Don't confuse fetishised violence with liberation

These clever showbiz clichés pander to in-built prejudices, and tend to infect real life
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The Independent Online

Here are a few scenes from a film that will shortly be coming to a cinema near you. Like a ghastly, demonic version of a Charlie Dimmock water feature, blood is spurting playfully upwards from the neck which, until someone lost her temper rather badly, had borne a head. The trajectory of a bullet is followed in loving slow motion until enters its destination, a human face. Later, a scene in a nightclub ends with the floor covered by the bloodied remains of 88 Japanese men killed or maimed in a sword fight. Over the groans of survivors, our heroine addresses them. Anyone still alive can go, she tells them, adding sternly that they may not take any severed limbs with them. "Those are for me," she says.

Quentin Tarantino is back and, even before its official release, his prolonged new film splatter-fest, Kill Bill, has provoked as loud a caterwauling from enraged commentators as from the sliced and diced victims of Uma Thurman, the film's death-dealing heroine. It is "truly repugnant", the critic Philip Norman has written; Tarantino has glamourised killing, presenting it not only as cool, but without any real moral consequence.

There is a certain truth in this. The problem with Tarantino is not just that he is slickly adept at using seductive images and music, but that he is a brilliant, heartlessly funny writer. We are used to seeing the bad guys being taken out in various unpleasant ways - it is part of the entertainment - but finding ourselves laughing at the process is discomfiting. It makes us complicit in the nastiness.

Behind the geeky fetishising of blades and blood, there is something new and of the moment in Kill Bill. The violence is almost exclusively female. There is a man's name in its title, the back story involves male misdoing, its director is male, but all its seriously effective killers - the central character known only as "the Bride", a Japanese-Chinese gang leader, her half-French sidekick, a black housewife and former assassin, a psychotic teenage schoolgirl - are young, attractive and female.

By contrast, there are no significant male characters. Indeed, almost all the men who appear on screen are either oafish, neaderthal rapists, plump, unlovely Japanese gangsters, or dark-suited samurai swordsmen who, as if to emphasise their anonymity, wear eye-masks.

What is going on here? In a recent American interview, Quentin Tarantino has suggested that creativity is essentially sexual ("the dick drive is connected to the art drive" is the way he put it), and it is tempting to read something creepily erotic in, for example, a swordfight to the death between Thurman and the arch-villainess played by Lucy Liu. Certainly, the success of films as different as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Charlie's Angels suggests that modern audiences have a taste for babe-on-babe action of the violent kind.

But this feminisation of violence is rather more complicated and cunning. The women in Tarantino's film, both goodies and baddies, have been abused by men in the past. The killing that they do is, as a result, different from the cruelty exhibited by men in countless movies in the past.

It is, essentially, an act of revenge against men who have done them harm - perhaps against men in general. Rather than being an act of selfish male rage, jealousy or psychotic pleasure, it is almost virtuous, and it is achieved in a spirit of cool, religious conviction. Women are no longer simply fighting back and asserting their independence, as in Thelma and Louise, but are engaged in a holy crusade of revenge for all the terrible things that men have done to women down the centuries.

Perhaps this latest development was inevitable. In TV dramas, writers now seem to work from the assumption that complexity and a sense of morality are essentially feminine characteristics, that there is something intrinsically less interesting about men. It is impossible, for example, to imagine Sex and the City written about four men pushing middle age and trying to get laid and yet remaining cute, amusing and adorable.

Unfortunately these clever, ingratiating showbiz clichés, designed to flatter audiences by pandering to in-built prejudices, tend to infect real life. If the contemporary female spirit is as empowered, confident and ruthless as it is now portrayed on screen, who is going to worry about, or even believe, claims that a muscle-bound Hollywood star turned politician has groped, molested and bullied women who were unable to do anything about it?

A recurrent image in Kill Bill is that of a female face flecked with blood, its eyes cold but slightly amused, before revenge is exacted. It plays well in the cinema, making violence somehow purer and less vulgar, but it is a dick-drive thing and should not be mistaken for any kind of liberation.