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Kill Bill’s The Bride: A Feminist Hero?

Many have lauded Kill Bill’s The Bride as a feminist hero, but is that reputation deserved? Beyond the badass, powerful woman at its center, Quentin Tarantino’s 2003 thriller still traffics in some of the more exploitative aspects of the female revenge genre, complicating its legacy as a feminist film. Here’s our Take on how Kill Bill both defies and perpetuates those female revenge tropes, and why The Bride is still such a force to be reckoned with.

TRANSCRIPT

Bryan Mills: “If you let my daughter go now, that’ll be the end of it.” “But if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.”Taken

When Kill Bill arrived on the scene in 2003, it was celebrated for putting a badass powerful woman at the center of the story, and showing her get the kind of satisfying, bloody revenge typically reserved for popular male-led action flicks. But if you look closer, the film still traffics in some of the more exploitative aspects of the revenge genre— like the convention that a story about a woman seeking revenge must revolve around her being traumatized and assaulted. Here’s our Take on how Kill Bill both defies and perpetuates female revenge tropes — and why The Bride is still such a force to be reckoned with.

The Bride: “It’s mercy, compassion, and forgiveness I lack. Not rationality.” Kill Bill: Volume 1

Chapter One – Is Kill Bill Feminist?

It’s easy to see why Kill Bill was celebrated as a feminist movie upon its release: not only does it feature a strong woman who triumphs over her patriarchal abuser. It finds her facing off against several formidable women, from the sadistic schoolgirl Gogo Yubari to O-Ren Ishii, to her fellow Deadly Vipers Vernita Green and Elle Driver— dynamic, memorable characters who match The Bride in skill and determination. Kill Bill also doesn’t explicitly sexualize The Bride. So in this sense, The Bride is freed from the most insidious aspect of the male gaze, which so often undermines a strong female character’s agency and power by objectifying her. The film arguably even portrays The Bride fighting back against the male gaze. As the Hopkins Cinema Blog observes, at times the film seems to explicitly oppress the Bride with the camera (especially early on in the film); she’s “often confined to the pressuring rectangle of the frame, truncated and expressed as parts of her body.” But the blog writes that The Bride “retains control of the camera and restores her agency in many of the impressive kung-fu sequences,” adding that in many sequences she is “empowered by the shot.”

Still, it’s worth noting that, even The Bride’s story isn’t totally her own. After all, that’s not her name in the title. As her lover, her father-figure, and her would-be killer, Bill’s shadow looms large over The Bride long before we actually meet him. Bill’s also given a mythic sense of honor.

Bill: “I’m a murdering bastard, you know that. And there are consequences to breaking the heart of a murdering bastard.” Kill Bill: Volume 1

He stops Elle from killing The Bride while she lies in her hospital bed. The Bride is immensely powerful, but Bill seems downright omnipotent— a sage cowboy sensei who seems unfathomably deep compared to the relatively underdeveloped Bride. Even in her final victory, The Bride finds herself very much under Bill’s power. Bill isn’t the only man that The Bride must be subservient to. Enduring her trainer Pai Mei’s cruel torment is the price The Bride is expected to pay in order to become powerful herself.

The idea that, for the Bride to become powerful, she must voluntarily suffer the abuse of these powerful men, took on a darker subtext after Uma Thurman revealed how she herself was treated during filming. In 2018, the actress told the New York Times how Tarantino forced her to drive a stunt car that resulted in a serious crash, one that left Thurman with permanent injuries — and nearly killed her. She also revealed how it was Tarantino himself who spat in her face in one scene, and choked her with a chain in another — much like he’d later strangle Diane Kruger for Inglourious Basterds. Tarantino has called the crash “one of the biggest regrets of his life,” and defended the spitting and choking scenes as wanting to take personal responsibility for them — adding that he did it with Thurman’s consent. Still, it definitely feels different to watch the film now, knowing what she went through to make it. Meanwhile, Tarantino’s treatment of Thurman has attracted more retrospective criticism in light of his long history of putting his woman characters through violence — one that’s only grown more and more extreme.

All of this has led some to question whether Kill Bill’s reputation as a feminist movie is totally deserved. In a series of tweets made shortly after Thurman’s revelations, the actress Jessica Chastain asked, “How many images of women in media do we celebrate that showcase abuse? When did this become normalized ‘entertainment’? It is not empowering to be beaten and raped, yet so many films make it their ‘phoenix’ moment for women. We don’t need abuse in order to be powerful. We already are.” This decades-old problem remains surprisingly common across our storytelling. Where rape and physical abuse are still used as a motivator.

Sansa Stark: “Without Ramsay and Littlefinger and the rest, I’d have stayed a ‘little bird’ all my life.”Game of Thrones

Chapter Two— The Female Revenge Story

From one of Kill Bill’s inspirations, Lady Snowblood, to ‘70s grindhouse films like I Spit on Your Grave and The Last House on the Left, to even more modern iterations like Revenge, the female revenge movie has almost always been driven by sexual assault. Kill Bill suffers from this as well: we learn early on that The Bride has been taken advantage of while she lies in a coma, with a hospital worker selling her body to random men. And while the film dispenses with this literal rape-revenge tale in its opening act, there’s a more figurative one that plays out over the main story: Bill has robbed The Bride of her body and herself, and the film is about her painstaking quest to take it back. Her quest isn’t just about taking her revenge. It’s about restoring her true self—a warrior of consummate skill and strength. It’s the journey of someone who has been made to feel powerless, vying to regain the respect she was denied.

Kill Bill repeatedly makes a symbolic link between sex and violence. The more Freudian viewer might even see the swords that its characters lust over as distinctly phallic objects, representing the power that The Bride must reclaim and turn against her attackers.

Gogo Yubari: “Do you still wish to penetrate me? Or is it I … who has penetrated you?” Kill Bill: Volume 1

But sexualizing the Bride’s revenge feels strangely gratuitous, as does adding a literal rape to a story about a woman who was already gunned down and left for dead on her wedding day. This emphasis on sexual violence not only links Kill Bill to those exploitative grindhouse features it’s meant to be updating and subverting, it makes this female revenge story, once again, all about the men. The Bride doesn’t even get her own real name until the second film.

Elle Driver: “You will be standing at the final resting place of Beatrix Kiddo”Kill Bill: Volume 2

This is in part because, like Lady Snowblood— one of Tarantino’s direct inspirations, most explicitly channeled in the tranquil, moonlit duel between O-Ren and The Bride— Kill Bill operates in a mythic, heightened reality. Both films treat The Bride and Lady Snowblood more like symbols than real people. Still, the moniker “The Bride” effectively defines this character almost entirely by the attack she experienced on her wedding day, at least until she gradually takes her identity back.

Man: “Who are you?”

Lady Snowblood: “Revenge.”Lady Snowblood

Despite the movie’s flaws and disturbing history behind-the-scenes, though, some have asserted that Kill Bill’s true feminist legacy has less to do with Tarantino, and everything to do with Thurman herself. There is also The Bride’s lasting power as a symbol: as Thurman said in 2017, “Women would come up to me and they would say…. that that film helped them in their lives, whether they were feeling oppressed or struggling or had a bad boyfriend or felt badly about themselves, that that film released in them some survival energy that was helpful, and that is probably one of the most gratifying things that I have ever experienced in response to a piece of art.”

Conclusion

Among the people who covered up Thurman’s Kill Bill injuries was producer Harvey Weinstein, whose name has since become synonymous with the abuse women face at the hands of powerful men. It’s a sort of poetic justice, then, that pop culture has taken its own revenge on men like Weinstein with a new rash of Me Too-era female revenge stories. Movies like Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman and Natalia Leite’s M.F.A. may offer some of the same cathartic, female vigilante kicks as Kill Bill and the many rape-revenge films that inspired it, but they also grapple with thornier realities, like the impossibility of finding justice within a society that’s designed to doubt victims and protect abusers.

Man: “It’s every guy’s worst nightmare, getting accused like that.”

Cassandra Thomas: “Can you guess what every woman’s worst nightmare is?”

Promising Young Woman

Notably, these are narratives made by women, and they avoid mythic simplicity to deal with real-world moral ambiguities and the evils perpetrated by recognizably human men. Still, there’s no denying these modern women vigilantes owe a considerable debt to The Bride, who remains one of cinema’s most iconic characters. Her legacy is such that Tarantino has said he hopes to revive her for another sequel — likely for a story where the daughter of the murdered Vernita Green seeks her own revenge against The Bride.

The Bride: “When you grow up, if you still feel raw about it, I’ll be waiting.” Kill Bill: Volume 1

If so, it promises to add a new twist to the female revenge movie — one with the potential to break completely from the genre’s ugly past and to follow the future path The Bride carved out.