In 1949, Simone de Beauvoir published The Second Sex, a treatise on feminism that was regarded as a central fixture of the feminist movement for decades. The work sought to liberate women from the oppression imposed by male-dominated society, arguing against the categorization of women as “the Other,” the pure valuation of beauty, and the trend of defining the female identity based on feminine biology. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, a number of films emerged that claimed to fulfill de Beauvoir’s conception of the liberated woman. Notable among these films is Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, which touted its female lead and her supposed agency. However, despite its proposition of female liberation, Kill Bill, when truly viewed in the context of The Second Sex, is actually a work that perpetuates the entrapment of women within societal norms. While the film places its protagonist—the Bride (Uma Thurman)—in positions of agency, it still frames her as “the Other” to the societal default represented by men. The physical beauty of the protagonist is associated with her value as a character; her biology serves not as a source of liberation but rather forced motivation and objectification. Ultimately, she is portrayed not simply as a character acting powerfully, but distinctly as a woman who is singled out and fetishized for her agency, contributing to her status as Other. With Kill Bill, the film’s story arc derives from the societal conception of feminine biology and places undue focus on female beauty and intense metatetextual focus on the Bride’s assumption of masculine agency.
Crucial to understanding Kill Bill’s perpetuation of female oppression is the cinematic concept of the male gaze. Because the creators and audiences of film, as with much of society, are dominated by masculine cultural norms, the depiction of elements on film (particularly women) is shaped by a certain implicit bias, even if this bias is not so obvious in the film’s events. As a result, while a female character, for example, might seem to act with agency and power in the diegetic events of a film, her actions are still filtered through the non- diegetic techniques in which filmmakers frame those events, and consequently may still be implicitly fetishized or oppressed. Mulvey summarizes the male gaze:
The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly…women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact…they can be said to connote to-be-looked- at-ness. (Mulvey 2086)
Much as the events in a novel are not congruent with that novel’s literary form, the actual events that occur onscreen in a film are filtered through the lens of its gaze, imbuing these events with subtle biases. For the representation of women, this means filtering the actions and depictions of a female character through an often oppressive male gaze. Therefore, in examining the feminist implications of films like Kill Bill, one must examine not just the events they depict but also the manner in which they are depicted, the gaze in which they are viewed. Therefore, this paper will employ the term “gaze” to denote situations in which the implicit biases of the filmmaker and society frame the raw events of the narrative itself.
Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, originally distributed as two films in 2003 and 2004, was hailed upon its release as a landmark feminist action film, one that would enable women to take on the agentive, powerful roles typically reserved for male characters in cinema. Indeed, Tapia notes that many critics found that the film’s “inversion of traditional gender roles, particularly as they relate to the execution of extreme violence, strikes a ready chord with…the feminist sensibilities of a good many women” (Taipa 34). However, while Kill Bill does feature the Bride as a strong character, she is not truly the liberated woman proposed by Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex. She remains trapped within the societal values imposed upon female physiology, chiefly the process of maternity. De Beauvoir suggests as a crucial concept the idea that the human body, whether it be male or female, is simply a neutral situation of being onto which society projects values—and the values projected onto female physiology often serve to imprison women within society. In the second chapter of The Second Sex, de Beauvoir establishes this more existential view of the female body:
[M]an is not a natural species; he is a historical idea…however, one might say, in the position I adopt…if the body is not a thing, it is a situation: it is out grasp on the world and the outline for our projects...These facts cannot be denied: but they do not carry their meaning in themselves. As soon as we accept a human perspective, defining the body starting from existence, biology becomes an abstract science (De Beauvoir 45-46).
Man and woman, de Beauvoir asserts, are little more than societal constructs which are arbitrarily assigned to existing physiology; there is no inherent value or disvalue in female or male physiology, only the ideas assigned to them. To assign arbitrary valuations to certain aspects of physiology, then, is to become imprisoned by the society that creates these values—and it is here that Kill Bill imprisons its protagonist.
The film’s driving force, the motivating factor that underpins the entire character of the Bride, is ultimately a societally-sanctified sense of motherhood rather than pride in her own self. While the film seems to revolve around a sense of self-vindication—with the unnamed Bride, an assassin who is betrayed by her associates and left for dead, entering into a quest for revenge—it is immediately clear that the deeper motivation for the Bride’s quest is the murder of her daughter, the representation of her biological maternity. In fact, the very first lines of Kill Bill: Volume 1 establish the character’s maternity, with the Bride, brutally beaten and isolated in the frame, saying: “Bill, it’s your baby,” before she is shot. The next scene, transitioning ahead five years later, sees the now- recovered Bride confronting and killing Vernita Green (Vivica Fox), one of the assassins who betrayed her. Over the course of this scene, the Bride’s dialogue and the film’s cinematic focus on Green’s adolescent daughter betray the Bride’s basic drive for vengeance not simply for herself but for, seemingly more importantly, her daughter. While the Bride’s quest for vengeance is undoubtedly noble because she herself was violated, the film implies that its true justness come from the fact that her maternity was violated. This focus, which values woman’s physiological ability to bear children over any self-derived virtue, betrays the female repression that the film actually perpetuates. The Bride is not a woman whose motivations are a self-defined response to her own situation. They are rather, on the level of basic character motivation, derived from her female capacity for motherhood. Consequently, on a basic level, the Bride is not liberated from but rather restrained within the bounds of traditional societal norms.
Moreover, in The Second Sex, de Beauvoir further develops the idea that an unliberated individual is forced to comply with the subconscious values imprinted by society: [The species’] customs cannot be deduced from biology; individuals are never left to their nature; they obey this second nature, that is, customs in which the desires and fears that express their ontological attitude are reflected. It is not as a body but as a body subjected to taboos and laws that the subject gains consciousness of and accomplishes himself…physiology cannot ground values; rather, biological data take on those values the existent confers on them. (De Beauvoir 47) De Beauvoir asserts that values and things do not have merit in themselves, only the merit that society assigns to them. Women, then, cannot be liberated from the oppression of male-dominated society when they are forced to adhere to the values that are arbitrarily projected onto female physiology. In Kill Bill, the protagonist is shackled by the societal valuations of physiology, not just through her pigeonholed character motivation but also through the sanctification of motherhood in the film’s plot structure. On a basic level, the plot of Kill Bill’s first installment is to avenge the Bride’s presumably deceased child, but, following the climactic reveal that the child is alive, the plot movement of Kill Bill: Volume 2 becomes intensely focused on the inevitable reunion between mother and child—the fulfillment of societally valued maternity. The glorification of the Bride’s biological maternity (nother own virtue) is what enables her, within the gaze of the camera, to escape from harrowing experiences (such as an encounter displayed during Volume 2, in which a rival assassin takes mercy on the Bride because she has just learned she is pregnant), to overcome her enemies, and to reunite with her child, four-year old B.B. As Goren suggests, the Bride and other contemporary media heroines “[acquired] their particular powers as a result of their pregnancies” (Goren 161). While the Bride’s martial skill and personal perseverance do valorize her in the camera’s gaze, her quest is elevated from a killing spree to a noble quest for justice by the concept of biological motherhood. As a result, it is clear that the film’s driving themes do not come from the existentialist self-worth that de Beauvoir would suggest, but instead from a biological factor whose only value derives from masculine society itself.
No matter how atypically powerful the Bride might be in achieving her goals, she is ultimately only doing so in adherence to a constrictive societal norm for women. Indeed, the film’s deification of motherhood is punctuated in the final shots of Kill Bill: Volume 2 that see the Bride lounging peacefully with her daughter, her quest fulfilled. In keeping with the film’s intense valorization of female reproductive biology (which, in turn, traps the Bride in confined systems of motivation), the plot of the film itself is not truly concluded until the protagonist has fulfilled her societally designated role to rear and protect a child. As Tapia articulates, “The journey ends with the restoration to wholeness of the three most important fantasy-objects in the American historical visual drama of white self-making: the white mother…the white child…and their indestructible bond” (Taipa 35). Finally, as though to dispel any ambiguity in the themes that underpin the film, Tarantino concludes the film with an epithet, “The lioness has been reunited with her cub and all is right in the jungle.” With the Bride securely adherent to society’s perception of female physiology, trapped within its bindings, the camera’s gaze finds that the world itself has reached a sense of peace. Contrary to de Beauvoir’s image of a liberated woman, in which “the mother’s attitude was to be defined by the way in which she assumed motherhood, with all the contextual variables that this might involve” (McDonald 57), the film ascribes supposedly objective value to the biological process of motherhood, and as a result further traps its protagonist within traditional norms. Clearly, then, Kill Bill’s basic character motivations and themes do not work to liberate its protagonist as some might suggest; rather, their adherence to societal valuations of physiology actually serves to further entrap her within traditional gender roles.
Beyond the film’s adherence to biological valuations of women, Kill Bill’s moment-to-moment scripting provides frequent moments in which the Bride’s beauty is associated with the value of her character—which, according to de Beauvoir, works to further the oppression of all women. In The Second Sex, de Beauvoir asserts that, throughout their lives, women are indoctrinated into seeing their own bodies as merely desirable objects, and as a result try—and fail—to achieve satisfaction through an internal narcissism. Enforced through the objectification of women’s bodies, De Beauvoir argues, this narcissism leads to a degradation of the female self:
[T]he narcissist, alienating herself in her imaginary double, destroys herself. Her memories become fixed, her behavior stereotyped, she dwells on the same words, repeats gestures that have lost all meaning…the woman narcissist suffers a radical failure. She cannot grasp herself as a totality, as plenitude; she cannot maintain the illusion of being itself—for itself...she dooms herself to the most severe slavery; she does not make the most of her freedom, she makes herself an endangered object[.] (De Beauvoir 681)
The narcissism cultivated in the woman by masculine society forces her into rote, shallow modes of thought, with the woman attempting to achieve some freedom through self-obsession, but inevitably failing because she cannot truly situate herself within society as an individual. While not a dramatically noticeable trait in the Bride herself, societally imposed narcissism takes a major role in much of the moment-to-moment dialogue of Kill Bill, working contrary to the liberation that the film supposedly propones. Throughout the film, male characters make numerous casual—but still clear—references to the Bride’s beauty, invariably in such a way that objectifies her as an individual. In a scene in Volume 2, Bill (the film’s titular antagonist) comments that the Bride looks beautiful in her wedding dress shortly before committing a massacre at the wedding. Later, the detectives investigating the crime scene remark that the near-dead Bride looks like a “blood-splattered angel” and that “man would have to be a mad dog to shoot a goddamn good-looking girl in the head like that.” (Tarantino, 2003. 19:18-19:25). In a scene in Volume 1, the sexually abusive orderly at the Bride’s hospital comments that, even while comatose, she is beautiful; and, upon urging from Bill, even the Bride’s daughter remarks on the Bride’s beauty when they first meet. While one could simply relegate these remarks to the realm of meaningless dialogue or as scenes which were meant to be offputting, the fact remains that they, as miniscule remarks of objectification, were purposefully placed in the film when they just as easily may not have been. Keeping this in mind, it is apparent that Kill Bill’s masculine voyeurism works to enforce the standards that drive the narcissism suggested by de Beauvoir. Though the Bride herself is ultimately victorious, her body remains objectified and by extension her physical beauty is made into a marker of character within the film’s gaze. Unlike some sense of liberated self-love, a more tempered narcissism, the objectification that targets the Bride is almost entirely created and enforced by men, not her own want or need for physical validation, and is ultimately associated with her personal value. As a result, the film’s reinforcement of destructive female narcissism serves to further displace it from the liberation it supposedly embodies. Furthermore, the repeated emphasis on the Bride’s physical beauty only works to emphasize the jarring quality of her femininity within the environment of the action film, forcing her into the role of the societal Other—one of de Beauvoir’s most striking concepts.
Besides the physical and physiological valuation (and oppression) within Kill Bill’s narrative, a sense of Otherness, as described by de Beauvoir, pervades the film’s action, working to further inter the Bride in the oppression of traditional masculine culture. The Other, as envisioned by de Beauvoir in The Second Sex, describes the social trend in which man has been classified as the natural societal default, with woman being the Other; this pattern is so deeply inset that women have come to see themselves as the Other. De Beauvoir develops the concept extensively in the introductory chapter of The Second Sex:
He is the Subject; he is the Absolute. She is the Other…But what singularly defines the situation of woman is that being…she discovers and chooses herself in a world where men force her to assume herself as Other: How, in the feminine condition, can a human being accomplish herself? What paths are open to her? (De Beauvoir 6, 17)
De Beauvoir suggests that no matter how powerful a woman may appear, the possibility remains that she may exist under the oppression of masculine societal norms; everything, even female independence, exists relative to men. It is in this very female independence that Kill Bill fails to achieve its supposed theme of liberation, as the Bride, for all her agency, is consistently defined as an aberration, an Other. Within the biased gaze of the camera, in a film largely written by and entirely directed by a man, the Bride is not portrayed with complete neutrality, but rather as unusual and attractive for her level of agency. This tonality of Otherness is expressed both explicitly and implicitly throughout the film, with a perseveration on the Bride’s subversion of tropes—which, in turn, simply perpetuates the normalcy of the tropes themselves and highlights the Bride as an unusual exception to them.
In a more apparent example early on in Kill Bill: Volume One, the Bride meets with Hattori Hanzo, an Okinawan swordsmith who initially patronizes her as an ignorant American, female tourist. Subsequently, she begins speaking in fluent Japanese, much to Hanzo’s surprise, and he agrees to work with her—a dramatic shift that the film takes care to highlight. While the film strives to convey this moment as an instance of feminist empowerment, the very fact that it denotes the Bride alone as the exception to Hanzo’s implicitly sexist attitude only further highlights her as an Other within the gaze of the camera. She has not struck a blow for all womankind, but has rather been presented by the film as a rare exception to correct societal norms. Hanzo’s patriarchal behavior has not been invalidated because it is inherently wrong, but because, in this rare case, the Bride is an outlier. A further instance of this implicit Otherness comes in a sequence in Kill Bill: Volume 2, in which the Bride is taken in as a student by the sexist, xenophobic kung fu master Pai Mei. Before meeting with Pai Mei, the Bride is warned by the patriarchal figure of Bill that the sage “hates Caucasians, despises Americans, and has nothing but contempt for women,” and that it is crucial she not talk back to or resist him. Indeed, Bill’s warning proves correct, as Pai Mei brutalizes the Bride and insults her womanhood throughout their training, until she comes to earn his respect and become his prized pupil. Once again, the film presents a story beat which supposedly liberates the Bride’s character—but which, in actuality, only further entraps her in Otherness. By the end of her training, the Bride is certainly held in high regard by Pai Mei, but she has not truly been released from the sexism that so oppressed her. She has worked to become an exception to Pai Mei’s sexism and to the societal standards represented in the camera’s gaze, but she has not escaped from societal enslavement itself. In fact, her training revolved around gratification from a man (Pai Mei) and ultimately did nothing to disprove his sexist conceptions, only present the Bride as a “rare” case in which a woman can be powerful. In this way, the film continues to represent the Bride as an Other, one who is not free from societal conceptions about womanhood but who is simply a rare aberration on otherwise-valid standards of repression. Therefore, she is not the focal point of her own independence, as De Beauvoir would advocate, but is instead enslaved woman still defined by her relation from men.
Moreover, de Beauvoir suggests that, even if a woman if powerful, she still exists as an Other to men if she continues to exist only in response to them:
Humanity is male, and man defines woman, not in herself, but in relation to himself; she is not considered an autonomous being…she is determined and differentiated in relation to man, while he is not in relation to her; she is the inessential in front of the essential. (De Beauvoir 6)
The nature of womanhood, De Beauvoir explains, has been defined entirely in relation and opposition to men, so women cannot achieve any real sense of fulfillment. Furthermore, if a woman’s being is defined in relation to men, rather than from her own self-validation, she still remains imprisoned as an Other. Kill Bill performs this very sort of Othering through its characterization of the Bride’s agentive behavior, framing her depiction as not a neutral, self-created sense of power, but rather an appropriated “masculine” power. The particular manner in which the film frames the Bride’s action continues to highlight her Otherness. Throughout the film,Tarantino strives to establish the Bride’s sense of agency and action as subversive of traditional sexual roles in action films. The film draws specific attention to the fact that the Bride is adopting the practices traditionally reserved for men.
Though there is little direct mention of the unusual quality of the Bride’s agency, the film’s gaze works to emphasize the atypical, appropriative nature of her action. From the very first action scene in Kill Bill: Volume One, in which the Bride engages in brutal combat with Vernita Green, the film subtly highlights its difference from traditional action films, never failing to remind the audience that the Bride is a woman in a role of action. Later, in the climactic scene of Volume One, the Bride is dressed in a yellow jumpsuit that pays homage to the costume worn by martial arts icon Bruce Lee in Game of Death (1972), as if to draw the viewer’s attention to the fact that the Bride is not Bruce Lee, is not a man, but is a woman. Although the film construes its presentation of the Bride as a liberating destruction of gender norms, this presentation, in reality, only further reinforces those gender roles. The fact that the Bride is so intensely denoted as an exception signals that she has not slipped free of oppressive gender roles, but has simply positioned herself as a rare aberration—a woman who acts as a man “should.” Consequently, little is truly done to either liberate the Bride or propone liberation for women as a whole: the central woman in the film is framed only in opposition, Otherness, against men. Indeed, as Reilly argues, “Kill Bill is a meditation on the subversive nature of a woman’s appropriation of male heroic principles” (Reilly 28). In her agentive behavior, the Bride is not framed as defining herself from within, creating and expressing her own behavior and norms. Instead, she is simply taking on behaviors that the camera defines as distinctly masculine. Therefore, in the context of De Beauvoir’s concept of the Other, it is clear that the Bride has not truly been liberated from the societal repression that binds all women. Whereas a liberated woman would draw within herself to define a unique sense of agency, the Bride’s agency is defined by the camera’s gaze as being simply the agency of a man projected onto the figure of an upstart, abnormal woman. In this way, she continues to exist only in her relation to men, and remains trapped by masculine societal norms.
In summary, while Kill Bill posits itself as a landmark action film that supposedly liberates its female characters and audience, the film only reinforces the societal structures that trap women. At every level of its existence, the film acts contrary to the standards of liberation suggested by Simone De Beauvoir in The Second Sex. On a subtextual level, it assigns arbitrary valuation to the biological process of motherhood and uses motherhood to define the motivations of its female characters and its plot structure. On a textual level, its repeated emphasis on the Bride’s physical beauty highlights her as an object to be fetishized by men and suggests an association between her beauty and her internal character. Finally, on a metatextual level, its perseveration on the Bride as an exceptional female hero filling a masculine role serves to define her as an Other who exists only in her relation to men, not by her own accord or agency. For all its attempts to suggest a liberated woman, Kill Bill ultimately fails at producing such a vision since it is incapable of divorcing its female protagonist from the arbitrary standards imposed on her body and from the self-definition of Other that men impose upon her. The inability of the film to achieve female liberation speaks to the necessity for future films to frame their female characters in a broader context. Certainly, not every film is required to display a vision of a fully liberated woman. However, if a film does attempt female liberation, implicitly or not, it must do so in a way that establishes woman as a means to herself, as a fully independent figure who is free to exist as her own being.