Fragile Masculinity: Pulp Fiction’s Take on Homophobia
By: Monica Burch
Stereotypically heterosexual men subconsciously fear homosexuality in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. This film expertly showcases societies disapproval for male homosexuality within its stereotypically hypermasculine characters. These men are meant to be the height of macho, and yet subconsciously fear the idea of homosexuality, as this is seen as emasculating. While many of these men are overly masculine, Tarantino has represented this fear through their actions and language. Within the movie, excremental and sexual language are intermixed, along with their use in scenes that represent this homophobia. The movie uses themes of excremental and sexual references to represent male homophobia. The movie follows its characters unconscious homophobia through its excellent use of language and imagery.
Language plays a major role in conveying the overall themes of homophobia in Pulp Fiction. Word choice is specific within the movie to subconsciously portray this idea. Specifically, excremental and sexual language, especially curses, represent men’s fear of homosexuality. Throughout the entire film, linguistic references to sex and excrement are commonly used, especially by male characters. Language like this is the common vernacular of men such as the ones found within the film, but Tarantino uses this commonality to represent men’s fragile masculinity. These words are especially found or used in relation to each other, even with simple mundane things relating nothing to either topics. For example, variations of the words “shit” and “fuck” are used to describe dipping fries in mayonnaise: “I’ve seen them do it man, they fucking drown them in that shit” (Tarantino). These words are used in practically every setting, no matter the context, representing the ever-present ideas subconsciously bothering these men. The language is also used especially in settings that do relate to violence or other people. When discussing Antwan’s punishment for the alleged foot massage, Jules states that Marcellus “fucked his ass up good” (Tarantino). Here is a clear representation of the unconscious combination of the two linguistical themes through comparing sexual to anal terminology. The mixing of the two is not the norm of heterosexual behaviors, but rather homosexual behaviors, further underscoring the men’s unknowing obsession with homosexuality.
Through language, the men in this film show how they cannot help but unconsciously think about the very homosexuality they are afraid of. While it is never explicitly stated in these terms, the men are uncomfortable with both the idea of being emasculated, and how homosexual contact is the ultimate emasculation in their eyes. While discussing the infamous foot massage between Antwan and Mia, Jules and Vince discuss whether a foot massage can be sexual. Jules tries to argue it is not sexual, but Vince ultimately wins the argument when he asks Jules, “Have you ever given a guy a foot massage?” (Tarantino). To this, Jules is noticeably upset at the idea of giving a man a foot massage and paradoxically responds by saying, “Fuck you man” (Tarantino). Jules’ clear anger at the idea of massaging another man’s feat shows he understands a foot massage is sexual and is angry at the idea. Therefore, Jules show in this linguistic outburst of aggression that he is against the idea of sexual acts with another man, but at the same time combats the idea with vernacular that actually supports homosexuality. The thought of a sexual act with a man angering Jules represents the underlying homophobia found within the male characters of Pulp Fiction.
Each man, however, represents a different level of masculinity. The men of this movie are on a spectrum, some as hypermasculine all the way to practically feminine. The men considered lowest on the spectrum of masculinity is also the openly homosexual characters, and those with homosexual characteristics, representing men’s idea that homosexuality is without masculinity. Zed is arguably one of the least masculine characters, as he is openly homosexual. Then Vince is a bridge between the two sides as he is one of the hitmen, but also has stereotypical feminine qualities. While Butch is one of the most stereotypically masculine character. Butch’s name and description as “ a white, 26-year-old prizefighter” wearing a “red and blue high school athletic jacket” exemplify the stereotypical hypermasculine man in America (Tarantino). Everything describing Butch is stereotypically masculine, even the colors he is wearing are patriotic, a typical masculine quality.
Of course, Marcellus is arguably the most masculine character within the film. Marcellus exhibits only traits that align with stereotypical hypermasculinity. Marcellus massive physical presents overpowers all the other men around him. His strength and power allows him to control all of the other men in the film. Even his calm, powerful demeanor is considered masculine, as this shows confidence that the other men do not have. Marcellus represents to the other men in Pulp Fictiona level of masculinity they haven’t reached, and makes him safer from their underlying fears of the emasculation. It can be argued that Butch is just as masculine if not more than Marcellus, but Marcellus places himself above Butch when he metaphorically overpowers Butch by making him repeat the line: “my ass goes down in the 5th” (Tarantino). In this line, Marcellus metaphorically rapes, and thus, emasculates Butch by forcing him to say his ass is going down, pushing the phrase of his own metaphorical rape down Butch’s throat in an emasculating action.
As the most hypermasculine character, according to the film, Marcellus’s eventual rape shows that they are all susceptible to the emasculation they are so afraid of. Through language, the men of Pulp Fictionhave shown their clear discomfort for homosexuality as, to them, it is emasculating. With their underlying homophobia, the idea of being overpowered and raped by a homosexual man is the ultimate fear. Of course, Marcellus experiences this exact event, even though he is the one man who should be most detached from losing masculinity. Using the film’s definitions of masculinity, Marcellus is completely emasculated by the rape. Marcellus’ emasculation seems so unrealistic, the other men could never conceive of the possibility, shown and foreshadowed when Jules rhetorically asks if Marcellus “looks like a bitch” (Tarantino). To everyone in the film, the answer to Jules’ rhetorical question seems like an obviously no, representing Marcellus’s apparent detachment from threats of emasculation, and yet he is still emasculated. This obvious inability to comprehend Marcellus’ possible emasculation represents the men’s idea that the more masculine one is, the safer they are from homosexual tendencies. And yet, because he was emasculated, the idea that masculinity protects them becomes obsolete, showing that they are all susceptible to their own homosexual fears, no matter how masculine they are. Marcellus only regains his masculinity when Butch saves him, but allows him to have the final blow on Zed, stating he will “fuck his ass up” (Tarantino). Once again, the men fight homosexuality with homosexual comments, showing the men’s underlying fears of homosexuality stems from their internal connection to homosexual traits they wish they did not have, and that the rape so clearly show.
Through the film, Tarantino exhibits the underlying fears that all men seem to have, the fear of homosexuality. This homophobia connects with the men’s inner femininities and homosexual tendencies, shown with their use of homosexual language to combat the very homosexuality in their mind threatening them. The men all exabit hypermasculinity, a usual defense for how fragile their masculinity really is. Tarantino represents the men’s fears through his use of the common vernacular of the men found within the film. The rough and hypermasculine men of Pulp Fictionin reality would use vulgar language in everyday conversation, but Tarantino uses this knowledge to encode the hidden fears found in the men. The men feel the more masculine they present themselves, the safer they are. But this idea is shattered with the rape of Marcellus, confirming in their own minds that no matter their level of masculinity they are still always threatened with emasculation.
Pulp Fiction. Directed by Quinten Tarantino, Miramax Films, 1994.