Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Quentin Tarantino: Empowerment or true Exploitation?

Being a feminist is awesome. Having a patriarchy-based explanation for the unfairness you see in the world around you helps to make sense of things. It provides a frame of reference for your frustrations and helps to you construct coherent arguments against oppression.

The problem is, once you've switched on your feminist radar, there's no switching it off. You start to see the whole world in these terms. This is fine, until you being to scrutinise things you once enjoyed without question. You soon discover that lots of your favourite things are riddled with oppressive stereotypes and tropes, sexist or otherwise.

The problem is, the world isn't divided into easy categories. Everything that we consume, has been created under a capitalist, patriarchal system and will reflect this in some way. The upshot of this is that basically everything you enjoy, every nerdy fandom, every favourite novel, film and band, will end up bleeping 'Patriarchal Bullshit' on your feminist radar at some point.

Annoying, isn't it?

I'm a long-time Quentin Tarantino fan. For a while, I refused to sit anywhere but the third row at the cinema because he once said that he'd never go on a second date with a woman who sat anywhere else. Oh, the shame of it.

I love his films. I love the heavy referencing of other films and genres, the sassy dialogue, the soundtracks, the casting, the stylised nature of them. These days though, I find myself wincing a lot at some of the violence and depictions of women's sexuality, amongst other things. I don't enjoy the films less, I'm just more critical of them.

The main accusation levelled at Tarantino, is that his graphic depictions of violence against women are fetishistic. It's hard to argue with this when you recall the crash scenes in 'Death Proof'. There's something grimly pornographic about the way Rose McGowan's character is desperately begging to be freed from Stuntman Mike's car, and the close-ups of her violent death are extremely painful viewing. There's also relish in the slow-motion replays of the crash in which the first group of women are killed. Julia's long leg being ripped off as she hangs it out of the window of the car, seems particularly poignant and gruesome. I do think though, that it's important to see this film, more than his others, as a genre film. As part of the 'Grindhouse' double-bill, it's a straight-up Exploitation film, with everything that entails: hot girls, violence and a killer soundtrack. Of course, this in itself is problematic for obvious reasons.

One thing that doesn't get talked about too much is the trope of the vengeful woman that appears regularly in his films. The Bride in 'Kill Bill', and Zoe Bell and her cohorts in 'Death Proof' are enacting sweet revenge on the people who have harmed them. In 'Kill Bill', The Bride kills off every member of the Deadly Vipers Assassination Squad, as well as a man who raped her whilst in a coma. In 'Death Proof', Stuntman Mike is killed for attempting to murder a second group of women with his stunt car.

Although on the surface, this seems a somewhat empowering idea, women enacting revenge isn't really very subversive. They are reacting to violence rather than instigating it, which doesn't really do much to upset the idea that women are incapable of being truly violent. The idea that 'Hell hath no fury...' isn't empowering. It's a way of reproducing the stereotype that women are calculating and bitter, rather than spontaneous in the way that men are. This is off-set slightly in 'Kill Bill' by the number of women assassins, most notably the frenzied Gogo Yubari. These characters do represent the cold-blooded killers so rarely portrayed on screen by women.

These vengeful women aren't exactly girl-next-door types either. Tarantino's women can kick serious ass, but they don't look like you or I. The actresses in his films are fairly standard Hollywood-types; mostly slim and conventionally attractive. I would say, though, that they are probably more ethnically diverse than the women stars of other Hollywood films. But it's not just their looks that mark them out as different from us 'normal' women. Tarantino seems to idealise these characters, making them cooler, sassier, stronger and sexier than the rest of us. This is particularly true of the women in 'Death Proof'. They're also worshipped by men. Think, for instance, of the effect that Mia Wallace ('Pulp Fiction') has on the men in her life. As much as we'd probably like to, it's pretty hard to relate to these women. You often end up wishing you were more like them, in the way that watching a film starring Angelina Jolie often makes you despair at what you see in the mirror.

And then there's the issue of the man himself. Joking about an action figure of himself called 'Rapist #1' kind of precludes him from being known as Feminist of the Year(to say the very least). So does saying Gwyneth Paltrow isn't “isn’t trampy enough” to be cast in porn films. But sexist comments from him as a man, don't mean that his work is without any feminist merit.

For example, casting women in leading roles, is still relatively rare and is indicates that he values women's narratives and may even understand the importance of women seeing themselves represented on the screen.

As Carol Pope and Katherine Pearson write in their book The Female Hero in American and British Literature, “any author who chooses a woman as the central character in the story understands at some level that women are primary beings, and that they are not ultimately defined according to patriarchal assumptions in relation to fathers, husbands, or male gods.” They argue that, whether explicitly feminist or not, “works with female heroes challenge patriarchal assumptions.”

(From an excellent post on Bitch Magazine on Taratino.)

Putting women on screen not just as a girlfriend, a wife, a mother or plain old titillation, is saying that women are worth watching. That they're interesting enough to carry a film themselves. How depressing that this is unusual.

Also unusual, is the way that women's bodies are portrayed in Tarantino's films. Being a Hollywood director with a fondness for exploitation cinema, there are plenty of scantily-clad women in his films. However, these women do far more fighting than fucking (excuse my language.) They're often bare-foot and dirty, scrapping or fighting for their lives with samurai swords, guns, boots, and even cars. Their bodies are seen as strong as often as they are portrayed as sexy, and they use them to ensure they are not made victims of. They're not afraid to say 'no' and to fight back.

In this refusal of victim-hood, they take agency in their situation. This is a stark contrast to the women who are routinely brutally murdered on screen in so-called 'torture porn' films. Those unhappy women have usually transgressed in some way (for instance, they've had sex) and are now paying the inevitable price. Even when faced with the Crazy 88s, there's nothing inevitable about The Bride's situation in 'Kill Bill'. Instead of the traditional, passive role women take in the cinema, Tarantino often portrays women controlling their own destiny. There is definitely something empowering about women believing their lives are worth defending, and then having the strength to defend themselves. In a society where only a tiny percentage of rape cases end in a conviction, it's refreshing to see women get some justice even if it's just on screen and ugly as it may sometimes be.

Tarantino may not be a feminist, he may even be a sexist pig, but he is a clever and imaginative director. Where his contemporaries fail to cast women in powerful lead roles, and instead give them bit-parts as murder victims and bickering girlfriends, Tarantino recognises the power women and their stories can have on-screen. His portrayals are often problematic, but that doesn't mean we should write his work off as entirely sexist or anti-feminist. If women leave the cinema feeling a little tougher, rather than feeling a little uglier or less successful as usual, then that's something to be celebrated.

(As a special treat for reading the whole of my ramble, have one of the best songs ever written. And it's on the 'Death Proof' soundtrack.)