Beyond the Blade: Unpacking Female Empowerment in Tarantino’s 'Kill Bill' By Katie Vickers

Claiming that one of the best feminist films ever made was in fact made by a man is a daring assertion. Yet Tarantino’s two volumes of Kill Bill encapsulate, in my opinion, the true duality of womanhood, through their use of a female-centric narrative, physically and mentally strong female characters, ruthless action sequences, appropriate, practical (and beautiful) costume design, and an indestructible, wonderful protagonist. The male gaze is also nowhere in sight; the films pass the Bechdel Test with flying colours as female characters spend most of their time threatening one another, infiltrating covert operations and being lethal bosses in their own right. Furthermore, although the theme of romantic love is touched on, it is so flippantly addressed that we, as viewers, seem almost encouraged to dismiss it as unimportant in contrast to the films’ alternate motifs. Certainly, there are other things that take precedent, such as maternal love, or vengeance for past mistreatment. Even Tarantino’s renowned foot motif is employed to portray an act of determination, as the paralysed protagonist tries to move her toes. Indeed, from Tarantino’s dependence on women behind the camera, such as his long-term editor Sally Menke and costume designer Catherine Marie Thomas, to his writing countless roles for women of all backgrounds, portrayed so magnificently by Lucy Liu, Daryl Hannah, Vivica A. Fox, Chiaki Kuriyama, Julie Dreyfus, and Uma Therman as the leading assassin, he builds a female-centric story from the inside out. And, to ensure no doubt remains of Tarantino’s genius, he brings all of this into mainstream cinema, attracting audiences of all kinds throughout the world, whilst paying homage to samurai cinema and classic westerns.

"Claiming that one of the best feminist films ever made was in fact made by a man is a daring assertion. Yet..."

Kill Bill recounts the story of the most skilful assassin in the world, Beatrix Kiddo, portrayed by Uma Thurman, as she seeks vengeance for her attempted murder and the consequent loss of her unborn child, by her ex-boss, lover, and father to her daughter, the eponymous Bill (David Carradine). He chooses to undertake this gross villainy at a dress rehearsal for her wedding day, as she prepares to marry a (slightly dull) record store owner named Tommy (Christopher Allen Nelson), with the intention of escaping her life as a ruthless killer in favour of giving her daughter a safe upbringing. Crossing names off her “Death List”, she tracks the group of individuals and their allies working with Bill, namely Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox), O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), Budd (Michael Madsen), and Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah). It is only at the end of the two films that she discovers her now four-year-old child is alive, aware of her existence as “mommy”, and in the care of Kiddo’s arch nemesis, Bill himself.

Kiddo is arguably the perfect feminist heroine, representing the duality of womanhood by exhibiting an array of differing traits throughout the two volumes. Kiddo decides to leave her role as a ruthless assassin to give her unborn child a safe upbringing, and to be a present mother, presenting a dichotomy between Kiddo’s various personalities. Thurman’s character is known as “The Bride”, yet is characterised by a plethora of other names; the assassin “Black Mamba”, the civilian and wife of Tommy ironically named “Arlene Machiavelli”, and her birth name, Beatrix Kiddo. Each title represents a different set of traits; “Black Mamba” is ruthless whilst “Arlene Machiavelli” is safe (and arguably a little dull). “The Bride” is a combination of the two; an ex-assassin seeking vengeance, driven by maternal love. Beatrix Kiddo is the only name which encapsulates each of these characterisations, and due to this, is only revealed in the second film’s final moments. This allows audiences to familiarise themselves with the multiple roles played by one woman before revealing who she truly is, thereby connoting the theme of duality, and highlighting the female capacity to be defined by more than one trait.

Kiddo’s main trait in the films is her ruthlessness and strength. The female-centric narrative kicks off by revealing her lethality, and general don’t-fuck-with-me nature. After Kiddo’s skill and ruthlessness as an assassin are initially revealed as we see her attack and murder ex-assassin Vernita Green while her daughter waits in her room, we are transported back in time to a hospital bed. After awakening from a coma she has been in for four years, Kiddo’s first, gut-wrenching reaction is to her empty womb, as she howls for her lost child, a vulnerability juxtaposing the lethality of the previous scene. Upon hearing the door open, however, she lies back and feigns her paralysis, assessing the threat approaching.

As she lies silently, we see two men walk in. One, “Buck”, dressed in scrubs, takes payment from the other, telling him ‘she’s a spitter’ and the ‘plumbing don’t work so come all you want’. As the horrifying nature of the situation begins to unfurl, Buck adds ‘she can get dry as a bucket of sand’, extending a filthy, sticky, hair-slicked tub of Vaseline to his counterpart. We watch on, as sickened as Kiddo herself, suddenly aware that this disturbing assault has been a regular occurrence while she has been defencelessly paralysed.

However, after having seen her capabilities just a moment ago with the attack on Green, we wait patiently for the brutality awaiting the foul men abusing her. As the former leaves the room and the latter ascends the bed upon which Kiddo lies, she bites straight through his tongue and quickly disposes of him. The moment seems to feed something in female viewers, for every unwanted grope or sexual remark; in an instant, we like Kiddo. And, despite the violence, we revel in the fear on Buck’s face as he returns, and has his head smashed in by our furious leading lady. Yet, this vengeance is still not final; only after she commandeers a wheelchair and spends 14 hours forcing movement back into her limbs, to drive away in Buck’s crude yellow ‘Pussy Wagon’ do we feel satisfied that he got what he deserved. In this way, from the offset, we are made undoubtedly conscious of Kiddo’s lethality.

"And, despite the violence, we revel in the fear on Buck’s face as he returns, and has his head smashed in by our furious leading lady."

As the story unfurls, this ruthlessness is further highlighted, as we quickly learn that Kiddo is entirely unkillable. From evading death in the face of a bullet to the head fired from no further than 30 centimetres away, to slaying 47 members of the deadly assassin group The Crazy 88 alone, Tarantino moulds Kiddo into a modern, Westernised Samurai goddess, who seems to rebirth after every deadly encounter with newfound strength. He does so not only by her irrefutable resilience, but also by referring to previously existing and well-recognised heroes in the cinematic landscape. Indeed, Kiddo’s performance with The Crazy 88 is an homage to the 1973 martial arts film Lady Snowblood, in which the protagonist also kills 47 adversaries. Likewise, the moment she claws her way out of a grave after having been shot, drugged and buried alive references a similar scene from the 1978 film The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, in which Clint Eastwood’s "The Man with No Name” - much like Kiddo is nameless throughout the majority of the two volumes - also emerges from a grave after being left for dead.

This defiance in the face of death or injury characterises Kiddo as a woman of magnificent strength. Indeed, we watch her face countless trials and a total lack of mercy, from friends and foes alike. A particularly notable instance of this is her encounter with ancient and ruthless martial arts master Pai Mei, which we are shown in a flashback to her days as an assassin. She is sent to him by Bill to learn the skills he can offer, and is warned that ‘he hates caucasians, despises Americans and has nothing but contempt for women’. We watch as he addresses her coldly, judging that ‘all you can do is order in restaurants and spend a man’s money’, then harming her at the earliest opportunity simply to prove her weakness in comparison to him. Upon her admittance that she is helpless as she begs for mercy in his grip, Pai Mei begins training her beyond all reason, exhausting her and forcing her to break her hand repeatedly in order to master a specific technique. He allows no opportunity to rest, and does not help her when she struggles to eat due to her immense suffering after his rigorous trials. Yet, despite Pai Mei's initially antagonistic and seemingly insurmountable demeanour, Beatrix eventually gains his respect through determination and perseverance, mastering his teachings and techniques.

Each of these moments alongside Tarantino’s cinematic references bolster Kiddo’s role as the self-described ‘most dangerous woman in the world’. Indeed, not only is she indestructible, she is almost fantastical; a thing of myth - she is a superhero. Tarantino embeds this idea throughout the volumes and allows it to evolve, finally addressing it in the closing scene as Kiddo and Bill cautiously standoff with their daughter asleep in the next room - an eerie replication of Kiddo’s very first run-in with Green and her daughter. It is in this moment that Tarantino chooses for his eponymous character to deliver one of the most magnificent monologues in his repertoire:

‘A staple of the superhero mythology is there's the superhero and there's the alter ego. Batman is actually Bruce Wayne, Spider-Man is actually Peter Parker. When that character wakes up in the morning, he's Peter Parker. He has to put on a costume to become Spider-Man. And it is in that characteristic Superman stands alone. Superman didn't become Superman. Superman was born Superman. When Superman wakes up in the morning, he's Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent. [...] What Kent wears - the glasses, the business suit - that's the costume. That's the costume Superman wears to blend in with us. Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent? He's weak... he's unsure of himself... he's a coward’.

In this speech, Bill draws a parallel between Superman's dual identity and Kiddo's own. He suggests that Kiddo was always The Bride at her core - a vengeful, ruthless ex-assassin, more emotionally driven than “Black Mamba” yet more lethal than “Arlene Machiavelli” - much like Superman was always Superman, and that her life as a civilian was merely a disguise, akin to Clark Kent's persona. This comparison serves to emphasise Beatrix's inherent strength and identity as a warrior.

As we are shown throughout the volumes, and as Bill reiterates in his monologue, we are conscious that Kiddo wishes to evade this identity in favour of being a good mother. However, it is this very identity which becomes invaluable in her quest, and precisely the reason she is able to reclaim her daughter in the final moments of Volume II. Indeed, without her capacity to slay her enemies and withstand inhuman levels of physical and mental exertion - without her lethal strength - she may not have been able to kill Bill. Tarantino ensures this is undoubtedly clear, as, in her final confrontation with her nemesis, Kiddo employs The Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique, a legendary martial arts procedure so powerful that it can kill an opponent in a mere five strikes. It is Pai Mei who deigns to teach Kiddo such a technique, after refusing to teach all of his other students, including Bill himself. Bill realises his own fatality the moment she executes it, and accepts it nobly, both astounded and impressed at Kiddo’s evident power - so formidable that Pai Mei shared with her his greatest treasure. Because, despite his own consciousness of her skill, even he underestimated what she is capable of, just as every man in the film does. And, like all of them before him, Bill is inevitably, fatally, proven incorrect.

Indeed, Kiddo desperately sought to shed her identity as a warrior for the sake of her daughter, yet it is the key to reclaiming their relationship. This is highlighted especially as Kiddo first enters Bill’s house prior to his demise, expecting to meet the barrel of a gun upon her entrance. Her expectation is indeed correct, except… It is a toy gun – her daughter’s toy gun. “B.B.” (Perla Haney-Jardine) and Bill play together, and we watch Kiddo gut-wrenchingly join in, hatred and sorrow burning in her eyes at Bill for taking her daughter from her. Agonisingly, despite her attempts at shielding B.B. from the dark world from which both she and Bill come, her daughter has nonetheless been primed by her cruel, calculating father in the world of assassination. This is reiterated later, as Kiddo puts her daughter to bed. When Bill tells B.B. that she and Kiddo can watch a film together, B.B. begs for Shogun Assassin, renowned for its violent themes and intense action. We watch on, feeling wretched and wrong, conscious of Bill’s influence on his daughter with Kiddo incapacitated.

"Indeed, Kiddo desperately sought to shed her identity as a warrior for the sake of her daughter, yet it is the key to reclaiming their relationship."

And yet… as mother and child curl up together in bed, this sliver of darkness allows Kiddo the chance to bond with her child over a shared interest – if, indeed, you can call it that. Suddenly, the symbolism of Tarantino’s choice is reiterated, as Kiddo’s twisted bonding with her daughter serves as a reminder to the audience, and perhaps to Kiddo herself, that despite everything, she needed the ruthlessness that she so feared her daughter would be exposed to, in order to build a relationship with B.B. at all. And each wretched, calculated, ruthless skill Kiddo employs on her journey makes her a valiant warrior, and utterly deserving of her child’s love.

Yet it is important to be aware that Kiddo is not limited solely to her identity as a warrior. Tarantino makes a concerted effort to convey her compassion and capacity to love, despite her capacity for violence. One such example includes the scene in which Kiddo discovers she is pregnant while on a job. Upon the arrival of an assassin named Karen, ruthless, murderous Kiddo pleads to be spared. This moment between two violent, skilful women is my favourite moment in both volumes; ‘I am the most dangerous woman in the world,’ Kiddo announces, as the two women standoff, ‘But right now, I am scared shitless for my baby’. The line slices through Kiddo’s ruthlessness, revealing an alternate side to her. And Karen, after some fumbling and confusion, realises she is telling the truth. It is the following intimate moment shared between the women which touches on something resembling girlhood, as they lower their weapons and part ways; Karen’s sympathy prevents her from harming her enemy, whilst Kiddo’s gratitude for being spared reminds us of her humanity. This beautiful, isolated moment conveys a consciousness of femininity, maternal love and human compassion in a series that has ultimately been dubbed one of the most violent female-centric films ever made.

Another example of Kiddo’s emotionality despite her lethality is the final scene of Volume II after Kiddo has killed Bill, in which she lies on her bathroom floor, bawling, while B.B. watches TV next door. We cannot tell initially whether she is crying for misery or joy, and perhaps it is a mixture of both after her two-volume-long battle. But her relief slowly overtakes all else, as she weeps for having won her child back. Victory. It is the first time we see her truly happy, at peace, and overwhelmed with emotion, and we know that she deserves every second of it.

Beyond Kiddo’s characterisation, Tarantino depicts her duality in his costume choices, too. If Tarantino were a lazier, or perhaps less committed storyteller, he may have clothed his female-heavy cast in the skimpy combat uniform we have grown so used to in action films (see Margot Robbie’s 2016 portrayal of Harley Quinn, Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, or Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia). However, his devotion to his characters intact, Tarantino shuns the male gaze through his costume choices. For the majority of the two films, we see Kiddo dressed in practical jeans and leather jackets, which usually end up covered in the blood of her victims or, in the case of Volume II, thick dust from the grave she has escaped being buried alive in. However, it is her iconic padded yellow bike leathers that audiences recall best, which we are first introduced to as she weaves her way through Tokyo traffic on a matching yellow motorbike, tracking her victim, O-Ren Ishii. Indeed, Tarantino continually uses costume to refine our main character’s coolness - and rather than using it to accent her sexuality, the clothes themselves become Kiddo’s allies in her quest, whether protecting her from her surroundings, or providing her with concealed locations for her weapons. One such example includes my personal favourite item of Kiddo’s clothing; her one-of-a-kind, red, white and black, eagle-embroidered cowboy boots, used to hide a knife as she escapes yet another trap by Bill’s allies.

Yet, alongside the clothes Kiddo wears as a ruthless killer, we are also offered rare glints of dainty femininity in her outfits. Examples include summery floral blouses, her white wedding dress, her floating blue skirt and in her final costume as she kisses her life of assassination goodbye for good; a clean, white linen trouser set, perhaps symbolic of the clean slate of her new life. These clothes seem always to appear in her interactions with either Bill or her daughter - an insight perhaps into Kiddo’s capacity to love, as untameable as her killer instincts.

It is therefore undeniable that Tarantino’s Kiddo represents the possibility for multiple capabilities and the dualism of womanhood, and is consequently a glimmering example of a feminist heroine. We can be soft, gentle, and loving, and we can also be ruthless, tough and powerful. We can go by many names and no one title overshadows another. Tarantino ensures that this idea is the last we are left with, as the credits begin to roll. As if to make his point undeniably clear, the film ends as Kiddo drives away in a blue convertible with B.B. in the passenger seat, with Uma Thurman’s name written at the bottom of the screen. Below this, the extended list of her character’s names begins to flash; “The Bride, AKA Black Mamba, AKA Beatrix Kiddo”. We watch Kiddo grin, as she takes on her final title: “AKA, Mommy”.