I’m not yet sure whether or not I’m surprised at Tarantino’s failure to produce any semblance of a female human in Django Unchained. See, ‘Q’ has long been applauded for bringing an exciting, manifold freshness to mainstream cinema; one aspect of which has been his placement of, on average, at least one woman per film with direction, vocal-chords, and an inexplicable aversion to falling in love with the lead character. His representation of women certainly has texture, but ultimately still manages to be a huge pain in the tits, because I get my hopes up that he’ll build on what he’s already started by writing numerous female leads. The timeline of female characters in his films invoke a feminist-critique-emotional-rollercoaster of delight through despair, delectation through disappointment, and now finally, to Django Unchained (the D is silent.)
I’m not angry, Q, I’m disappointed. Nah just joking, I’m angry. Those feelings may subside if you argued that there was a historically relevant reason for underwriting and neglecting the character of Broomhilda Von Shaft. Perhaps: female slaves, especially sex slaves, were persecuted and downtrodden under such layers of brutality that they were essentially invisible (like those trafficked today) or experienced an understandable paralysis of spirit. (The only permissible reason I can invent to console myself). This would be a reason rather than an excuse, but a reason nonetheless. Yet wouldn’t this be an impetus to explore and countermand this process? Via some lines of dialogue, action and screentime? You haven’t, as yet, discussed Broomhilda’s near-silence and under-representation; but then, I haven’t seen you asked, or even heard it mentioned…(Kermode? Krishnan Murphy? ANYONE?)
Thankfully, Kerry Washington (sorry it took me so long to get to you). Washington deserves massive kudos for bringing an engaging wholeness of spirit to her limited screen-time. The performance itself was brilliant; I felt her pain, her anger and her fear. (Such identification was a joy.) Yet, while Tarantino is known for bringing out these cinematic performances from the actors he works with, in this instance he wrote and directed against her spirit and character. Of a film pushing three hours, she appeared for (from memory) about twenty minutes, uttering around ten short lines. Now, granted, the range of those short appearances was immense. Broomhilda is whipped for attempting escape, appears chastely-naked in a river (in Django’s imagination), coyly waves at Django (in Django’s imagination), naked in a hole in the ground (that was real), and is finally dressed up like one of those scary dolls that people collect (apt, in context), serving dinner to her white masters. All of which were relevant to the particular points in Django’s personal narrative. But as for her narrative…that was her narrative. A slave who was pretty and abused. (Oh, and the lead female character. Sadly it doesn’t feel too unfamiliar.)
Tarantino’s fascination with exploitation films surely contributed to a neglect of his leading woman’s personhood. The comedy violence of the latter bloodbaths (problematic in tandem with the raw brutality of Broomhilda’s punishment and the horrific, grief-stricken Mandingo fight scene) is a clear nod to the lurid conventions of the exploitation genre, as are the names Django and Mandingo. And like his previous foray into the genre, the feminist-enticing-but-ultimately-a-slap-in-the-face Death Proof, the conventions of exploitation films require its females to be hyper-sexualised, and more often than not, violated and brutalized. So Tarantino’s newer marriage of said genre with loosely-Hollywood conventions gave us no chance at subjectified representation (but on the bright side, didn’t require a ‘titillating’ rape scene. Cheers, ladies.)
Broomhilda, while an object of Django’s love, was utilised as just that; an object, a narrative device. Her existence drove the narrative, but she wasn’t an agent of it. No fighting for her liberation, no speaking out of turn, no interesting lines or actions or character revelations. She is simply the archetypal desired Beauty, who is visually the property of All until she is collected by One. I’ll see her next time I go to the cinema also, no doubt. With the imagination and knowledge of cinema that Tarantino seems to have, you’d think he’d have more nouse than to also use Broomhilda as a ‘comfort girl’.
While there are many contentious angles to consider Tarantino’s Django Unchained from, the feminist angle is most disappointing. To top it all off, I’ll leave you with the final scene: Django blows up the plantation where Broomhilda has been imprisoned, his silhouette standing defiantly amongst burning fragments of ‘Merican justice. She watches from the safety of the getaway-horse, and a close up reveals her flawless face, which giggles a bit. She coyly applauds Django, as if to say “Yay, honey! No more rape, how exciting!” and they ride triumphantly away to celebrate Broomhilda’s new status as four-fifths of a human being. As the ending music swells, you’d be forgiven for missing her longest and quietest line of dialogue: “Well. Now that’s done, shall I make you a sandwich, or would you like a blow-job first?”