The cost of being a woman in Quentin Tarantino’s universe
Uma Thurman speaks out on Tarantino and reveals the price of being a muse
Quentin Tarantino often compared his auteur-muse relationship with Uma Thurman to that of the Alfred Hitchcock–Ingrid Bergman legend. The actress fulfilled the role of Mia Wallace in Pulp Fiction back in 1994, before proceeding to help him conceive the idea of the bloody bride for the Kill Bill duology.
However, in an interview with The New Yorker, Thurman opened up about the abuse she suffered at the hands of Harvey Weinstein, a long-time collaborator of Tarantino’s, who produced the bulk of his films. Thurman also detailed how it wasn’t just the disgraced movie mogul who wronged her – being a “muse” comes at a price.
Why did Thurman feel like a “broken tool” during the production of Kill Bill?
Thurman recalls an incident during the production of Kill Bill, claiming that Tarantino pressured her into driving a damaged car, a role typically handled by a stunt professional, despite having voiced her concerns. “He was furious because I’d cost them a lot of time. But I was scared. He said: ‘I promise you the car is fine. It’s a straight piece of road.’”
Tarantino managed to convince Thurman to perform the stunt, resulting in a crash which would cause permanent damage to both her neck and knees. “When they turned on me after the accident, I went from being a creative contributor and performer to being like a broken tool” Thurman explained.
Thurman also claims that Tarantino took it upon himself to perform some of the “sadistic flourishes” of Kill Bill himself, from spitting in her face to choking her with a chain.
Tarantino and the #MeToo movement: Thurman’s story adds a “whole other layer”
As Mashable pointed out, these allegations, to which Tarantino has yet to comment on, do not purport the director sexually assaulting or abusing her in any form. But they do “involve an abuse of power that feels both gendered and familiar, adding a whole other layer of complexity to the increasingly intricate #MeToo conversation.”
The allegations also reignite the long-running debate and controversy surrounding Tarantino’s portrayal of women in his films. The director has arguably created some of the most empowered female characters in cinema, from cut-throat assassins to Nazi-killing cinema owners, all the way through to sexually empowered radio hosts.
However, on the other end of the spectrum, critics claim that his female characters are often subjected to extreme sexualization and violence, leaving many to ask the question: is Tarantino a feminist or a misogynist?
Did Tarantino use foot fetish scenes for the sake of his own personal pleasure?
In the context of this debate, a divisive element in Tarantino’s movies is that his own foot fetish manages to make it into almost every pic without fail. The filmmaker has always been very open about his sexual preference and has utilized the female tootsies for his private erotic interests.
For example, in Death Proof, Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) stares longingly at the feet of Abernathy (Rosario Dawson), as they protrude from the backseat of a car – he even goes so far as to caress them while she sleeps. Another example is the camera’s focus on Bridget Fonda’s feet in Jackie Brown – the focus is not there to further the storyline in any meaningful manner, but is instead a mere observation.
These scenes stand in stark contrast to Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, in which the foot fetish scenes each serve a purpose. In the former, it is the driving force behind Marsellus throwing Antoine out of the window for allegedly giving Mia a foot massage. In the latter, the protagonist’s feet become deadly weapons, as Beatrix wills her toes to move after rousing herself from the hospital bed.
Why was Rose McGowan troubled by Quentin Tarantino’s well-known fetish?
Regardless of the purpose and its role within the story, it’s an undeniable fact that the majority of Tarantino’s movies contain at least one scene where the camera stares longingly at one of its female character’s feet.
On the one hand, these acts are considered consensual, and what happens before two consenting adults and their sexual desires is acceptable. But in the wake of Hollywood’s raging misconduct scandal, the lines between consent and abuse have become blurred. Are these scenes examples of reciprocal erotic experiences between two consenting adults? Or are they another example of women feeling obliged to serve the sexual interests of men through the creation of a privileged, and masculine culture?
Whichever case is true (perhaps a bit of both), one actor who alleges to have felt discomfort with Tarantino’s fetish is Rose McGowan, who claimed in her recently-released memoir Brave that the iconic director would frequently reference the scene where she paints her toenails in the 1999 film Jawbreaker.
“The first time I met Tarantino, and for years after, every time he’d see me, he said, ‘Rose! I have your movie ‘Jawbreaker’ on laser disc! I can’t tell you how many times I used the shot where you’re painting your toes!’” By “used”, McGowan inferred that he pleasured himself with the scene.
“Tarantino has a known foot fetish. To him seeing a naked foot is the equivalent of a breast person getting turned on by nipples. That means Tarantino paid extra money to jerk off to my young feet and told me about it loudly, over and over, for years, in front of numerous people.”
Why did Tarantino decide to use rape as a catalyst for vengeance in Kill Bill?
There’s another aspect of Tarantino’s storytelling technique which has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years: whether the Kill Bill duology falls into the trap of using rape as an emotional catalyst for a female hero’s journey.
Mic argued that “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.”
The tale of deception and vengeance in the Kill Bill franchise features a notably more extreme form of violence that was absent from the director’s earlier work. Similar to the sexual abuse portrayed in the likes of revenge films that were popular in the 70s, such as I Spit on Your Grave, the female protagonist is subjected to violent degradation, while the subsequent story centers on her extremely violent revenge.
One could argue the plot ultimately serves as a way to empower its female lead. However, Mic went on to ponder whether 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”.
The debate continues to rage over Tarantino’s female-centric violence
Long before Thurman’s allegations surfaced, the release of The Hateful Eight threw Tarantino’s depiction of violence towards women into question, with some having labeled the director a “misogynist” for the portrayal of Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who repeatedly gets punched, shot, and brutally hung throughout the film.
The Sydney Morning Herald agreed with New York Times critic A. O. Scott, who called it “an orgy of elaborately justified misogyny”, adding that “on reflection, it really did seem like Tarantino had designed the chamber piece specifically to explore one woman’s abuse at the hands of seven men”.
But this is nothing new for Tarantino – take Death Proof as an example, once again. While the film contains the highest number of central female characters in a Tarantino flick, it also includes the most extreme female-centric violence. One especially gruesome moment screens the gory aftermath of a car crash, in which a group of women are visibly torn apart by windshields and tires.
A notably high point for feminist empowerment in Tarantino’s back catalog is the 1997 crime-thriller Jackie Brown, focusing on a smart and independent con-woman (played by Pam Grier) who uses her smarts to come out on top.
However, even this film, praised by lead actress Grier herself, contains a shocking moment where the character of Melanie Ralston is shot point-blank by Louis Gara. The reason it’s so shocking, according to VoxATL, is because Gara had grown tired of Ralston’s jokes about his age. Clearly deserving of a death sentence.
“Earlier in the film we see Gara smoke weed and have sex with Ralston, demonstrating his participation in the all-too-real act of using a woman for one’s own gain and then disposing of her when she is no longer convenient or necessary. This tactic of depicting heightened, violent forms of actual aggressions that women commonly face can be found in many of Tarantino’s films, and it is these instances that I find most troubling and potentially dangerous.”
How will institutionalized gender roles change in a post-Weinstein era and beyond?
Intergender violence in cinema is a controversial and debated topic, and in the case of Tarantino and Thurman’s allegations, it throws into question the purpose of the particularly brutal female-directed violence offered up in his films.
Is it Tarantino’s way of playing out his twisted fantasies, or is it merely an attempt to show that women can endure the same physical suffering as their male counterpart? It’s a tricky question – one that does not come with a definitive answer. However, what has happened, both in light of Thurman’s claims and the post-Weinstein era, is the opening of an entirely new discussion on the institutionalization of gender roles both on and off screen.
Hopefully now, as stories of abuse and harassment come to light, the definition of what’s appropriate behavior (and what is not) is made more apparent, and are applied in Hollywood and beyond.