Friday, November 14, 2003

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Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Bill!

Note: Written before seeing Kill Bill Volume 2.

On the invitation from another media-obsessed friend, I recently went to see Quentin Tarantino's latest popfest Kill Bill Volume 1. It wasn't bad for being essentially two hours of cinematic fanfiction. C'mon, admit it - it's not difficult to picture this film starting out as some kind of LiveJournal plotbunny challenge: "Oh yeah? Well, I'm gonna write my own kung fu film! And it'll have Charlie's Angels in it, and swordfights, and Kwai Chang Caine, and Bruce Lee's jumpsuit, and all the music I like. Current mood: jazzed boyeeee!"

Not long after seeing the film, it hit me that I'd finally seen a female version of a "You touched my stuff" film. Amazing! I never thought I'd actually see one in the mainstream.

Let me tell you a bit about this kind of story. It's the simple formula:

Man + Dead/Violated Wife + Thirst for Violent Vengeance = Movie

I broke it down like this in conversation with friends after we'd just seen the film The Salton Sea, which follows the formula to the letter. Man's wife is killed by druggies, as shown in flashback. Man wants revenge. Cue movie. And as I thought about it some more, I realized that the same cheesy formula is the driving force behind a number of films. Memento. Gladiator. The Punisher. A Man Apart. And so on.

In my cruder moments, I began referring to this plot formula as "You Touched My Stuff" because in these films, the woman is treated as an object. She's a Macguffin. For all of the depth with which they explore the woman's personality, she is movie furniture. The bad man/men who are the object of revenge might as well have burned down the hero's business, shot the hero's partner, or strung up the hero's dog. Think about it - what can you tell me about Leonard's wife in Memento? What can you tell me about Maximus's wife and child? Can you tell me what kind of music they liked, or their favorite foods? No. Because of this, they are objects. They are not people - they are representative of "happier times" or "home", the things that made the hero happy and were taken away from him to make him sad. They are stuff. The hero's motivation becomes "Hey, you fucked with my stuff."

I know that the protagonists themselves aren't necessarily explored in much further depth in these films. I can't really tell you all that much about Leonard (though I can at least tell you his name. What was his wife's name? ... Bueller? Bueller?). But the irritation behind this was that these roles are always men's roles. If there were equal bad movie time spent showing women in this way, I wouldn't mind as much and would chalk it up to crap Hollywood storytelling. But instead, every single time, it was a man out for revenge. It was a woman who was rendered an object. Joe Whitebread America has his American Dream® fucked with by Bad Men and decides to get even with a shotgun. I challenged my friends to name a single film in which the woman was in the vengeance-seeking role, and we couldn't come up with one. The most we could think of was Meryl Streep in the mama-bear role of The River Wild.

And then I watched Kill Bill, and I realized that I had finally seen a female treatment of "You Touched My Stuff." The Bride's soon-to-be husband and unborn child are murdered. Now, she is out kicking ass and taking names (and lives). The end. I can't even tell you what the bride's husband looks like. He's been stuff-ified. He's furniture.

Even having seen one, though, I'm still not satisfied. It could be considered a fairly good feminist step - the woman is the lead role in a vengeance movie, and I have yet to hear anyone make an issue out of her gender - they're all discussing her as the lead, not as a woman lead. She isn't shown wearing inappropriate fighting clothing like high heels or exploitative undercover costumes. She is portrayed as strong-willed and determined.

But at the end, you know what it means? Now women have the same access to ... absolute crap shorthand condescending Hollywood storytelling. Hooray. Now I have a completely new kettle of fish to fry.

Say Your Piece

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