Is Tarantino really feminist?

Tarantino's latest film, Death Proof, is exploitative not empowering, argues Emma Wood

Emma Wood, 10 November 2007

When Quentin Tarantino came to the UK to launch his latest film, Death Proof, he was met by vociferous protests from feminists. Emma Wood, who helped organise one of the protests, puts her point of view across below. Click here to read an alternative perspective.

No doubt you will be aware of Quentin Tarantino's latest film, Death Proof. Not only because it is directed by the man who brought Pulp Fiction into the world, but also because there have been giant adverts featuring a woman's arse in very short shorts shimmying around London on the side of endless double decker buses. Anyone who has seen these ads will probably not be shocked to learn that when Tarantino visited Glasgow and Liverpool as part of the push to promote this film, which flopped in the US, he was met by protesting feminists ready to call him up on his portrayal of women.

Death Proof is the second part of Grindhouse, the first being Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror. The aim of the two films was to reinvent the exploitative, cheap, drive-in movies popular in the US in the 1970s. Death Proof tells two stories: in the first, Kurt Russell's Stuntman Mike stalks a group of young women, only to have the tables turned in the second half of the film, by another group of women.

Tarantino's response? "The protests blew my mind, because everywhere else on planet Earth people have been talking about how I made a movie that empowered women."

Death Proof may have a large female cast, but reviewers agree that all the women seem to speak with the voice of Tarantino

Well not quite everyone "on planet Earth" believes that Death Proof empowers women, Quentin, because Kira Cochrane was fairly critical in The Guardian: "Watching Grindhouse, I felt fundamentally depressed: who would seek out this experience as entertainment? What is more depressing is the fact that such films seem to be part of a wider trend towards the mainstream depiction of women as highly sexualised bait and prey." But it is true that, as well as being a line that Tarantino's publicists trot out endlessly, a large amount of women really do seem to buy into the idea Death Proof is 'empowering'.

Let's take a look at the main arguments.

"Kurt Russell's character stuntman Mike is plainly creepy and unpleasant."

Well, I can't think of a film which does represent a psychopathic serial killer in a positive light. One of the least credible aspects of Death Proof is surely that we are expected to believe that the 56 year-old bouffant-haired, leathery-faced Russell would be given the time of day in the first place by a group of young, attractive women. Now a five minute short in which they said "bugger off granddad" and carried on with their night out would be feminist. And realistic.

"There is a large female cast."

Who are shot in an extremely sexualised, objectifying way, do a lap dance, talk crap - Death Proof's dialogue has been criticised in almost every review I've read, even positive ones, for its lack of realism and the fact that the women seem to speak with the voice of Tarantino. And the majority are killed horribly.

"The women get revenge."

Some do, after a number have been bloodily dispatched. It has similarly been claimed that the depiction of 'strong, independent women' in Tarantino's earlier film Kill Bill is feminist and empowering. But Kill Bill is about a woman who embarks upon a revenge-killing spree in which she murders a fair number of innocent people. By that logic, Aileen Wuornos was a 'strong, independent woman'. Of course, Uma Thurman looks a lot better than Charlize Theron in Monster, so maybe that helps.

The group in society that is most likely to actually experience violent crime is men aged 16-24. But violence in horror films is targeted at women, because the violence is eroticised

OK, it is fantasy. But in the words of that militant feminist, Ian Hislop: "It's an entirely witless and babyish film in which he tries to kill and chop up lots of people. One of the worst things about the film, is it seems to be a rather pervy film in which Tarantino gets the girls to fight a lot... In the old days, Michael Winner used to... set up a really unpleasant act against a woman and spend the rest of the film with someone killing people. And in those days we all said: 'Oh, Michael Winner, isn't he awful?' Now Tarantino does something equally pathetic and morally suspect and we all say 'What a genius!' It is rubbish."

As someone who isn't a horror film fan, or a cinephile generally, I found some images in Death Proof, such as that of a trapped woman pleading for her life, genuinely distressing. The film as a whole, though, probably isn't nearly as bad as some examples of the 'torture porn' genre, and in Kira Cochrane's account the worst bits of Grindhouse were the mock trailers, which are lost now that the film has been split into two parts for UK distribution. And yes, the scene in which real stuntwoman Zoe Bell clings onto a speeding car is impressive. And there is a superficial visual stylishness, and I quite like the use of the song 'Chick habit' in the film.

But that's missing the point. It is clear that sexualised violence against women in films is the norm. It is seen as acceptable and a subject for humour, even by those who consider themselves feminists, in a way that racially motivated violence wouldn't be by anyone. The group in society that is most likely to actually experience violent crime is men aged 16-24. But violence in horror is targeted at women, because the violence is eroticised.

For a man who considers mass murder to be the perfect expression of female empowerment, Tarantino's reaction to the Glasgow and Liverpool protests was surprisingly defensive

Tarantino's behaviour in promoting Grindhouse in the US was offensive at best. A YouTube clip of him on The Jimmy Kimmel Show shows him joking about the "Rapist no 1" doll - an action figure of the character Tarantino plays in Planet Terror. "When you go to Toys R Us, be sure to ask for Rapist No 1". He seemed to have forgotten about this, though, when asked by the Liverpool Echo's Adrian Butler: "So, what would you think if you were a rape victim and saw the 'Rapist no 1' doll of you on sale in shops?" Tarantino said that he had not known the character's name had been on the box. "I would think there's a doll with Quentin Tarantino on it," he added. "The character's name is a movie joke."

When the blogger and activist Charliegrrl ran a campaign to stop retailers selling the doll, it was mooted that a doll called 'murderer no 1' wouldn't have been considered offensive and that the Tarantino character in Planet Terror doesn't actually rape anyone and is killed by Rose McGowan's character. But this is the crux of the matter - there wouldn't be a doll called 'murderer no 1'. Murder doesn't carry a sexual threat and Tarantino wouldn't have been able to use it for publicity. Tarantino is viewed as a clever media manipulator, but mostly seems to rely on crude shock and outlandish statements, such as his pronouncement that he wouldn't cast Gwyneth Paltrow in a porn film because she "isn't trampy enough". He counted on the offensiveness of the rapist doll to gain media attention. This seems to have backfired somewhat in the US, however, hence his floundering evasion here in response to an unexpected question by a local newspaper.

Tarantino in person doesn't seem very feminist - in fact, he is threatened when women challenge him. So it is hard to understand how he could make feminist films

For a man who considers mass murder to be the perfect expression of female empowerment, Tarantino's reaction to the Glasgow and Liverpool protests was surprisingly defensive. Eye for Film reported of the Glasgow protest that: "Tarantino seemed daunted by the sight of the protests. 'There's no shame on my movie,' he insisted. 'It's not me who should be ashamed. It's them.'" Moreover, there was reportedly 'contention' when, at a question and answer session following a screening of Death Proof in Liverpool, protester-prompted questions were asked about the use of rape motifs and violence against women. Tarantino in person doesn't seem very feminist - in fact, he is threatened when women challenge him. So it is hard to understand how he could make feminist films.

Women coexist with a fear of male violence so deeply embedded that it is largely subconscious. We police our lives, whether we realise it or not, in accordance with this fear, which is a powerful agent of social control of women. And that is the fundamental misogyny of Tarantino - his contribution to the acceptability, or maybe that should be invisibility, of the threat of violence against women. Seeing (young, hot) women being able to kick ass in Tarantino's films may seem, on the surface, empowering. But Death Proof is still predicated on the eroticisation of killing. It is impossible for Tarantino and his ilk to simultaneously feed from and perpetuate this highly sexualised threat and empower women. The women only get to kick ass when a sufficient number of women have already met their gory, eroticised end. Fantasy revenge is hardly a solution to real life violence. Women can only empower themselves by real action in the real world. This male version of women's empowerment is bullshit.

About the author

Emma Wood

Emma Wood is a public sector worker for a cultural organisation to pay the bills and feminist activist (part of Northwest Feminists) for fun - I don't believe women are empowered by lap dancing, porn or Tarantino films and heartily recommend that any woman who really wants to be empowered should get out on the streets and do some activism - preferably against Tarantino because it obviously really upsets him!

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