Throughout a career spanning three decades, Quentin Tarantino has seemingly made it his mission to criminally undervalue women. Despite creating numerous female characters that have become massive titans of pop culture (see: Mia Wallace holding a cigarette) Tarantino seems to miss that being katana proficient doesn’t make these women instant feminist icons. It seems that many others have missed this too.
Countless listicles of Tarantino’s best female characters have made it easy to forget that although these women can go toe to toe with male villains, that doesn’t make them exemplary examples of complex women. Through no fault on the actresses parts, their characters often lack the depth of their male counterparts. For decades this has alluded Tarantino, who continues to insist that he portrays confident and independent women. It also seems that audiences and the general media have been fooled too.
It is no fault of Tarantinos that the public and media often fall into complacency concerning portrayals of women and general feminism. It is, however, his duty as a prominent filmmaker to use his platform to portray and elevate the voices of those often mistreated and unheard. A rare example of a more complex female Tarantino character is in Kill Bill’s The Bride. Instantly becoming a pop culture icon, Uma Thurman’s Bride is a woman on a quest for revenge.
The vague nature of the name “The Bride” is reminiscent of The Narrator in Fight Club, another dude-bro classic. Yet it is telling of exactly the problem with Tarantino’s women characters. They exist as archetypes and objects who are undeserving of even a name, made easily digestible for a more male-skewing fanbase who feel alienated by female-centric films.
It is not without reason that Tarantino’s films are often associated with their overwhelmingly male fanbase. The director has aligned himself with a male demographic since his directorial debut effort Reservoir Dogs in 1992. The first line of which includes the word dick, a fact that I could probably end this entire piece with.
Tarantino’s debut film lacks a single female lead, with the entire male ensemble cast going by the pseudonym of “Mr *insert color*”. The entourage is also entirely clad in simple black suits, both examples of traditional masculine iconography. The presence of suits appears again in his magnum opus Pulp Fiction, arguably the most dudebro of all dudebro cinema (if you’re unfamiliar with dude-bro films, this letterboxd list is a pretty good introduction).
John Travolta’s Vincent Vega and Samuel L. Jackson’s Jules Winnfield are first introduced in suits, driving a vintage car and having a conversation about burgers, foot rubs and blow jobs. About as Tarantino as you can get. Their conversation concerns the yet to be seen Mia Wallace, wife of their boss Marcellus Wallace. A complete badass (for clarification, everybody in Tarantino’s films falls into either the category of loser or badass. Keep up). In Pulp Fiction, Tarantino inserts a small number of women. However, each is merely an extension of a male character. Yolanda (Amanda Plummer) is the volatile girlfriend of Ringo (Tim Roth) and follows his every instruction throughout their robbery of the diner.
The iconic Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) is a love interest of her babysitter Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and wife of his boss Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhame). While Mia’s unique personality is an attempt to portray her as independent, she still exists under the control of these two men. This is a troubling trend throughout the film, shown again through other female characters. Yolanda has some autonomy, yet she still listens to her boyfriends every word. Fabienne, the infantilized girlfriend of Bruce Willi’s Butch does everything he tells her to and cries when he scolds her like a child.
Uma Thurman as Mia dominated the marketing campaign for the film and 25 years later her face remains plastered across many a male film majors room. Although a supporting character, her face is the one immediately associated with the film. Her troubled psyche has been romanticized for decades and she has gone on to become an iconic Halloween costume, post-overdose nose bleed included.
While fault does not entirely lie upon Tarantino, his inclusion of the romantic interest having a drug addiction was not an accident. Her manic pixie-dream-girl in need of rescue demeanor is intentional. She is a helpless male fantasy. Beginning with Pulp Fiction, Tarantino has repeatedly featured his self professed muse Uma Thurman. In fact, in the three of his films in which she has been featured, she has been a subject of Tarantino’s own personal fetish.
Moving on, it’s no secret that Tarantino has a thing for feet. They’ve been a recurring motif throughout his entire filmography. Beginning with Pulp Fiction, Tarantino has featured them prominently countless times. The aforementioned initial conversation between Vincent and Jules centers primarily on feet. It’s just one example of Tarantino using his platform to fulfill his own desires. Rather than be disturbed by this, Uma Thurman has continued to work with Tarantino. Including the two recently hinting at a possible third installment to the Kill Bill saga. Surprising comments following their recent very public feud.
During filming for Kill Bill: Volume 2, Tarantino encouraged Thurman to get behind the wheel of a moving vehicle for a scene that she had been assigned a stunt double for. Upon filming, the vehicle swerved off the tracks and seriously injured the actress. After the incident, Tarantino and producer Harvey Weinstein (yes that Weinstein) made it almost impossible for her to get her hands on the footage.
It was not until last year, post-#metoo, that Thurman was able to retrieve the footage and make it public. Tarantino treating his self professed muse this way leaves one wondering how he treats other women on his sets. This was not an isolated incident. Upon the release of 2012’s Django Unchained, the same riveting story circled during the press junket. During filming, star Leonardo DiCaprio cut his hand on broken glass in the heat of a scene and proceeded to wipe his bloody hand down the face of Broomhilda. Kerry Washington’s horrified face is a real reaction caught on camera and example of Tarantino sacrificing actresses comfort for “realism” in a scene.
Initially viewed by the press as yet another example of DiCaprio going full method in his quest for academy award recognition, the moment has taken on new meaning with a new context. DiCaprio is constantly referred to as a good guy by industry contemporaries, yet his happiness to do something so invasive of others boundaries (and Tarantino’s allowance of it) is disturbing. Aside from the performances and dialogue one of the most common commendations of Tarantino’s filmography is the editing, performed almost entirely by Sally Menke up until her death in 2010.
Menke was arguably the one woman who was treated with nothing but respect by Tarantino. She was nominated for an academy award for her editing work on both Pulp Fiction and her final film Inglorious Basterds before her death. Inglorious Basterds works as a step in the right direction, featuring women who take action into their own hands and act against their male contemporaries instruction and interests. Lead female Shosanna’s (Mélanie Laurent) irritation with the men surrounding her immediately places her above the passive women of Pulp Fiction.
It goes without saying that Shosanna suffers significantly at the hands of men. No female character in Tarantino’s filmography doesn’t. Although a horrifying trend, Inglorious Basterds manages to make audiences forget this for a split second when Bridget Von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) accepts her role as a double agent and Shosanna blows up a cinema full of nazis.
Even in one of his more gender progressive films, Tarantino once again displayed his personal foot fetish and placed one of his actresses in danger. During the scene in which von Hammersmark is strangled by Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), a close up is featured placing a prominent focus on the hands around her kneck. In this shot, it is actually Tarantino’s hands doing the strangling. The director also actually choked Uma Thurman in Kill Bill: Volume 1, during the moment in her fight with Gogo that she has a whip chain around her neck.
It is commonly accepted that directors must do their best to leave their actors feeling comfortable and build mutual trust. Many audience members decided that by performing these stunts on his actresses, Tarantino broke some codes of conduct.
Despite the controversy behind the scenes, Inglorious Basterds remains lauded as one of Tarantino’s few successful presentations of female rage and autonomy. However, almost a decade later, Tarantino has regressed into familiar behaviors. Just two months ago, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood faced criticism following its debut at Cannes for its lack of Robbie content. Upon being questioned on this move, Tarantino responded with the instantly memed “I reject your hypothesis”.
Using an actress as talented as Robbie and opting to give her such little screen time does beg to question, was she cast entirely for aesthetic and marketing purposes? Her prominence in the marketing is reminiscent of Uma Thurman’s in Pulp Fiction’s and leaves her yet another underutilized female character.
The choice to feature the story of the real-life Sharon Tate, a sex icon and victim of a tragic home invasion and murder at the hands of the Manson family, is controversial enough. The use of her story and lack of Robbie aside from for marketing purposes are yet more examples of Tarantino’s treatment of women. It also goes without saying that almost every female character in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has heart eyes for Charlie Manson. They are reduced to hippie fan-girls who have little autonomy and opt to literally follow a mans every wish.
Aside from the small appearance of Django Unchained’s Broomhilda, Tarantino has yet to explore the resilience, independence, and quiet strength often displayed by women. The female characters that he deems worthy of main role status all succumb to the same trappings of gun-wielding and revenge obsessions.
While Tarantino may provide space in his filmography for badass katana-wielding women, they exist merely as extensions of their male counterparts. It has never been the case that a Tarantino film features a female character truly capable of introspection. Maybe one day he will get it right but at the moment, a complex woman on screen who is not treated uncomfortably by Tarantino behind the screen? Sounds like fiction.
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Writing about filmmakers while on my way to becoming one.