The Green-Light | The Hateful Eight isn’t misogynistic. It’s sadly realistic
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Welcome to The Green-Light, a regular column from Gary Green. Find within spittle-flecked passion and encyclopaedic insight on everything to do with the movies.
Warning: Huge spoilers for The Hateful Eight lie ahead.
Chances are you’ve now seen The Hateful Eight, Quentin Tarantino’s newest movie. Chances also are that you’ve got a strong opinion or three to share about it; like almost every (or simply just every) Tarantino film before it, one of the biggest talking points about The Hateful Eight is its depiction of violence, and a significant focus of that argument has been fact that Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character, Daisy Domergue, has a particularly tough time of it. Like, particularly tough.
The observation is that Daisy spends the duration of the film suffering not only at the behest of her male captor, John ‘The Hangman’ Ruth (Kurt Russell), but at essentially all of those stuck in Minnie’s Haberdashery with her – who are all, as it happens, male. With that comes a weighty question: could The Hateful Eight actually be misogynistic? Probably the best round-up of such a claim takes the form of Laura Bogart’s excellent piece, ‘Hipster Misogyny: The Betrayal of The Hateful Eight’ – but while it’s a sound-minded, socially aware, and reasonably argued piece – the hallmarks of all good film criticism – Bogart’s argument has fatal flaws, and not just that awfully kneejerk title. (But more on that later.) And I do urge you to read it, so it lends more clarity to this piece, more balance to your own view, and also because it’s a fine read.
In essence, Bogart is heavily dismayed at Daisy’s treatment in Tarantino’s picture: it’s a betrayal of Bogart as an avid fan of both Tarantino and his feminist-leaning proclivities, a self-betrayal of everything the director spent most of his career building toward, and a betrayal of excellent characters – all who happened to be female – like Beatrix Kiddo and Jackie Brown. Those characters were three-dimensional, self-made heroes, getting rid of anyone – man or woman – who stood in their way, and the promise of Leigh’s Daisy Domergue is perceived as squandered during the course of The Hateful Eight. It’s absolutely true: Domergue, despite ticking like a bomb ready to go off any second, sits there, takes abuse, listens to the men around her, takes more abuse, before pleading for her life and getting hanged gruesomely. Her own story is snuffed out before she gets a chance to do, well, anything, really. She doesn’t poison the coffee: she only sits and watches. She technically kills John Ruth, but his death is as good as promised with the poison running through his system. She gets no relief: it’s a deeply tragic character, more tragic than we realise.
But is this interestingly non-blossoming of such a crackling character a narrative flaw, or part of a larger representation of the world Tarantino was going for? Obviously, this isn’t some kind of pseudo-argument giving carte blanche to Tarantino to be ‘intelligently abusive’ toward women, or some such other ridiculous notion: neither am I giving Tarantino a simplified benefit of the doubt. I simply believe there is far more at work in The Hateful Eight than what we first saw, and it took an argument like Bogart’s to get it to spill over the rest of the film’s far more prominent, sometimes even overbearing themes. Note: if Tarantino made some of your favourite female characters, why on Earth would he turn 180 degrees on something he has so visibly loved doing the past 20-plus years?
Tarantino actually refutes accusations of misogyny in this article from the Independent, stating, ‘Violence is hanging over every one of those characters like a cloak of night. So I’m not going to go, “Okay, that’s the case for seven of the characters but because one is a woman, I have to treat her differently”. I’m not going to do that.’ (The article is actually about Kurt Russell explaining his character’s treatment of Domergue as definitely not misogynystic – although his own quotes aren’t quite as well-reasoned or, ahem, polite as Tarantino’s.) The thing is, while the amount of violence Daisy suffers is certainly debatable, what is irrefutable is the difference of that violence. When Samuel L. Jackson draws his pistol on Bruce Dern’s General Smithers, the camerawork reflects the high-polished, amost elegaic swoon of the classic Western shootout. When Michael Madsen’s Joe Gage reaches for his hidden gun under the table, the following moments are presented in tension-bound slow-motion, lending a certain grace – an importance – to the ensuing standoff. But there is no slow-mo for Daisy. Ruth cracking her face open in the carriage, Ruth splashing his stew over her, and on and on, are grace notes all edited with precise comic timing not only from Tarantino’s cuts, but Russell and Leigh’s knack for comedic chemistry too. She gets smacked; the audience laughs, either nervously or sincerely. Tarantino is playing us like a fiddle. My point is, the violence against her is portrayed hugely differently, and in that respect, I can totally understand Bogart’s initial conclusion that The Hateful Eight is, well, misogynistic. Not only misogynistic, in fact, but a work of hipster misogyny. The title of Bogart’s piece reveals somewhat of, if not a misunderstanding, then a misappropriation of the two terms: her title literally means that Tarantino thinks it’s cool to be prejudice against women in his movie. Now that we’ve distilled the title into its actual intent – I know, clever me, eh? – it sounds even more reactionary than before. (There’s a weird lightness implied by that title; but if Bogart wasn’t actually trying to be funny with it, then surely that would mean that she thought that Tarantino was the one taking it lightly in his new film?) The title, for me, just shows how far we are willing to reach into increasingly empty rhetoric to prove our own point – even if that means declaring that a filmmaker thinks it’s cool to be prejudice against women.
The very deliberate way Daisy is handled through the film clearly shows us that there’s absolutely no way Tarantino is taking this lightly. Like any master director (and whether you love or hate him, that’s what he is), he is a complete perfectionist over his finished work; every time Daisy takes another horrific beating to the timing of slapstick, it’s a visibly conscious decision to do so. He’s nailing home a point, a point that is seemingly lost amid the bigger things going on during the movie’s near-three-hour running time. But are they bigger? Very early on in the movie, straight after Daisy’s been whacked by Ruth and told to follow his wretched rules, she looks out the window. Jackson’s Major Warren observes her gaze; it’s the look of someone who knows something everyone else doesn’t. And this is way before the case of the poisoned coffee.
But Bogart’s best observation cannot be dismissed: she describes that during the intermission of her screening of The Hateful Eight, the line for the men’s toilets was buzzing with talk; the women’s line was unnervingly quiet. It’s extremely telling of the different reactions you’re going to get from watching this film: women are absolutely entitled to feel the way they do about the way Daisy is treated (which I’ve explained at length by now). Why wouldn’t they? I felt slightly nauseous through my nervous laughter every time Daisy underwent another Tom-and-Jerry punch, or another exposure to humiliation. But they’re missing the key thing: Daisy never falters. She always gets back up. She always has that ‘secret’ look in her eye, like when she was gazing out the carriage window. Although it’s difficult to see, Daisy is the toughest of all Tarantino’s female characters, at least emotionally speaking: but then, that could be the product of a sociopathic personality. We never really find out, because it’s never really explored: what Daisy did exactly to earn the attention of bounty hunters, we’ll never know. A bank robbery? Train heist? Murder? Serial murder? Leaving that bit of history out feels calculatingly misplaced by Tarantino, so when she undergoes abuse and then eventually hangs, we never know quite to feel about it. Does she deserve any of it? This is another excellent point Bogart makes in her article, but again, I feel it’s simply another decision the director made to underline our own queasy, confused feelings toward her – which ties into what I think is Tarantino’s true intent with The Hateful Eight.
The reason Daisy, the strongest, toughest, most hard-edged female character Tarantino has ever produced, is turned into the other characters’ punching bag is for a sad, yet entirely viable reason: sexism is awful, and it happened. The film’s set in post-Civil War America, and sexism happened an awful, unforgivable amount, and as you’re well aware, it’s still happening today. Much like how Tarantino was verbally fascinated about the links his upcoming movie would have with the horrific events in Ferguson, I believe he was also deeply fascinated with how gender roles would work in his upcoming period piece. And what he came out with was the most over-the-top, amplified portrayal (and therefore, the most Tarantino-esque) he could make: The Hateful Eight. He’s given us some of the least realistic, most bombastic depictions of women cinema has ever seen: Kill Bill and Death Proof are testament to that easily. Those films are about how he wants women to take their rightful place in the world. With The Hateful Eight, he goes deeper into the feminist thought process, and stabs right at the horrific truth of the past, no matter how blurred it is by idiosyncratic splashes of blood or quip-smart dialogue: this movie is about how he sees women have been kept from their rightful place in the world.
On closer analysis, the picture is as much about sexism as it is about racism; are the characters misogynist? Absolutely. As far as I can see, most of them either treat women like shit or treat them like fragile glass, before then treating them like shit. By extension, is Tarantino, or the work as a whole, misogynist? No. It’s easy to confuse a writer and director’s character with the ones that he creates: it doesn’t necessarily, and rarely, reflect that person’s own opinions, feelings, or ideology. Nothing about that is different with this particular film, and nothing about this film is representative of some hidden, unconscious sexism from its makers. A bit more engagement with what’s actually happening under the film’s gleeful Western tropes reveals that the filmmaker, with this picture at least, is more concerned with modern-day troubles and how similar they are to post-Civil War Wyoming. It’s ugly, but it’s the truth – why would we want yet another vengeful fantasy this time round?
The Hateful Eight doesn’t hate women. It’s about hatred toward women, and while it doesn’t once offer any consolation to the way females have been and still are being treated in today’s society – it ends on the most down note imaginable, with both Goggins and Jackson’s characters lying on a bed, watching Daisy hang, and visibly getting off on it (‘that sure was pretty’) – that doesn’t mean that’s actually the point: in a very weird, and I’m not entirely sure correct way, the very treatment of Daisy Domergue, and her horrific death, actually does more in enraging me to strip genuine misogyny from the world, to stamp it out of existence once and for all, than anything the director has done yet. Tarantino seems tired with the pipe dream heroes of Beatrix Kiddo, Jackie Brown and the Death Proof gang: as effective as they are, Daisy Domergue is our real call for action. Glib declarations like ‘hipster misogyny’ ignore this; as a conscious, filmgoing public, we need to engage with art like The Hateful Eight, and overcome what we feel may be personal attacks on our way of life or identity and realise that, instead, a movie may just be offering new, more challenging ways for us to interact with crises like misogyny.
Or you could disregard every point in this piece, as it was written by a man. It’s your choice.
Well, a few years too late, but for what’s worth, I just watched The Hateful Eight, I’m a woman, and I completely agree with you. I would go so far as to say an exploration of sexism is the overarching theme of the whole movie. I mean, when two enemies come together, united against Daisy, it’s pretty clear. I was really surprised so many people missed it. Thanks for the article, I enjoyed it!