To what extent is the representation of the female gender within cinema and Mulvey’s theory of ‘the gaze’, relevant to the study of the film ‘Kill Bill Vol.1’ (2003)?

This essay will focus on the development, and current representation of women in cinema, focusing and referencing the post-classical, action thriller film, ‘Kill Bill Vol.1’. It will also focus on how feminism has contributed to this change, and how relevant Mulvey’s theory of ‘the gaze’ is to the female characters within the film. Theories by Haskell will be studied, as well as the semiotic and iconology based image analysis of two photographic film stills.

‘Kill Bill Vol.1’, the first part of a two-film story was directed by the legendary Quentin Tarantino and was his fourth studio film. Like many of his previous films, such as ‘Pulp Fiction’, Tarantino challenges the commonly used format of sequential linear narrative. Using devices such as flashbacks and distorted time sequences, Tarantino successfully combines the ‘balletic choreography of Hong Kong chop-socky with the operatic bombast of a spaghetti western’ . The film is of interest whilst studying gender representation within film, as the lead character, and many other characters are females, which is unusual for an action-based film. The protagonist of the film is ‘The Bride’, played by Uma Thurman.

In reviews of the film, Tarantino’s directing style has been both applauded and criticised. Critics argue that in creating ‘Kill Bill Vol.1’, he ‘elevates the B-movie to A-grade pop art - ripping off other people's films with inimitable style’ . The narrative of a strong female lead character has been rarely, but successfully used in previous films such as ‘Alien’ (1979), which was a success, both critically and economically. Director Ridley Scott took a gamble in casting a lead female character (Sigourney Weaver), but this paid off, and helped to influence other directors such as Tarantino in casting and creating protagonist roles for female characters within their films.

John Berger, author of the seminal ‘Ways of Seeing’; an introductory essay on art criticism, states that ‘men act and women appear’ . Berger argued that because the spectator was predominantly male, the image of women in art and subsequently film was designed to attract a male’s attention. However, this statements relevance must be explored to see if it is still relevant to postmodern cinema and the representation of the female characters within Tarantino’s ‘Kill Bill Vol. 1’.

Laura Mulvey’s essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, published in 1975, is one of the most influential texts on the role of women in film history. In her study of cinema spectatorship, she derived the concept of ‘the gaze’, as well as the use of psychoanalytic theory, inspired by the work of Freud. The two aspects relating to ‘the gaze’, (for a male, heterosexual audience), were scopophilia and fetishistic scopophilia. Schroeder agrees with this theory, suggesting that film is ‘an instrument of the male gaze, producing representations of women, the good life, and sexual fantasy from a male point of view’.

Mulvey’s theory, applied to Classical Hollywood films at the time, centered on the objectifying male gaze, which saw women as ‘passive’ and not ‘active’ within film. At the time, she argued ‘unchallenged, mainstream film coded the erotic into the language of the dominant patriarchal order’ . However, we must study whether the nature of ‘the gaze’ still applies to postmodern cinema such as Tarantino’s ‘Kill Bill Vol. 1’.

‘Freud isolated scopophilia as one of the component instincts of sexuality which exists as drives quite independently of the erotogenic zones’ . Mulvey also states that ‘the determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure’ . Mulvey argues that women were styled to be visually strong and erotically impacting; therefore representing a certain ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’. However, this argument is contested in the film ‘Kill Bill’. Although the lead character is naturally attractive, and is the owner of an athletically sculpted body, emphasised further by her tight-fitting suit, she is not wearing make-up and her hair is not styled. This is evidence that she is attempting to refuse the male gaze, and in no way, purposely trying to seduce both the male characters in the film, or a male heterosexual audience.

Fetishistic scopophilia ‘builds up the physical beauty of the object, transforming it into something satisfying in itself’ . Voyeurism, which can be associated with sadism, is also featured in the film. Mulvey states that ‘sadism demands a story… a battle of will and strength, victory/defeat’ . There are certainly sadistic moments throughout ‘Kill Bill Vol.1’. The audience may find pleasure in ascertaining guilt from watching ‘The Bride’ locate and kill characters throughout the film, ‘subjecting the guilty person through punishment’.

The Whore-Virgin dichotomy was used to categorise the attributes of actresses of Hollywood films, and can be used to analyse the main character in ‘Kill Bill Vol. 1’. The two groups consisted of; ‘sex pots’, who lacked intelligence, but had a high sexual appetite, and ‘nice girls’, who did not have a base instinct or sexual drive. Thurman as ‘The Bride’ manages to create a hybrid of these characteristics. Her film presence has an air of sexual attraction, but she is also intelligent and talented at fighting.

Mulvey’s theory of women being ‘passive’ actresses within films has been reversed by Tarantino’s ‘Kill Bill Vol.1’. The female characters within the film deconstruct old Hollywood stereotypes about the roles of women in film, by being ‘active’, and to an extent, refusing ‘the gaze’.

Used originally as part of French film noir theory, unusually in Kill Bill there are no ‘femme fatale’ characters. Conversely, the female characters are dominant, and do not desire association with men. There is only one incident of seduction by a female character, which actually turns out to be a device to kill him. The adolescent character Go Go Yubari seeks out the gaze of a man, so she can have a sadistic revenge on males who are flirtatious with her. This is shown in a conversation with a Japanese businessman, where after finding out he wishes to have sexual intercourse with her, she stabs him in the stomach and mutters “Do you still wish to penetrate me? Or is it I who has penetrated you?” This inventive, yet cruel statement, shows the satisfaction she had in killing the man, and is evidence that she refuses ‘the gaze’, and will seek action on those that sexually proposition her.

In reference to the lead character within the film, the only scene where a male character is attracted to ‘The Bride’ is a scene where she lies in a hospital bed. However, her intention was not to attract anybody, and she was defenseless to the situation as she was comatose.

The male audience would be attracted to the appearance of ‘The Bride’, played by actress Uma Thurman. In the film Thurman, appears active, feisty and confident. Aesthetically, she is seen throughout the film in tight clothing. However, to counteract this theory, it is worth stating that for the majority of the film, she does not have any make-up and her hair is not styled. Whether or not this will affect the ‘gaze’ is still, however, a question of personal taste.

Although the main character is white, other races are represented throughout the film. For example, the first scene in the film introduces a black woman, A. Fox ‘Vernita Green’, who is also represented as powerful. Many of the other strong female characters in the film are of Asian origin. This is an interesting feature, as the film shows the contrasting cultures and emotional stability of characters from these different cultures.

The image of a strong, active woman is likely to be an attractive proposition to female audiences, as much as it is to males. This theory is agreed upon in an article by Showalter, who states ‘there is something exhilarating to the female viewer in the mere spectacle of women acting resourceful and fearless’.

However, it is important to focus on how, female characters, within postmodern cinema, are challenging the aspect of ‘the gaze’ and refusing it outright. In ‘Kill Bill Vol.1’, the lead character, ‘The Bride’, seeks both to defend her own life, whilst simultaneously seeking out the whereabouts of a group of assassins that she used to be apart of. The character, played by Thurman is a strong representation of the changing role women play in becoming more ‘active’ within films. In this case, Thurman not only plays the part, but looks it too; she has a strong, athletic frame, and depicts the role of a killer realistically, thanks partly to her ensemble of swords, knives and other weapons. An interesting aspect to the film is that the representation of women being strong is increased by having a range of women actors who are also assassins and are trained to kill.

Molly Haskell, feminist, film critic, and author of the influential ‘From Reverence to Rape’ wrote thoroughly about the involvement of women in film. Theories such as the type of characters played by women, and the film themes can be put into context whilst studying the role of the lead character in ‘Kill Bill Vol. 1’. The three central character types depicted by Haskell are; the extraordinary, the ordinary and the ordinary who becomes extraordinary. The character of ‘The Bride’, throughout the entire film, conveys a strong and powerful personality that would fall under the ‘extraordinary’ category. Haskell argues that ‘the theme of self-sacrifice… is the mainstay and oceanic force, of woman's film’. ‘The Bride’ can relate to this statement of sacrifice, as she is risking her life, seeking revenge on those that killed her child. This is also further evidence that the character, to a secondary extent, is conforming to a feminine mother role.

‘The treatment of women in the movies over the last ten years is the story of an absence, followed by a fragmented, schizophrenic, but oddly hopeful presence’ . It is of interest to study whether or not the hope felt by Haskell has been represented successfully in modern cinema and in the film ‘Kill Bill Vol.1’. Haskell desired equality for women representation within cinema but also stressed the importance of them having credible parts. Unlike the current actresses at the time, who were ‘not in roles that could be held up as blueprints for budding feminists’.

Haskell, a supporter of second-wave feminism, would have been interested in the desire of equality for women both in the economic, political, and creative spheres. Third-wave feminism, from the early ‘90s onwards challenges the essentialist definitions of femininity. Its main focus is on the inclusion of women in traditionally male-orientated areas; not only in spheres such as employment, but also, the role of women in the creative industries, such as film. Tarantino successfully challenges the stereotypical role of women within film, by having a lead protagonist character that is female. This not only inspires the female audience, but also shocks the majority of the audience, as a woman committing heavy levels of violence and murder is not common practice within both film and society.

‘Women live longer than men, give birth, and endure pain bravely; yet they are the ‘weaker sex’… In the movie business we have an industry dedicated for the most part in reinforcing that lie’ . In saying this, Haskell believed Hollywood to be unfairly portraying women, which in turn was having a detrimental effect on their role within society. It was also influential to groups of second-wave feminists who were searching for a more positive and influential role for women in film.

Binary opposition, a theory developed by Roland Barthes and Claude Lévi-Strauss is the concept of structures around oppositional elements. In the case of ‘Kill Bill Vol. 1’, there are several of these instances. The main one being the battle between the sexes; the female protagonist; ‘The Bride’, and the man who wants her dead, ‘Bill’. Other opposites include the constant theme of life and death, and vibrant colours, such as bloody red, vs. the prominent use of greyscale visual effects that Tarantino uses so effectively.

Illustration A shows an example of a close-up camera shot that Tarantino frequently uses throughout the film. An indexical sign is the prominence of ‘The Brides’ face. She is displaying an expression of slight anxiety, yet high determination. This is an example of the powerful directing tool of the close-up, as it allows the audience to emphasise with the scene and creates an engagement of intimacy with the character.

Using semiotics, we can analyse this film shot further to decode meanings behind it. Colour plays an important role in this shot. The bright yellow jump-suit, worn by ‘The Bride’ makes her character stand out and connotes feelings of confidence and patience. The colour would also represent a threat to the assassins she is facing, as ‘symbolically, in the East, yellow connotes power’. The bloody stain on ‘The Bride’s right arm is also significant. It is a signifier to the audience that she has recently fought other assassins, and has succeeded over them. She is now sure to be confident that she can survive further attacks. The samurai sword held by ‘The Bride’ when relating to the third stage of psychosexual development in psychoanalytic theory, is a phallic object that the male audience might find shocking and uncomfortable to view. This is because they will not be used to seeing such a dominant woman, holding a samurai sword and using it within a violent scenario.

Erwin Panofsky, one of the primary theorists of Art History and author of the seminal ‘Studies in Iconology’, used a three-tier method of analysing works of art. Iconology, concerns itself with the subject matter and deeper meanings associated whilst studying works of art. Analysing Illustration B (a photographic still from the film), will help us to find and understand a deeper meaning within this visual scene.

On a primary level, the image is of a fight scene, in which a group of assassins; hired to kill the central character: ‘The Bride’, are surrounding her. The allegory is socially based as they are under order to kill her. From the image, you can gather that the fight is likely to be happening in an expansive area, but the shot also has an enclosed feel, because of the compositional positions of the assassins who are forming a circle. The expressional meaning gathered from the photo is that ‘The Bride’s’ confident posture portrays to the audience that she is willing to partake in battle. She appears not to be unsettled by her opponents and conveys an air of authority over the situation, evidence that she is experienced in battle.

On a conventional level, symbolism is pre-dominant throughout the still. The samurai blades that both ‘The Bride’ and the assassins are holding are fundamental to the scene, as they are the tools of destruction and power that are needed for the action sequence to occur. The assassins wearing masks adds an air of mystery to the scene, whilst there pre-dominantly black attire, denotes a professional and deadly vibe. ‘The Bride’ herself is wearing a yellow skin-tight suit. Audiences familiar with action and martial arts films will reccognise this as a piece of symbolism, as it is homage to the legendary fighter Bruce Lee who wore a similar looking suit in the film ‘Game of Death’ (1978). Further intertextuality is also apparent in this fight scene. Tarantino has clearly borrowed influences from ‘Asian action “chop-socky” pics of the ‘70s’.

The third and deepest level, the intrinsic meaning, reveals the underlying ‘basic attitude of a nation, a period, a class, a religious or philosophical persuasion’ . These assassins are holding a metaphorical visual representation; samurai blades that are in the position of erect phalluses, a tactic used to intimidate ‘The Bride’. However, she does not seem threatened, and her attitude towards the scene is one of honour; as she seeks to survive and continue the quest to bring revenge on her child’s murderers. The philosophical attitude of these assassins is based around the issue of both living and dieing by the sword; ‘for centuries, armies of foot soldiers and samurai would line up and call each other out to do honorable, one-on-one battle’.

The changing role of women, both in society and film has been substantially reflected in the film ‘Kill Bill Vol.1’. Tarantino helps to promote a less patriarchal society, and successfully challenges the stereotypical role of women within action films. However, it is important to consider that the film is under direction from a male director, whose ideas and output will be shaped from a male perspective.

The refusal of the gaze by the female characters in ‘Kill Bill Vol.1’ is evidence that women have become less oppressed within film and due to the nature of their new roles within the action genre, a sense of responsibility and power has been shone onto them. The deconstruction of the traditional objectifying of women, has instead, been replaced with an ‘active role’, and a refusal of ‘the gaze’. This notion has influential consequences for the future of female representation within both film theory and cinema. Women have a new sense of dominance and influence under spectatorship, that before objectified them as being secondary and tools of beauty and glamour. The roles of actresses such as Uma Thurman, in her role as ‘The Bride’, will continue to be evidence of female exposure within cinema, and will act as influential examples to the female population, who will no doubt be inspired by the role of the female gender within a decreasingly patriarchal film business.

Illustrations A & B

Kill Bill Illustration A Kill Bill Illustration B



Laura Mulvey, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Screen 16:3 1975), 6-18

Molly Haskell, From Reverence to Rape: the Treatment of Women in the Movies, (University of Chicago Press, 1987)

John Berger, Ways of Seeing, (London: Penguin, 1972)

Erwin Panofsky, Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance, (New York: Harper & Row, 1972)

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