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[Guest Post] Determined and Death Proof: the Women of Tarantino

2013 March 4
  • Today we’re honoured to welcome Lydia Harris of feminist DJing duo Girl Germs and other awesomeness back to BadRep Towers. Wanna join the party? Send your pitch to [email protected]!

Everybody has an opinion about Quentin Tarantino. Is he racist for using the ‘N’ word so often in his scripts? Is he a genius, or a copycat? Is he some sort of sicko, in love with violence for its own sake? Can he act? (No, he can’t.)

But underneath the gore, profanity, and wooden cameos, is there anything for feminists to celebrate? As unlikely as it sounds, I think there is.

Tarantino has written some pretty amazing parts for women. He puts them on screen, not just as eye candy or the girlfriends of the heroes, but as people with stories of their own to tell. They know how to defend themselves and their friends, and they do their own stunts. They fight (and dance) barefoot, and aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty.

This isn’t to say that the man himself is a feminist icon, or that his films are entirely unproblematic. Some of the violence perpetrated against the women characters has an uncomfortably voyeuristic feel to it, and every now and again his films feel more like depictions of his own sexual fantasies rather than true fiction. He professes a love for ‘strong women’ (he grew up with a single mother), but this sexualisation of women characters does call his motives into question.

It’s worth bearing in mind though, that these characters haven’t sprung new and fully formed from Tarantino’s imagination – they’re loving reimaginations of the deadly but beautiful women of the B-movies and exploitation flicks Tarantino watched as a youngster. These women were usually a bit too ‘empowered’ for their own good, and often ended up getting their comeuppance. Dodgy source material, sure, but Tarantino regularly flips this trope on its head. The rapists, murderers and crooks in his movies rarely escape without feeling the wrath of their female ‘victims’.

Try watching Zoe Bell playing ‘Ship’s Mast’ at 100mph without feeling a heart-swelling sense of sisterly pride. And I don’t know a woman who has seen Pulp Fiction and not thought Mia Wallace would be a pretty sassy best friend (if it weren’t for the cocaine abuse).

As feminists, we sometimes have to dig about in the mud of misogyny to find some empowering gold dust. In honour of that, here’s a rundown of the baddest, sassiest women in QT’s weird world.

Mia Wallace (Pulp Fiction)

miaOh, Mia Wallace. The woman who spawned a million copycat hairstyles. She doesn’t kick any ass, except in a twist contest, but she’s a seriously cool customer.

Did her husband Marsellus really throw a man over a balcony for giving her a foot-rub? Maybe not, but it’s easy to see why he might. Everybody in the movie is afraid of him, and perhaps so is Mia (she asks Vincent not to tell him about the overdose), but she seems to do pretty much what she wants anyway.

She flirts with Vincent over dinner, and we never find out what might have happened between them had she not mistaken his heroin for cocaine. Something of an enigma, she’s a sassy, straight-talking woman with a preference for silence over chatter (“That’s when you know you’ve found somebody special. When you can just shut the fuck up for a minute and comfortably enjoy the silence.”) This combination of beauty and brains seems to have a profound effect on the men who meet her, and enables her to survive in her world populated by crooks and murderers.

Jackie Brown (Jackie Brown)

pam_grierJackie Brown is a black woman in her forties, and the star of the movie that bears her name as its title. In the youth-obsessed, whitewashed culture of Hollywood, this is exciting and unusual in itself (depressing, huh?).

The legendary Pam Grier plays a flight attendant, who works for a crappy airline. She makes some extra bucks on the side by smuggling in ill-gotten cash for a gun-dealer named Ordell, until she gets busted.

As she says: “Well, I’ve flown seven million miles. And I’ve been waiting on people almost 20 years. The best job I could get after my bust was Cabo Air, which is the worst job you can get in this industry. I make about sixteen thousand, with retirement benefits that ain’t worth a damn. And now with this arrest hanging over my head, I’m scared. If I lose my job I gotta start all over again, but I got nothing to start over with. I’ll be stuck with whatever I can get. And that shit is scarier than Ordell.”

But Jackie is a survivor in the truest sense of the word. When things look bad for her, she takes matters into her own hands, using her brains and courage to rip off the gangsters and escape a jail sentence in one outrageously brave scheme.

She plans everything herself, knows who she can trust, and isn’t afraid to turn a gun on a man who she knows to be a killer. She’s a smart, older, black woman who, despite being a total fox (Foxy Brown, geddit?), doesn’t use her sexuality to get ahead. With media portrayal of black women usually relying heavily on sexualized stereotypes, Jackie Brown is a breath of fresh air.

The Bride / Beatrix Kiddo (Kill Bill)

beatrix2When people talk about ‘empowered’ female characters in Tarantino movies, Beatrix Kiddo is who they’re usually thinking of. The woman is dragged through hell backwards, and still manages to exact bloody revenge on everybody who hurt her, or kept her from her child.

The trope of the vengeful woman is not a particularly progressive one. But Beatrix Kiddo is no ‘bunny boiler’. She was shot in the head and left for dead, raped whilst in a coma, and led to believe that her unborn child had died. As much as we might find the gore and violence hard to stomach, it’s hard to argue with her motives. From Beatrix herself: “It’s mercy, compassion, and forgiveness I lack. Not rationality.”

She’s a woman who knows how to protect herself, and believes her life is worth fighting for. Even when she’s been buried alive, it’s still impossible to see her as a victim. And she’s not the only strong woman in the film (although she’s the only one you’re rooting for).

The women in Kill Bill are scrappy. The fights between The Bride and other female ex-members of the Deadly Viper Assasination Squad aren’t sexy ‘girl fights’. They fight with skill, knocking seven shades of shit out of each other with terrifying ferocity. They’re fighting for their lives, and it isn’t pretty.

But The Bride isn’t just violent and vengeful. She’s a mother who longs to be reunited with her child. Somehow, this duality doesn’t cause the dissonance you would expect. She’s a three-dimensional character, more than capable of being many different things at once. The shock of that highlights just how rare it is in a Hollywood film.

Zoe Bell, Kim and Abernathy (Death Proof)

zoeandcoDeath Proof is a film of two halves, linked by one gross, murderous ex-stunt driver. In the first half, he stalks and kills a group of beautiful friends with his car. But we know that in Tarantino’s world, creeps don’t get away with things like that. When he attempts to do the same thing with another group of women, he makes a fatal error by messing with a stuntwoman, stunt driver, and their super-cool make-up artist friend.

I have some serious qualms about the first half, as the violence perpetrated against the victims is fetishised to an almost ludicrous degree. But things take a turn for the better when Zoe Bell and her pals (played by Tracie Thorns and Rosario Dawson) arrive on screen.

Zoe Bell is a real-life stuntwoman, who plays herself in this movie. When you see her perched on the bonnet of a car being driven at 100 mph, that’s really her, and she’s really doing that. Which is wicked cool.

Stuntman Mike grows tired of chasing these women who refuse to be victims, but they haven’t finished with him. Instead of letting him get away, they go after him. And their intentions are clear, with Abernathy declaring “Let’s kill this bastard.”

In the real world, women rarely receive justice for the violence they experience. Although this vigilante-style justice is probably not what we want for our own society (however satisfying it might be), watching it on screen is incredibly cathartic. When Abernathy puts the final boot into Stuntman Mike, the urge to cheer is almost overwhelming.

Shoshanna (Inglourious Basterds)

shoshannaShoshanna is the self-styled “face of Jewish vengeance” in Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino’s ‘creative’ re-imagining of World War Two. She escapes the ‘Jew Hunter’, who kills her whole family whilst they are in hiding. When we next see her, she’s running a cinema in occupied Paris, where the Nazis want to screen their latest propaganda film.

As painful as this is to her, she sees it as an opportunity to exact revenge for what was done to her family, and other Jewish families across Europe. Her single-minded resolve, and calm in the face of extraordinary pressure, is the perfect foil to the disastrous exploits of the Basterds.

Women in war films are usually relegated to the roles of tearful wife or showgirl. In Inglourious Basterds, it is a woman who changes the course of the war, and thus history. This epitomises one of the key attributes of Tarantino’s women: agency. They make decisions for themselves that change their lives, and the lives of others around them.

Of course, we know that women made a huge and valuable contribution to the war effort, in many different ways. It’s just a shame that it took a film with a fictionalised version of history to depict a woman having any sort of meaningful involvement in the conflict.

So, there you have it. Those are my own favourite Tarantino women. Broomhilda from Django Unchained didn’t quite make it in, as I’ve only seen it once. But I think she should get an honourable mention here, if only for surviving.

Obviously, Tarantino’s movies are far from perfect feminism-wise, and the man himself doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to saying sexist douchebag things. But with so few interesting or positive representations of women on-screen, we should celebrate the few characters who break the mould. Especially if they make us leave the cinema feeling a little cooler, a little braver and a little more willing to stand up for ourselves.

  • Lydia Harris likes to think of herself as a grownup Wednesday Addams. Her pasty complexion is the result of watching movies and snacking during the day with the curtains closed, instead of going out to enjoy ‘fresh air’. She tweets as @lydiasquidia, and blogs (infrequently) about pop culture and feminism at
11 Responses leave one →
  1. March 5, 2013

    The link to Zoe Bell’s Wikipedia page doesn’t work for me. It brings up a page headed ‘Bad title’ with a text that begins thus: “The requested page title is invalid.” I think that this link will work (at least, I hope so):

    Zoe Bell is an awesome woman. Her filmography starts as Lucy Lawless’ stunt double for Xena.

    • Miranda permalink*
      March 5, 2013

      It works from our end at the mo, but I’ve now relinked it just in case!

  2. March 5, 2013

    There’s one thing with which I take issue in this post. Of Uma Thurman’s role in the Kill Bill films:

    “And she’s not the only strong woman in the film (although she’s the only one you’re rooting for).”

    In fact, I found myself rooting (to some extent) for several of her opponents. Go-Go was one such. I was hoping that, somehow, they would both survive.

  3. Lydia permalink
    March 5, 2013

    @Pet Jeffery: I know exactly what you mean with Go-Go. I really wanted her to leave when The Bride gave her the chance, but of course she never would. She was absolutely compelling, and terrifying.

    • March 5, 2013

      Yes, Go-Go was compelling and terrifying. Also she’s very young (without re-watching the film to check, my recollection is 17). She ought to have her whole murderous life ahead of her. Her death was, for me, maybe the most shocking moment in the film.

  4. March 6, 2013

    Great post. Personally my fave Tarantino gal is Jackie Brown, she is a brilliant characters with a full personality – she is nuanced and subtle as well as bold and brash. Plus she completely makes the movie!

  5. wererogue permalink
    March 7, 2013

    You’re really spot-on with this article. Tarantino’s not the model, but he’s definitely got some attributes worth paying attention to as a director.

    I always see the first half of death proof as a sort of meta-literature review, an introduction to psycho movies for a potentially uninformed audience. I’m not sure it’s at all necessary, though, especially when Death Proof is only half of Grindhouse, it’s probably one metalevel too many.

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  2. Determined and Death Proof: the Women of Tarantino | Lydia Harris Writes
  3. Gender Balance in Children’s Literature | Lynley Stace

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