It seems there has been a bit of a misunderstanding about the word “misogyny” as it relates to Quentin Tarantino’s polarizing new winter western, The Hateful Eight. Some criticisms of the film have stopped just short of labeling the film misogynist.
A recent article by Kris Tapley in Variety seeks to defend Tarantino against charges of misogyny.
I wasn’t planning on writing my (negative) thoughts about the film because why bother trashing something when part of the idea behind what we do is to help movies do well. But this piece about whether The Hateful Eight is misogynist, with Weinstein and others defending against that accusation, has driven me out of my hole to confront it. Actually, no one I know has charged the film with misogyny, or Tarantino either, for that matter. After all, who would? It’s easy to debunk such an accusation. It’s much harder to look more deeply at why AO Scott would have written this:
Unfortunately, it knows just what to do with Ms. Leigh’s Daisy, who enters the film with a black eye and exits it — well, I guess I’d better not reveal much more. Suffice it to say that she is the film’s scapegoat and punching bag and, above all, its excuse for its own imaginative failures. At a certain point, the n-word gives way to the b-word as the dominant hateful epithet, and “The Hateful Eight” mutates from an exploration of racial animus into an orgy of elaborately justified misogyny. The final scenes wrap up this shaggy-dog story with a nasty punch line, delivering on the promise of the film’s title. I won’t spoil it. See for yourself.
Misogyny is defined as hating women. Tarantino clearly does not hate women — in fact, he’s far on the other end of spectrum. I’ve grown up with his movies and I know he is one of the few directors who — until Django Unchained and now, Hateful Eight — has always offered up great female roles for women in his movies. Think: Inglourious Basterds. Think: Kill Bill. Think: Jackie Brown and Pulp Fiction. But once you throw around a word like that, it invites people to oversimplify and say “the director is a misogynist” which then can be used as a blunt instrument when deconstructing his work. One can, on the other hand, say the end result of what comes of Daisy’s character looks like an “elaborately justified misogyny.” There is a clear difference.
Tapley quotes another Variety piece where Tarantino explains his treatment of Daisy here:
According to Tarantino, that’s by design. “When John Ruth [played by Kurt Russell] cracks her over the head that very first time, you feel this ripple going through the audience — because it almost does seem like one of the last taboos left,” the two-time Oscar winner told Variety in a recent interview. “You’re supposed to say, ‘Oh my God. John Ruth is a brutal bastard!’ That is what you’re supposed to say. I want your allegiances, to one degree or the other, to shift slightly as the movie goes on, and frankly, depending on where you’re coming from.”
Basically Tarantino is saying that he wants the audience to feel sympathy for Daisy until, at some point, they’re supposed to shift that sympathy and conclude that she “got what she deserved.” Yeah, I don’t think it quite worked that way because, unlike in Django Unchained, there isn’t the build-up of hatred for Big Daddy and Calvin Candie, the characters played by Don Johnson and Leonardo DiCaprio. Instead, Daisy is hiding in the shadows, a tiny meek mouse that everyone is afraid of. Why? She can’t do squat to anyone. Why would they fear her and seek to destroy her? What explanation does the film offer up? Matt Zoller Seitz says:
The problem isn’t how Tarantino tells his story, but the deficiencies in the story itself—or maybe we should put “story” in quotes, because, more so than any Tarantino film, and this is saying a lot, what’s onscreen doesn’t feel like an intricately interconnected series of events, all of which feed into and build upon one another, but rather a succession of set pieces, most of which are tediously repetitive. Talk talk talk talk talk talk kill; talk talk talk talk talk talk kill, and so on, and so on. The N-world is sprinkled throughout; Tarantino loves the slur nearly as much he loves bare feet. But its use in “The Hateful Eight” is more problematic than in “Django,” where the term had a whiplash sting; even if you suspected Tarantino of trying to get away with something, the film’s righteous ire (presenting the Confederate South as a little Nazi Germany right here in the good old USA) made you pause before writing him off as an opportunist.
Tarantino movies have almost always shown prolonged and sustained violence against women, and perhaps this has escalated in his recent historical revenge films. Usually, though, there is a reason. And that reason becomes clear, whenever the narrative is more focused throughout. For instance, in Inglourious Basterds one of the most memorable scenes has Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) being stabbed in her wounded leg until she screams and screams in agony. She’s already been established as a sympathetic character and these are bad people inflicting her pain — but they get “paid back.” Clear lines of good and evil, the violence bears this out.
In Django Unchained, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) is whipped until she screams, left naked and shivering in a box for days until she is rescued. Django takes out his revenge not only against those who done his beloved wife wrong, but against the entire institution of plantation slavery, with a climatic scene of blood spatter that seemed to evoke the hidden bloodshed, the horrors of what Spike Lee called a Holocaust. Those fountains of blood, and the third-rail electricity throughout the thrilling, brilliant Django Unchained was next level Tarantino. It was thought out, carefully planned and perfectly executed. It deserved its Oscar nominations. Even in True Romance, which wasn’t directed by Tarantino, but was written by and bears his unmistakable imprint, the massive beating endured by Patricia Arquette comes with a reason attached, and ultimately she triumphs. The Hateful Eight marks a stark change from Tarantino’s previous work, in his treatment of Daisy, and I guess I’m surprised no one else has noticed or remarked on it.
Though very well-played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, we have, for one of the first and certainly the most memorable time, an irredeemable female character whose sole purpose seems to be to serve as a punching bag, as AO Scott calls it. And worse: to represent, somehow, all of the evil of the South, all of the racism, all of the injustice. She’s a tiny thing. There is no point in the film, or maybe one just barely, when Daisy inflicts any violence upon anyone — and by then it could be argued that she is only desperately trying to defend herself. She is handcuffed to Kurt Russell, needing his permission to speak and eat, and then punched brutally in the face whenever she says anything.
If Tarantino is playing us by trying to unearth a taboo, what is the point other than titillation? And if titillation is the point, wouldn’t a more accomplished work have thrown that back on the audience at some point and said, See how much you’re enjoying this? Which would only apply to those who want to see torture porn visited upon the white racists of the South, and that, of course, is for viewers and their conscience to decide. Tarantino, however, has said outright that The Hateful Eight is a comedy — not a condemnation of his violence addicted fans.
Tapley points out this quote by Tarantino:
“Violence is hanging over every one of those characters like a cloak of night,” he said. “So I’m not going to go, ‘OK, that’s the case for seven of the characters, but because one is a woman, I have to treat her differently.’ I’m not going to do that.”
Anne Thompson said the same thing to me on Twitter. The problem though? Daisy’s character is the only one who is disallowed from perpetrating any violence except verbal slurs. Her only crime we get to see? She’s got a sassy mouth. Everyone else (all the men) in the film are allowed to use violence as means to whatever goals they have. Daisy is not. So no, Daisy’s position isn’t equal. And it isn’t remotely “feminist,” as some have even argued. We can wonder what it was Daisy did that made her worse than everyone else and deserving of the worst violence the film represents. But to me, there needs to be a bigger reason to single her out. And we’re never given one.
This is trickery, says Tarantino, and many critics have backed him up on this, because it is all part of Daisy’s evil plan. Thing is, for starters, the plan, as such, is absurdly illogical. What amounts to a complex setup to get a bunch of characters inside a room to kill each other is a convoluted scheme that could have been solved much earlier in the film with a simple stagecoach holdup, but that’s a different story. The trickery Tarantino apparently means to pull is all in the name of Daisy escaping, or being freed by her gang.
Perhaps it’s this trickery that ultimately visits upon her the film’s worst and most unseeable scene of violence — a bloody hanging that holds on her face as she twitches and dies. It doesn’t really work on a narrative level because we have never once seen any evidence of Daisy’s crimes, other than her repeated use of the “n” word. If Tarantino is saying any white character who uses the “n” word deserves that kind of punishment he only really delivers it so personally upon Daisy. The rest of them receive your standard run-of- the-mill deaths — a quick bullet between the eyes.
For the first time, really, Tarantino has flipped his usual moral balance for no apparent reason other than to watch a woman suffer. There is no previous scene, as in Django, where we see what Daisy has done to make her so hateful, or more to the point: to make us hate her. She may be rotten to the core, as they all are (except Samuel L. Jackson and Walter Goggins who are the film’s clear protagonists, working out the rewrite of our unforgivable past) but we have to take the word of a disreputable bounty hunter to believe it. Daisy is the film’s biggest problem, and the reason The Hateful Eight is his most disappointing film. Tarantino is usually not this sloppy with his character’s elaborate background development, especially when it comes to his female characters.
Leigh’s outlaw, the only woman, gets the worst of it, entering the film with a black eye, taking multiple fists to the face, and spending the final third of the film drenched in blood and missing a tooth. She doesn’t wipe the blood off; this is presented as proof of her indomitability, but it plays like sheer provocation: Oh, I’m a misogynist, am I? Tough. Watch me leave the blood on her face, because I can. Like the nonstop barrage of racial slurs, the film’s relentless and often comical violence against Daisy never feels truly earned. Saying, “Well, they’re all outlaws, including her, and that’s just how women were treated back then” feels like an awfully thin defense when you hear audiences whooping it up each time Russell punches Leigh in the face, and it dissipates during the final scene, which lingers on Daisy’s death with near-pornographic fascination. In a movie filled with selfish, deceptive and murderous characters, hers is the only demise that is not just observed, but celebrated.
But when the violence comes, it’s more graphic and nausea-inducing than even a hardened Tarantino viewer could have reason to expect. In an extended flashback, Tarantino crosses into Rob Zombie snuff territory, a description he might well regard as a badge of honor (the bastard) but one I see as emblematic of his descent into a kind of shock-jock territory that dishonors his early work. Consider his last one-set bloodbath, Reservoir Dogs, nowhere near as accomplished a piece of moviemaking but full of psychological cross-currents and emotional quandaries. Tarantino has left emotional quandaries behind. He’s in the grindhouse revenge ether now, high on his own silly, can-you-top-this gross-out carnage. You wonder what he has up his sleeve in The Hateful Eight, but gorgeous at that sleeve might be, what’s up it is crap. The movie is a lot of gore over a lot of nothing. I hope that won’t be Tarantino’s epitaph.
And Ann Hornaday writes:
The climactic bloodletting may make for merry times for fanboys and fetishists, but it’s difficult to reconcile Tarantino’s infectious joie de vivre with the scorched-earth nihilism he uses it to celebrate. He’s compared “The Hateful Eight” to an Agatha Christie mystery, suggesting a cozy world being temporarily upended but finally set to rights. No such reassurance is forthcoming in what is finally a tiresome, self-indulgent burlesque of grindhouse gore-mongering, albeit one festooned with pseudo-deep ideas about America’s toxic racial legacy. Even Professor Plum, with an entire armamentarium of candlesticks and lead pipes at his disposal, couldn’t dream up a game this airless, there-less and, finally, clueless.
“She’s a leader. And she’s tough. And she’s hateful and a survivor and scrappy. I thought it was funny, but I didn’t think it was misogynistic for a second. [Tarantino] doesn’t have an ounce of misogyny in him. It’s not in his writing. It’s not in his being.”
The description of Daisy probably works better on the page than it does on screen. Cast a tall, imposing, truly frightening woman in the role and perhaps the end result would be different. But as The Hateful Eight chooses to introduce her from the first shot, Daisy appears more like a victim of domestic violence who has come to accept her continual treatment, believes she deserves it, and tries to be “scrappy” within that mode. See, that’s not the Tarantino I know. He would have given Daisy the final word, had her shoot everyone dead and be the last woman standing. Instead she goes down like the worst villain in the film yet the film provides us nothing back this up, at least not by what is up on screen.
Somehow, between Django and now, in his struggles to exercise the haunting legacy of racism and slavery in this country, Tarantino forgot about writing good female characters. Aside from a few weak wisecracks she gets to make, Daisy is not even allowed to be an interesting character, and neither are any of the other innocent one-dimensional women in the film.
So accusing the film of being “misogynist” is, in fact, a smokescreen because it’s easier to defend against that than the fact that he wrote something that doesn’t work. Tarantino depends on himself as the sole writer on all his films, which can work sometimes, but when a director goes back to the same well, that well will eventually run dry.Even Woody Allen has started to sound repetitive for decades now. The Coens won Best Picture for one of the rare times they directed a film carefully and faithfully adapted from a novel written by someone else.
Will any of this matter? No. Men always fail upwards in Hollywood. They are given chance after chance after chance. By now Tarantino, like Star Wars, is a brand. And if there’s one thing we can be certain of about human beings in 2015 — they are brand loyal. They would rather do anything else than turn away from their brand, which they wear proudly, letting the brand define who they are and on what team they reside. Star Wars, for instance, couldn’t fail. Once you brand a consumer, you imprint them for life — unless they figure out that they’ve been cynically branded and they pull away. Tarantino fans haven’t been branded for commercial or cynical reasons. They’re branded because being a Tarantino fan defines who they are. There is certainly nothing wrong with that. Brand loyalty is what fandom is all about. Fans love their idols or their brand no matter what.
For all of the negative reviews Tarantino has received for this film, there are plenty praising him. Several prominent women — LA Weekly’s Amy Nicholson, Indiewire’s Anne Thompson and Daily Beast’s Jen Yamato — have claimed they have no problem with the violence or the treatment of Daisy, and they do not see this as one of Tarantino’s worst films. Quite the contrary.
But domestic violence and violence against women worldwide is no laughing matter. It might be a giggly taboo as the butt of a joke for the privileged among us, but women are dehumanized every second of every day all over the world. The image of Jennifer Jason Leigh with a black eye, ostensibly looking all cool and shit, sadly echoes so many images put forth in PSA ads against domestic violence, like these:
It’s just a movie. Yeah, I know. Real violence exists everywhere; why complain about art? Yeah, I know. It doesn’t mean I have to enjoy it or get off on it. The truth is, I wish I’d never seen it. As beautiful as some of the film in parts, in the end it was like watching someone pull the wings off flies. Maybe that means I’m out of touch? Maybe that means I’m not cool? Maybe that means I’m stupid? Or maybe it is, simply, the truth of the thing. I know it’s my own truth.
Many Oscar voters will likely not see anything wrong here either. After all, who’s to say what’s right and wrong in art? It is a matter of interpretation. Tarantino is likely looking at multiple nominations, including screenplay, cinematography, score, and supporting actress, at the very least. If Hateful Eight is the “Frenzy zone” of a director’s canon, Frenzy is still Hitchcock and Hateful Eight is still Tarantino.