Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof: The Feminist Approach

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Using Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, produce a reading using the feminist approach.

Feminist theory looks particularly at mainstream Hollywood cinema. To most feminist theorists, they are structured accordingly to the patriarchal point of view, making narrative, meaning and pleasure appealing to male audiences, and in turn disavowing women’s voice, representation and cinematic enjoyment. Feminists initially wanted to reassert women’s right to be political and social subjects. Since second-wave feminism, the Women’s movement has become more than just a rebalancing of gender hierarchy but an attempt at legitimizing women’s representation as they truly see themselves: thinking, moving, living subjects and not men’s objects. Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof [1]is a thriller inspired by American independent ‘grind house’ exploitation and B movies of the sixties and seventies.[2] Is the audience’s gaze throughout male or female? Is the gender representation patriarchal or feminist? Will both or either feel pleasure in watching it? Can this film be considered a feminist film?

At first glance, Death Proof is a patriarchal narrative, supported to a large extent by psychoanalytic evidence[3]. Laura Mulvey argues that mainstream Hollywood cinema is a representation of conventions as seen in the patriarchal culture, using mise-en-scène to represent cinematic ideologies and visual manipulation to create spectators’ pleasure[4]. Cinema’s pleasures are multiple. The first she explains is scopophilia, described to great lengths in Freudian terms. One’s own scopophilia or the voyeuristic pleasure of looking for sexual stimulation, developed during the pre-genital phase, is satisfied whilst watching Hollywood cinema.[5] She draws irrefutable parallels with the audience watching a film, like the repressed exhibitionism of the spectator watching on one hand and the projection on the other hand of repressed desires projected on screen.[6] Like the child’s curiosity concerning privacy or prohibition, ‘[w]hat is seen of the screen is so manifestly shown. But the mass of mainstream film, and the conventions within which it has consciously evolved, portray a hermetically sealed world which unwinds magically, indifferent to the presence of the audience, producing for them a sense of separation and playing on their voyeuristic phantasy.’[7]

Women on screen thus captivate the audiences, reinforcing verisimilitude. However, highlighting the icon factor of the star with a close-up or emphasis on certain body parts, reinforces symbolic imagery: indeed, Woman on screen in general is a major element of spectacle, and participates in what Mulvey calls the active male gaze.[8] Tarantino is a man. Being the director of the film, he acts as the active male gaze. His filming the female protagonists of Death Proof can thus be perceived as voyeurism. He definitely emphasizes certain body parts of the female characters, such as the legs and feet of Jungle Julia, lounging on a sofa under a poster of Brigitte Bardot in the same leggy position, put at their advantage on the local radio billboards she graces, getting rained upon on the porch of the bar she hangs out at, and continually shown with her feet hanging out the open backseat-window of the car, a build-up for the fatal car crash in which one of her leg is completely detached from her body and shown bouncing down the concrete road. The focus on female body parts, especially the feet, is typical Tarantino filming, as seen in Kill Bill: Vol.1 as The Bride tries to ‘wiggle [her] big toe’ after a four-year long failed-murder-attempt-induced coma.[9] In Jackie Brown, Melanie’s feet and toes – and a toe-ring - are the first body parts we ever see of her[10]. In Pulp Fiction, although no foot scene is shown, one of the most epic conversations held by protagonists Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield concerns giving a foot massage… and the sexual innuendo that incorporates[11]. The...
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