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The Ever-Resilient Vipers: Exploitation and Empowerment in Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill Vol. I”

By: Emily Ferguson

In Resilience & Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism, Neoliberalism, Robin James names and defines the phenomenon by which hegemonic structures and their members incite damage among those with marginalized identities with the expectation that their victims should capitalize on their own injuries through individualized acts of “resilience” (James 4). To that end, the effort victims put into being resilient is appropriated and commodified by the very systems of oppression that produced said physical trauma, emotional trauma, or both in the first place. Although James applies her concept of “resilience discourse” to pop music, it is equally compatible with other forms of contemporary popular culture which “perform the resilience we seek to embody” (James 5). Indeed, Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. I exemplifies this cultural reality. The film operates within James’ resilience discourse, as its apparent theme of female empowerment serves to mask its weaponization of misogyny and white supremacy against its female protagonists, The Bride and O-ren Ishii, for the benefit of the film’s antagonist, Bill. Kill Bill’s supposed progressiveness is further complicated by the fact that Tarantino himself has also profited off of this sexist and racist resilience narrative.

In order to study Kill Bill Vol. I through the lens of James’ resilience discourse, it is first necessary to explain what exactly this concept is. To define resilience, James states:

Resilience is the hegemonic or ‘common sense’ ideology that everything is to be measured not by its overall systematicity (coherence) or its critical, revolutionary potential (deconstruction), but by its health. This ‘health’ is maintained by bouncing back from injury and crisis in a way that capitalizes on deficits so that you end up ahead of where you initially started (4).

By this logic, it follows that hardship is necessary in order to progress in life. Crisis is “desirable” because it allows those who are able to capitalize upon it themselves to “bounc[e] back,” a positively-framed act that displays one’s resilience and invites admiration from others (James 4, 5). The necessitation of damage, however, means that acts of resilience actually “feed” the very hegemonic forces that oppress resilient populations in the first place (James 6). White women and people of color, in particular, involuntarily participate in this neoliberalist structure that systematically takes advantage of their personal struggles simply by being resilient, which makes resistance to these forces within resilience discourse all but impossible. Moreover, not everyone has the same capacity to recover, and this inability is due to the role of resilience in the “neoliberal market” (James 10).

By identifying the sources of multiple modes of inequality, James recognizes the intersecting forms of oppression that coincide with and function in mutual support of late capitalism. She compares modernity to a “competitive, ‘free’ market” in which every aspect of human life is “measured as human capital,” and this market functions in accordance with resilience discourse to conceal systemic sexism and racism (10). Resilience becomes the common attribute by which people are judged, which gives the appearance of a fair, post-racial and post-feminist market and, further, allows for the circumvention of a key question: why does such a market exist at all? With this supposed fairness of the marketplace, certain white women and people of color have been allowed into positions of power because some level of diversity has become the most efficient avenue to success for hegemonic institutions and private companies alike (James 12). Paradoxically, “this inclusion further reinforces both the supremacy of the hyperelites and the precarity of those who pose the greatest threat to MRWaSP hegemony” because there tends to be an underlying sense of insecurity surrounding those who have been ‘let in’ (James 12). Here, James introduces the concept of “multi-racial white supremacist patriarchy,” or MRWaSP, as an advancement of bell hooks’ “classical white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” and as a label for the unified hegemonic forces with which late capitalism interlocks (11, 12). MRWaSP depends upon a superficial commitment to gender- and race-based inclusivity, rather than the traditional method of overt exclusion of or discrimination against women and people of color, while relying on resilience to determine who is allowed to take up which, if any, positions in the elite (James 12). Accordingly, only those who are able to weather injustice in “socially profitable ways [can] move closer to the center of white supremacist privilege,” while other members of those populations remain marginalized (James 12). In relating capitalism to other forms of social power, James shows how market logic is the dynamic by which certain people can escape their abject identities and take (often precarious) positions of power.

By exploring the stories of The Bride and O-Ren Ishii, two of the main female characters in Kill Bill Vol. I, James’ argument comes to life. Both of these women face literal and figurative injuries brought about by patriarchal figures. This is not to say they are weak by any means; The Bride seeks revenge using her combat skills as an ex-member of the Deadly Viper Assassin Squad, and O-Ren deftly rises to the top of Tokyo’s underground world of crime. Indeed, Kill Bill demonstrates the fact that even when a film foregrounds independent, powerful women, it may still succumb to sexist tropes by framing their strength as the result of having overcome previous damage inflicted by powerful men. For both The Bride and O-Ren, the process of resilience is followed almost perfectly. As James writes,

first damage is incited and made manifest; second, that damage is spectacularly overcome, and the overcoming is broadcast and/or shared, so that; third, the person who has overcome is rewarded with increased human capital, status, and other forms of recognition and recompense, because: finally, and most importantly, this individual’s own resilience boosts society’s resilience (7).

Their resilience a product of sexism and, further, their former employer, Bill, pulls the strings throughout the film. This fact mirrors James’ claim that hegemonic institutions cause harm, with Bill as the stand-in for such institutions. He takes obvious pleasure in, and thus benefits from, the issues that arise as a result of his manipulation. For The Bride, the men forcing her into acts of resilience are Bill, her former lover and the longtime leader of the Deadly Vipers, as well as Buck, her designated orderly while she is comatose in the hospital. Bill also has a hand in inciting O-Ren’s physical harm later in life, as he withholds knowledge that would have saved her life. Initially, however, she is broken emotionally by Boss Matsumoto, the leader of the Tokyo yakuza.

Bill and Buck have vastly different roles in the film, but each of them performs violence against The Bride by using their dominant positions over her to take away her opportunity to be a mother and to rape her, respectively. Bill directs a failed murder plot against her that puts her in a coma for four years and, as far as she knows, kills their unborn daughter. The opening scene is indicative of what is to come as it sets her up as the picture of resilience. The Bride’s labored breathing accompanies the opening credits and constitutes the first audio viewers hear, while the visuals begin with a close up of her blood- and sweat-covered face as she appears to be lying immobile on the floor. Her teeth are clenched, her face is tense, and she is unmistakably in great pain, yet she musters the energy to speak and tells Bill, “It’s your baby” (Kill Bill Vol. 1). A gunshot goes off and the screen goes black. Her attempted murder is, chronologically, the first instance of harm she experiences in the film and is clearly a significant one. Yet the violence does not stop there: while The Bride is in a coma, Buck rapes her at least once and profits by repeatedly selling her inanimate body to other men so they, too, can rape her. A significant portion of Kill Bill is spent detailing The Bride’s damage and its effects which positions her as a beaten-down victim of the patriarchy and sets up her efforts for revenge as that much more impressive and necessary.

Though Buck’s character explicitly represents the systematic, patriarchal commodification of women’s bodies under capitalism, he is too obviously sexist and abusive to be considered a symptom of MRWaSP. Instead, he can be compared to the blatantly white-supremacist wrestler James discusses, Jack Swagger, with whom viewers feel unquestionably disgusted (14). This display of misogyny and abuse disassociates the film, and, by extension, Tarantino, from overt sexism, as Buck’s reprehensible behavior opposes the “liberated attitudes about gender” this Bechdel Test-passing film1 apparently possesses (James 14). Moreover, the inclusion of rape advances the beaten-down woman trope while adding, arguably, absolutely nothing of value to the film’s plot, since the film establishes that The Bride’s motivation for the killing spree is not her sexual trauma, but the supposed murder of her unborn daughter. When she awakens from her coma and remembers what had happened to her, her first reaction is to reach to her abdomen, and the grief she feels upon realizing her baby is no longer there echoes throughout the film; when fighting with a former Deadly Viper, she says that the only way to “get even” would be to kill the former assassin’s daughter as well (Kill Bill). Therefore Buck, by raping and prostituting The Bride’s body, serves only to further break her down in the eyes of the audience after Bill and the Deadly Vipers’ attack her. In this sense, Tarantino brings her “down to [her] lowest low so the subsequent high will seem all the more intense” (James 2). In alignment with resilience discourse, The Bride single-handedly battles and kills numerous people throughout her quest for revenge in a manner that “transforms [her abuse] into aesthetic surplus value for others” to consume both diegetically and non-diegetically (James 5).

Unlike Buck, Bill personifies Kill Bill’s promotion of a post-feminist and post-racial cultural narrative symptomatic of James’ MRWaSP. Bill’s relationship with the Deadly Vipers mimics the ‘free’ marketplace that James analyzes. As with MRWaSP, Bill does not appear to “care so much [about] who you are, but what happens through you” (James 16). In this case, he only values those that are useful to him as members of his team of assassins. The key to his interest seems to be “that investing in you furthers [his] aims […] and that these aims are not better accomplished by divesting your human capital” (James 16). Bill has no qualms about The Bride murdering O-Ren and Vernita because the pair do not work for him anymore and, as such, hold no market value for him; here, he divests their human capital at great detriment to them. His apathy towards their deaths also highlights the “precarity” of the women’s status, the loss of which costs Vernita and O-Ren their lives (James 12).

Though O-Ren’s resilience story is less central than The Bride’s, it also reveals the film’s obsession with narratives that necessitate a female character’s abuse by and subsequent defeat of patriarchal figures as a means of gaining total self-possession. In a sequence of animated scenes, viewers watch a young O-Ren hide under a bed as Boss Matsumoto murders her parents. The Bride narrates that O-Ren “swore revenge” against Matsumoto and that, “luckily for her, [he] was a pedophile” (Kill Bill). This grants O-Ren, at just eleven years old, access to his private home where she feigns interest in sleeping with him only to stab and kill him instead. She eventually becomes one of the most skilled and highly regarded assassins in the world by the age of twenty and replaces Matsumoto as the head of the yakuza, which consists of her and a group of male subordinates. In James’ terms, O-Ren “recycles” the damage the film has Matsumoto inflict upon her, gaining both cultural and presumably financial capital (7). When the yakuza meets to confirm O-Ren as their leader, one of her fellow members openly questions her fitness for the position, citing her mixed Japanese-Chinese-American heritage and her gender as justification for his concerns. This scene enacts James’ MRWaSP and illustrates the precarity of women who hold positions of power within male-dominated institutions. In response, O-Ren calmly asserts her authority by beheading him. Though this scene undoubtedly serves as an example of her empowerment, the film continues to operate within resilience discourse by framing O-Ren’s initial exposure to violence as fundamental to her defeat of patriarchal order and subsequent rise to power, as it does with The Bride.

Bill employs successful women, both white and non-white, as agents of his organization which shields the film and its creator from any straightforward allegations of sexism and/or racism. In spite of this, his character exudes patriarchal power as he plans to poison The Bride with Elle Driver’s help. Even speaking over a phone Bill overpowers Elle—his voice physically stops her in her tracks—and throughout their conversation, he strokes a sword. This incredibly phallic visual connects his male identity with both violence and control. As James writes, “putting otherwise privileged people of color at the center of white supremacist institutions obscures the white supremacy” present in these institutions, and in this case, patriarchy is inseparable from white supremacy (13). Accordingly, Tarantino’s white—albeit female—protagonist succeeds in destroying the gender and racially “inclusive” Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. Additionally, in the opening scene, as Bill stands over The Bride, he tells her he does not consider himself to be sadistic: “No Kiddo, at this moment, this is me at my most masochistic” (Kill Bill). He acts out of self-interest and benefits from The Bride’s pain and the pain she brings about for the other women throughout the film. Thus, Bill is a diegetic representation of the hegemonic institutions which profit off of the people they control.

Bill’s face is never shown, and he spends the film indirectly pitting successful women against each other for his own gain. The same could be said for Tarantino, who is also physically absent from the film, but whose influence is much more direct than Bill’s. Bill removes himself from the battlefield, leaving Vernita and O-Ren to fight it out with The Bride; the ex-Vipers inadvertently carry out the misogynistic ‘dirty work’ of their male employer. As demonstrated in James’ work, the efforts one puts into “overcom[ing] their own damage generates surplus value for hegemonic institutions” through resilience discourse (7). There is, however, a twist in terms of Tarantino’s role compared to that of Bill. As Tarantino is both the writer and director of Kill Bill, it is fair to call this work ‘his’ and to suggest he had a high level of, if not total, control over the plot, the characters, and the filming. Thus, Tarantino does not simply manipulate and harm women for his own gain, as Bill does; he has also created the very women he inflicts damage upon. Here, the resilience discourse is brought to a new level on which hegemonic institutions produce marginalized populations, arrange a series of adversities over which they must personally triumph, and then profit off of their so-called resilience. Furthermore, the film’s numerous prestigious honors,2 the $180 million grossed at the box office,3 and critics’ raving reviews that praise Tarantino,4 all speak to the idea that Kill Bill’s exploitation of female pain ultimately increases Tarantino’s cultural and financial capital. In the context of a fictional film, there are far less dire consequences of such an action than there are in the non-fictional world. Nonetheless, the various forms of culture we consume both shape and reflect the lived realities that we as a society experience.

With her concept of resilience, Robin James brings to the table a productive and comprehensive understanding of how late capitalism functions in relation to other oppressive social systems/sources of social power. Evidently, resilience discourse can be used as a lens through which numerous forms of popular culture are studied, including films such as Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. I. While it may be true that Tarantino has brought a much-needed female-led action film to the forefront with Kill Bill, the integral presence of MRWaSP elements in this film cannot be ignored. As imaginative and aesthetically pleasing as this film is, the aforementioned drawbacks should be strongly considered in one’s interpretation of the film. Since Kill Bill Vol. I falls short of being a truly inclusive and empowering cultural text, the ever-present resilience discourse, which James names as an ideology central to late capitalism, is essential to identifying exactly how the film mistakes its narrative of resilience for one of female empowerment.

Works Cited

James, Robin. “Introduction.” Resilience & Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism, Neoliberalism. Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2015. 1-25.

“Kill Bill Vol. I.” Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Miramax Films, 2003.

Photo: “The Bride,” Mike Mitchell

1 The Bechdel Test was invented by Alison Bechdel. In order to pass, a film must fulfill the following three requirements: (1) there are at least two named female characters (2) who have a conversation (3) about something other than a man. Further information is available here: https://bechdeltest.com/

2 “Quentin Tarantino: Awards.” IMDb.

3 “Kill Bill Vol. I (2003).” Box Office Mojo

4 Ebert, Roger. “Kill Bill, Volume I Movie Review (2003).”

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