Tarantino describes Kill Bill as a "feminist statement" which is "all about girl power". But is it really? Aideen Johnston comments.
Words cannot describe my excitement when I heard Quentin Tarantino had a new film coming out. Although I have only ever seen one if his films before, and therefore cannot really consider myself a “Tarantino fan”, I adored Pulp Fiction and was very much impressed by his directing skills. I couldn’t wait to see more, so when I heard about Kill Bill, I got my ass down to the local multiplex as fast as I could, lusting for more of Quentin’s trademark stylisation and, of course, truck-loads of gratuitous violence. I wasn’t disappointed: apparently, Kill Bill is one of the goriest films ever made. Yee-haw!
At this point, it should be emphasised that I didn’t specifically go to see the film from a feminist point of view, and I have only seen it once, so my recollections may be slightly dubious. However, lots of things occurred to me throughout the movie which either did or didn’t appeal to me as a feminist, and I feel that it is important to analyse the portrayal of women everywhere, especially in media so widely accessible as the big screen. I must also point out that I will try really hard not to ruin the movie for people who haven’t seen it. However, there are a couple of points which I feel are really important to discuss, but in doing so I might give away a few minor aspects of the film. Equally, the depth of analysis I would like to go into on some points will be limited by how much I can actually give away.
The storyline of Kill Bill is quite simple, much easier to understand than Pulp Fiction. The film begins in a small church with a pregnant bride (Thurman) who, along with eight other members of her wedding party, has been attacked at her wedding by the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad (D.iV.A.S), led by the ambiguous Bill. She is the only one still alive, presumably until Bill shoots her in the head, less than five minutes into the film.
However, Bill’s murder attempt doesn’t go quite according to plan, and the Bride wakes up after four years in a coma. She sets out to kill every assassin involved in the wedding massacre, globe-trotting in order to hunt down and kill every one of them, saving Bill for last (which will happen in the second part of the movie, Volume 2, due for release in 2004).
Tarantino himself describes the movie as a “feminist statement” which is “all about girl power”. But is it really? As he said himself, the film is so outrageous it “does not take place on planet Earth”. If he is going to make a film about strong women, why is it so unrealistic? Does this suggest that he wouldn’t make a film like this if it weren’t so farfetched?
As somebody who hasn’t seen many of Tarantino’s other films, I do not feel fit to comment on this. Pulp Fiction was certainly very much male-dominated, and from what I have heard of Reservoir Dogs, it seems to be the same. However, what about True Romance (not directed, but written by him) and Jackie Brown? As I understand it, both of these films have important female characters. So, perhaps the physical impossibility of Kill Bill is not an issue. Indeed, it is not what I am interested in looking at here. What I am interested in is this: exactly how positive is Tarantino’s portrayal of women in this movie, and does it reflect a standard of womanhood with which I identify?
It is impossible not to notice the abundance of women in strong, pivotal roles in this film. Obviously, there is the Bride, the lead character. Then there’s the assassin squad, comprised of three women and only one man (plus one male boss, Bill, but we’ll get to him in a while). There’s even a scene showcasing the 5678’s, an all-female rock group from Japan. Ex-D.iV.A.S. assassin O-Ren (Lucy Liu) Ishi-i’s bodyguard, Gogo, is female, as is her lawyer and best friend, Sofie Fatale. All of them are forces to be reckoned with. The utter dominance of women in, of all things, an action movie is a very rare thing and should be welcomed with open arms. In our society, women who strive to develop physical strength are quite often disregarded (as are men who don’t, as a couple of my male friends have experienced, but that’s another story). Seeing so many physically strong women on-screen has got to be a good thing. Moreover, it left me feeling empowered, even though I have muscles of jelly and could never in reality execute feats of such agility. Nevertheless, I came out of the cinema wanting to take kung fu lessons (or at least go to the gym more often).
It would, however, be irrelevant to focus on physical agility as the only indication of strength, particularly in a feminist review. That would suggest that the only way for a woman to be treated with respect is to “assimilate into male culture via toughness”, to aspire to suppress female characteristics in favour of socially perceived “masculine” ones. It is equally important to recognise that physical prowess and violence are not the only forms of strength, but that strength of character is just as significant, if not much, much more so.
The Bride is a very strong character, and one whom you really care about. I commend the way Tarantino contrasts invincibility with vulnerability to create an utterly human, three-dimensional character. He establishes her vulnerability from the outset: the very first time we meet her she is at her most defenseless – on the verge of death. Later on in the film (minor spoiler alert!!!) we discover that she has been repeatedly raped (something I will discuss in greater depth later on), which enables us to empathise with her even more.
What I like about the character from a feminist perspective is that she embodies characteristics which are normally associated with the male persona: decisiveness, composure, good judgement and tolerance of pain, as opposed to sexual submission, ineptness, distraction and an act-first-think-later aggression so often seen in female action heroines. She is incredibly resourceful, managing at one point to kill two men while her legs are in a state of paralysis, and in possession of a gutsy determination which enables her to travel the world in search of the people on her death list. She has a lot of willpower, and on one occasion sits in the back of a truck for thirteen hours willing her limbs out of temporary immobility after her four-year coma. Not once, however, does she sacrifice her femaleness and become pseudo-male in order to achieve these personality traits.
Another thing I like about this movie is that, contrary to what I see in most action movies, the women involved are not over-sexualised. There seems to be a common attitude towards women in action movies which says that it’s okay to let the girls beat up the baddies, but only if they can pass for Playboy centerfolds. Barrymore, Liu and Diaz did more than their fair share of titillation in Charlie’s Angels; and don’t even get me started on Tomb Raider. These movies, while supposedly showcasing “girl power”, are really made with adolescent boys in mind. However, I barely saw any flesh in Kill Bill: women wore long, loose-fitting kimonos, androgynous gangster suits, hospital gowns, black jumpsuits, jeans-and-a-t-shirt, yellow tracksuits and school uniforms, but nothing which would tickle one’s fancy or reduce them to sex-symbol status. I have to admit that most of the women are attractive, even stunning at times, but the film significantly downplays the role of women as decorative objects – at least in comparison to other Hollywood movies.
One thing that sticks out for me is that Tarantino is not afraid to make the Bride look ugly. At the beginning, we see a very shocking image of her, with a blood-spattered face, a black eye, blood in her mouth and a look of pure hatred on her face. This is about as far-removed from the Angels’ perfect hair and make-up as it can be. Later on, there is a scene in which we see her wake up from her coma and subsequently bawl her eyes out. She completely breaks down and cries from a mixture of profound grief and rage. Why, you might ask, is this important? I believe that women in movies are extremely limited in regards to the amount of anger or sorrow they are allowed to express. They can cry or shout as much as they like, as long as they maintain a certain level of beauty throughout. The only time I have ever seen a woman totally lose it in a movie was Angelina Jolie’s performance in Girl, Interrupted. However, take Halle Berry in Swordfish as an example of how most angry women are portrayed in movies: she gets strung up by the neck and nearly chokes to death, but when she is cut free, she responds with a mere pout. No matter how irate or grief-stricken a woman happens to be, it is imperative that she still looks good when expressing her feelings – no puffy eyes, no creased forehead, no red face. However, in this scene, the Bride looks a mess. Her hair is greasy and stringy, she wears virtually no make-up, her face is scrunched up in anguish. I fully applaud the fact that the character doesn’t suppress her emotions by worrying about her appearance, and would like to see more of this in the cinema.
Bloody and often shocking violence is in the starring role in this film. However, the most disturbing part is arguably not the decapitations and disembowelings, but the rape scene. This is obviously very much a feminist issue, and I fear that I will not be able to discuss the ins and outs of this particular episode as much as I would like for fear of spoiling parts of the film for those who haven’t seen it. However, for those of you who are now put off seeing the movie because I mentioned the words “rape scene”, don’t worry – it’s not as bad as you might think.
Without going into too much detail, she kills the bastards. In the most painful way imaginable. Far from being a distressing scene to watch, I felt a sense of triumph. It’s like Thelma and Louise all over again, only ten times more violent. I believe that, in a society in which one in eight Hollywood movies contain a rape scene, it is all too easy to feel powerless and victimised. This is because rape scenes in American cinema are often eroticised and dealt with from a male point of view. Films like this are inherently damaging to society because they make women feel paranoid at the same time as desensitising men to the horror of violence towards women. Kill Bill provides a very welcome alternative. It is literally filmed from the Bride’s perspective, and Tarantino constantly reminds us how disgusting these men are.
At the same time, please be aware that I am writing from the perspective of somebody who hasn’t experienced rape first hand. A survivor of sexual assault might have a completely different point of view from me, and might have seen this scene as unnecessary and a little upsetting. If you are a survivor of sexual abuse, and have a different opinion on this scene, I’d very much like to hear your view.
Bill, the title character and the man responsible for the Bride’s attempted murder, is the embodiment of the cinematic masculine persona. The male mindset of being aggressor, sexual predator and decision-maker is exalted through him. It is clear that he is a very manipulative and authoritative character, who often appears to have women under his control. At least twice in the film we see him sweet-talking his female subordinates into doing what he wants them to, and he appears to be very good at getting women to believe he loves them. This could be seen from a feminist perspective as rather worrying – after all, the supposedly strong women in the assassination squad are merely Bill’s pawns, not to mention the fact that Bill is very clearly a patriarchic figure and conforms to a very stereotypical male image. However, the Bride is striking out at him, and thus his demeanor is vilified. He is evidently the enemy, and we are not supposed to like him at all, or his behaviour. I think any disparagement of these undesirable, yet expected, male traits is a step in the right direction. However, will the Bride succeed in doing what she set out to do, and kill him? We’ll have to wait until early next year to find out.
Now here’s the big question: is it a good movie? Well, if you like action movies, it’s a definite must-see. This film buzzes with energy and visual exuberance, and there are many surprising plot twists. The action sequences undeniably upstage those of Charlie’s Angels and even The Matrix Reloaded, and Tarantino’s directing skills are second to none. It may not have the witty dialogue or complex plot of Pulp Fiction, and I can see how some people might criticise it because of this. However, I found it to be a highly enjoyable film, and definitely one I would watch again. A word to the wise though: if you are particularly squeamish, you might want to give it a miss. It does make for rather uncomfortable viewing at times, and certain scenes had the whole theatre wincing in unison. But, on the whole, I highly recommend this film, particularly if you need an antidote to the mind-numbing crapness of the Lara Croft movies, or the irritating sexism of James Bond.
In a society that idolises Hollywood and its stars, people are evidently going to take something away with them as the credits roll and they leave the theatre. Making movies in which girls “kick ass” is not necessarily going to change our society into a more women-friendly one. If you need any proof of that, it’s worth bearing in mind that the source of most female action heroines is China, and China is not well known for its equal treatment of the sexes. However, while women wielding blades may not be the ideal in a violence-free world, it appears that violence in movies is here to stay. And while it is, I would rather watch Uma Thurman single-handedly rip dozens of black-suited gangsters to shreds than quivering helpless waifs waiting for Prince Charming to come rescue them anyday.