Death Proof and the Contradictions of Quentin Tarantino's Strong Women

Movies Features Quentin Tarantino
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<i>Death Proof</i> and the Contradictions of Quentin Tarantino's Strong Women

I’m just going to say it: Quentin Tarantino’s contradictory treatment of his female characters will always puzzle, excite and disgust me in nearly equal measure.

With his 2019 film Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, the internet had seemingly been seared by a flamethrower, with scathing criticisms of his treatment of Margot Robbie’s character engulfing all corners of the discourse. She played Sharon Tate, but had very little dialogue—which made for ripe discussion about using women as props to further the stories of men, and how the filmmaker’s attitude toward these criticisms says something bigger about his approach to writing women. Buzzfeed’s Alison Willmore wrote that Tarantino’s dismissiveness is “emblematic of his insistence that his films can borrow power from real-world concerns but owe nothing to the actual people, especially the actual women, who experience them.”

Four years prior—in Tarantino’s western The Hateful Eight—Jennifer Jason Leigh’s gallows-bound fugitive is unsettlingly abused throughout the movie’s opening sequence, many times for a laugh. It’s a moment that pauses the world of the story, interjecting with the realities of today. It’s impossible to not feel uncomfortable in that moment, because you’re watching a woman completely stripped of agency, with her status as an excuse to do so. The intended effect is obvious: To make us feel disturbed, and for us to take note of the feeling. Polygon’s Simone de Rochefort wrote in response that “sometimes I feel like [Tarantino is] daring us to laugh at things he knows we shouldn’t laugh at, and that he gets off on that.”

Tarantino has also had sexist failures in objectifying ways, in ways that attempt a feminist stance but fail and in ways that perpetuates misogynistic violence—but it’s hard to deny that the women of Death Proof, his half of Grindhouse’s double feature, are anything other than compelling, three-dimensional representations of what women owning their power can and should be on-screen. Yet, the filmmaker is left grappling with his contradictions while building this memorable set of strong women, much like he’s been doing his entire career.

Death Proof follows two sets of women who come face-to-face with serial killer Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), who’s using his prized stunt car to murder women he stalks and emotionally manipulates. From the synopsis alone, it seems like these women are going to fall into infamous pre-millennium genre clichés, where the girls are hapless, sexualized, two-dimensional victims. However, Death Proof and its complexities are much more layered than any one stereotype. It’s more complicated than that. The movie is dripping in clichés about women, of course, but its tendency to force its women to teeter between damsels in distress and objects of infinite power both reinforces and contradicts Tarantino’s typical impulses. These, when considering his female characters, sometimes border on exploitative and other times empowering. His choices are often bewildering—from the way he frames the women in Death Proof and his other works to the dialogue he gives them in his scripts—no matter how much fun the final product ends up being.

The film’s complicated relationship with women starts in its first seconds. An attractive set of feet dangle out of a car window backdropping the open credits introducing “The Girls.” These women are sectioned off and commodified in the opening credits—labeled as a group using their gender as the only identifier—but they are also top billed, their importance made obvious from the start. It’s the first of many contradictions, because they’re also overwhelmingly in positions of power. In the first set of women, Jungle Julia Lucai (Sydney Tamiia Poitier) is our matriarch—certainly the most elevated of the bunch with a career as a famous Austin radio DJ. The second set of women are a group of friends who are each at the top of their prospective careers: A famous actress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), her makeup artist (Rosario Dawson) and a pair of top-notch stuntwomen (Tracie Thoms and Zoe Bell).

Building female characters with agency is a decision Tarantino seems to make willy-nilly as it suits him. He’s done it about as many times as he’s decided against it throughout his filmography: Uma Thurman’s The Bride from Kill Bill and Diane Kruger’s Bridget von Hammersmark from Inglourious Basterds are just two of several on both sides of the mark. Here, they’re juxtaposed with a wealth of objectifying shots peppered throughout the film. The focus on legs and feet are obvious, especially when you remember the director’s proclivities, and there are tons of shots with a clear-cut emphasis on the vagina itself in a way that feels slightly exploitative. Certainly it feels birthed from the male gaze, a framework through which a director, an audience, a character, or a combination of the three holds the male viewpoint in the highest esteem.

In the first two minutes alone, Tarantino objectifies women bending over and holding their vagina to stave off urination. This isn’t to say that sexy women who highlight their bodies can’t be powerful or attain the same level of agency as women who choose to be more conservative. However, it comes off more like we’re watching someone play with dolls. He’s posing these women in ways that are pleasing to him, that highlight their sexuality in ways that are a touch away from innocuous yet fall inevitably victim to the filmmaker’s framing.

During a night out at the bar, Stuntman Mike is questioned about his credits in Hollywood and goes on a long tangent explaining his career to a group of female bar-goers, mansplaining to women who are almost giddy in their ignorance. Tarantino seems to be going for this effect as well, with all of the women—including Rose McGowan’s memorable Pam—acting outwardly dumb and unbothered by not knowing about what Mike asserts were popular TV shows during a certain era. The scene feels like what men see and hear when a woman’s knowledge is questioned. The self-aware decision to design a scene in this way, with Mike’s point of view being favored, in turn complicates how Tarantino presents the film. Later, Mike approaches Jungle Julia and her friends in an attempt to seduce one of their party. He reads Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito) a verse from Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”—a task, proposed by Julia herself on-air, which she’d reward with a lapdance. It feels as scummy as it sounds, but it fits Mike. Mike’s eager coaxing takes center stage during the scene, yet the women are in command for quite a bit of the verbal tussle. It’s a power play, and it ends with Mike’s insatiability winning out.

In the second half of the movie—when the picture turns its attention on a second group of women filming a movie in Lebanon, Tennessee—the male gaze complicates the film and its characters again. Lee (Winstead) asks Abby (Dawson) to purchase a magazine she’s making an appearance in that month. After ringing up the purchase, the clerk asks if Abby is interested in any other fashion magazines, an inquiry dripping in glaring stereotypes. Abby moves to leave before the clerk adds that he has a copy of Italian Vogue for sale if she’s interested—which, of course, she totally is.

It’s a plot point that could’ve really only come from a man, because it’s so silly and superfluous. Of course women love fashion magazines. They obviously understand the God-like quality of Italian Vogue. The film expects women to lean into their femininity at all costs, especially when men are concerned. Abernathy and Lee are definitely supposed to be the opposite of the stunties as the more femme-presenting members of the group, but there are a ton of different ways you could show that without relying on the tired, broad and sexist cliché of “fashion.”

This brings me to the dialogue, mostly spoken by women. It’s in that heightened Tarantino dialect that relies on the aforementioned stereotypes and assumptions of how women speak to each other when men aren’t around. Despite its flaws, it doesn’t entirely pull you out of the piece, though it fits better with the second set of girls. It’s more believable—maybe because of Thoms and Bell, whose characters are both harsh and hard talkers, the kind the filmmaker has built a career on writing—and it says a lot about Tarantino’s proximity to women and what he’s learned from them.

Speaking of what he’s learned, Death Proof mainly proves that Tarantino can hit home runs when it comes giving female characters the power they are entitled to—and that he can capture the unique anguish and fear that stems directly from their gender. Pam is psychologically tortured and brutally murdered at the hands of the stuntman shortly after they leave the bar together; what happens to her is a woman’s typical nightmare, perfectly framed as such. The situation is obviously heightened—they’re driving in a “death-proof” vehicle—but Tarantino gets the specifics of the situation achingly right. McGowan’s performance while she begs for her life is truly haunting, and Russell’s choices match hers with striking force.

Tarantino also nails the diner scene. An obvious successor to the famous Reservoir Dogs scene, it’s not dumbed down in the way you’d expect after seeing Mike’s treatment of the women in the bar or hearing some of the first group of girls’ conversations. Bell’s character—a fictionalized version of herself, a real-life stunt performer and a Tarantino regular—defies gender conventions as the antithesis of the more femme-presenting characters. Thoms’ character joins her in that defiance. Even Abernathy straddles the line, with her willingness to go toe-to-toe with the stuntwomen despite her conventionally feminine makeup artist job. Jungle Julia was the picture of a high femme fatale; her friends were the perfect Mean Girls-esque sidekicks, lacquered in sex appeal and girl-next-door (but-in-a-porno) vibes. But with Bell and Thoms, the conversation turns unconventional and goes from discussions about men to talk of stunting fast cars and a bit of con-artistry. Certainly not the stereotypical “girl talk” one would expect from some of the filmmaking. The diner scene has the spirit, verve, cadence and tone of its Reservoir Dogs predecessor, something Tarantino doesn’t always afford his female characters. This, in turn, bolsters the film’s final act, during which these women are further afforded the chance to cut their teeth like Reservoir Dogs guys.

In the movie’s climax, Tarantino captures the beautiful recklessness women possess when driven by instinct. He spotlights their ability to throw caution to the wind when they have nothing to lose, a wild survival skill birthed from the female experience. Women field so much abuse, gaslighting and sabotage over the course of our lives that many of us, as the saying goes, live long enough to see ourselves become the villain. It’s natural to want an aggressor to experience similar pain to what they’ve inflicted upon you. In turn, highlighting this daring impulse proves that men meet their match in us. The four women set off to meet a local man who has a rare model of a famous stunt car for sale, deciding to con him into letting them take it for a test drive. While on the road, they play a game called ship’s mast: Bell death-defyingly dangles on the hood of the car, holding onto belts hooked onto its sides, while it drives at high speed. They acknowledge it as stupid, and it subsequently terrifies them when Mike finds and toys with them on the road.

The final act becomes a metaphor for how men are quick to smite that aforementioned rebelliousness. Mike finds the women and starts a dangerous car chase, smashing his vehicle into theirs—with Bell on the hood. It’s quite literally an attempt to silence her, both by literally killing her and by proving a sense of dominance over someone who clearly has a command over themselves. I mean, only a stuntwoman who knew the limits of her skills would perform an exploit like that, and someone with that kind of confidence can be a prime target for the domineering sadism of men. Tarantino builds a metaphor with this climax that fits right in with the kind of catharsis we want to see for the story’s women. It even highlights that the women who end up doing Mike in are quite literally his equals: Other stuntpeople.

The main thing Tarantino gets right here—and that he gets right in other films, like the Kill Bill series—is that female revenge couldn’t be more deserved. The women eventually get the drop on Mike and outsmart him, leaving him powerless and cornered. The film ends with the women getting their brutal retribution by beating Mike to a senseless pulp, and it’s a delight after what they’ve endured. It’s a labor to watch them go through it, so when they finally get theirs? It rules, no matter how violent. There is an agency in being able to enact violence and, while it is generally not the answer, this is a story where a lesson needed to be taught. In the cinematic universe Tarantino has built throughout his career, violence is often the only answer—thus, the girls’ revenge is almost expected, yet it isn’t any less earned or satisfying. As the gaze completely shifts at the end of Death Proof to a female-centered perspective, it complicates the film as a whole, highlighting the contradictions of Tarantino’s point of view throughout his filmography. Tarantino’s preoccupation with the idealized stereotype of women can muddle his best points when it comes to his strong female leads, but it doesn’t entirely spoil their endings—and in that, his portrayals gain merit. Despite their sometimes contradictory peers, the strength of the filmmaker’s best female characters is too bold to ignore.

Lex Briscuso is an entertainment, film and culture writer who eats, sleeps, and breathes exceptional horror, sweeping dramas, and top-notch acting. She is a news desk writer at /Film and has bylines at FANGORIA, The Guardian, Shudder’s The Bite and EUPHORIA. Her horror radio show, YOUR NICHE IS DEAD, is live Mondays 5pm ET. She tweets @nikonamerica.

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