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By Madeline Perez

For all the worship Quentin Tarintino gets, it’s strange to see his 2007 film Death Proof get so much hate. This becomes much more understandable when you find that it is his self-proclaimed “worst movie ever made,” giving his fans (mind slaves) a sort of permission, or even encouragement to drag it through the mud after it flopped at the box office. (And if you haven’t seen it, please watch first, because I have wayyyy too much to say to go through a plot breakdown.) After a recent rewatch, I came to the same conclusion I had the first time: it was a fun experience with good characterization that didn’t take itself too seriously. Sure, I thought there were a few instances of poor delivery due to some awkward dialogue, and the “film damage” got on my nerves (OMG IT’S HOMAGE TO EXPLOITATION FILMS OF THE 70’S!!! Yes, I know), but that’s a minor subjective opinion and I was still puzzled. And that’s why I’ve been doing tons of research (scouring Reddit and Quora messageboards) to try and understand why it’s so widely shat on. 

The girl talk dialogue is painful and uninteresting as fk [sic]… I like the rest of the movie”

Almost all of the dialogue the women speak is about their sex lives. It doesn’t generate interest in the characters nor does it make them likable [sic]. Kurt Russell carried the entire movie.”  “​​The story is really “About Nothing”—just a bunch of really annoying ladies, chat and chat, about nothing for an eternity. Then, chat some more. The women [sic] are so boring that I was quenched with blood-lust and rooting for Stunt Man Mike. Another set of unlikable ladies wastes our tim [sic]…” 

and then Quora asked me to buy “Quora+” and I said, “fuck that.” 

Alright, so this seemed to be the main criticism. Too much “girl talk.” Aside from this, I saw some criticisms of the tonal shift between the first and second half, talk that it was boring and unnecessarily long, and annoyance that the first set of characters were killed off, forcing the film into a plot triangle restart. Oh, and “KURT RUSSELL SAVED THIS MOVIE FROM THE STUPID WOMEN WHO RUIN EVERYTHING NOT ONLY THIS MOVIE BUT WHAT SEEMS TO HAVE BEEN MY WHOLE LIFE!!!!” I think this movie is a little misunderstood and abused puppy, caged at the pound, always two days away from being put down, and I hear a whimper every time someone misinterprets important plot material or spews unnecessary criticism just to hear the sound of their own voice. 

The main takeaways of the film are not immediately apparent to the average viewer, not to mention the average male viewer, not to not to mention the average “Tarintino fan” male viewer. As the only female Tarintino fan in existence, (as well as a cold, calculating supergenius (autism)), I could tell these messages were meant for my consumption only (and the television was literally talking to me!!) Anyway, this movie was about voyeurism. Ironically, the criticism the movie received mirrors the message, as audiences found it so hard to relate to the female cast they instead watched from the perspective of “Stuntman Mike,” AKA Kurt Russell. And lo, fans were disappointed when the character is revealed to be cowardly, that his “strong, dangerous persona” is a veneer for insecurity, and the women ultimately triumphed over him using the power of friendship. 

The antagonist “Stuntman Mike” is a societal stand-in for men who feel their attraction puts them at the whims of a woman, or below women. To cope, they dehumanize and hate women, turning them into the “other,” so that they can feel above. Through this superiority, they feel entitled to inappropriately insert themselves into the lives of women as they please. This is taken to the extreme in the movie with Stuntman Mike stalking women only until he can meet them in an environment where he already has an advantage over them: sober while they’ve been drinking, or maybe on the road in front of his “death proof” vehicle (only to get the benefit of it, you REALLY need to be sitting in his seat). 

There are scattered references throughout the film of other “feminine” struggles, namely: attributing a successful woman’s achievements to “sleeping around to get ahead” and establishing that one of the lead women in the second act carries a gun because she fears getting sexually assaulted if she tries to do her laundry at night. What “critics” chalked up to “mind-numbing girls talk about their sex lives,” is actually a constant thematic discussion not only establishing the characters but how these characters interact with sexism in their world. In one of the first conversations between Shanna, Arlene, and Julia, the first group of girls, their conversation first touches on how Arlene set hard boundaries with a guy she saw last night, which weren’t respected, leading to long-winded whining, bargaining, and begging. The conversation then touches on more examples, namely regarding “Shanna’s daddy” and “boys to potentially buy weed from” where it is accepted as normal that men inappropriately insert themselves in the girls’ lives, which is then up to them to carefully navigate. Similar “realistic dialogue” which gets praised endlessly in other Tarintino movies now gets unfairly attacked, and why? 

Already, the conversation set the tone for the whole movie, as well as established themes that will come back later for each of these characters. In the second half, we see more of this as Abernathy talks about how she did not have sex with a guy she had a crush on because “if you fuck Cecil, you don’t become one of his girlfriends.” The Madonna-Whore Complex for beginners. Of course, there are conversations about other topics like music, movies, or other characters, but I don’t need to analyze that, do I? 

Which brings me to the lap dance. This movie is partially about women trying to “take-back” their own sexuality, but it’s a struggle, especially when the male characters and the camera itself are sexualizing the women at all times. And their feet. Especially their feet. That’s part of the horror, that these women cannot escape being sexualized no matter where they go or what they do. A quote from Margaret Atwood from [X] comes to mind:

“Male fantasies, male fantasies, is everything run by male fantasies? Up on a pedestal or down on your knees, it’s all a male fantasy: that you’re strong enough to take what they dish out, or else too weak to do anything about it. Even pretending you aren’t catering to male fantasies is a male fantasy: pretending you’re unseen, pretending you have a life of your own, that you can wash your feet and comb your hair unconscious of the ever-present watcher peering through the keyhole, peering through the keyhole in your own head, if nowhere else. You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur.”

Even so, the casting choices were purposeful to bring a more diverse and “realistic” cast of women to the film, not to mention there is a lot of purposeful effort put into creating the personalities, flaws, and goals of these women, so even though they are sexualized, they are not fully “objectified.” The lap dance scene is iconic, but the way it’s portrayed surface-level by the camera is not the same way it’s portrayed in the script. Arlene (the woman giving the lap dance) has struggled to reconcile intimate choices she wants to do, choices she feels pressured to do by men, and choices that make her feel respectable. Her opportunity to perform a lap dance is supposed to be left entirely up to her, and she initially declines because Stuntman Mike is a creeper (aw man). She does get pressured by him to agree, but by the time she makes that choice she is not reluctant and decides to commit. She does the lap dance because it’s a choice she made for herself to have others view her as sexy in that moment, not for his pleasure. She reclaims her own sexualization. 

I’ve heard theories that the first group of women are “punished” for mishandling their sexuality, and that the second group survives because they are more “sexually liberated.” Personally, I think a lot of the thrill of the second half of the movie can only exist because of the established context of the first, and I don’t agree that the women were killed to send a message. As I saw somewhere in my message board travels, “the first half establishes the villain, the second half establishes the heroines.” We spend the second half of the movie in dramatic irony dread, knowing what Stuntman Mike plans to do to these women as they, like the first group, feel unsettled but don’t automatically recognize the danger they’re in. We know that the film is not hesitant to kill well-established characters and leave the audience upset, bringing up the very real threat that the characters might not only be killed off, but that they might die in a gory, unsatisfactory way. If people want to criticize an actual terrible tonal shift in a Tarintino flick, let me direct you to From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), which he wrote. I spent the first half of that movie thinking it might be one of my new favorites, then struggled to watch all the tension deflate like a sad balloon. All the characterization was also tossed as we watched every surviving character become “the cool one.” YOU CAN’T ALL BE THE COOL ONE! THAT DEFEATS THE PURPOSE OF HAVING A “COOL ONE!” 

I saw plenty of people online trashing the women of Death Proof with the same defense: “And it’s not ‘cause I hate women. Kill Bill is one of my favorites!” But there is not much overlap between the experience of an average, real woman and the plot of Kill Bill. The plot does not challenge real-world sexism aside from saying “exceptional women can be strong and good at fighting.” In several instances in Kill Bill, “The Bride” is confronted with sexist men, and only gains their eventual respect by acting in “traditionally masculine” ways. Literally “not like other girls.” For more on this, I recommend you read “The One, The Other: Female Liberation and Empowerment in Kill Bill and Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex” by Ryan Carroll, which I found extremely interesting. 

A lot of Tarintino movies have this same vibe, where a character who is otherwise underestimated, oppressed, and devalued by society, (sometimes a stand-in for a specific race, class, or gender) overcomes some challenge or adversity using the fact they are underestimated, as well as intelligence, perseverance, and resilience. What’s important to note, is that, like in Kill Bill, these main characters act in ways that simultaneously gain the respect of the people who victimize them and don’t often challenge racism or sexism in the real world below surface-level. Basically, they are “cool” to an audience without needing them to empathize with realistic depictions of that race, gender, class etc., further solidifying their place as the exception rather than the rule. 

It’s ok for these characters not to be realistic, they’re fictional. And I’m not saying that these movies aren’t great, I have a complicated romantic relationship with each one. Where I find fault is thinking these movies are “empowering” or groundbreaking when they do not challenge the status quo. Death Proof’s best quality is that it was able to portray more realistic women, and challenged beliefs in society that are still widely normalized. That is why Death Proof is hated. That, and all the feet.  

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