Let’s Kill This Bastard: Gender in Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof

death proof tarantino

I’ve been meaning to watch Death Proof for what feels like forever, but it just never happened. At least, not until a few days ago. Now that I have seen the film, I find myself a tad frustrated with the somewhat lukewarm reception it seems to have received. I take issue with the claim that this is somehow Tarantino’s weakest film. That said, this post isn’t a review, and I’m not here to tell you how great Death Proof is.

Nope, I’m just here to discuss some of the ways in which the film uses gender and to explore how is subverts some traditional gender stereotypes in the process. I’m sure there are many who have discussed this aspect of the film since it’s 2007 release. Allow me to add my voice to the conversation.

More Than Objects (AKA Not Asking For It) this section is hella long oops
Not only does Death Proof have more female characters than most films, it’s females are also afforded a degree of full-personhood not often seen in Hollywood films (especially not in those about fast cars, murder, and revenge).

While nearly all of the women in Death Proof are sexual and/or are sexualized in some way, that in itself does not mean that the film is presenting them as mere objects. No, no. These women are full-fledged people. The film does not sexualize them to demean them, nor does it ever assert that they are somehow deserving of violence, because they are willing to wear ‘revealing’ outfits. Mike and those he can be taken to represent might think so, but Death Proof itself is not on his/their side.

If Mike were allowed to survive the film unpunished, if the women were presented as flatter characters than they are, or if the film encouraged viewers to sympathize with Mike, then it might be possible to say that the sexualization of women in Death Proof is purely exploitative or that it somehow devalues the women as characters. Fortunately, this is not the case. As it turns out, women are allowed to be sexy without losing their right to respect. What a thought. 

Tarantino’s personal foot fetish aside, the fact the Mike has a tendency to single out groups of women in which one of the members has a habit of sticking her bare feet out of car windows, actually reinforces the idea that short skirts and sexy billboards aren’t the real reason that Death Proof‘s women are stalked, attacked, and murdered. Rather, they are stalked, attacked, and murdered, because Mike gets off on asserting his masculinity and because society allows him to do so (more on that later).

The truth is, going barefoot is a pretty innocent and unsexy act most of the time. Still, this is what attracts Mike to the groups of women. Short skirts and cleavage don’t do it for him; feet do. Which is to say that it really doesn’t matter how much the women in the film are or aren’t wearing, Mike is going to target them anyway. The women in the film are in no way to blame for the terror that Mike enacts upon them; rather, they are victims of his hypermasculinity and of the belief that masculinity gives one the right to exercise power and control over the female. According to Death Proof itself, the women it portrays are much more than objects. According to Mike the Stuntman, they are not; and so, he decides to kill them.

It is also important to note that the women in the first group (that is, the group that gets murdered) are on their way to enjoy a girl’s night in when they are killed. This is most certainly not to say that they would somehow be deserving of death if they were actively looking for men to sleep with. However, that they explicitly are not doing so (near the end of their time at the bar, Arlene/Butterfly reaffirms that they are just having a girl’s night and will not be taking any men to the lake with them) does say quite a bit about how little influence they themselves have over whether or not men like Mike want to objectify and/or violate them.

These women are not looking for sex when they are murdered, but they are murdered in a violently sexual way (more on that later too) just the same. The women are people, but Mike does not see them that way. And their dress and their behavior have absolutely nothing to do with it.

The fact that the first group of women die on their way to a “girl’s night” actually ties in nicely with some of what Kim says when explaining to Lee, Zoe, and Abernathy why she carries a gun. After Abernathy asserts that carrying a gun actually puts Kim in more danger than not carrying one, the following exchange occurs-
Kim: “And you can’t get around the fact that if I go down to the laundry room in my building at midnight enough times, I might get my ass raped.
Lee: “Don’t your laundry at midnight.
Kim: “Fuck that! I wanna do my laundry whenever the fuck I do my laundry.
There is nothing inherently sexual about doing laundry, but all of the women present seem to agree that doing one’s laundry late at night puts a woman at risk of assault all the same. It has nothing to do with the clothes. A woman raped doing laundry late at night doesn’t get raped, because she wants to wash her clothes; she get’s raped, because a man sees her, feels entitled to her, and decides that there aren’t enough potential witnesses around to prevent him from doing whatever he wants. And of course, women really should be able to do their laundry (and to go to bars, and to stick their feet out of windows, and to drive Dodge Challengers) whenever the fuck they want.

Oh, and before I end this monster of a section one more thing. That exchange I just quoted is part of a longer extended conversation among four women. How many films have you seen where a group of women are allowed to just sit and chat for an extended period of time (and about more than some other male character no less)? Given the huge percentage of films that don’t even manage to pass the bare minimum that is the Bechdel Test, probably not many. Objectified as they are by Mike, the women in Death Proof aren’t just there to look pretty or to give the film a motivation for it’s action and violence. They are multifaceted characters who exist outside of and independently of any men in the film. Oh, and if the diner scene reminds you of the opening scene in Reservoir Dogs, there is a reason: they are shot in a very similar manner. Personally, I can’t help but feel a certain fondness for film that affords female characters the luxury of mere conversation, a luxury that is most often reserved for men.

Butterfly’s Lap Dance
Remember when I indicated that the fact that the women in Death Proof are pretty damn sexy doesn’t change the fact that women are empowered by the film on the whole. Well, I meant it. Still, something tells me that someone reading this might try to bring up Butterfly’s lap dance scene as a counterpoint. They might say that, “surely that scene is objectifying Butterfly and is meant to present her as a sexual object and little else.” They might say that, but they would not be correct to do so.

No matter how sexy Butterfly’s lap dance might be, she does not give it willingly, and that cannot be ignored. Mike bullies her into dancing for him. She initially refuses him, and Julia even tries to help her do so, but Mike is persistent. He pushes and he pushes. Eventually, he even gets Julia to admit that she is afraid of his car (and, by association, of him and of the masculine power and privilege that lies behind all of this words and actions).

That the film establishes Butterfly as someone who typically isn’t afraid to put her foot down before this scene further emphasizes the degree to which Mike deliberately pushes her into dancing for him. Early in the film, Butterfly tells Julia and Shanna of how she decided when and how to end her make-out session with Nate the night before. Then, at the bar, Butterfly is shown clearly laying out the terms on which Nate is allowed to kiss her. If he doesn’t agree to stop when she wants to, then she won’t have anything to do with him. That this same woman is later coerced into giving a lap dance to a stranger highlights just how violent, controlling, and dangerous Mike and the mentality he represents truly are.

Thus, the primary function of the lap dance scene is not to use Butterfly to provide audiences with some sort of sexual gratification. Nope, the primary function of the lap dance scene is to make viewers uncomfortable and to call additional attention to the sort of person that Mike is. Butterfly puts on a brave face, but the dance might as well be a rape all the same. Like her eventual murder, and like the car chase later in the film, the dance is a violation. If the lap dance scene doesn’t make you uncomfortable, maybe it’s because you (like Mike) have been conditioned to see women as objects that exist for nothing else but the pleasure of the male gaze and ego.

If you still don’t buy my claim that the lap dance scene is about much more than offering some sort of sexual pleasure, then consider the fact that the end of the dance is very deliberately and ostentatiously missing. The climax of the lap dance scene is noticeably cut from the film. The dance was never about pleasure anyway, it was about power and about the needs of Mike’s twisted and masculine ego.

Mike and Hypermasculinity
That Mike is effectively a stand-in for hypermasculinity (the kind of masculinity that dominates the sort of action films that require crazy stuntmen) is hard to ignore. Not only is he a very manly looking man with a giant scar down his face, he also drives a terrifying muscle car (read: giant mobile phallus) and even wears what appears to be an IcyHot racing jacket. As ridiculous as the IcyHot jacket is, that the product is one used to soothe sore muscles reinforces the almost cartoonishly masculine way in which Mike is presented.

Just in case anyone isn’t convinced that the “death proof” car with the skull and crossbones paint job is really just a giant mobile phallus, consider the following: the second half of the film includes a shot of the phallic duck-shaped hood ornament on Mike’s car and then immediately transitions to a shot of Zoe’s legs spread around the same spot on the Dodge Challenger where such a hood ornament would be. The car is a dick.

Given Stunman Mike’s hypermasculinity (he has “man” in his name jfc!) and the fact that he murders women while driving a muscle car that he has deliberately customized to frighten women reinforces the fact that the murders (and attempted murders) in the film have much more to do with sex and gender than they do with some pathology unique only to Mike.

That Mike claims that his phallus-car is death proof highlights this even further. If Mike believes that the car is death proof, then he also believes that his masculinity is enough to protect him (legally and physically) from ever being punished for his crimes against women. For him, to be masculine is to be to be a god and to be a woman is to be a mere mortal, to be someone who exists only for the amusement of that god.

The Law is on Mike’s Side
The world that the women in Death Proof inhabit (as well as the one in which the film was made) is decidedly male. Male standards and viewpoints dominate nearly every aspect of society and the legal system. Those women who do survive and thrive don’t do so with the aid of this patriarchal system; rather they do so in spite of it.

That this is the case becomes terribly apparent after Mike kills the first group of girls. While Mike lies recovering from a few broken bones in a hospital bed, the local cop Earl (who also appears in Planet Terror) discusses the car accident/murder with his son. Earl makes it incredibly clear that he knows that Mike murdered the women and that the wreck was not an accident. But then when his son asks, “Well, what are you going to do?” His immediate answer is “Not a goddamn thing.” Earl then gives various excuses for why he won’t bother seek legal action against Mike, even though he is 300% confident that he deliberately murdered several women. Even if Earl wanted to prosecute Mike, there is not enough of a legal case against him. According to Earl, Mike would get away with the murder even if he tried to pin it on him, and so he decides not to try at all. Mike also points out the sexual nature of the crime and of the way it was committed (by ramming one car into another car).

Before the scene ends, Earl’s son repeats his earlier questions and asks, “So, what are you gonna do, pop?” Earl’s answer: “Well, I could take it upon myself to work the case. You know, in my off hours. Search for evidence, you know, prove my theory, alert authorities, dog that rotten son of a bitch, wherever he goes, I go. Or, I could spend the same goddamn amount of time and energy following the NASCAR circuit. Hmm, I’ve thought about it a lot, and I think I’d have a hell of a lot happier life if I did the latter. And just because I can’t punish old Frankenstein there for what he’s done… if he ever does it again, I can be goddamn sure that he doesn’t do it in Texas.

Whether Earl could or couldn’t get Mike arrested and prosecuted if he tried is unclear, but that he is unwilling to try regardless is very much apparent. Earl (here a representative of the law) knows that Mike has committed a terrible crime, but he is far more concerned with the fact that the crime happened on his turf than he is with the suffering or the victims or with pursuing justice. As long as he doesn’t have to deal with it, Mike can keep on doing whatever he wants. As long as the law/Earl will do no more than call Mike a “diabolical degenerate” when he isn’t around to hear, he can carry on, for he has the tacit support of the society around him.

The law’s refusal and/or inability to punish Mike highlights the fact that the worlds of the various film genres that Death Proof engages are typically not on the side of any women that they portray. And so, if any female characters are to come out on top in this film (and in the universes of horror, car, and other exploitation cinema), then they are going to have to do it in spite of patriarchal conventions. They are going to have to fight for themselves. Luckily (and as the second portion of Death Proof demonstrates quite memorably), they are more than capable of doing so.
Get Death Proof on DVD.

Mike Meets His Match
Mike’s second murder attempt fails for two reasons: 1) Kim, Zoe, and Abernathy are total bad asses who aren’t about to go down without a fight and who aren’t content to merely escape Mike without getting some revenge, and 2) Mike fails to account for the fact that there are women out there who can do just as much (if not more) with a muscle car as he can.

Surely, Mike never expects that the group of women he is stalking includes stuntwomen—women who have many of the same skills that he does, women who have existences separate from their appearances that actually make them well-equipped to destroy him. With his inflated male ego and incredible sense of entitlement to the female body, Mike is virtually incapable of considering that there are women out there who have what it takes to beat him at his own game (that is, murderous stunt-driving). And ultimately, Mike’s refusal to see women as people and as equals plays a significant role in his death.

When Kim, Zoe, and Abernathy kill Mike, they give him a taste of his own terrible medicine while also getting revenge for all the women he has terrorized. While Kim is chasing Mike with the Dodge Challenger, she repeatedly makes it clear that she understands something sexual in the way that Mike attacked them and that the film’s final car chase is symbolically an inversion of the sexual and gender-based power dynamics normally seen in Hollywood films and in the genres that Death Proof is in conversation with.

The end of the film also exposes the incredible lack of substance behind Mike’s masculinity. His car and his hypermasculine persona may be death proof, but only up to a point. Once his façade of masculinity is penetrated (by a bullet to the arm), it crumbles pretty quickly. Mike may have a scary car and a nasty facial scar, but Death Proof‘s final sequence makes it more than apparent that he is pretty pathetic underneath it all. Mike dies like the coward he is. He cries, and he begs, and a mother who loves fashion gives him the boot to the skull that he deserves.

Until Next Time
I’m sure that someone who knows considerably more than I do about gender and exploitation film could write a hell of a lot more on this topic than I have here. Of course, if you have any questions about what I have written or would like me to elaborate on anything, just let me know by leaving a comment below.

As always, thank you so much for reading (and for helping to validate my little hobby here in the process). 😀

15 thoughts on “Let’s Kill This Bastard: Gender in Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof

  1. I dig it! I like your thoughts on the lap dance scene. When I watched it I too thought it was very uncomfortable, but I always wondered about the cut ending and I like your hypothesis as to why it’s cut off. I haven’t seen the film in a while but I remember a scene with Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s character when the other three women ditch her in that situation with a weird dude in order to get the car. That always seemed uncomfortable to me too. Wondering what you thought of that and if it fits in with the other ideas you’ve laid out above.

    • First of all, thank you so much. As for the fact they way that the other women leave Lee behind. . . well, I suppose their are multiple ways to read it. Yes, they are potentially exposing her to danger by doing so (which is problematic), but they also weaponize her femininity and sexuality against the man by using his desire to be left alone with Lee to convince him into letting them take his car. That is, they find a way to use Lee’s sexuality to manipulate him and to get what they want, so the scene could actually be read as one in which femininity finds a way to outsmart masculinity.

      • yeah i can see that. but it just bothers me that she doesn’t make that choice. that the other women make it for her. that’s the problematic part for me. but yeah, we still live in an imperfect world.

      • Thom says:

        I always kind of saw it as a consequence of the toxicity of hyper-masculinity. like, to impress Zoe and Kim, Abernathy sacrifices a bit of her ‘feminine empathy’ for Lee and puts her in danger so that she could join in on their dangerous game. she brings up how the fact that she’s a mother is always brought up when Zoe and Kim want to exclude her, which shows that there’s already an established precedent of them having their own pseudo-boys’ club when it comes to these things.

      • I think that is certainly a valid reading, and you are right that Abernathy seems to have been excluded in the past and that part of her reason for leaving Lee behind is her own desire not to be left behind herself. At the same time, it’s also true that Abernathy’s lie (that Lee is a porn star) is used to manipulate the man selling the car as much as it is manipulate Lee. So… perhaps it goes both ways. (After all, the ending of the film makes it clear that both men and women can fall victim to hypermasculinity).

  2. This discussion made me finally watch the film and I 100% agree with everything you said! Also from re-watching the final scene I noticed the shot of Abernathy’s boot coming down on Stuntman Mike looks hella phallic maybe further supporting the fact that his hyper masculinity was the cause of his death????

    • Omg. I’m so happy to hear that this post encouraged you to watch the film! That fact that Abernathy is standing over Mike and that he is lying on his back could definitely be read as phallic/sexual which would tie in nicely with the fact that he is in effect killed by the consequences of overblown masculinity.

  3. Charlotte says:

    So happy I found this article even if it is late in the game! I too was super uncomfortable with leaving this sexualized cheerleader character behind, but always read it as a sort of flip on the classic idea of “who’s safe here?” Three friends leaving this sexualized girl with the least amount of experience being a badass (in attitude or in stunts) alone with this huge backwoods guy – that’s the situation that makes every woman tense up. The “safe” situation – three girls capable of taking care of themselves and each other, protected in this fast, heavy, practically indestructible muscle car – ends up being the horrifying situation no woman wants to be in. Just reinforces how the act of being a woman is the unsafe part, not the actual event (being in car, at a man’s residence, drinking at a bar, doing laundry…) taking place.

  4. Nick says:

    Wow. An absolutely incredible essay! I’ve read several on the film, have seen it close to, if not, 40 times, and now, as we approach its 10th anniversary, am finally doing some textual reading of the movie itself.

    I was always wary of the argument for ‘Death Proof’ as a feminist film, but this is an excellent one. Thank you!

    • Sense writing this, I’ve become just a little more wary of that argument too. That said, I do think Death Proof and women in Tarantino are both worth considering carefully. Thank you!

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