It begins innocuously enough. I am minding my own business — eating, doing work, or socializing at some mundane event or another — and the conversation turns to film. It doesn’t take long for someone, and by someone I usually mean a man, to demonstrate his profound knowledge of cinema by singing the praises of the work of one Quentin Tarantino. I take a deep breath. It is not every day, after all, that I can muster the emotional energy to argue with a self-identified cinephile clad in wire-framed, Warby Parker glasses and a two-sizes-too-big sense of self-importance. The exact impetus of my response is different each time. Often it’s implicit, a positive gesture from my conversation partner to Tarantino’s portrayal of women onscreen. Less often, it is explicit: “And he’s a feminist, too!”
“Quentin Tarantino is not a feminist,” I say.
“But what about ‘Kill Bill?’” the man replies.
You may think I’m exaggerating, but I have had this exact conversation, or a variant of it, dozens of times since the fateful day eight or so years ago that I first sat down to watch “Pulp Fiction.” My experiences bear an uncanny resemblance to those satirized in Ali Elkin’s popular McSweeney’s article, “An Oral History of Quentin Tarantino as Told to Me by Men I’ve Dated.” I wouldn’t say that arguing about the films of Quentin Tarantino single-handedly ended my last relationship, but it certainly didn’t help.
The issue isn’t that I haven’t seen “Kill Bill.” I have. In fact, I’ve seen every one of Tarantino’s films. It’s not that I don’t like them, either. I do. My personal favorite is “Reservoir Dogs,” in which Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) delivers an extensive monologue about why he doesn’t tip waitresses — a film where, fittingly, not a single line of dialogue is spoken by a woman. It goes almost without saying that a film can be good without being overtly feminist or overtly feminist without being good. But something about Tarantino’s particular brand of violence and dialogue makes me inherently skeptical of his portrayal of women.
In this, I am not alone. Tarantino’s relationship to feminism has been beaten to death by cultural critics and media outlets, but the criticism reached a new peak in 2018. It was that spring, in the wake of Harvey Weinstein’s #MeToo reckoning, that Uma Thurman revealed Tarantino had coerced her into driving an unsafe car while filming “Kill Bill,” resulting in a near-deadly crash. The director’s decades-long working relationship with Weinstein and his mistreatment of Thurman prompted many to reevaluate his treatment of women onscreen. Anna Menta, writing for Newsweek in the wake of the Weinstein allegations, called Tarantino’s female characters “dynamic and complex,” but argued that this context made the representation feel more like “exploitation” than “respect.” Ira Madison III, writing for The Daily Beast shortly after the release of Thurman’s account, asked “Can a film then be feminist when it fetishes the abuse of its heroine and also exacts abuse on her during the making of the film?”
What I take issue with, in these critiques and in others, is the baseline assumption that Tarantino’s female characters are uniquely or impressively “dynamic and complex” to begin with. Female Tarantino characters are not created equal, and for every Beatrix Kiddo or Jackie Brown there is a Broomhilda von Shaft or a Daisy Domergue. Kerry Washington’s Broomhilda von Shaft is criminally ignored in “Django Unchained,” making her a Helen of Troy of sorts. She drives a plot in which she barely participates, save for the gratuitous violence inflicted upon her. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Daisy Domergue is often likened to a punching bag for the absurd amount of screen time she spends getting beaten up in “The Hateful Eight.” It almost makes characters like “Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood”’s Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) preferable, despite their almost non-existent dialogue. Robbie’s Tate may barely speak, but at least she’s spared the self-indulgent violence that befell the real life Tate, and which befalls so many of Taratino’s female characters.
It is trade-offs like this one that make Tarantino’s films so difficult to autopsy from a feminist perspective. What concessions have to be made to bestow the title of “feminist” upon his films or, alternatively, to take it away? The sheer impossibility of this equation is what makes it so frustrating when, in conversation, a man is so quick to hold up “Kill Bill” as a Get Out of Jail Free card for all of Tarantino’s transgressions.
“Kill Bill” itself is, at best, a deeply flawed example of so-called “feminist cinema.” The film opens with a black-and-white shot of Thurman’s Beatrix Kiddo bloodied, beaten, and nine months pregnant, sprawled across the floor. “There isn’t a trace of sadism in my actions,” says Bill, her ex-boss and lover. “This is me at my most masochistic.” He then delivers a final gunshot to her skull. She survives and the first thing we learn about her, as she awakes from a years-long coma, is that she was raped repeatedly by a hospital worker while comatose. Uma Thurman, Vivica A. Fox, Lucy Liu, and Daryl Hannah deliver kick-ass performances in their respective roles, but their talent doesn’t change the fact that misogyny and trauma are the foundation of the plot of “Kill Bill.” Just because women, too, commit violence in Tarantino’s films, doesn’t make it any less significant that so much violence is inflicted upon them. Bill’s dialogue about masochism and sadism is handy here. It appears Tarantino would like us to believe that the pain and violence inflicted on his female heroes is to their benefit, that it confers upon them the same agency and complexity as his male characters. It begets parity.
Except it doesn’t. Even Tarantino’s most independent female characters are constructed differently from his male characters. Mia Wallace is defined as Marsellus Wallace’s (Ving Rhames) wife in “Pulp Fiction.” Daisy Domergue is defined as a sister, Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent) as a sister, daughter, and femme fatale, and Sharon Tate as a mother-to-be, a virtuous symbol of innocence. Beatrix Kiddo is “The Bride,” and her revenge fantasy is rooted in the desire to reclaim the maternal bliss denied to her by a man. Tarantino’s male characters, on the other hand, are robbers and gangsters. They are boxers and bounty hunters and soldiers. They are not defined, in personality or in motive, by their romantic or familial bonds. Perhaps consequentially, the balance between these male and female characters, when they inhabit the same films, is off. In only two of Tarantino’s ten feature-length films is more than half of the dialogue spoken by women, and in most it’s 30 percent or less. In only three of his ten feature films do women constitute more than half of the characters.
The “strong female character” in the Quentin Tarantino cinematic universe is a myth. These women are exceptions to a larger rule, and flawed exceptions at that. Does this mean we cannot enjoy Tarantino’s films? Of course not. But when confronted with Tarantino’s problematic relationship to gender, it is not a sufficient response to simply hold up “Kill Bill” and call it a day. Women deserve better, and so did Beatrix Kiddo.
—Staff Writer Allison J. Scharmann’s column, “Beyond Bechdel,” examines gender representation in contemporary cinema. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @allyscharmann.