Friday, April 23, 2010

death proof girls

For the past eight months I haven’t been able to get Tarantino’s grindhouse contribution, Deathproof, out of my head. It’s a pretty simple story at the outset. Frusrated, ageing ex-stuntman (played by Kurt Russell) stalks and kills three sexy young girls who have been flirting with him in a bar. The murder is brutal – he drives his ‘deathproof’ ex-stunt car head on into the girls’ car, and we see in slow motion and on repeat female limbs torn from hips, feet ripped from ankles, bits of face flying about. The man survives.
In the next scene, the ex-stunt man begins stalking three ostensibly similar girls, and the audience fears a repeat murder. But the tables are turned: the new girls are just as sexy as the dead ones, but their cars are faster, their attitudes fiercer, and their sexuality is not offered to the man in any sense. Once they realise he is chasing them, they drive the man and his deathproof car into the dust and proceed to beat the dude senseless with their fists and a pole that they pull from somewhere. The movie ends in a freeze of the girls triumphant and blood-spattered in mid-punch, Kurt Russell's stubbly cheek hollowed in mid-recoil.

Truth is I haven’t been able to get the pole hitting Russell’s head out of my mind; nor the shiny fast cars; nor a pretty girl’s foot flying out a car window. Maybe it’s because I love car chase films, maybe it’s because it turns traditional, male-dominated car chase films on their heads, demonstrating the uselessness and out-datedness of the stunt-man/stunt-car trope with scantily clad women fawning over him. Maybe it’s because the second lot of girls remain sexy but don’t project that sexuality for the benefit of the man who desires it. Maybe it’s because at the end of the day, nothing brings tears to my eyes more than chicks fighting back. To be honest it’s probably all of these reasons in part, but still, none of these seemed to explain why such shameless violence made my heart race so much – why it felt just as victorious as the girl’s facial expressions in the final scene suggested.

Last week, reading Helen Garner’s controversial The First Stone (thoughts about which I will save for another post!), she articulated almost perfectly what I had been unable to express. She talked about how she went to see a film about a female stripper who not only enacted the role of a sexualised and objectified woman but in fact made money from the gaze focussed on the nakedness of her own body. This stripper though, did not let men touch her or speak to her inappropriately or in a sexually derogatory way; rather, she spoke back and stood up for herself – as Garner notes, was able to “articulate the precise nature of her boundaries.”

I think this notion of a woman protecting her own physical and social boundaries is what affected me about Deathproof. In their offence, the second set of women in the film did not play the role of victim but simply stood up and fought for their right to exist as successful women (who in this case, did a better job at driving and surviving than the man did) without being treated solely as objects for the pleasure – sexual or otherwise – of a man. The second lot of women understand this one man’s desire for the erasure of their own subjectivity for the benefit of his own bruised ego (which is perhaps the core reason why he is so desperate to annihilate any female who can drive and survive better than he can. He has been bested by a younger and faster generation – and another gender) and stand up for themselves very effectively.

It reminded me of how important it is for women to actually articulate and express what is inappropriate treatment and actively work against it. Though I don’t think the practical real-life answer is slogging it out many-to-one with a pole, I do think that a woman’s refusal to be “chased” (when the chasing is selfish and self-gratifying on the part of the chaser) to the death (in real life death is usually figurative but can also be literal) and actually telling an offender what the problem is, is a more useful way of addressing such issues than the victim role that many women (particularly cinematically in this genre) fall into. In Deathproof, I feel this attitude of boundary articulation emboldens the female subject and helps demarcate her physically and socially from female stereotypes (the ones that have tended to appear in car and horror films, anyway).

By the same token, Deathproof is also about celebrating aspects of stereotypes – the amount of cleavage and close-up butt shots of the girls will tell you that. But at the end of the day, these girls for me were brave, strong, and didn’t take lightly an insecure man trying to make himself feel better by try trying to kill them. Plus they're super duper crazy fast drivers. Yeah!


  1. You just expressed in that post my ideas about feminism, within this whole raunch culture thing, so perfectly. I think you found the good-ground. Producing relevant and accessible characters for viewers to identify/want to identify with is something film makers & writers are able to do like no flawed human celebrity can. It kind of recognises the fact that people are self-interested and want to be desired and works with that in some kind of more positive way, or something? All that said, I don't necessarily trust Quentin Tarantino that much, but, I appreciate the fact that your reading came out of it!

  2. Yes - how fascinating is that tension between the enjoyment being desired but not letting yourself be defined by the desirer. Just like I'll pay $50 for a wax but if a guy told me I HAD to do that to be attractive I'd want to kick in the nuts.
    PS - I hear you about Tarantino - how funny is it that I talk about him as if he's some amazing feminist when most women in his films are wearing really tight latex, get shot, or are killers!

  3. hey - when you gonna put some more sh!t up?