It’s hard to believe ten years have passed since Kill Bill hit theaters. At the time, the film and its subsequent sequel were lauded as major achievements in feminist cinema. Finally, we were presented with a strong, complex female character that also happened to be a total badass. But as the years have gone by, the legacy of Tarantino’s groundbreaking revenge films has come into question. Do they truly offer feminist depictions of female characters, or just misogyny in disguise?
As someone who worships at the altar of Tarantino, it’s difficult for me to criticize his work. That being said, Kill Bill falls into the same trap as have many films before it—that is, using rape as an emotional catalyst for a female hero's journey. While sexual assault is worthy of in depth exploration on screen, these rape and revenge films do not depict the reality of how these assaults can affect women. Rather, they look to fetishize the act and use it as motivation for unabashed gore and violence. What should be empowering films featuring women rising out of past trauma to exact justice are often instead turned into a form of torture porn.
Rape and revenge films became popular in the 1970s as a genre meant to stimulate audiences with sexualized violence and gratuitous sex. In these films (which include the controversial I Spit On Your Grave) a woman survives some horror early on, usually a rape, and the subsequent story centers on her quest for revenge—the more violent the better. Tarantino’s series follows this premise almost to the letter. While The Bride’s overall motivation is her attempted murder and the kidnapping of her daughter by her ex-lover Bill, the first film depicts her being repeatedly sexually assaulted. While in a comatose state, The Bride’s body is “rented out” by a hospital orderly named Buck. She awakens during one such assault, but is powerless to stop it. Once she regains her faculties, she takes revenge on her assailant, thus beginning the (admittedly entertaining) five-hour brutal revenge fest that is Kill Bill Volume 1 and 2.
You could argue that Tarantino includes this plot point as a way of empowering The Bride, since she ultimately overcomes this violation of her body (she kills Buck and steals his car, aptly named the "Pussy Wagon"). But this tangent is unnecessary in the grand scheme of the story. It’s shoehorned into the film because it conforms with an expected trope: as film after film has shown us, a woman must first fear a man before she can beat him. This can be seen in other blockbusters like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, wherein Lisbeth Salander's story is driven by her fear and hatred of men. Kick Ass 2 explores this trope as well, adding rape as a motivator for the male protagonist. (Funnily enough, Tarantino recently named Kick Ass 2 as one of his favorite films of 2013. Is it any coincidence that the film includes many of the problematic tropes of his own work?)
Although Tarantino presents the audience with a strong female role model, The Bride’s strength is predicated upon being a victim. Her suffering at the hands of the men in her life is what sets her rampage in motion, and as such her strength is still ultimately dependent upon men. In Kill Bill, Bill, and to some extent Buck, hold power over the Bride, regardless of how many people she kills with her katana. What's more, even in exacting her revenge the The Bride is demonized. While we root for her, we are also appalled by her methods. How many innocents must die in her quest for vengeance?
Despite these issues, Kill Bill manages to rise above its contemporaries as well as many of the films that inspired it. Where others fetishize the victimization of the female protagonist through things like lingering body shots of terrified women, frequently in their underwear, Kill Bill provides us with a substantial female role model (well, at least in comparison with the film's other female characters). And when held up against the work of filmmakers like Michael Bay we can’t deny the feminist merits of Tarantino and Kill Bill. Though it doesn’t completely break free from the misogynistic tropes of its rape and revenge predecessors, the film remains a good start in the creation of stronger female protagonists on screen. Even so, the film industry must not rest on Tarantino’s laurels. They still have miles to go.