Everything a Man Can Do, Decapitation Included

October 19, 2003

THE weekend after Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected governor of California, the No. 1 movie in America was Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill: Vol. 1." Given the proximity of the two events, it is tempting to read them as a parable about women, violence and movies.

Mr. Schwarzenegger built his popularity on larger-than-life violent screen characters, then parlayed this power in the real world to mount his campaign for governor. On the stump, he sometimes reprised poses or lines from his movies. Despite accusations from women that he groped or sexually humiliated them, he got 43 percent of the female vote.

In "Kill Bill," which opened three days after the election, women rise to a level of brutality previously reserved for men like Mr. Schwarzenegger. Where women go in this movie, limbs fly. Heads roll. Blood spurts in three shades of red.

In one scene the actress Chiaki Kuriyama, wearing a plaid skirt and schoolgirl blazer, asks a man if he wants to have sex with her. When he says yes, she stabs him.

"Do you still want to penetrate me?" she asks, pushing the knife through his torso. "Or is it I who has penetrated you?"

If political clout follows from on-screen body count, as it seemed to in California, you can only wonder what sort of political career Ms. Kuriyama has in store. Payback, as they say, is a mother.

"Kill Bill," which presents its highly stylized violence as visual repartee, is just the latest in a growing body of movies and television shows featuring wild women wielding weapons. From the animated "Powerpuff Girls" to the ABC series "Alias," in which Jennifer Garner plays a deadly secret agent in stretch fabrics, women are wreaking damage in ways previously reserved for the hairier sex.

Eight years after Lucy Lawless brought Xena the Warrior Princess to the untamed world of syndicated television, the message from Hollywood is clear: You've come a long way, baby. Now kill someone.

At theaters last week, where Mr. Tarantino's choreographed blood ballet drew $31 million in its first seven days, the connection between violence on-screen and power off-screen was not lost on the women in the audience. About 40 percent of the ticket buyers on opening weekend were female, according to Rick Sands, the chief operating officer of Miramax Films.

For a movie in which characters literally lose their heads, "that's a very large female audience," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations, which tracks box office figures.

The carnage was part of the appeal. "It was empowering to women," said Carolyn Hrenko, 22, in downtown Denver on Wednesday, after watching Uma Thurman cut a bloody swath through "Kill Bill." Ms. Hrenko added: "For the most part, it showed women in a positive light, they were all so tough."

In Houston, a real estate agent named Rachel Watkins, 45, who took her husband to the movie, said she wanted to see it again, this time with her 15-year-old daughter. "I think the girls need to look at it instead of the silly movies," she said. "This is something they should look for."

The aggression on the screen "reflects a trend in the broader culture," said Martha McCaughey, an editor of "Reel Knockouts: Violent Women in the Movies," who has also worked extensively with women's self-defense programs. The numbers of women who study martial arts, box, own guns and listen to Courtney Love and Foxy Brown records have been on the increase for decades. It is only natural for more women to be comfortable seeing characters like themselves mix it up, as aggressors rather than just victims.

In the 1990's, Ms. McCaughey used to show film clips of actresses in violent roles to women's studies classes, including scenes of Linda Hamilton in "Terminator 2" or Rene Russo in "Lethal Weapon 3." Her more politicized students objected to the clips, she said. "They said, `If women are going to celebrate violence, now we can't say that violence is a problem of a male-dominated society.' "

But in recent years, younger women have been especially comfortable with physical aggression, both on-screen and off, said Patricia Pearson, author of "When She Was Bad: Violent Women and the Myth of Innocence." Ms. Pearson said that "for younger girls, it doesn't contravene their sense of gender identity."

The mayhem in "Kill Bill," which fills most of the movie, is more clever pastiche than naturalistic gore. The audience knows that the movie does not take its violence seriously. Like Mr. Tarantino's other films, "Kill Bill" riffs copiously on other movies, and what other movies are about — commercially successful ones — is often violence.

Similarly, in "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle," the violence is more like a video game or music video, with explosions right and left. In the television series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," which finished its seven-year run in May, or "Charmed," women have supernatural powers, including violent ones, to go with supercool wardrobes.

These characters allow female viewers to vent their anger vicariously, said Joan Morgan, author of "When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: A Hip-Hop Feminist Breaks It Down." Ms. Morgan said she planned to see "Kill Bill" with her girlfriends. "Women get angry," she said. "Without socially accepted outlets for that anger, flicks like `Kill Bill' are very cathartic."

Besides, she added, there's something especially engrossing about a fight between women. "I grew up in the South Bronx, and nothing stopped the flow of the neighborhood more than two women duking it out in the street," she said. "There was a code of honor when guys fought, but women were no-holds-barred. If you knew you were going to be in a fight, you came to school with your hair in braids, petroleum jelly on your face and clothing that couldn't be stripped. Because women will strip each other down and attempt to scar each other."

For all their differences, these portrayals send a common message about power and society, said Henry Jenkins, director of the comparative media studies program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "In popular culture, power gets represented through violence," he said. "It tells us who has the ability to kick, slash or shoot an opponent." Characters who can blow things up on-screen can wield corporate power or run for governor of California.

But even in these violent roles, screen heroines still cannot have it all. Unlike classic Homeric male action heroes, who level cities and slay suitors in order to win the girl, the protagonists of "Kill Bill" and the "Charlie's Angels" movies do not drop the armor for amour. They are, like the schoolgirl assassin played by Ms. Kuriyama, literally impenetrable, in love or in war.

Audiences still maintain the Victorian prejudice that the sex act compromises women, Mr. Jenkins said. "There is the sense that for women to have sexuality is to give themselves over to the dominance of men," he said.

"Kill Bill" is also a story about maternal loss. Though the movie jumps around in time, the first thing Uma Thurman does chronologically is grab her flat stomach and scream for the unborn baby she has lost. The movie is her grisly revenge for being denied the role of bride and mother.

Ann Kearney-Cooke, who runs the Cincinnati Psychotherapy Institute and works with adolescent girls, said that these depictions of violently powerful women, often created by men, are actually debilitating to women in the real world. "What's going on is that as women have gained power economically and politically, the message has been that to be successful, you have to be like a man," she said. "That's carried through to roles like this. This acting hypermasculine is a way of glorifying men, not women."

At a Times Square theater last week, any sexual politics in "Kill Bill" washed over Justin Lowrie, 33, a graphic designer. "It didn't even dawn on me that it was women doing the violence," he said.

As with Mr. Schwarzenegger's movies, the real star of "Kill Bill" is the violence, not the people who perpetrate it. They are more an extension of set design or special effects — which raises a whole other set of gender questions, for another day.

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