinematic experience destroyed by a pressing need to deconstruct the ideology of a film rather than simply be entertained by it, however, Tarantino’s presentation of gendered violence should not go totally unnoticed. He makes excellent films, yet his unaccountability requires an astute social awareness on the part of the viewer. It is all very well enjoying a film drawn from the well of male fantasy, but failing to notice its tendencies towards misogynist ideology amid all the kung-fu and ‘ironic’ strippers, suggest that we’ve seen a little too much of the same thing, rendering us numb to gendered representation in cinema. Considering female empowerment outside of the heroine stereotypes and Tarantino’s rape retribution is the first step to truly recognising his traditional filmic influences, and the inability that he shares with most cinema-goers, to question or subvert their ideological flaws.

Rikki Schubart’s Super Bitches and Action Babes (2007) presents five types of female action hero: the Amazon, the rape avenger, the daughter, the mother, and the dominatrix. He stipulates that all five archetypes are products of the male imagination. Tarantino successfully combines the five forms in the Kill Bill films in Beatrix Kiddo. However, in doing so, dupes the public into praising Beatrix as the embodiment of female power. Regardless of how many heroines Thurman’s character successfully emulates at once, the categories remain out-dated, yet widely accepted, constructs.

It is telling that we seem so bowled over by her character’s ability to dispatch the entire Crazy 88 crew with a single sword, that we fail to notice Tarantino’s projection of Beatrix as a highly sexualised and objectified individual, solely concerned with gaining access to Bill, a patriarchal absolute. Sure, Bill gets what’s coming to him by way of a killer Kung-Fu pastiche brilliantly named the Five-Point-Palm-Exploding-Heart-Technique, but if we consider the events leading up to this catharsis, what are we left with? Beatrix is certainly not empowered by anything else that seems to be occurring in either of the Kill Bill films. She is shot, raped, beaten, buried alive, sliced up and shot again. Her revenge doesn’t seem to succeed in explaining why her violent acts are sexualised or why she is objectified. If anything, her revenge legitimises this treatment by way of blood for blood.

This is not to say that Tarantino is wholly aware of his film’s misogynism. The prolific feminist writer Bell Hooks cited him as a master deconstructionalist and a stylish nihilist, suggesting that he makes patriarchy look so ridiculous that one would think that everybody would see how absurd it is. However, the danger stalking his writing is that one can laugh at patriarchy and cling to it at the same time. Tarantino’s presentations of women are seemingly accidental, especially when it comes to his institutionalised treatment of sexual violence. From behind that celluloid veil he seems unable to shake off, tough men are tough, and tough women are sexy; equality does not rule.

From what Tarantino’s films teach us, male gumption and violence earns entertainment appeal by adopting slapstick motifs, the female equivalent achieves it through sexual allusion. If Tarantino’s films supposedly empower women who have been subjugated or harmed by granting them revenge, but never sexual equality, his female characters expose what they also insinuate will not change. Embedded in the director’s conception of cinema is the idea that sexual violence against women is an innate factor of society and that by virtue of being a sexy, vengeful heroine who takes out the bad guys, the bad guys’ actions are rendered illegitimate.

Misogynist portrayals
Death Proof and Kill Bill are widely accepted as being empowering to women, because Tarantino explores revenge in both. Vengeance is what keeps Quentin’s world turning, allowing him total artistic licence when it comes to utilising the most contentious of themes. The director seems convinced that if a violent response to misogyny is thrown into the mix, misogyny ceases to pose as a real threat. However, outside of the dated, celluloid-world, the line between goodies and baddies is not as clear and, sexual violence and revenge are not character tropes.

Rape in Tarantino’s world is simply presented as bad, Pulp Fiction taught us this in 1994. It also taught us, as Kill Bill Vol. 1 does, that rape can legitimely occur as long as the baddies are brutally executed. Beatrix Kiddo’s experience at the start of Kill Bill Vol. 1 is treated as little more than a defining tool in seperating her heroine satus from that of the bad guys; her objectification is ignored. Through this presentation, Tarantino not only oversimplifies and trivialises sexual violence, he perpetuates cinema’s institutionalised attitudes towards it. Pairing violence with revenge does little to subvert the patriarchal ways of seeing and overwhelming objectification that cinema’s heroines are tied to. Observing Tarantino’s hot, female characters going up against sexual violence, inequality and male privelidge is better than watching them submit to it, but seeing Beatrix Kiddo presented as a gorgeous, male-equal who is by no means a sexualised object, with unparalleled Kung-Fu skills to boot would be infinitely more empowering.

Perhaps Tarantino’s influences mean that imparting a level of social authenticity is necessary to him. His love of seventies cinema may arguably facillitate a smattering of realist misogyny onto his conteporary creations. However, the entire design, pace and soundtracking of his films successfully nod to stylistic elements of vintage cult cinema. Had lashings of objectification been omitted, it is doubtful that his characters would be rendered less believable as women from a bygone era.

The apparent lack of purpose when it comes to misogynist portrayals of women in his films confirms suspicions that Tarantino occupies a bubble of outmoded, gendered violence, due to an ingrained, traditionalist attitude towards women in cinema. Although it is clear that the fetishisation of violence and the objectification of women sells well, Tarantino has always stated that his love of producing exciting cinema trumps any paycheque, uncovering an earnest submission and hopeless bondage to antiquated modes of seeing of the heroine that continue to dominate female identity in the media.

Bell Hooks argued that mass-media is used in a post-war fashion, to channel women back into domesticated and sexualised stereotyping and described movies as the lead propaganda machine of one dimensional, patriarchal modes of thinking. Femininity is shaped by the film industry in the same way that violence or romance is. As a writer and director, Tarantino is at the helm of this industry. He has long been hailed as utilising and subverting traditional filmic cliches, expertly ironising them. However, in many ways he fully submits to traditional modes and categories of filmic iconography, identity and commodity by taking a beautiful woman and transforming her into a heroine and simultaneously, a sexual object. Tarantino balances a sophisticated consciousness of film traditions with extreme violence, yet cannot help peppering his product with the tropes of patriarchal ideology. This marks Tarantino as a hinderance as much as a pioneer of filmic innovation.

Patriarchal traditionalism
In an article for Sabotage Times, Chris Sullivan recently responded to a piece written by Jenny McCartney for The Telegraph on the worrying nature of violence in Tarantino’s films, saying  ‘It’s as if she’s complaining about the rain in Wales’. This highlights the problem of that traditional cinematic veil beautifully. Comparing filmic ultra-violence against women to the Welsh weather suggests that what is presented in film is inevitable and socially unaccountable by virtue of its nature as filmic. This is exactly the sort of tautology that Tarantino himself seems to employ when questioned about his treatment of violence, because he seemingly does not understand that there can be an alternative mode of seeing. These are the sorts of feeble explanations we are obliged to reject as audiences, for as we are now aware, they fail to make an ounce of sense; sexual violence and objectification are not innate attributes of society.

While Tarantino’s work is spectacular in countless ways, his attitudes toward the heroine, her role in violent scenes and her sense of empowerment have been manipulated by the patriarchal traditionalism of the dated cinema he is celebrated for subverting. What is astounding is his, and his fans’, unwillingness to acknowledge this ideological whitewash. So stylish and sophisticated is Tarantino’s fusion of traditional and avant-garde screen-writing, that it is challenging to criticise his films whilst in the company of superfans.

He is questioned repeatedly on his use of brutal violence, yet the public is so beset in its acceptance of the female hero as a product of patriarchal fantasy, that nobody bats an eye when she emulates the empowerment only granted her in an violent appropriation of a video-shop clerk’s wet-dream. Along with the omnipresent celluloid veil, it is quite alarmingly, that exchange of ism for jism, that lurks unnoticed between Tarantino’s ultra-violence and stylish erudition.