From A Bride with a Hanzo Sword to a Damsel in Distress: Did Quentin Tarantino’s Feminism Take a Step Backwards in Django Unchained?
by Tracy Bealer
One of the pleasures of being a Quentin Tarantino fan for the last (gulp) twenty years has been enjoying his development as a writer-director, especially in terms of his ever more complicated representations of women. To move from Reservoir Dogs, the female characters of which are limited to “shocked woman” and “shot woman,” to Kill Bill volumes 1 & 2, a film (Tarantino insists they be considered a single work) that masterfully investigates the multiplicity of feminine identity, is a dizzying and exhilarating evolution.
However, Django Unchained, Tarantino’s eighth feature, seems to further expand his interest in exploring the intersection of cinema, history and violence, but is rather regressive in terms of female characterization.
Django Unchained is a powerful statement on the absurdity and cruelty that underpinned and perpetuated American slavery. The film follows Django, a freed slave played by Jamie Foxx, and his German partner, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) as they attempt to liberate Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), from the plantation run by Leonardo DiCaprio’s odious Calvin Candie. It includes the kind of Tarantino-esque irreverence and visual wit that are familiar from his earlier films, but also manages to treat the suffering visited on enslaved African American bodies, minds, and families with respect and horror.
Django unquestionably riffs on the same sort of cinematic revenge fantasies for historical injustice that led to the explosive conclusion of Inglourious Basterds, as well as the spaghetti westerns from which Django borrows its title and main character’s name. However, the film also cites captivity narratives, which is a progressive move racially, but not in terms of gender.
Django Unchained inverts the traditional captivity narrative structure, in which “civilized” white women are captured by an “uncivilized” enemy (in American versions, typically Native Americans). By making Django the avenger and Broomhilda the damsel in distress, the story upends and thereby exposes the fictionality of such racialized categories, but it also places Broomhilda in a character trope that does not allow for the sort of self-actualization and power that typify earlier Tarantino women like Jackie Brown (of the film of the same title), Beatrix Kiddo in Kill Bill, or even the pack of female avengers in Death Proof. Instead, Broomhilda seems to exist in the narrative only to be rescued by Django, and the resulting film becomes nearly as phallocentric in form and content as Reservoir Dogs. (Kerry Washington is joined by four other female actresses, three playing other enslaved women, and the other one the simpering Southern belle sister of Calvin Candie.)
Broomhilda does not have such an unusual name by accident. As Schultz informs Django, and the audience, Broomhilda is a figure from Norse folklore, imprisoned on a mountaintop by her father Odin, and destined to remain trapped until her true love slays a dragon and walks through hellfire to save her. By applying this mythology to Django’s quest to free his own Broomhilda from her hellish captivity, Tarantino universalizes, and thereby de-racializes, the legend. But in so doing, he also by necessity equates the enslaved Broomhilda with the Valkyrie princess. And though both Broomhildas are, as the etymology of their name suggests, “ready for battle,” Kerry Washington is given little fighting to do onscreen in Tarantino’s script.
It seems almost crudely obvious to state that being imprisoned on a mountaintop in no way approximates the suffering endemic to slavery. And if we write beyond the script, Broomhilda undoubtedly endured, and survived, and thrived in spite of, unspeakable torment during her time away from Django, as well as before and during their relationship, leaving no doubt as to her strength. However, when we see her on screen, her character is more often than not marked by vulnerability, passivity, and girlishness.
The first glimpse the audience gets of Broomhilda (outside of Django’s idealized hallucinations of her bathing with him and walking beside his horse in a beautiful gown) is her naked, shaking body being exhumed from “the hot box”—an outside coffin in which she was chained for running away. During a dinner party, after she has learned of Django and Schultz’s plan to trick Candie into selling her, she is stripped to the waist in the dining room to reveal her whipping scars. Broomhilda’s obvious unease during this dinner party tips off Stephen, the head house slave chillingly played by Samuel L. Jackson, to her previous relationship with Django, thereby torpedoing the surreptitious plan. During the ensuing shoot-out she is passed from male hand to male hand, and ultimately thrown onto a bed in a shack, presumably awaiting sexual violation. After Django rescues his wife and destroys Candie’s “big house,” she claps in girlish glee. A warrior queen this Broomhilda is not allowed to be, at least not during the action of the film.
I admire (and appreciate) Django Unchained for what it aims to be—a cinematic expose of the institution that has been called “America’s original sin.” There are too few films that seek to do this. However, as someone who has argued elsewhere that Tarantino’s evolution as a filmmaker is coextensive with a developing feminist consciousness, Django has forced me to rethink my assumptions.