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Emma Xerri | March 10, 2022

Cover Art by Alexi O’Keefe

Recently, it has come to my attention that all my favourite films are directed and written by men. Cameron Crowe, Wes Anderson and even Judd Apatow are all very dear to my heart, but I can’t help but assess the lack of female-directed film in my Letterboxd diary and feel like a terrible feminist. Whilst the female characters in some of these films are well written and nuanced, it begs the question, can women ever truly be depicted accurately on screen when they aren’t written by a woman? And likewise, are male characters written by men healthy and positive portrayals of the gender? In an attempt to hold myself more accountable in my film watching ventures, I’ll be undergoing my own hero’s journey—dissecting the most commonly beloved films by those of the male sex.

What better place to start than the most common film bro favourite?

Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, the 1994 classic Pulp Fiction has long been heralded as a cinematic masterpiece. We wear its logo on t-shirts and bucket hats, we put up posters of the film’s mysterious dark-haired girl in our bedrooms, we refer to a Big Mac as a ‘Royale with Cheese’ to assert our pretentious superiority, and we applaud Tarantino for creating a non-linear, bloody and somewhat plotless narrative. The men who regard this film as their favourite are not a rarity, so much so that internet culture has satirically dubbed the film a ride or die favourite for film bros (you know the type). Men quick to label Pulp Fiction as their favourite film are branded with an immediate red flag due to their apparent inability to appreciate films created by directors that aren’t white and male, and yet, is the film really so bad?

For a film that centres on the criminal escapades of a few men, Pulp Fiction’s only memorable female character, Mia Wallace, sure packs a punch (unfortunately, only metaphorically). Despite only gracing our screens for one fairly intense 30-minute chapter in the two-and-a-half-hour film, Mia’s character is nothing short of memorable. Many of us have attempted her outfit for Halloween (despite the fact that we’re short and have blonde hair), and we’re quick to dance to Chuck Berry’s ‘You Never Can Tell’ in true Mia fashion whenever we hear the song.

It’s easy to ask, well, what else do we remember about her character? Her drug use? Her controlling and violently possessive husband? Her need for protection and companionship in her husband’s absence? But I think that given the film’s genre and narrative, Tarantino has actually done a commendable job featuring Mia’s character in such a memorable and assertive way.

She’s fiercely independent despite her husband’s desire to protect her, she is unafraid to go after what she wants, she boldly enjoys friendships with dangerous men without ever displaying fear, and she alone is responsible for one of the greatest dance scenes in the history of film. Sure, it can be said that her substance abuse results in an inevitable damsel in distress story arc, but I believe that for the most part, Mia is the one driving her narrative, not the men who constantly surround her.

Whilst it can appear that she displays tremendous agency in orchestrating the scenes featuring her and her male counterparts, her storyline and purpose in the film are driven and governed solely by men for she is, undoubtedly, constantly surrounded by them. Her husband, Marsellus, would rather her be babysat (in an entirely platonic way) by a man she has never met, than allow her to spend too much time alone. She is confined to a complicated damsel in distress role, one brought to the forefront by Tarantino in the frightening scene depicting her overdose. Even despite the scene’s intensity, Tarantino’s focus is on the comedic plight of Vincent Vega, who is now left with the inconvenience of taking care of a woman he wishes wasn’t his problem.

However, I believe a lot can also be said for the characters of Vincent and Jules, who only aid in allowing this film to be enjoyed and beloved by women as well as men. As a film with violent, mafia-centred themes, Vince and Jules’s characters had the potential to be drastically more toxic. Typically, men in such films lack humanity and tenderness. Men such as Scorsese’s Henry Hill and David Chase’s Tony Soprano are consumed by power and violence, traits with which they poison their female relationships, treating women like inhuman objects that must either be silent mistresses or submissive and all too forgiving housewives.

The comedic plights of Tarantino’s Vince and Jules elevate the film above a classic gangster narrative of strip clubs and infidelity. Despite their clear status in the underworld, Vincent and Jules feel familiar and ordinary, entirely unbothered by romantic relationships, going about their lives with a humorous nonchalance and a tendency to find themselves in unfortunate, hilarious situations. As viewers we can’t help but laugh at the pair. Even despite their obviously violent tendencies, Vincent and Jules never appear overly sleazy or dangerous, but rather two men that would never show up to a dinner party empty handed and would always hold the door open if there was an elderly lady behind them (even if this interaction would involve some Tarantino-style profanity about the lady’s slow speed and their regret for assisting her).

But I want to bring it back to the idea of Mia’s damsel in distress role being ‘complicated.’ Yes, for much of the film she is portrayed as a woman who must be protected in accordance with her overbearing husband’s strict orders, but she also appropriates her circumstances, injecting them with her own personality and creating a sense of fun despite her captivity. She makes the situation entirely her own, disallowing herself to become victimised or reduced in any way. Instead, she shows herself an evening she will enjoy, regardless of what Vincent wishes to do.

In this way, despite her dangerous flirtations with drugs, Mia comes across as powerful, and perhaps that is why her character is so memorable. Although her 30-minute run concludes with us knowing nothing about her personally, aside from her relationship with cocaine, we align ourselves with Mia and the fierce way she navigates a life enforced upon her by men. Whilst this may come across as bordering on the manic pixie dream girl trope of women who lead their lives uniquely and entirely unrealistically, we continue to put her poster up on our walls and celebrate her unapologetic take on life. Perhaps if she were written by a woman, Mia’s character would have looked a little different. I trust that any woman would write her with similar verve and charismatic carelessness, though perhaps her relationship with drugs would be handled with greater sensitivity or imbued with a stronger purpose. Perhaps her clothing would be a more individualistic portrayal of her person, or perhaps, just perhaps, Mia’s memorable 30-minute stint wouldn’t conclude with her needing to be saved.

No, Pulp Fiction is not perfect and yes, a more realistic and grounded female portrayal would do Tarantino’s cinematic universe a world of good, but it is certainly one I believe does an alright job at being a gangster film that doesn’t overly sexualise women or reduce them to submissive side pieces. However, whilst Mia Wallace is a refreshing take on the female side character, I am not yet convinced that male directors can accurately depict women on screen.

Well done, Quentin, but maybe next time, aim to include your female lead in more than 30 minutes of your film (*cough* Margot Robbie *cough*).

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Emma Xerri

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