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Tarantino’s Women Essay

Using Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, produce a reading using the feminist approach.

Feminist theory looks particularly at mainstream Hollywood cinema. To most feminist theorists, they are structured accordingly to the patriarchal point of view, making narrative, meaning and pleasure appealing to male audiences, and in turn disavowing women’s voice, representation and cinematic enjoyment. Feminists initially wanted to reassert women’s right to be political and social subjects. Since second-wave feminism, the Women’s movement has become more than just a rebalancing of gender hierarchy but an attempt at legitimizing women’s representation as they truly see themselves: thinking, moving, living subjects and not men’s objects. Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof [1]is a thriller inspired by American independent ‘grind house’ exploitation and B movies of the sixties and seventies.[2] Is the audience’s gaze throughout male or female? Is the gender representation patriarchal or feminist? Will both or either feel pleasure in watching it? Can this film be considered a feminist film?

At first glance, Death Proof is a patriarchal narrative, supported to a large extent by psychoanalytic evidence[3]. Laura Mulvey argues that mainstream Hollywood cinema is a representation of conventions as seen in the patriarchal culture, using mise-en-scène to represent cinematic ideologies and visual manipulation to create spectators’ pleasure[4]. Cinema’s pleasures are multiple. The first she explains is scopophilia, described to great lengths in Freudian terms. One’s own scopophilia or the voyeuristic pleasure of looking for sexual stimulation, developed during the pre-genital phase, is satisfied whilst watching Hollywood cinema.[5]

She draws irrefutable parallels with the audience watching a film, like the repressed exhibitionism of the spectator watching on one hand and the projection on the other hand of repressed desires projected on screen.[6] Like the child’s curiosity concerning privacy or prohibition, ‘[w]hat is seen of the screen is so manifestly shown. But the mass of mainstream film, and the conventions within which it has consciously evolved, portray a hermetically sealed world which unwinds magically, indifferent to the presence of the audience, producing for them a sense of separation and playing on their voyeuristic phantasy.’[7]

Women on screen thus captivate the audiences, reinforcing verisimilitude. However, highlighting the icon factor of the star with a close-up or emphasis on certain body parts, reinforces symbolic imagery: indeed, Woman on screen in general is a major element of spectacle, and participates in what Mulvey calls the active male gaze.[8] Tarantino is a man. Being the director of the film, he acts as the active male gaze. His filming the female protagonists of Death Proof can thus be perceived as voyeurism. He definitely emphasizes certain body parts of the female characters, such as the legs and feet of Jungle Julia, lounging on a sofa under a poster of Brigitte Bardot in the same leggy position, put at their advantage on the local radio billboards she graces, getting rained upon on the porch of the bar she hangs out at, and continually shown with her feet hanging out the open backseat-window of the car, a build-up for the fatal car crash in which one of her leg is completely detached from her body and shown bouncing down the concrete road.

The focus on female body parts, especially the feet, is typical Tarantino filming, as seen in Kill Bill: Vol.1 as The Bride tries to ‘wiggle [her] big toe’ after a four-year long failed-murder-attempt-induced coma.[9] In Jackie Brown, Melanie’s feet and toes – and a toe-ring – are the first body parts we ever see of her[10]. In Pulp Fiction, although no foot scene is shown, one of the most epic conversations held by protagonists Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield concerns giving a foot massage… and the sexual innuendo that incorporates[11]. The fetishism he has, in particular for feet, is part of the process of objectifying, glamorizing and obviously making a fetish of Woman[12]. This is Tarantino’s apparent desire of Woman; the male protagonist of the film, Stuntman Mike, is also voyeuristic but Tarantino exploits that differently. For starters, he stalks the girls and takes pictures of them without their noticing.

As Mulvey puts it, women are objects of desire for men who will attempt to ‘investigat[e] the woman, demystify[y] her mystery’. [13] Then his way of satisfying his curiosity is to brutally murder them, which brings us to my second argument of a patriarchal representation in this film, which is the sexualisation of violence. Tarantino, being the screenwriter, chooses the images and subjectivities of the women in the film, which Teresa de Lauretis condemns, as until the arrival of feminism they were always portrayed and decided of by male subjects.[14] This feeds the patriarchal structure of representation and according to Mulvey, creates ‘illusionistic narrative film’[15].

Beyond the simple pleasures of voyeurism such as striptease, she argues that ‘far beyond highlighting a woman’s to-be- looked-at-ness, cinema builds the way she is to be looked at into the spectacle itself.’[16] Tarantino’s show involves The Girls and Stuntman Mike, but only he is in control of the action. As Mulvey says: ‘Camera technology (as exemplified by deep focus in particular) and camera movements (determined by the action of the protagonist), combined with invisible editing (demanded by realism) all tend to blur the limits of screen space. The male protagonist is free to command the stage, a stage of spatial illusion in which he articulates the look and creates the action.’ [17]

Stuntman Mike ‘creates the action’ when he decides to kill off The Girls, starting with Pam whose repeated head smashes against the car are being closely filmed until she dies. Later that same night, as four Girls meet their end, the car collision that causes their deaths and Stuntman Mike’s minor injuries is shown four times: one for each terrible and unique way of dying each Girl endured. The repeated sequence with four different angles and meanings – remember Julia’s iconic leg’s destruction – constitute a gory, tragic, and sexualised brutality that can be perceived as rape. After their death, Texas Ranger Earl, who believes in a heinous voluntary murder as opposed to an accident, says: ‘I’d guesstimate it’s a sex thing, only way I can figure it. High velocity impact. Twisted metal. Busted glass. Four souls taken at exactly the same time. Probably the only way that diabolical degenerate can shoot his goo.’[18]

In the second half of the film, separated by the scene in which Texas Ranger Earl speaks his thoughts, Stuntman Mike seeks his ‘fun’ by attacking a second posse of Girls with his car – but this time the three Girls are equally equipped with a stunt’s car, and being driven by stunt’s women. As he attacks them for his personal exhilaration, Zoë, one of the stunt’s women is on the roof and has to cling – literally – for her life. Having survived, the Girls decide to fight back, first shooting him in the arm, which takes him completely off guard, and then pursuing him in a frantic and suspenseful car chase, finally causing an automobile accident and finishing him off manually. The violence of the film is hence sexualised both in the Girls’ sexiness in receiving death as with Pam and the four, and then in giving death to the predator as with the three.

As Barbara Creed quotes Carol Clover, ‘the action heroine is not a woman but a male substitute or pseudo-male’, a ‘pornographic phantasy’ for men[19]. However, Anneke Smelik also cites Clover and unveils a new aspect of this violence: ‘the willingness of the male spectator to throw in his emotional lot with a woman in fear and pain points to masochism’[20]. Stuntman Mike does try to plea for his life when the three catch up to him. This reminds me of Bill talking to The Bride in Kill Bill as he is about to (try to) take her life: ‘Do you find me sadistic? […] You know, Kiddo, I’d like to believe that you’re aware enough even now to know that there’s nothing sadistic in my actions. […] No Kiddo, at this moment, this is me at my most… […] Masochistic.’[21]

The Masochism the men feel regarding the woman they are hurting is because women, as well as being objects of their desire, also symbolise the threat of castration, creating ‘a perfect and beautiful contradiction’ in cinema. [22] And so although Tarantino has the ‘male gaze’, he does not exclude feminine spectatorship as patriarchal narrative would. Stuntman Mike may be an ‘active male’, but The Girls certainly are not ‘passive female’, and even though Tarantino keeps The Girls’ images aesthetic and sexy, and the violence sexualised, he deconstructs phallocentric values with the reversal of situation, which brings me to the second part of my film reading: that of a feminist point of view.

The Girls – Pam, Jungle Julia, Butterfly, Shanna Banana, Abernathy, Kim, Lee and Zoë – are independent girls with voices of their own. Literally. Actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead finds the dialogue very ‘real’: ‘[Tarantino] didn’t try to write “girlie” dialogue. This is the way girls really talk. They swear as much as guys do, they get as dirty just as much as guys do.’ They do not fit with the patriarchal representation of women’s voices being ‘reduced to screams, babble or silence’[23]. On the contrary, ‘they don’t fall into hysterics or emotionally collapse’, and yell ‘[f]uck that, let’s kill the bastard!’ when they narrowly escape their untimely deaths.[24] They pursue careers, love lives and friendships. They answer de Lauretis’ criteria for a feminist film in the sense it is ‘narrative and oedipal with a vengeance’[25].

They are matriarchal in the sense they don’t need men to feel secure or complete, as we see the first group of Girls discussing their upcoming weekend at the lake and deciding whether or not to bring boys, and settling on being ‘just us girls’.[26] Tarantino offers a new feminist social vision: because Woman is subject and not just a sexual difference, feminist modes of representation show their subjectivities with new social interaction possibilities, new boundaries.[27] And so does Tarantino. And so as much as it can be argued that male violence over women is expected in patriarchal narrative, The Girls fighting back is an all new alternative to being victims: they want revenge.

No longer purely biologically based on a Man vs. Woman basis, women interact in a society of men and women alike taking into account their gender and race.[28] Tarantino formed a multiracial group – including a ‘Kiwi’, Zoë, and ‘the woman of colour’, Kim – to bring down the psychopath[29]. Perhaps men even feel the threat of sexual intervened with racial difference to a greater extent, as Smelik claims it to.[30] Molly Haskell claims the women he displays ‘are not women simply airlifted into male roles, with the traditional characteristics intact, but action roles conceived for women with women’s sorrows and women’s biology, in which they show the strengths and limits of their sex.’[31]

The use of violence is more symbolic than sexualised. The girls are not only fetishes for the male gaze – they respond to the female gaze, something Mulvey disregarded. The Girls’ beauty is vamped by Tarantino, and not for the sole purpose of being eye-candy to male audiences, but perhaps also to create a phallic ambiguity women can also relate to. Indeed, Gertrud Koch claims women can appreciate beauty in their own sex, as men are threatened by it.[32] Just as Stuntman Mike metaphorically raped The Girls as he murdered them, The Girls get to rape him.

Driver Kim holds her own and exclaims: ‘I’m going to ram this up your ass, motherfucker’.[33] Similarly, Zoë clobbers him with a phallus-shaped weapon, symbolically taking his abused-of power. To quote Clover again, ‘the slasher film is a lot of phalluses lost and phalluses gained, and the actual anatomy of the bearer makes no difference.’[34] This film cannot be restricted to a simple slasher film, though, and this brings be to my final point: Tarantino’s auteurism and homage to women and the cinema.

With the arrival of feminism, film genres such as horror, rape-revenge, science fiction or road-movies controversially presented empowered women in the sense they escape or resist the symbolic male domination[35]. This film is a tribute to slasher, horror, thriller B movies that empowers women via its disrespect of conventional narration and avoiding fulfilment of audience expectations. As Stuntman Mike actor Kurt Russell says, ‘[o]ne of the fun things I think is that character you do not see where the movie’s going, not for him anyway.’ But it is also a road-movie where feminine friendship clearly transpires, à la Thelma and Louisa[36], life changing, friendship bonding experience that allows their liberation, but with a slasher twist. Tarantino’s film does not even respect traditional Hollywood narrative conventions: the chain of events do not necessarily have causal relations, such as the two groups of Girls being unrelated; the structure and figures of cutting are clearly authorial, such as the focus on body parts like Jungle Julia’s hair, legs and feet; he does not commit to an objective or subjective verisimilitude, or address a real social problem – which is also a characteristic of the European film; and classical narrative advancement (‘verisimilitude’ or plausibility, ‘generic appropriateness’ and ‘compositional unity’) is not respected.[37]

He uses blaxploitation and sexploitation aesthetics, which he perceives as ‘assets’ and add to the uniqueness of his style.[38] European avant-garde films influence him.[39] In fact, he is creative proof American cinema is not homogenous but can embrace ‘multi-directional exchange’, as in Kill Bill with the many Southeast Asian martial arts references.[40] And as well as rending homage to cinema’s diversity, he reasserts Woman’s role as ‘maker of meaning’ and no longer just ‘bearer of meaning’.[41] Because his cinema is not mainstream, but alternative, he creates radical films because they challenge the dominant patriarchal order.

To a certain extent, he successfully ‘[conceived] a new language of desire’[42]. He also heavily insists on the notions of female friendships, a theme exploited in feminist films. As to female identification or self-definition with female representation onscreen, Tarantino creates characters we cannot fully relate to because of their surreal quality, not etched in reality, but in pure authorial creativity and auteurism. Besides, female spectators’ self-consciousness acts as a major factor in self-representation, making each character and its subjectivity that is created by the director in turn subjected to the audience’s subjectivity.[43]

Bibliography:
Bordwell, ‘The Art Cinema as Mode of Film Practice’, in Fowler, ed., The European Cinema Reader, pp.94-102 Barbara Creed, ‘Feminism and Film since the 1990s’ in Pam Cook, The Cinema Book, 3rd edn, British Film Institute, 2007, pp.487-490 Elizabeth Ezra, ‘National Cinemas in the Global Era’ in Pam Cook, The Cinema Book, 3rd edn, British Film Institute, 2007, pp.168-170 Nöel King, ‘Pulp Fiction’ in Pam Cook, The Cinema Book, 3rd edn, British Film Institute, 2007, p.68 Teresa de Lauretis, ‘Rethinking Women’s Cinema: Aesthetics and Feminist Theory’ in Stam and Miller, eds, Film and Theory: An Anthology, pp.317-336 Tommy L. Lott, ‘Blaxploitation’ in Pam Cook, The Cinema Book, 3rd edn, British Film Institute, 2007, pp. 301-304 Laura Mulvey, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ in The Sexual Subject: a Screen Reader in Sexuality, London: Routledge, pp.22-34 Anneke Smelik, ‘Feminist Film Theory’ in Pam Cook, The Cinema Book, 3rd edn, British Film Institute, 2007, pp.491-501

Filmography:
Death Proof. Quentin Tarantino. Dimension Films. USA. 2007.
Jackie Brown. Quentin Tarantino. Miramax Films. USA. 1997.
Kill Bill: Vol. 1. Quentin Tarantino. Miramax Films. USA. 2003. Kill Bill: Vol. 2. Quentin Tarantino. Miramax Films. USA. 2004. Pulp Fiction. Quentin Tarantino. Miramax Films. USA. 1994.
Thelma and Louise. Ridley Scott. Metro-Goldywn-Mayer. USA. 1991

———————–
[1] Death Proof. Quentin Tarantino. Dimension Films. USA. 2007. [2] ‘Death
Proof’ at http://www.ascot-elite.ch/libraries.files/DEATHPROOFFinalNotes.pdf [accessed on 22 May 2011] [3] Laura Mulvey, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ in The Sexual Subject: a Screen Reader in Sexuality, London: Routledge, p.23 [4] Mulvey, p.23,24

[5] Mulvey, p.24
[6] Mulvey, p.25
[7] Mulvey, p.25
[8] Mulvey, p.27
[9] Kill Bill: Vol. 1. Quentin Tarantino. Miramax Films. USA. 2003. [10] Jackie Brown. Quentin Tarantino. Miramax Films. USA. 1997. [11] Pulp Fiction. Quentin Tarantino. Miramax Films. USA. 1994. [12] Mulvey, p.29

[13] Mulvey, p.29
[14] Teresa de Lauretis, ‘Rethinking Women’s Cinema: Aesthetics and Feminist Theory’ in Stam and Miller, eds, Film and Theory: An Anthology, p.320 [15] Mulvey, p. 32
[16] Mulvey, p.32
[17] Mulvey, p.28
[18] Death Proof
[19] Barbara Creed, ‘Feminism and Film since the 1990s’ in Pam Cook, The Cinema Book, 3rd edn, British Film Institute, 2007, p.489 [20] Anneke Smelik, ‘Feminist Film Theory’ in Pam Cook, The Cinema Book, 3rd edn, British Film Institute, 2007, p.495 [21] Kill Bill

[22] Mulvey, p.26 and p. 32
[23] Smelik, p.496
[24] ‘Carnage and Carnality: Gender and Corporeality in the Modern Horror Film’ at http://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&q=cache:T3WCOZS8AasJ:www.unomaha.edu/wmst/nolimits/carnageandcarnality.pdf+gender+and+discourse+in+quentin+tarantino’s+filmscripts:+what+about+women’s+language [accessed on May 20] [25] Lauretis, p.49

[26] Death Proof
[27] Lauretis, p.324
[28] Lauretis, p.325
[29] Death Proof
[30] Smelik, p.499
[31] Debbie Ging, ‘All the rage: Digital Games, Female Violence and the Postfeminisation of Cinema’s New Action Heroines’ in Film and Film Culture, Vol. 4, 2007, p.9 [32] Smelik, p.495
[33] Death Proof
[34] ‘Carnage and Carnality: Gender and Corporeality in the Modern Horror Film’ [35] Creed, pp.487, 488
[36] Thelma and Louise. Ridley Scott. Metro-Goldywn-Mayer. USA. 1991 [37] Bordwell, ‘The Art Cinema as Mode of Film Practice’, in Fowler, ed., The European Cinema Reader, pp.94-102 [38] Tommy L. Lott, ‘Blaxploitation’ in Pam Cook, The Cinema Book, 3rd edn, British Film Institute, 2007, p.304 [39] Nöel King, ‘Pulp Fiction’ in Pam Cook, The Cinema Book, 3rd edn, British Film Institute, 2007, p.68 [40] Elizabeth Ezra, ‘National Cinemas in the Global Era’ in Pam Cook, The Cinema Book, 3rd edn, British Film Institute, 2007, p.169 [41] Mulvey, p.22,23

[42] Mulvey, p.24
[43] Lauretis, p.326


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