This article contains major plot spoilers.
In Quentin Tarantino’s latest film The Hateful Eight (2015) we encounter eight strangers forced together in Minnie’s Haberdashery to wait out a storm. Seven of these are men who fought on both sides of the Civil War: bounty hunters, lawmen and a travelling executioner, on circuit through mountain towns in Wyoming. Death looms, from old battles and fresh wounds.
The last of the eight, and the film’s only significant female character, is Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a fugitive being dragged to justice by bounty hunter John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell). Her fate is the catalyst for much of the plot action.
The film has been praised as a violent but ultimately optimistic and uplifting story of men working to come together across racial and ideological divides. But it has also been derided as a thinly veiled exercise in misogynistic violence.
Can it be both?
Many critics have invoked the second wave feminism of the 1970s to protest Tarantino’s treatment of Daisy Domergue.
In December last year Chris Plante of The Verge described The Hateful Eight “an ultra-violent, but unapologetically traditional play,” built around men reckoning with their pasts:
[T]he film ends, with Domergue — covered in blood from head to shot-off toe — begging for her life, and two men, all but dead, hanging her anyway. Those men, the hitchhikers, Confederate and Union, sheriff and bounty hunter. We finally learn what will bring them together: a lethal hatred of women. And the sides, we’re led to believe, are clear cut. Men are the winners, and women the losers.
I’m left wondering who the victim of this film is. Who does Tarantino think deserves the last laugh? I hate to take the last shot at face value, but how can you not? There it is, two men, stringing up a woman, laughing their guts out. The joke’s on her.
Roger Ebert.com reviewer Matt Zoller Sietz gave the film two stars, describing it as “a profoundly ugly movie”:
The film’s relentless and often comical violence against Daisy never feels truly earned […] In a movie filled with selfish, deceptive and murderous characters, hers is the only demise that is not just observed, but celebrated.
Adam Nayman, in his December Cinema Scope review echoed the suggestion that the entire movie rests on the violence done against Daisy:
It’s curious and crucial to consider why he [Tarantino] pins this entire teetering edifice on the (frankly unforgettable) image of a broken but ferocious woman facing down two men who must literally pull together in order to withstand her assault.
With her flayed, blood streaked face, Daisy is the monstrous feminine of the horror genre. She brings back the visceral spectres created in the 1970s by the fear of feminism, such as Regan in The Exorcist (1973) and Carrie (1976, 2002, 2013). Music from Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) appears in the Hateful Eight soundtrack making a further aural reminder, alongside the visual cues, of uncontrolled women’s threat to order.
The males in Hateful Eight constantly sling insults at Daisy, a “diabolical bitch”, “a lying bitch”, “a mean bastard” with a “trash ass”, even though the action onscreen offers no grounds for this relentless flood of insults.
Bleak and conservative gender politics
Executive producer Harvey Weinstein’s complaint that objectors to the Hateful Eight’s violence and misogyny were “fishing for stupidity” taps into an ongoing disdain of feminism as a lesser branch of philosophy.
Why should gender or violence not be a valid line of enquiry when analysing cultural artefacts?
Compared to the stunning twists and inversions of norms that Tarantino’s other works offer when presenting female characters, the Hateful Eight’s sexual politics seem bleakly conservative. Daisy is feisty and highly intelligent, yet the plotline is arbitrarily stacked against her.
The mash-up of gender and social politics that Daisy’s story offers within the darkly complex and visually breathtaking world of The Hateful Eight remains clumsy at best, despite Jennifer Jason Leigh shining in a demanding role. As The New York Time’s AO Scott put it:
Suffice it to say that she is the film’s scapegoat and punching bag and, above all, its excuse for its own imaginative failures.
At a certain point, the n-word gives way to the b-word as the dominant hateful epithet, and “The Hateful Eight” mutates from an exploration of racial animus into an orgy of elaborately justified misogyny.
Ultimately, it’s possible for a movie to show violence against women as part of a complex and layered story.
Jennifer Jason Leigh’s repeated praise for Tarantino for writing complex female characters and overturning age-based prejudices against actresses offers a different and valid perspective, reinforced by her obvious affection for her “beloved” Daisy as an icon of girl power.
Regardless of Tarantino’s intentions, his representation of violent battery against the only major female character deserves reflection and debate.
This debate refuses to stay quarantined in the “wild west” of 140 years ago or in the sublime 21st-century imagined world of Tarantino’s cinematic universe.
Writing for the Daily Telegraph Zoe Smith, sitting in Melbourne’s Astor Theatre, listening to the “collective bellowing guffaw” around her whenever Daisy gets punched, remembers that “in the past year just under half a million Australian women reported that they had experienced physical or sexual violence”, and assaults against both men and women are rapidly increasing in this country.
Friends and colleagues reassured Smith that Quentin Tarantino intentionally explored “the shock value of thought-provoking art. This is what you call irony — taking the piss out of thugs, pricks, racists”.
The Hateful Eight and Quentin Tarantino are – perhaps unlikely – agents of a live and extensive feminist debate about the nature and purpose of film as a creative medium, as well as women’s presence in the public imaginary.