What is the role of women in hypermasculine Quentin Tarantino’s films?
by Benjamin Labowitz
[This may contain spoilers. Be warned.]
Quentin Tarantino is the director whose movies parents don’t want their children to watch. His movies tend to always include nudity in some form or another, swearing in amounts and ways which spark national controversy, plenty of substance use, and perhaps the most gratuitous violence and gore in any mainstream films. All of these unsavory qualities are what most people think of when they think of Tarantino’s films, and he embraces this. It is his style. Many folks love this, they embrace it and they applaud it. Others…not so much.
These traits are often considered to be “hypermasculine.” In film, men are often portrayed as being unfeeling forces of destruction, like Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator, or Sylvester Stallone in Rocky. These men are considered to be hypermasculine traits, qualities that men are traditionally meant to embody taken to the next level. Men are not allowed to show emotion, as this is a mental ability reserved for women and children. Men must be strong and well-muscled, as they must be able to attract a mate. Men need to be able to fight their way out of every situation, because being strong and violent is the most animalistic and manly thing to be. Tarantino as a director fills his movies with these themes. The movies themselves become as hypermasculine as the individual characters who express these traits. So what does this mean for the women?
In the film Seven Psychopaths, directed by Martin McDonagh, Christopher Walken’s character, Hans, says to his screenwriter friend, “Your women characters are awful. None of them have anything to say for themselves. And most of them get either shot or stabbed to death within five minutes. And the ones that don’t probably will later on.” In this film, which laughs at itself, this is very true, and it is also true of many of Tarantino’s female characters. The women so rarely can stand up for themselves, they often serve no role except to exist as a plot device for the male characters.
Mia Wallace is perhaps the most well known of the Tarantino women. Played by Uma Thurman in the film Pulp Fiction, Mia Wallace is a beloved character by many. Many claim her to be a mystery and an enigma, thus being a strong female character and a feminist role model (“Pulp Fiction Mia Wallace Analysis.”). She is, however, little more than a plot point to further the development of John Travolta’s character, Vincent Vega. Vega is a nihilistic man who cares little for faith, and uses drugs to get some little pleasure in his life. When he meets Wallace, she is a mortal temptation, but also a volatile risk who endangers herself by mistaking heroin for cocaine. She has lines of dialogue which suggest she is deep and contemplative, yet she says nothing of real value, and these lines go unused, as if she was meant to have become a three dimensional character off screen.
There are two other female characters in Pulp Fiction who are meant to be significant. The first is Fabienne, played by Maria de Medeiros. She has even less depth than Wallace. She only exists as a sexual object and a verbal punching bag for Bruce Willis’s character, Butch. She has little dialogue, and what little she says is worthless, talking about her body and being attracted to Butch, then about being scared of him, then right back to loving him. The only other significant female is known as Honey Bunny, played by Amanda Plummer. She is the female of a dynamic duo of robbers, who are very much in love. Her counterpart, Pumpkin, played by Tim Roth, is clearly in charge, and commands her every move, calming her when needed, and directing her what to do. Pulp Fiction is a perfect case study of Tarantino’s use of useless women in his films.
Django Unchained was (and is) one of Tarantino’s most controversial movies. In it, slavery is portrayed as it was in the south, racist and cruel. His use of certain language made many critiques and those viewers with fainter hearts rush to their blogs in outrage. Django, a freed slave turned bounty hunter, and played by Jamie Foxx, is on a quest to save his wife, a slave in Candieland, a huge plantation owned by Calvin Candie, played by Leonardo Dicaprio. With the help of Christoph Waltz’s character, Dr. King Shultz, an eccentric dentist turned bounty hunter, Django infiltrates Candieland as a black slaver. This is the basics of the plot. It is a typical damsel in distress tale. This film does, of course, address many issues very well, and is a phenomenal, critically acclaimed movie, but this research article is about women, and in this category, it falls short.
There is approximately one female character in Django Unchained, and she is, of course, Django’s wife, Broomhilda von Shaft, played by Kerry Washington. She has almost no dialogue, and is simply the goal of the protagonist. The worst part: she is the most interesting female character. Miss Lara is a female present only to be killed by Django after a clever one-liner, and there are a few slave women with a few lines of dialogue for exposition. All in all, Django Unchained is not the ideal movie if looking for a strong, independent female character.
Kill Bill is possibly Tarantino’s most needlessly bloody and nonsensically violent film(s). In an ode to classic samurai movies, Tarantino created a bloody work of what some consider to be garbage, and some consider to be art. This movie, however, actually has strong women. Uma Thurman plays the protagonist, the Bride. She hunts down a number of deadly lady assassins in an epic revenge quest for her near murder and the murder, but secretly only kidnapping, of her daughter. The leading members of the cast are mostly women, and they are powerful warrior women who duel with katanas and dismember many, many limbs. This may seem great and empowering for women and girls everywhere, but is it really? That question depends on another equally important question: what is empowering for a woman?
Some women consider it empowering when another woman is attractive and uses her femininity to conquer the hearts and souls of weak-willed men. For some, an empowering female character is one who holds her own as a real character, unhindered, but also not elevated due to her gender; these women are treated as truly equal and valuable as the men, like Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road. Yet another form of empowerment comes in the form of adopting masculinity. This is what the Bride does in Kill Bill. She shows little emotion. She seeks violent revenge, as talking clearly will solve nothing. She is a powerful warrior. She swears. Sound familiar? The Bride is a character much like Schwarzenegger’s Terminator, cold and violent. For some, yes, this is empowering, and her role is indeed a powerful one, regardless of empowerment.
Kill Bill is also interesting in another, very different way when looking at the female characters. It is one of only two Tarantino films that passes the Bechdel test (Hershberger). The Bechdel Test was created in the 80s and is a way of testing the writing and characters of women in films. The test requires a film to meet the following criteria: “(1) it has to have at least two women in it, who (2) who talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man.” (Hershberger). This test doesn’t necessarily prove anything about the quality of the movie, or even about the quality of the female character in the movie, but it does draw attention to the rather lackluster female cast members in many films. If a woman can’t talk to another woman in a film, it says a lot about the writers’ capabilities to write multiple intriguing female characters. If there were a similar test for men in the same movies, nearly every single movie would pass the test in the first few minutes.
The last Tarantino film to be used as a cast study provides the best, most well-rounded female characters mentioned so far. Inglourious Basterds is a movie set in WWII in Nazi controlled France. A group of Jewish-American soldiers are sent into the heart of France to kill as many Nazis as they can. While there they are assisted by Nazi actress and undercover spy for the Allies, Bridget von Hammersmark, played by Diane Kruger. Her character is capable of holding her own while surrounded by a mostly male cast, and her role in the story is essential, sneaking the Americans into a theatre where a Nazi propaganda film will be premiering so they can kill all the Nazi leader in one fell swoop. She is a powerful woman, who is both feminine and deadly, proving that women don’t have to become masculine to be warriors, and they don’t need to be dainty to be feminine.
The other notable female character in Inglourious Basterds is Shosanna, played by Mélanie Laurent. She is a Jew who escaped from the legendary Jew Hunter, Hans Landa, played by Christoph Waltz. While he murders her whole family before her eyes, she manages to run. He lets her go for the mere sport of the hunt. Years later she owns a theater in Paris and attracts the attention of a young Nazi war hero. This war hero is the protagonist and star of the Nazi propaganda piece, and he convinces the director to hold the premiere in Shosanna’s theater to gain her graces. She accepts, but begins plotting. On the night of the premiere, she locks the Nazis in the theater and burns it to the ground. She is confronted by the young Nazi hero who tries to sexually assault her while she is putting her plan into action. She shoots him, then enacts her heroic deed, but is shot by the dying war hero. She dies as Hitler himself burns alive (and is also shot by the Americans who had snuck in. They also are trapped by the fire. It’s a mess. Hitler dies, though, so it was a success, in a manner of speaking.) She is a true hero, and is perhaps the only character in the film who could be considered the protagonist. She, like Bridget von Hammersmark does not need to become masculine to be an excellent, three-dimensional character in a hypermasculine Tarantino film.
Quentin Tarantino has been, is, and always will be a controversial director and writer. His movies will always feature violence, racism, drugs, and sex. He is capable of writing women characters who make sense and who are well written, though he often fails. Many viewers hate him. Many love him. Anne Billson, in an article for The Guardian, says, “Tarantino has since shown himself to be one of those rare directors who film actresses so they appear like real people rather than airbrushed fantasy objects.” Not everyone can appreciate his films for their hypermasculine features, themes, and motifs, but the women in his films don’t always have to be slaves to this masculine directorial style, as he has shown multiple times.
Seven Psychopaths. Dir. Martin McDonagh. By Martin McDonagh. Perf. Colin Farrell, Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell. CBS Films, 2012. Streamed.
Pulp Fiction. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. By Quentin Tarantino. Prod. Lawrence Bender. Perf. Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, John Travolta, Bruce Willis. Miramax, 1995. Streamed.
“Pulp Fiction Mia Wallace Analysis.” Esoteric Articles, Esoteric Articles, 2011, www.esotericarticles.com/Pulp_Fiction_Mia_Wallace_Analysis.html. Accessed 1 Apr. 2017.
Django Unchained. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. By Quentin Tarantino. Perf. Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio. Columbia Pictures, 2012. Streamed.
Kill Bill Vol. 1. By Quentin Tarantino. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Perf. Uma Thurman. Miramax Films, 2004. Streamed.
Hershberger, Matt. “Let’s Ruin All Your Favorite Movies.” Catching Wise, 7 Nov. 2013, www.catchingwise.com/tag/tarantino-bechdel-test/. Accessed 1 Apr. 2017.
Inglourious Basterds. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. By Quentin Tarantino Perf. Brad Pitt, Mélanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz. Universal, 2009. Streamed.
Billson, Anne. “Anne Billson: Why Quentin Tarantino Should Be Celebrated by Women.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 28 May 2009, www.theguardian.com/film/2009/may/29/tarantino-female-roles. Accessed 3 Apr. 2017.