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Inglourious Feminists: Tarantino and the Weight of Feminist Guilt

When I was fourteen – aka WAY too young to watch a Quentin Tarantino film of any kind – I watched Pulp Fiction for the first time. I was more or less tasked with my own monitoring online, came across Pulp Fiction in several “best movies of all time” lists, and I had full reign of the Netflix account. It was around the time that I discovered other long-time favorites, American Psycho and Silence of the Lambs, but it was Tarantino’s bloody scenes, snappy dialogue and witty, no-nonsense characters that captivated me the most. I hadn’t seen many movies that weren’t made by Disney or geared towards younger audiences at the time, but with Pulp Fiction, something just… clicked.

When Uma Thurman and John Travolta got on that stage at Jackrabbit Slim’s to dance along to that silly ‘50s bop (one I absolutely sing when cleaning around the house), I knew I was watching a real movie. A good one. One that understood how to use music, editing, and setting to its advantage. It made me aware of how a director can actually use those things to tell a story instead of treating them as a necessary element for the medium. I hadn’t even finished Pulp Fiction and I’d already decided it was the movie to end all movies. And over the coming months, I hungrily watched every Tarantino film I could get my hands on (yes, yes, even Four Rooms) through the now-ancient Netflix DVD rental system.

After all the Tarantino films I watched, my favorite still remains Pulp Fiction. Don’t get me wrong: I love Inglourious Basterds and Reservoir Dogs and Kill Bill as much as the next pretentious film bro, but Pulp Fiction holds a special place in my heart as the movie that opened my eyes to film as a powerful medium. It was, and still is, one of my favorite movies of all time.

But about the same time as I was falling in love with Tarantino’s films and endlessly rewatching Pulp Fiction, I was undergoing the first stages of my feminist awakening (Thank you, Tumblr). For the first time, I was exposed to language like “the male gaze” and “female objectification.” I was learning about how society at large mistreats women, and how the film industry does this in particular. Tarantino’s personal friendship with known victimizer and Hollywood kingpin Harvey Weinstein only further left me with feelings of feminist guilt for finding enjoyment in any of his films. Admitting that I liked them felt like a remission of all my feminist beliefs.

Nobody had to tell me that Tarantino’s films, with their pulpy (pun intended) violence and male-focused stories where the women tended to be side characters, were the product of that objectifying male gaze. Salma Hayek’s character, Santánico Pandemonium, in the Tarantino-written, Robert Rodriguez-directed vampire flick From Dusk Till Dawn, is one of the more obvious examples of this: Her character, a vampire stripper, does a dance for Tarantino’s character and pours booze down her leg so that he can drink it off her foot. It’s a product of the male gaze – and his specific, Tarantino gaze – that reduces women to objects of spectacle.

It’s objectification of the most damning and self-indulgent kind, even if the scene is the type that made (and still makes!) my lesbian heart flutter.

Art by Lyvie Scott

Hayek and Santánico aren’t outliers, though. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone interested in film and/or Tarantino who isn’t aware of the way Uma Thurman – who has never worked with the director since – was mistreated on the set of Kill Bill: She was forced into driving an unsafe car just so Tarantino could get his perfect shot, and ended up in a near-fatal car crash. Thurman’s mistreatment is part of a larger problem – not just in Hollywood, but in Tarantino’s films at large. His female characters are constantly used and abused: Mia Wallace suffers an accidental heroin overdose in Pulp Fiction; Beatrix Kiddo is raped and tortured in Kill Bill; Hildi is raped and enslaved (and lacks any actual dialogue) in Django Unchained; Stuntman Mike murders young women with his “death-proof” cars in Grindhouse

You get the picture. Lots of rape and murder and abuse of women in these stories that isn’t framed as a particularly awful or tragic thing. It’s there for shock value and entertainment. Granted, the men in Tarantino’s films receive their fair share of violent ends for entertainment, too. Doesn’t make the violence against women go down any easier. Tarantino still has a woman problem, and that woman problem poses a very complicated obstacle to enjoying his films – ingenious as they are – both as a woman as a feminist. Throw in how Tarantino will take every opportunity to say the N-word in his movies, and admitting you love Pulp Fiction (especially as a woman of color) is like confessing to murder. It’s the reason I avoided watching Jackie Brown until very recently.

For years now, a voice in the back of my head has nagged at me: You are a bad feminist for liking Tarantino’s movies. You should be watching and liking female-led, written, and directed films where the female characters aren’t just strong, but have agency and autonomy. Laughing along to Mr. Brown’s analysis of “Like a Virgin” in Reservoir Dogs or sticking the “Mia Wallace and Vincent Vega” chapter of Pulp Fiction on for comfort-watching makes you complicit in violence against and objectification of women in film.

And the worst: You are betraying women each time you watch a Tarantino movie.

Does it make me less of a woman to like movies that exhibit such violence against and objectification of women? Personally, I don’t. But my fellow women might think so.

I teased before that Tarantino’s films attract a certain kind of fan, namely the pretentious male film bro who thinks saying Pulp Fiction is his favorite movie or that Tarantino is his favorite director will make him sound cooler, like more of a cinephile. There really are an endless amount of memes about this kind of fan; I do laugh at them whenever they come up on my For You page or otherwise. But there’s a kind of shame and twinge of fear I get in admitting that I like Tarantino for a less-than-feminist reason: Are people going to see me as too masculine? As a guy? Or an internalized misogynist? It’s irrational, but it loops back to feeling that an admission of liking these films makes me less of a feminist.

I still apologize whenever the question of “so what’s your favorite movie?” or “who’s your favorite director?” gets brought up in conversation at work or at parties, as if saying “I know, I know, it’s embarrassing” in the same breath as “Pulp Fiction rocked my world” or “Tarantino is just sooo visionary” will make me more aware or woke or feminist than my peers. But I’m reminded of Feminist Frequency’s reminder to her viewers in the "Tropes vs Women in Video Games" series that “it’s both possible, and even necessary, to simultaneously enjoy media, while also being critical of its more problematic or pernicious aspects.”

Art by Lyvie Scott

The act of critiquing Tarantino’s movies, if anything, makes me enjoy them even more. Case in point, I finally got around to watching Jackie Brown this year. I was worried that the film would be dripping in misogynoir and violence against its Black female protagonist Jackie, played by the always-iconic Pam Grier. But I found that I wouldn’t enjoy it as much as I did had I not spent the entire time comparing it to how his other female characters didn’t have the agency or humanity Jackie had. The satisfaction of watching Jackie Brown, at least this time around, was not just in getting to log it on Letterboxd or crossing another Tarantino film off my list, but in the actual intellectual exercise of comparing it to his other films. It was in seeing how Jackie exhibited more autonomy and got to tell her own story.

Like seriously! Jackie gets personal revenge against the gangster that double-crossed her by double-crossing him in turn, and gets to fuck over the feds, too?! What’s not to love?! There’s so much more going on with Jackie than there is with even my favorite of Tarantino’s women, Mia Wallace. Jackie actually gets to push the narrative forward and call the shots herself. She gets to win. She gets to win, despite the odds being stacked up against her and the consequences at stake if she fails. A story like that makes me feel represented. No wonder I (and Lyvie!) enjoyed it as much as we did, despite knowing that Tarantino is one of Hollywood’s biggest douches.

If enjoying art – sometimes for art’s sake, and sometimes for the pleasure of picking it apart and analyzing it – makes me a bad feminist, I would simply have to disagree. At the end of the day, a movie doesn’t care if you’re a man, a woman, or non-binary. It just wants you to take it for what it is: A movie. So no more, I say, to apologizing for enjoying a movie or a director that you think makes you a “bad feminist,” because enjoying media goes beyond such strict binaries of man or woman. Art is supposed to touch you on more levels than just your gender identity, and perhaps seeking out those difficult movies that challenge your ideals can force you to engage with it in a deeper, more meaningful way.

There are “better,” less problematic films to like. I know this. But I like these ones. ContraPoints speaks about the intersection of enjoying and critiquing things in her video “Beauty”: “The problem is that the intellectual exercise of critiquing things doesn’t usually affect my desires very much.” I think I must agree in terms of Tarantino. I think his films are well-written and engaging, I think the editing and cinematography are enriching to the stories he tells (hello quick-zooms in Django Unchained), and I think the characters are a joy to watch. There’s something about them that’s undeniably enjoyable in their construction, and in their story that scratches an itch in my brain. Recognizing that entertainment and critique can (and should!) coexist within a piece of art helped me come to terms with my feminist guilt, and in a way, that very much parallels all of the good and bad in Tarantino’s filmography.

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