More recently, I’ve become increasingly aware of how my filmic interpretations are informed by my gender. As a female viewer, I often perceive the so-called, “male gaze,” in Hollywood films less from feelings of identification (as a male audience member would perhaps experience), but more so from literature I’ve read, films I’ve studied in class, and general societal observations I’ve made on my own. The topic of the “male gaze” in film is a sensitive one; but I think sometimes people are unnecessarily quick to condemn films for female objectification, subordination, and vulnerability. I also believe female objectification is often overemphasized or mischaracterized as being sexually demeaning; I do not think that is always the case. Moreover, the possibility for a “female gaze” is rarely touched upon.
In re-watching Kill Bill (Quentin Tarantino, 2003), I found that my understanding of the “male gaze” was complicated. The film follows the vindictive mission of a strong female lead, The Bride (played by Uma Thurman). After waking from a four-year coma caused by a bullet to the head on her wedding day, The Bride vows to find and kill every last member of the assassin squad that betrayed her. Though the cinematic portrayal of the Bride, particularly towards the beginning of the film, suggests male dominance with many tightly framed fetishistic shots, the narrative is one of female empowerment. The Bride also progressively achieves command of the camera.
The film opens with the most disturbing of diegetic sounds—the uncontrollable panting of a female. Reminiscent of the start of Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, 1955), the heavy, ragged breathing of a petrified female protagonist is one of the most visceral and disarming sounds in cinema. Overlaid with the opening credits on black, the female protagonist, who we later realize is “The Bride,” is first introduced to us by her pained gasping. Faceless and voiceless, her character is diminished at the start of the film. The scene then cuts to a black and white shot of the Bride. The harsh, high contrast lighting in the close up of her agonized expression is unflattering. Her face is glistening with inky blood, beads of sweat, and streaks of tears. Following this is a tracking shot of cowboy boots, striding towards the wounded Bride; the Bride’s whimpering is ever-present in the background. When the shot switches back to the Bride, her close-up is intruded by Bill’s boot in the bottom-right corner. Cower as she may, we presume Bill is hovering over her sadistically, with locked eye contact, observing his violent work. He proceeds to patronizingly wipe the blood from her face while apathetically explaining the motives for what he is about to do—shoot her, point-blank, in the head. Pinned to the ground by her sustained injuries, the Bride is unwillingly but completely subject to Bill’s brutality.
However, as the film progresses, we encounter a divergence. Along with the developments in the narrative—the Bride has embarked on her vengeful mission—we also see a distinct change in the shooting style. As exemplified by many of the kung-fu sequences, the formidable Bride demands control of the camera, and engages the audience in an awe-inspiring way. The film, which focuses a great deal on professional violence, in particular that of the martial arts, becomes a celebration of the human body. In these blood-gushing, horrific fights sequences, the Bride is superhuman. Wearing a distinct yellow jumpsuit and armed with a lethal samurai sword, she is transformed into a weapon; her agility and rigor are unparalleled. After slaying O-Ren Ishii’s entire horde of protectors, she stands over them victoriously on the railing of the upper level. In a low-angle full shot, she pronounces, “Those of you lucky enough to still have your lives, take them with you! But leave the limbs you have lost. They belong to me now.” She is empowered by the shot; her stature is overbearing and omnipotent. Here, Tarantino shows us how there are instances where the spectacle of the female body is not sexualized, but revered.
Kill Bill offers a fascinating take on the male gaze in cinema. While the Bride, especially towards the start of the film when she is injured or in a comatose state, is often confined to the pressuring rectangle of the frame, truncated and expressed as parts of her body, she retains control of the camera and restores her agency in many of the impressive kung-fu sequences. The male gaze is undeniably present in Kill Bill, but can be decoded to either uphold, contest, or qualify its standard interpretation.