In ‘The Hateful Eight,’ Nasty, Vile, Spiteful Villainy Knows No Gender
By Noah Berlatsky
Early on in Quentin Tarantino’s western The Hateful Eight, John Ruth (Kurt Russell) elbows Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in the face hard enough to draw blood. John’s a bounty hunter, Daisy’s his prisoner, and that elbow to the face sums up much of their interaction. Daisy says something, or looks at someone cross-eyed, or just breathes funny, and John beats her in inventive ways. Such is the fate of the one main female character in the film.
Unsurprisingly, this bloody, sort-of played-for-laughs slapstick routine has led some critics (such as A.O. Scott) to call Hateful Eight “misogynist.” And it’s certainly true that Daisy is not an empowered, strong female character like Furiosa in Fury Road, or Supergirl, or even Jessica Jones. She’s not heroic, or triumphant. She starts out the film with a black eye, and spends virtually the entire run-time in chains. She needs men to rescue her.
Most of all she’s . . . well, hateful. She spits racist bile at ex-Union officer Marquis Warren (Samuel Jackson) — and spits an actual gob of saliva on his cherished, personal letter from Abraham Lincoln. When she’s let off her chain to play guitar for five minutes, she uses the opportunity to sing a song directly threatening her captor (John responds by dashing the guitar to pieces). The more bloody she gets, the more she seems to personify a nightmare demon-spawn witch — ugly, conniving, filthy, implacable. “When ya go to hell, tell ’em Daisy sent ya,” she tells John, and you don’t doubt for a second that she speaks from a long acquaintance with the abyss.
Daisy, in short, is a hugely entertaining character, much more engaging than the determinedly bland strong woman paragons that wander through films like Spectre or Ant-Man arm in arm with the determinedly bland strong guy paragons.
“She’s a killer,” Leigh said of Daisy, a character she clearly loved to play. “She’s gutsy and her whole identity is, ‘Yeah, give me what you’ve got, it doesn’t mean anything to me. Hit me again, I don’t give a f**king sh*t. You know? She’s not going to show any vulnerability and that’s a tactic she is using . . . ’”
This characterization, born of the genres Tarantino plays with in the film, hardly seems conventionally misogynistic. In fact, one could argue that it’s subversively gender-progressive.
The Hateful Eight is both a Western and a gangster heist picture, and Tarantino is in love with the violence, the scuzziness, and the cruelty of both of those genres. He isn’t, though, especially in love with those genres’ traditional gender roles. Scorcese, in Goodfellas, uses gangster tropes to mock and celebrate machismo. Tarantino did that a bit too way back in Reservoir Dogs (1992), but at this point in his career he seems more interested in seeing where the uber-scuzz can take him when it’s ladled out to some less traditional protagonists — including, in this film, black men and white women.
People like Daisy don’t usually get to be the filthy, repulsive, cunning, degenerate, villainous masterminds. They don’t get to be the ones who get hit, and stabbed, and bloodied, and who still keep coming back, not out of heroism, but out of spite. A.O. Scott wrote that Daisy is the film’s “scapegoat and punching bag” — but she’s a goat who gets to kick, and a punching bag that punches back. She’s not a beautiful victim the film loves to despoil, a la Psycho’s Marion Crane. She’s an ugly killer who gets to shuffle off any shred of Hollywood femininity in a cheerful gusher of gore.
This arguably progressive approach is undermined, though, by the very genre conventions that help make Daisy such a great character to begin with. True, she’s just as nasty as the other scurvy, violent, nasty titular protagonists . . . but she’s also the only woman among them.
A handful of other women appear in a flashback, but they don’t get to do much except serve as cannon fodder to show how mean the mean guys are. Hateful Eight has a really fun, unusual, striking, exciting female role. And then it’s got a lot of guys.
Harvey Weinstein, the producer of Hateful Eight, angrily rejected the idea that Tarantino is misogynist by pointing to films he’s directed with great female characters, like Jackie Brown, Kill Bill, and Death Proof. And it’s true that Tarantino has created some wonderful roles for women — in no small part by giving women access to male genre tropes around violence, competence, duplicity, swagger, anger, bravado, and idiosyncratic belligerence.
At the same time, though, Tarantino’s investment in male genres has meant that in most of his films, most of the time, men are center stage. There are no women in Reservoir Dogs, no women that matter in Django Unchained, and only one female character of any significance in Hateful Eight.
I don’t think Tarantino personally hates women. But he loves male pulp genres. That love has enabled him to create some truly memorable and unusual female characters. But it also means he’s severely limited the number of those characters in his films. Misogyny is in part a structure, and Tarantino’s genre choices both push against that structure and shore it up.
Daisy, like many women in Tarantino films, gets to be one of the guys — which means she gets to do things women often don’t get to do in films. But it also means that among a batch of eight compellingly disturbed characters . . . there’s only one of her.
Images: Wikimedia Commons