"...Soft, Mushy..."

Comments on Pulp Fiction seem to be split between those who just love the movie to little warm moist bits, and those who are put off by its content. There hasn't been much dialogue (as we say in the critical theory biz) between the two types of comment. As a Tarentino fan who's also put off by the movie's content, and as someone just stupid enough to get in the middle of dogfights, I might as well try to explain why we wet-blankets feel it necessary to branish the S-word.

Like True Romance, but unlike Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction is a fantasy, a mug full of familiar movie situations and stereotyped characters whose appeal is in the skill with which Tarentino whips 'em into a froth. No problem; after all, male stereotypes cover a pretty wide dramatic territory, and Tarentino does a lovely job of giving them individual touches without losing their force as clichés. But Tarentino just doesn't have much in the way of individual touches for the actresses. And when the only women you show are weak female stereotypes, well, back in Missouri, we call that sexism.

Tarentino is hardly unique in this approach. As my colleague Alexander Pope recently pointed out, the biggest problem with '90s movies is that most women have no characters at all. But it's Tarentino's job to be unique, dang it!

All of Pulp Fiction's female characters are hopeless saps. True, there's one male character who's also a hopeless sap, and there wouldn't be much of a screenplay without him, since each of the three stories in the film pivot on mistakes by John Travolta's Vince Vega and at least one irritatingly out-of-it woman:

The Dumb Ho story
Gloria Grahame (or Uma Thurman, as she's listed in the credits) tries to seduce Vince with no regard to either his or her safety, and then ODs on a drug she'd misidentified. Of course, Vince was a dope to even be tempted by her.
The Airhead story
Bruce Willis has to risk his life because his cute French sexpot is such a dingaling that she forgot to pack his most important male icon. (This could also be called the "Things People Shove Up Their Butt" story, but that's for the essay about Pulp Fiction's homophobia....) Of course, it wouldn't mean nothing without Vince's smooth move.
The Hysterical Bitches story
Vince starts this one off with a bang, but the major suspense springs from the pussywhipped state of Mr. Tarentino's character: the little woman'll go crazy if she sees this mess! Just like in The Flintstones, y'dig? Rounding the episode off is Amanda Plummer as a robber who really ought to get a little more comfortable with a gun. Slipped in between is the one woman who seems to win Tarentino's full approval: a typical girl-of-James-Bond -- old enough to be legal, smart enough to seem dumb, winsome yet totally submissive -- who has nothing better to do than hang out with Harvey "What Sort of Man Reads Playboy?" Keitel.

On a more hopeful note, Vince Vega's favorite reading matter is Modesty Blaise, a fantasy about a sex kitten who can fight like a man. Now, if we could figure out a way to shove her, Brenda Starr, and Michelle Khan, say, into Tarentino's Cuisinart of a brain, he might get something more flavorful on the stove. As the lumberjack said, "This is a mess o' stereotypes! ...but it's good."

Addendum, 2004: Being averse to deletion, I leave this here. But, yes, in Tarentino's next two movies I received a fully satisfactory answer.

Copyright 1995 Ray Davis, except for the Brenda Starr panel by Fradon & Schmich