Contextual Studies Summative Essay
Essay Question – Analyse your chosen example using selected ideas from the lecture and seminar programme and from further research into theoretical ideas and historical contexts.
Kill Bill – Quentin Tarantino
This essay will discuss the subject of feminism within film, specifically focusing on Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, targeting the controversy surrounding women in film and media and how their portrayal in society and by directors can have an impact on their image. The question of ‘What makes a powerful woman?’ will also be considered, studying the different perceptions within society regarding gender and acknowledging a sense of dependence that women have on male figures, for acceptance and power. Throughout, sources such as The F Word and Media Commons will aid the discussion and also present new ideas which are not always considered by many people when initially reflecting on feminism, and the different forms in which sexism can take.
Kill Bill: Volumes 1 & 2 are American martial arts films that follow Uma Thurman, in the role of Beatrix Kiddo (“Black Mamba”), through her journey of gaining justice for herself in Quentin Tarantino’s very harsh and violent recreation of the world. The film at first glance may suggest that the female characters throughout are very powerful and independent, led by their own choices and passions. For the audience, this is a change from the norm, as most films involve an equally, if not more apparently powerful male lead. Basing the story around a woman who is clearly an unexpected challenge for the male characters in the film immediately shows the underestimation that women face. Quentin Tarantino describes Kill Bill as a “feminist statement” which is “all about girl power” which is true in some aspects. The empowerment of women in this film is clear, giving them powerful attributes which can be used to their advantage to allow them to thrive. However, these attributes are all socially associated with male behaviours, and there is a strong stereotype surrounding these characteristics. I feel that there is an issue involving using the ‘social norm’ of male behaviour to empower women, as it implies that the only way woman can be perceived as powerful, strong and independent is if they adopt these male characteristics. Women are rarely portrayed as capable or dominant when illustrating their own stereotypical roles, and instead are unfortunately depicted to be helpless and unqualified without a male lead. In Kill Bill, the main female character is sufficiently skilled in defending herself and getting what she wants, and she continually demonstrates this against both male and female characters throughout the saga. Whilst this is a positive quality of the film, giving multiple women power and enabling them to dismay their opponents, it is only the women characters within the film which respect Beatrix Kiddo on a mutual basis. They do not underestimate her abilities when first facing her and immediately assume that she is proficient, unlike the male characters in the story. The majority of male characters, when first facing Kiddo, immediately assume that they are more superior to her, demonstrating the stereotype that females are the weaker sex.
The first scene of Kill Bill: Volume 1 depicts Beatrix Kiddo/The Bride in a weak and vulnerable state, showing distinct female attributes. In the scene, she is pregnant and wearing a wedding dress, two elements which socially, have widely been assumed make a woman emotional. Emotion is often wrongly mistaken for weakness in reference to women. When adopting these character traits, at first glance the audience see a woman in agony answering to a male character’s control. The pattern of Beatrix Kiddo becoming a seemingly weaker and defenceless character when adopting stereotypically feminine qualities is strong, and in opposition, a strong and dominant character when adopting common male attributes. “This movie is ostensibly about women, but it’s not about women. Because all of the women behave like men.”(Webb, 2013). I feel this portrays a misguided view on women’s strength, and further more advocates the idea that a woman who possesses stereotypical traits is weak. It also suggests that a woman cannot be all-powerful without taking on the attributes of the male identities surrounding her, that the only way for a woman to be treated with respect is to “assimilate into male culture via toughness”. (Johnston, 2013).
The Bechdel Test asks whether a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. Only half of all films meet these requirements, and the test is used as an indication of the active presence of women in films and alternative works, and also to call attention to gender inequality throughout media due to sexism. Throughout the film there are many scenes in which Beatrix Kiddo interacts with another woman, and these interactions do not involve communications about a male character, clearly passing the test. However, each female character she comes across has somehow been linked to the character Bill in Kill Bill: (Volumes 1/2). Quentin Tarantino has produced a story which disguises the power of men behind the strong independence of the women. However, Kiddo for example, owes Bill for her power and skill and is on the journey that she takes throughout the two films because of Bill. “In Kill Bill, Bill, and to some extent Buck, hold power over the Bride, regardless of how many people she kills with her katana.” (Hugel, 2013) This suggests that although on the surface of this production the women have the power; it is actually Bill who has control or a twisted ownership of them, making him the dominant character throughout the majority. Obvious elements of the film put Beatrix in a position of power and control which is rarely seen in the film industry, creating a wide appreciation from many for the film saga. From this perspective, it could be considered that the film does not pass the test at all, as many of the interactions between Beatrix Kiddo and the other female characters have taken place due to a male character involved in both of their lives therefore linking the male character to the situation, and decreasing the dominance of the Bechdel Tests success in the film.
The film is also very unrealistic and “does not take place on planet Earth” (Tarintino, Unknown) which makes me ask the question, if he is going to make a film about strong and powerful women, why make it so unrealistic? It suggests that the real world could not consider an equal power between men and women, and that making it a realistic possibility would be undesirable to the audience. Additionally, the majority of the scenes in which female characters possess dominance, are extremely implausible and have a largely fabricated plot. There is little room for realism in these unrealistic scenes, nonetheless the scenes in which hold a large male dominance are seemingly more truthful in their approach and applicable to real life. Furthermore, scenes that involve Beatrix Kiddo that are far less abstract, have her portrayed in a very different light. The character is back to wearing clothes which suggest femininity and again, is expressing emotion which is widely considered to be a feminine trait. (See fig. 1)
It must be considered that, despite Tarantino’s Kill Bill being extremely women-centric, it has missed the bigger picture. Although these women are portrayed as powerful, the only reason they are considered powerful is because they have attributes reflective of those that make a powerful man.
On the other hand, it cannot be denied that compared to many other directors and creative producers, Tarantino’s approach to portraying women is far more feminist. Despite the underlying weakness that the women are given in Kill Bill, there is still a clear attempt to give women opportunities and roles of power, when many other films of the era display women as ‘damsels in distress’, in need of rescue or reassurance from male figures.
In this film, Beatrix Kiddo is rarely helpless, and even in situations when she is in a far weaker position, she always pulls through and fights her way out. This display of resilience is empowering, not only for the characters, but also for the audience. Having a woman character, who is not defenceless and demonstrates such elasticity with any situation she is put in, informs viewers that the stereotype is only a weak generalisation, and that most of the time can be considered extremely incorrect. “The characters are always more than one dimensional, never used as just a piece of eye candy, and the films never include a rape scene or talk of rape.” (Bissonette, Unknown)
It could also be argued that it is in fact societies view on what a strong woman is which makes feminism in film so controversial. “And yes, modelesque girls with guns are a distinct subject within the male gaze, but a strong woman is a strong woman… regardless of whether or not men are staring at her.” (Wood, 2007) I feel that a woman is too often identified by what men consider her as. For example, a woman is considered to be powerful if a man respects her as such, and feels she is his equal, much more often than if a woman respects herself or another woman for being powerful. Female characters can be powerful without the help of the male gaze.
Overall, feminism has become a very controversial topic within film, with some suggesting that a film can be pro-feminist simply by including a female character, whilst others rightly expect an equal portrayal between men and women. Kill Bill is an action-packed, power-hungry film, giving a female character a role of strength and dignity, qualities she utilises many times throughout the film when faced with challenges of every nature. Although this is considered extremely feminist to some, including Tarantino himself, it is not illustrated in a way that can be considered to be realistic therefore completely stripping the character, Beatrix Kiddo, of her power in real-life situations and instead places her in a fictional role which could even be considered to be impossible. Additionally, all of Kiddo’s power is clearly stated to have come from Bill himself, a largely important male character within the plot who controls her direction and compels her every action. With Beatrix Kiddo’s strengths defined by her male attitudes and actions, and her weaknesses portrayed only when she displays female attributes, it immediately becomes an extremely male movie, despite aspects of the film empowering many women who have been audience to it. On the surface, Kill Bill tips most film plot norms on their head, replacing the usual strengthened male lead with a woman whose aim is to kill a significant male character in the film. However, when studied in more depth it is clear that this film’s most dominant character is a male figure after all, manipulating Beatrix Kiddo to come back to him, making her believe it is her own independent choice.
Bissonette C. (Unknown) A Feminist Defense Of Quentin Tarantino At: http://bust.com/movies/15393-why-quentin-tarantino-is-possibly-the-most-feminist-director-of-our-time.html (Accessed on 08.04.16)
Hugel, M. (2013) ‘Kill Bill’ and Our Troubled Relationship with Rape Revenge Movies At: http://mic.com/articles/67263/kill-bill-and-our-troubled-relationship-with-rape-revenge-movies#.v0eShGlR1 (Accessed on 08.04.2016)
Johnston, A. (2013) Kill Bill At: http://www.thefword.org.uk/2003/11/kill_bill/ (Accessed on 02/03/16)
Webb, J. (2013) It Hurts: “Kill Bill” Passes “Swimmingly” At: http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/imr/2013/01/23/it-hurts-kill-bill-passes-swimmingly (Accessed on 06.04.16)
Wood, E. (2007) Is Tarantino really feminist? At: https://www.thefword.org.uk/2007/11/is_tarantino_re_1/ (Accessed on 08.04.2016)
Figure 1. The Bride (Unknown) [Digital image] At: http://sensesofcinema.com/2004/beyond-the-grave-of-genre/tarantino/ (Accessed on 07.04.2016)