“The magic of Hollywood is its skilled and satisfying manipulation of visual pleasure…in a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female.”
Quentin Tarantino is a master of the cinematic art form. For the past twenty-two years he has surprised, challenged, and entertained audiences and critics alike. While it has not been highlighted or talked about as much Tarantino also usually includes unique female characters: from Uma Thurman’s coke-addict turn in Pulp Fiction to her brave feminist Samurai in Kill Bill to the cast of badass girls in Death Proof.
So it was surprising to witness the host of female characters in Django Unchained do absolutely nothing except be killed off in ridiculous ways or constantly become the damsel in distress. When all four main women were first introduced I was intrigued by them and was interested in how they would complicate or add to the narrative. Surprisingly they did neither (which is especially unfortunate given the talented Kerry Washington was one of the main ladies).
Throughout the narrative of Django Unchained Tarantino is creating the exact type of film that Laura Mulvey was critiquing in her classic film criticism text: “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. It is within this essay that Mulvey points towards cinematic sexism found through out the history of cinema. Not in all films, but in quite a few, especially classical Hollywood narratives. The sexual imbalance stems from “Woman as Image, Man as Bearer of the Look”. The man is the protagonist, he is the one the audience (both male and female) identifies with, and he is given the active role “of forwarding the story, making things happen.” While the woman is often a side character, the object in which both the male lead and audience gaze at, and “tends to work against the development of a story line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation”.
In and of itself this model isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when it becomes a pattern in movies from patriarchal societies it can become problematic.
After the second golden age of cinema this kind of scenario became rarer and rarer to find. Which is part of the reason it is so surprising to find the male gaze stick out like a sore thumb in Django.
There are three main characters in Django Unchained. All three are male. All three move the story forward and gain the audiences sympathies. The film is the story of a slave gaining freedom and becoming fully liberated. There are four women that play minor roles or that Quentin Tarantino highlights that quite purposefully. Kerry Washington plays Broomhilda, the still enslaved wife of Django. She hardly speaks, but is both a spectacle of beauty for both Django and the viewers. Throughout the film Django sees fleeting visions of her, visions that put the narrative on hold. Unfortunately her presence in person isn’t much different than the visions. She is constantly in danger, unable to help herself, and continually crying/screaming. In fact the final sequence of the film entails her locked up in a shack threatened with rape. Only Django can kill her captors and rescue her from danger.
Then there is Candy’s (Dicaperio’s evil plantation owner) sister. Her strict posture and dolled up face stand out, but she adds nothing to the narrative except to be (spoiler alert) ridiculously blown away by Django towards the end. There is one of Candy’s ladies (?) who simply appears or disappears throughout to give a seductive glance towards Django or the other men.
This brings one to perhaps the most disappointing character in the film. One who caught my eye, but was never elaborated on. In the film there is a group, a redneck family, which lives on the outskirts of Candy’s plantation. All are nasty, grotesque, and ignorant men minus the one female of the bunch. She stands out. She dresses more sophisticated and is a passive watcher of her active male family. Later before Django blows her and her family away, she is seen looking at old photographs.
Who is she?
What is her role in this family?
Unfortunately all the audience does is gaze at her in brief moments. She is intriguing, but like most characters in the film sacrificed to Tarintino’s rather disturbing obsession for bloodletting.
Does this mean Django, Unchained is a bad film? No, in fact I find it to be a very well done revisionist western with great performances. An irresponsible one? In many ways, yes. I’ve often found it slightly unsettling how much Tarintio loves vengeance and blood in recent works.
Being aware of such mechanics within a film robs the “invisible guest” of “satisfaction, pleasure, and privilege” for it is no longer just a fun film, but a movie that does embrace rather sexist cinematic tendencies. Agree or disagree with Mulvey’s theories, they force the viewer to wake up and look deeper at the visuals being projected on the screen. Shouldn’t we thoughtfully and responsibly digest the art we watch rather than turning our brains off to accept whatever one is given on the screen?
Mulvey, Laura. Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. N.p.: n.p., 1999. Print.