OR: Tarantino’s Leading Ladies: Jackie Brown, Beatrix Kiddo, & Women’s Empowerment On-screen
Quentin Tarantino’s body of work – from his feature film debut Reservoir Dogs (1992), to his most recent epic The Hateful Eight (2015) – consists of films that are violent, highly stylized, dialogue-driven, oftentimes problematic, and always provocative. Though each film in Tarantino’s oeuvre is quite different from the one that came before it or followed, numerous qualities of his work remain consistent. In each of his films Tarantino celebrates popular culture by commemorating genres that were once relegated to the margins by Hollywood, such as martial arts cinema, Blaxploitation, and spaghetti westerns. While appropriating genres, Tarantino provides his own authorial stamp by writing dialogue-driven scripts which are benefited by episodic structures. A “Tarantino film,” one can almost always be assured, features revenge at the heart of the narrative and creates pleasure through the irreverent combination of humor and violence. And, with each of Tarantino’s films, the appropriateness of his representations of violence, race, gender, and revisionist history, come into question time and time again.
Though Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino’s first feature-length film, showcases an ensemble cast made up of entirely male actors, many of his following films center on female characters that challenge traditional Hollywood representations of women. While some of his work supports, rather than subverts, sexism, in the case of Jackie Brown, Kill Bill Vol. 1 & Kill Bill Vol. 2, the female leads are exemplified as smart, strong, and complex individuals. The two women leading these films both overcome the dominant men in their lives, who die at their hands through actions of either physical or mental adeptness. The ability these women have in both bodily and cerebral potency, often unfound in Hollywood’s female characters, is placed boldly at the center of Tarantino’s third, fourth, and fifth feature films.
Jackie Brown (1997), starring Pam Grier, tells the story of a 44-year-old flight attendant who gets caught smuggling money to the U.S. from Mexico for an arms dealer. Her options are: go to jail, get killed, or out-smart everyone. Though Jackie Brown is the film’s hero (and is smarter and cleverer than all parties involved) Tarantino strived to construct a character who is undeniably real. In a 1998 interview with Adrian Wootton for The Guardian, Tarantino was asked about his love for Blaxploitation films and the intertextual casting of Blaxploitation star, Pam Grier. Tarantino notes that while Jackie Brown is not a black exploitation film, and that casting Pam Grier in the leading role came with “good baggage,” her character is quite different from those she played in Coffy (dir. Jack Hill, 1973) or Foxy Brown (dir. Jack Hill, 1974). “Jackie Brown is a real human being. She is not a super-bad momma. She does not get razor blades in her Afro, and she is not “Kung Fu-ing” people, and she is not pulling a sawn-off shotgun and blowing a guy’s head off. She is a real lady in those dire circumstances…” According to Tarantino, because Jackie Brown isn’t enacting revenge through hyper-violent means, her character is a stark contrast to Pam Grier’s previous roles in Blaxploitation films. It seems, however, that despite the film’s lack of extreme violence emanating from its heroine, the conclusion of Jackie Brown suggests revenge nonetheless. And revenge, almost always, is a theme designated for male-centric films and genres.
In addition to Jackie’s ability to out-smart all of her male counterparts (and make money in the process), there are other characteristics of Jackie Brown which are distinctly feminist. While Jackie’s beauty is mentioned by various men throughout the film, her appearance and sexuality are not at the forefront of her character, nor is her sexuality used as a means to overcome obstacles. While one could argue that the apparatus of the male gaze is still evident in Jackie Brown, Jackie is dressed in a manner that’s appropriate for her character and she’s never explicitly sexualized for the pleasure of the audience. The fact that the film centers on the story of a black woman in her forties is also highly uncommon. It is unusual for Hollywood films to feature woman leads, especially rare that they be women past their early thirties, and even more infrequent that they are women of color. It is also empowering that Jackie opens and closes the film individually; she is the determiner of her own destiny, which is indicated not only by the narrative, but through the film’s cinematography and use of the recurring song, “Across 110th Street,” by Bobby Womack.
Though Tarantino took great lengths to showcase a character who is resilient, independent, and empowered, by taking a closer look at the production process it becomes clear that his understanding of Jackie Brown as a real woman had its limitations. Concluding his 1998 interview with Adrian Wootton for The Guardian, Tarantino discusses Pam Grier’s “womanness” in the opening scene of Jackie Brown:
“If you are familiar with Pam’s movies, a whole lot of them start with Pam just walking, and [you] beholding the glory that is Pam. I thought, ‘OK, I will make me the greatest Pam Grier opening sequence of all time.’ I think I pulled it off, actually. The structure of it is very interesting. It starts off that she is on the conveyor belt, and you see her, you are drinking her in, you are taking her in, and she is walking through the airport, and she just looks like the baddest creature a guy ever created. She has got all this power and strength – she is Foxy Brown twenty years later, she is Coffy twenty years later – and she has all this womanness, and it is great.”
Tarantino’s description of Pam Grier, particularly when he suggests “drinking her in” and refers to her as “the baddest creature a guy has ever created” is put in bluntly misogynistic terms. While Pam Grier’s character in the film seems to defy the limitations placed on her by her male counterparts, it appears that Tarantino’s construction of her character (which he describes as his own creation) is highly objectifying. And the “womanness” which he designates as a characteristic of her persona and appearance is also debatably built around Grier’s beauty and sexuality (of both the past and present), rather than any non-sexual qualities that may signify “womanness.” Tarantino’s idea of “womanness,” it seems, is defined by decidedly sexual terms.
In Pam Grier’s 2010 memoir, Foxy: My Life in Three Acts, she depicts the time she spent working with Tarantino on Jackie Brown as a truly wonderful experience, describing him as “such a gifted director” and a “real maestro.” Despite his talents as a director, however, Grier sometimes questioned Tarantino’s ability to understand the needs of women, or how a real woman may express her emotions. She describes the process of shooting a scene in Jackie’s kitchen with the bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster), where her character has escaped death at the hands of Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson) and must now figure out a way to stay out of jail. In the first take, Grier began to cry quietly, and by the time the scene was finished she had moved the entire crew to tears. While she felt that her spontaneous tears were right for her character, Tarantino was not satisfied. He asked for another take, this time without tears, because he needed her to “look stronger.” In her memoir, Grier questioned Tarantino’s direction for that particular scene, wondering why tears are often interpreted as an expression of fragility:
“Why do men see crying as a weakness? Jackie was in a very vulnerable state, unsure if she was about to be arrested or killed. I wanted to explain that to Quentin and tell him that my performance had been pure. But he was the director, and we ended up using the second take, the tearless one, which he liked, but in my opinion was less effective.”
While Tarantino’s representation of Jackie Brown is fiercely empowering, and the film presents itself as an arguably feminist text, it is clear that Tarantino was working within the framework of his privileged position as a male director. As a result, despite the depth of her character, Tarantino’s interpretation of Jackie Brown the woman was still confined to the limits of his own lived experiences. Subsequently, in Tarantino’s fourth and fifth films (Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Kill Bill Vol. 2), his nuance in writing women’s emotions seems somewhat more developed, perhaps because his lead is able to present herself as traditionally “strong” through her deployment of physical force.
For the remainder of this essay, Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003) and Kill Bill Vol. 2 (2004) will be referred to jointly as Kill Bill, since they were intended to be released as one film and were produced accordingly. Kill Bill, which debuted nearly six years after the premiere of Jackie Brown, stars Uma Thurman as “The Bride,” who the audience eventually learns is a trained assassin named Beatrix Kiddo. As Kiddo, Thurman overcomes death on numerous occasions and systematically kills each member of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. With their leader, Bill, the Deadly Vipers attempted to murder Beatrix and were to blame for the assumed death of her unborn child. Through the mayhem of her journey, Kiddo overcomes a shot to the head and coma, survives rape, is buried alive, murders dozens of killers (if not hundreds in the climactic scene at the Tokyo restaurant), and is finally, after confronting her arch-enemy Bill, reunited with her daughter B.B. While Kill Bill is quite a departure from Jackie Brown, it is noteworthy that both of these films are carried by interesting and empowering women, and that they were released consecutively. Unlike Jackie Brown, however, in Kill Bill Beatrix Kiddo is given the opportunity to cry, in spite of her immeasurable emotional and physical strength.
In a 2003 interview with Jeff Otto for IGN, prior to the release of Vol. 2, Quentin Tarantino discussed Kill Bill’s revenge narrative and Kiddo’s likeability as a character:
“Her journey is for real, and her pain is for real, and she keeps it on course, and she’s not asking for any sympathy. One of the first scenes in Vol. 2 will be where we actually see what happens at the wedding chapel. I’ve had people say to me after they saw this one, ‘Quentin, I really liked it, and I know you’re saving the wedding chapel for Vol. 2, but if I were to have seen that in Vol. 1, I think that I would’ve cared and liked Uma’s character even more.’ And my response is, ‘You like her well enough. You don’t need to like her any more than you do. She’s fine.’”
Tarantino’s frank reaction to questions of Kiddo’s likeability could be considered reflective of the genres that he employs for Kill Bill. Since it’s a film that’s openly about hyper-violent revenge, and because Tarantino pulls from various masculine genres such as martial arts cinema and spaghetti westerns, the likeability of the lead character seems to be pushed to the periphery for the sake of entertainment. The sentiment is that this is a film about vengeance, and whether or not the lead character is likeable or relatable is unimportant.
It also seems that because Kill Bill was Tarantino’s most “unrealistic” film at the point of its release in 2003, and the fact that the story existed exclusively in the realm of fiction (making it a “movie-movie,” as Tarantino calls it) meant that the audience’s relationship to Beatrix could be formulated differently. In her 2014 essay, “Revenge and the Family Romance in Tarantino’s Kill Bill,” Lesel Dawson explains how Tarantino’s “movie-movie” method is apparent in the characterization of Beatrix, “who is represented as a cinematic archetype rather than someone who constructs her identity in relation to such figures.” She continues to describe how this approach becomes clearest in Vol. 2, when Bill compares Beatrix to Superman: “When Superman wakes up in the morning, he’s Superman” – and when Beatrix wakes up in the morning, she’s a “natural born killer.” The powerful comparison – that Bill sees Beatrix as inherently mighty like Superman – fortifies the conclusion of her journey, in which she overpowers the final person who stands in her way. And although Kill Bill is undoubtedly a film about vengeance and honor, it’s also a film about motherhood and, in particular, the mother-daughter relationship.
In Angela Dancey’s “Killer Instincts: Motherhood and Violence in The Long Kiss Goodnight and Kill Bill,” the fifth chapter from Mommy Angst: Motherhood in American Popular Culture (edited by Ann C. Hall and Mardia J. Bishop), Dancey explores two of the rare on-screen examples of the intersections of violence and motherhood in American media. She argues that in both Kill Bill and The Long Kiss Goodnight (dir. Renny Harlin, 1996), violence is portrayed as a threat to the family, but also the necessary means by which the mother-daughter relationship is restored. And she also notes that both films “repair the mother-child unit through the elimination of the father.” What’s especially interesting in the case of Kill Bill, is that while Bill is Beatrix’s ex-lover, he’s also a patriarchal figure to her (she even introduces him as her father at the wedding rehearsal) in addition to being the father of her child. Ultimately, in order to gain guardianship of her daughter, she must also liberate herself from his patriarchal hold.
Despite the seemingly empowering act of liberating herself from Bill, Dancey notes that the reestablishment of Kiddo’s motherhood is complicated and not necessarily a feminist act, depending on one’s perspective:
“Both The Long Kiss Goodnight and Kill Bill transform the single mother – typically portrayed as powerless, tragic, and even pathetic, particularly in the woman’s film – into a violent and destructive force to be reckoned with. However, this potentially liberating activity does little to actually challenge the traditional cultural notions about parenting and gender – in fact, through their melodramatic vilification of the paternal and their emphasis on the reunion between mother and child as narrative resolution, both films reinforce the idea that a child ‘naturally’ belongs with the mother as primary caregiver. Thus, while Beatrix and Charly [Geena Davis’ character in The Long Kiss Goodnight] are subversively violent and self-sufficient single mothers, their actions actually serve to reinforce retrograde, sexist ideas about the nuclear family.”
But while Kill Bill does seem to emphasize matriarchal tendencies as natural and even necessary (concluding with a title card that reads: “The lioness has rejoined her cub, and all is right in the jungle”) Tarantino’s film does give great value to the mother, who’s often marginalized in Hollywood narratives and nearly absent in action-centric genres.
In a particularly fascinating moment, after Beatrix has killed Bill and escaped with her daughter, Kiddo is alone on the floor of a hotel bathroom while her daughter watches TV in the other room. She’s sprawled out on the floor dressed in all white (much like she was as The Bride at the beginning of the film), holding a large teddy bear and crying. At first, she appears to be weeping tears of sadness and regret; maybe she’s mourning the death of Bill, or what could have been if she stayed with him and they raised B.B. together? But quickly, her tears turn to laughter, and then joy. “Thank you…thank you…thank you…” she whispers to herself. In this scene, unlike in Jackie Brown, Thurman’s character is given permission to cry – and her tears are as intense and complicated as the journey she took to get there. Between Jackie Brown to Kill Bill, though just six years had passed, it appears that Tarantino’s understanding of emotion and expression may have become more complex and nuanced. Or maybe he simply understood why a mother would cry for her child?
In a 2004 interview for Entertainment Weekly, Kay Schilling asked Tarantino if he considered himself to be a feminist:
“ET: After seeing Reservoir Dogs, I never would have pegged you as a feminist. But Jackie Brown and The Bride are two of the most multidimensional women ever in genre films.
QT: I almost feel weird about categorizing [myself] as feminist. Not because I am demonizing the word, but I think it’s more of a femininity, and an appreciation for women rather than a label.”
Tarantino went on to describe how growing up with a single mother had influenced his work, and explained that his mother’s best friend, also named Jackie, was much of the inspiration for Jackie Brown. Knowing Tarantino’s own history with his parents (being raised by a single mother while his father was absent) it’s not totally surprising that a film with an intense connection to family and motherhood could be written by a man with such a strong appreciation for his single mother and her best friend.
Though there are complicated ways in which both Jackie Brown and Kill Bill support traditional representations of women on-screen, each film also fiercely challenges conventional characterizations of women in action genres. Not only did Tarantino choose to place women in the leading roles of three of his first five films, but the characters that he wrote for Pam Grier and Uma Thurman are undeniably smart, determined, and formidable. Jackie Brown and Beatrix Kiddo liberate themselves from the dominant and physically threatening men in their lives, and additionally, they come out at the other end far more powerful than they were when their struggles began. Women’s empowerment, by way of emancipation from a patriarchal figure, is showcased in the climax of both films – and while Tarantino’s own “male gaze” is not totally erased from these works, the effects of his gaze are dulled by the independence and power of these two leading ladies. Though Quentin Tarantino has not identified himself as a feminist, and while not all films within his body of work evoke a sense of woman’s empowerment, it seems that Jackie Brown and Kill Bill have been stamped by Tarantino with an unmistakable endorsement of women’s empowerment.
 Gerald Peary, Quentin Tarantino: Interviews, Revised and Updated, (University of Mississippi, 2013), 110
 Peary, Interviews, 111
 Pam Grier and Andrea Cagan, Foxy: My Life in Three Acts, (New York: Springboard, 2010), 243
 Grier and Cagan, Foxy, 244
 Peary, Interviews, 128
 Lesel Dawson, “Revenge and the Family Romance in Tarantino’s Kill Bill,” (Project MUSE, 2014), 125-6
 Angela Dancey, “Killer Instincts: Motherhood and Violence in The Long Kiss Goodnight and Kill Bill,” (Greenwood Group, 2009), 84
 Dancey, “Killer Insticts,” 85
 Peary, Interviews, 134