Film director Quentin Tarantino is best known for his acclaimed contributions to postmodern film, and The Kill Bill duology is hailed as the standard choice for showing his feminist leanings. The films tell the tale of a female assassin, Beatrix Kiddo, and her desire for revenge after being murdered at her wedding by a gang of assassins that she formerly belonged to. The leader of the gang, Bill, shot the pregnant bride in the head and placed her in comatose for four years. After waking up, she had a desire for revenge and aimed to kill everyone who was complicit in her death. To the audience, this story appears feminist. A strong female protagonist endures physically and emotionally challenging events in her quest for retribution. On the other hand, portrayals of extreme violence, mostly against women, and the significance of her pregnancy seem to contradict feminism. Does Beatrix Kiddo adhere to positive feminist interpretations? Does she still fall into the same tropes that are written for female characters? Or is she more complex than this? I would argue that throughout her evolution in the films, she holds a complicated identity and a characterisation that is ultimately feminist. Her ability to perform both masculine and feminine roles implies that she is more than just a one-dimensional character adhering to standard gender stereotypes.
By attempting to identify stereotypes that Kill Bill played into, I realised I was giving validity to social constructs that are abstract. Gender stereotypes are defined as personal beliefs about gender differences in trait characteristics, and is largely attributed to socialisation (Oxford Reference, 2020). The problem with stereotyping is that it enforces a gender binary and two strict categories under which one must fall. In addition, it fails to account for the flexibility in behaviour and appearance given a situation and ignores examples of men and women who do not fit certain gender stereotypes. Beatrix Kiddo provides a unique example of a female protagonist who shows duality in her gender performance. In Kill Bill 1 & 2, she is presented to the audience as both a deadly assassin and a loving mother. Her physical aggression and acts of violence are stereotypically masculine traits, whereas her maternal role is inherently a feminine one. Both roles are said to come natural to her. For example, in the final scene Bill calls her a ‘natural born killer’, yet she is also affectionate with her daughter when reunited. It is impossible to restrict Beatrix Kiddo to the dichotomy of masculinity and femininity because she defies the binary by performing both.
When seeking revenge against Copperhead, one of the gang members, Beatrix says is ‘It’s mercy, compassion and forgiveness I lack, not rationality’. Rationality is often a trait associated with masculinity, whereas compassion is feminised. Her self-awareness rejects the stereotype that suggests women should be forgiving and not seek violence, and it shows that she can be masculine in nature, not just feminine. On encountering Hattori Hanzō, the man she wished to make her a samurai sword, she first pretends to be naïve to the Japanese language. In this scene, she acts coy in an attempt to charm him. When he has warmed to her presence, she stops the act and proceeds to speak to him in fluent Japanese, asserting that she wants him to make her a sword for nothing in return. This illustrates the performative aspect of gender roles, and the ease with which she executed her feminine performance to get what she wants. Similarly, she performs similar feminised behaviour for Esteban Vihaio, a father-figure of Bill’s who knows his location. Beatrix’s performance of femininity allowed her to succeed in getting what she wanted from male characters and supports the theory of gender performativity. This suggests that we develop our gender from our performed behaviour (Judith Butler, 1990).
Feminist critiques of Kill Bill have drawn parallels with other action films like Terminator (2001) and Alien, both featuring a strong female action lead. These films are criticised for glorifying masculine characteristics as opposed to female ones, continuing the dominance of masculinity in action films. The female protagonists are also surrounded by a cast of male co-stars (Cristelle Maury & David Roche, 2020). It is unfair to say that these films glorify male traits, as women are capable of being masculine as men are feminine. We should be pushing beyond the rigidity of a masculine/feminine gender binary, not adhering to it. Beatrix is known in popular culture for her androgynous yellow jumpsuit, rather than a stereotypically hypersexualised appearance that is made for the male gaze. One famous example of this stereotype would be Lara Croft, who originated in the Tomb Raider videogames. The videogames industry, similar to comic books and films, is notorious for its reinforcing of gender stereotypes and misogynistic tropes.
Kill Bill is criticised for reinforcing the maternal stereotype. After finding out she is pregnant, Beatrix gives up her job as an assassin live in a small town with her husband. Moreover, it can be argued that the films reinforce the idea that women are dependent on the patriarchy to fulfil their independent role (Lisa V. Mazey, 2020). I would argue that this is part of her evolution, as she returns to the life of an assassin in order to seek revenge. It is fair to highlight how Beatrix receives martial arts education from Pai Mei, a character portrayed as incredibly misogynistic. His teachings helped her escape being buried alive, and one of his techniques allowed her to kill Bill in the final scene. This master-student story may be seen as reinforcing the patriarchy. However, she is a deadly assassin after all. Would it not be in her best interest to be under the tutelage of a master in martial arts?
Tarantino’s films are known for their violent bloodbath scenes, so to have a female protagonist lead performing these scenes subverts the hypersexualised stereotypes that are often placed on women in films and other media (like videogames as mentioned above). The intent of Tarantino as a feminist can be questioned, but Uma Thurman can be credited for bringing the role of Beatrix Kiddo to life through the lens of gender performance. Performing both masculine and feminine behaviours shows the audience that women can be complex characters, and that showing masculine traits is not a bad thing. Kill Bill is feminist in its gender ambiguity, and that is a legacy that should not be erased.
Butler, Judith, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (London: Routledge, 1990)
Maury, Cristelle & David Roche, Women Who Kill: Gender and Sexuality in Film and Series of the Post-Feminist Era (London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2020).
Mazey, Lisa V., Cinematic Women, From Objecthood to Heroism: Essays on Female Gender Representation on Western Screens and in TV Productions (Delaware: Vernon Press, 2020).
Oxford Reference, Definition of Gender Stereotypes, https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803095846645 (Accessed 20th February 2021).