The Power of Rage: Death Proof and Feminist Catharsis

In light of the recent massacre by a violent misogynist in Santa Barbara, I find myself full of rage.

I have every right to be angry.  I should not have to live in a world in which 1 out of 6 women has been the victim of sexual assault, a world in which 1 out of 4 women will experience domestic violence.  I will not stop being angry until this reality is acknowledged by all people. I will not stop being angry until women are no longer the targets of male violence.

In the face of a society that seeks to ignore, dismiss, and minimize my anger, I need spaces where it’s safe to express my rage.

Fiction provides just this sort of space.  And in fiction, our anger about the epidemic of male violence against women can be expressed in ways that, in real life, are problematic.

I believe that we should seek nonviolent solutions to social problems.  But I also believe that members of oppressed groups sometimes need the catharsis of fictional revenge narratives to sustain their strength.

The truth of the matter is that in the real world justice comes slowly, if it ever comes at all.  So sometimes we need stories in which justice comes swiftly and unrelentingly. And when it comes to swift, unrelenting justice, there’s no one better than Quentin Tarantino.

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Tarantino’s last two films, Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds, are violent fantasies that imagine historical evildoers – slaveowners and Nazis – getting what they deserve.  They don’t reflect reality or morality and they aren’t meant to; these are highly emotional stories that offer viewers the satisfaction that we are denied by the complexities of real life.  Tarantino’s first venture into this kind of story was in the 2007 movie Death Proof.  In Death Proof, the archetypal villain who gets his comeuppance is a misogynistic murderer who preys on women.

(Warning: Spoilers to follow.)

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Kurt Russell as “Stuntman Mike”

Death Proof is a story in two acts, depicting the fates of two groups of women who are hunted down by the villain “Stuntman Mike.”  Mike kills the first group of women, but the second group of women take him by surprise by fighting back.

The movie dramatically realizes a fear that all women face: at any given moment in our daily lives, we may be the target of violence.  In Death Proof,this haunting fear is symbolized through Stuntman Mike’s titular “death proof” car, which he uses as a weapon to kill the women he targets.

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Throughout the movie the car elicits an eerie sense of fear in the women who see it.  Like the real-life threat of violence against women, it is always on the periphery, always in pursuit of  women who are just going about their ordinary lives.

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Jungle Julia, Arlene, and Shanna are the first women hunted down by Stuntman Mike

Stuntman Mike’s car functions as a perfect symbol for male violence against women.  It’s a stunt car built to protect the driver from dying in a crash, allowing Mike to survive a head-on collision that kills the women he targets. Similarly, the culture of violence against women is harmful to men, but is only fatal to women.  The “driver” is cushioned by the benefits of male privilege.  As Stuntman Mike tells a woman sitting in his passenger seat:

Hey, Pam, remember when I said this car was death proof? Well, that wasn’t a lie. This car is 100% death proof. Only to get the benefit of it, honey, you REALLY need to be sitting in my seat.

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Abernathy, Kim, Zoe, and Lee are hunted by Mike in the second act

While the violent male is “death proof,” even the strongest women find themselves vulnerable to male violence.  The group of women in the second act articulate the reality of the ever-present threat of violence in this true-to-life scene:

Kim: Look, I don’t know what futuristic utopia you live in, but the world I live in, a bitch need a gun.

Abernathy: You can’t get around the fact that people who carry guns, tend to get shot more than people who don’t.

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 a** raped.

Lee: Don’t do your laundry at midnight.

Kim: F*** that! I wanna do my laundry whenever the f*** I wanna do my laundry.

Kim’s rejection of patriarchal norms prepares us for the turn in the plot to come.  When Stuntman Mike attempts to drive Kim, Abernathy, and Zoe off the road, we anticipate another grisly death scene.  But instead, the girls make a narrow escape.  And rather than running away, they turn the tables on the predatory misogynist.

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In the amazing car chase that ensues, we get to see three women in a position that they rarely play in action/horror films: as hunters rather than hunted, as empowered actors rather than passive objects to be acted-upon.  In a thrilling, unexpected reversal, the male predator becomes the objectified prey.

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Kim rams Stuntman Mike’s bumper and drives him off the road

The final scene of absurd and joyous violence shows the women beating up Stuntman Mike as he cries and begs for mercy.  As he falls to the ground, the women cheer and the scene ends with a victorious fanfare.  It is violent, over-the-top, and oh-so-satisfying.

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More violence is clearly not the answer to the real-world problem of male violence against women.  What we need is a societal shift away from patriarchy and sexism.  This will be a complex and multi-faceted process, but part of the process is showing violence against women for what it is: a reprehensible crime.  It will also involve reframing the way that we see women — not as passive targets, but as active agents.  So while Death Proof does not provide a blueprint for social change, it does contribute to a positive cultural shift.  Images of women standing up and fighting back help real women to harness their own anger and use it in constructive ways, to fight back against patriarchy and sexism with nonviolent resistance.

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Zod With Us: Superman, Jesus, and the Redeeming Power of the Human Experience

It’s not cool to like Superman anymore.

This is a relatively new development in geek culture, and I’m going to have to pin part of the blame on one of my favorite people, genius auteur and world-famous foot fetishist Quentin Tarantino.

Fanboys latched onto the Superman monologue in Kill Bill like crazy.  The eponymous Bill says:

“When Superman wakes up in the morning, he’s Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent…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. Clark Kent is Superman’s critique on the whole human race.”

I argue that this understanding of Superman is completely flawed.

Bill, like many Superman detractors, does not understand what makes Superman super.

Which brings us to Jesus.

Superman as a Christ figure is old news. The much maligned Superman Returns and the by turns awesomely campy and unbearably awful Smallville did everything but literally crucify their Superman to drive that point home.

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It’s an obvious metaphor (though I wonder if young Jewish-Americans Siegel and Shuster didn’t have Moses in mind when they sent Kal-El down the galactic Nile in a Kryptonian basket of bull rushes). Superman came from the heavens to live as one of us in a lowly, unimportant town, and grew up to be the savior of all humanity.

The part of that simple story that Superman detractors fail to appreciate is the incarnational aspect – the significance of the omnipotent becoming human. Much like Christ, it is through Kal-El’s incarnation as human that he is able to become a savior.

Clark Kent (or alternately, Jesus of Nazareth) is not a misanthropic performance; he is an omnipotent being’s only connection to humanity.

Consider this: there is no reason for Superman to have an alter ego; he could be Superman all the time if he wanted to.

He lives among humans—and as a human—out of deep affection and admiration for the human race.

And this is what makes him superhuman – because of his love for humanity, he lives up to the highest standards of human morality, unwaveringly, despite the greatest temptation any human could ever face: the availability of absolute power.

By setting this example, Superman elevates all of humanity; for there is nothing that makes him “super” that we can’t accomplish ourselves. We don’t need his superhuman, fantastical levels of power; we only need the willingness to use what power we do have in service of those who are not as powerful as we are.

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Superman #156, “The Last Days of Superman”

Any time that Superman spends as Clark Kent – catching a movie with Lois or eating Christmas dinner at the Kent farm – is a time when someone somewhere is dying in an accident that Superman has the power to prevent.

And yet I do not believe this constitutes moral negligence.

If Superman stopped being Clark Kent; if he stopped taking the time to connect with individual human beings; if he had no personal relationships with anyone and therefore forgot what it is to love another human; he would soon cease to be Superman.

We’ve seen what rogue Kryptonians usually do when they end up on Earth: they conclude that they are superior to humans and attempt to subjugate us. But because he has lived among humans and as a human, Superman is no Zod.

His morality is intrinsically linked to his sense of humanity. As Superman’s connection to humanity, Clark Kent is as key to his superheroic identity as his ability to squeeze coal into diamonds.

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All Star Superman #10, “Neverending”

This modern American myth serves as a carnival-mirror reflection of the story of Jesus. In fact, it is perhaps more serviceable than the story of Jesus, which over the past 2,000 years has been robbed of much of its subversive power.

As Christian revolutionary Clarence Jordan said:

“Jesus has been so zealously worshipped, his deity so vehemently affirmed, his halo so brightly illumined, and his cross so beautifully polished that in the minds of many he no longer exists as a man…By thus glorifying him we more effectively rid ourselves of him than did those who tried to do so by crudely crucifying him.”

This deification of Jesus makes the Man of Steel feel more human than the Son of Man. But the Gospels paint a much different picture. Jesus, like Superman, is redeemed and made able to redeem by his humanity.

Take the famous story of Lazarus.

Usually this story’s big special-effects moment gets the most attention. Jesus calls into the tomb: “Lazarus, come forth!” and the four-days dead man rises to life. But in my opinion, the real emotional peak of the story comes earlier, when Jesus finds out that his friend Lazarus has died.

When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”

Jesus began to weep. Because of the death of one man. In the infinite span of time and space, this man’s lifespan is less significant than a single grain of sand on the beach.

And yet Jesus – who, according to the book of John where this story is found, existed from the beginning of time, with God and as God, the nexus of all creation – weeps at the death of one man.

And so the point of the story is not that God raised someone from the dead.

Of course God can raise someone from the dead.  God can stop the rotation of the Earth.  God can simultaneously occupy the past, present, and future.

God can apparate inside Hogwarts grounds.

The point is that God was moved to raise someone from the dead because God loved him. Lazarus was so much more to Jesus than an insignificant grain of sand. In dwelling in the dirt and messiness and beauty of the human experience, Jesus discovered a deep love for humanity as we are – flawed and weak and constrained by brief lives.

God became more fully God than God ever was before. The miracle isn’t the point.

It’s love.  

And so the point of Superman’s story is not that Superman is faster than a speeding bullet.

The point is that Superman is moved to throw himself in the path of those bullets because he loves humanity.

The stories of the Last Son of Krypton and the only son of God teach us the same thing: power is not what makes a hero. It’s love.