why do so many queer people love kill bill?
Exploring why queerness coalesces around certain cis-het cultural phenomena.
Still from Kill Bill
When I was a young, closeted teen, I used to come home after school and alternate two movies every day. Kill Bill: Vol I on Monday, Vol II on Tuesday, Vol I again on Wednesday, ad infinitum. My mother was probably concerned.
When I tell straight people this, they raise an eyebrow and I laugh along about how weird it was that I was such a bloodthirsty kid. When I tell other queer people this, I’m taken aback by how often they say “Omg, me too!!!”
It’s not just Kill Bill -- it’s Resident Evil, the Parent Trap, Tomb Raider, even The Mummy. Get enough gay people in a room talking about childhood favourites and it’s uncanny how often conversations converge. Why is it that queerness coalesces around certain hetero-cultural phenomena?
I don’t know what it was about Kill Bill that appealed to my still dormant queer sensibilities. Certainly the iconic yellow jumpsuit played a part, as did the camp lunacy of certain moments -- like when Bea spanks a young member of the Crazy 88 over her knee with her Hanzo sword -- and the plot of revenge against a cohort of evil betrayers (who I probably thought were on a par with my homophobic school bullies). But despite all these factors, there is nothing ostensibly queer about Kill Bill. I wasn’t identifying with a queerness that the film explicitly offered -- rather, I was disidentifying with a queerness that I couldn’t find anywhere.
Disidentification is a ‘third way’ that queer people could navigate mainstream culture. As LGBT people, we lie outside the dominant heteronormative narrative, and so we cannot identify with it.
‘Disidentification’ is an academic term describing the process by which queer people ascribe queerness to cultural narratives not meant for us. It’s when, in an absence of mirrors, we begin to see our reflection in the walls. These cultural hallucinations define many of our early lives.
Dr. Lee Edelman is a professor at Tufts University and the author of No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. “The notion of disidentification is taken from the work of José Muñoz (from his 1999 book Disidentifications: Queers of Colour and the Performance of Politics) and specifically entails the reappropriation of popular cultural references,” he explains. “It constitutes a way of inserting oneself into a culture that has refused one recognition by claiming a privileged understanding of, for example, a popular cultural phenomenon or performer. When a gay man “identified” with Judy Garland, he was writing his way into the mainstream culture in which his own story could never be told.”
As Muñoz explained in 1999, disidentification is a ‘third way’ that queer people could navigate mainstream culture. As LGBT people, we lie outside the dominant heteronormative narrative, and so we cannot identify with it. Instead, we have the option to counter-identify with the mainstream, i.e. place ourselves in direct opposition with it. Think of how gays have united against Ed Sheeran’s painful lyricism about hetty takeaways -- his uber-popular brand of simplistic four-chord guitar music which glorifies the mundanity of cis-het romance has become a lightning rod for queer ridicule. His implicit contempt for effeminate men and the women he dates (as detailed in this Playboy takedown) has made him a natural enemy of gays and girls. Our performative rejection of Sheeran and what he stands for functions as a declaration of what we don’t stand for, and by extension, our very identities. The revolutionary concept that Muñoz offers is that we also have the option of ‘disidentifying’ -- of reworking and transforming mainstream tropes for our own cultural purposes. In other words, we don’t have to simply reject the mainstream -- we can summon a phantom queerness where it does not exist in straight culture.
“Even without being represented in a literal way, those who see themselves as queer can take hold of tropes in ways that displace them from their dominant modes of reception and turn them into vehicles for the representation of queer desires,” Edelman explains and when I projected my gayness onto Uma Thurman’s Beatrix Kiddo, this is precisely what my lonely childhood self was doing. And I’m not alone.
Nuno Miguel Gonçalves is a 35-year-old gay man and comes from Lisbon. “As a child of the 80s, She-Ra completely changed my life”, he tells me. “I would take my cereal, go to the living room and watch cartoons all morning while my parents were still asleep. I created my own little world”. Nuno says that Michelle Pfeiffer in Ladyhawke was also one of his biggest obsessions. “I think what attracted me to cartoons and comics has to do with the fact that they deal with metamorphosis, with a dramatic change and turning into something completely different than you were before,” he reasons.
We don’t have to simply reject the mainstream -- we can summon a phantom queerness where it does not exist in straight culture.
Benji is 23, a trans man and lives in Dublin. Growing up, he had a similar experience -- he was obsessed with Yu-Gi-Oh. “Long before I ever knew I was trans, I always loved that character because he was a very short, very high-voiced boy who didn't look even remotely masculine (see also: me), but he had an alter ego ~inside his soul~ who was tall and sultry and handsome and everything that I wanted to be!” Benji says. “And I clung to that because I was absolutely fascinated by the idea that somebody like me could become somebody like that, even if it was just a silly cartoon about card games.” Benji was able to recode the narrative offered by this ostensibly cis-heteronormative cartoon to conjure up a representation that was absent from mainstream culture. He looks back on his obsession with great fondness now: “I still am kinda fascinated by it,” he laughs.
Benji’s account resonates with me. As grateful as I am now for IRL role models like Olly Alexander and Troye Sivan, I feel a similar aching nostalgia for the secret world I created in my teenage bedroom around Kill Bill, Charlie’s Angels (those fight scenes are still unmatched), Mean Girls, Britney Spears, and Lady Gaga. The way I privately curated and collaged these snippets of culture into a makeshift identity felt like the truest reflection of myself I have ever found, and I have carried them through my life.
What I realised later was that millions of gay people, all screened from each other by the walls of our individual closets, had independently chosen the same pieces of cultural driftwood to cling to. It’s not as simple as some gay men choosing at random to disidentify with Lady Gaga and others choosing Ed Sheeran -- there is a statistically significant skew towards certain types of culture, certain popstars, certain films (see gay diva worship). “Gay men reappropriated cultural figures from Tammy Faye Baker to Mariah Carey, from Whitney Houston to Lindsay Lohan,” Dr. Edelman elaborates. “Similar appropriations took place in lesbian culture with stars like Marlon Brando and James Dean, or with Oprah Winfrey or Cate Blanchett.”
This phenomenon of collective disidentification was indescribably validating to me -- it was this shared experience that, even more than the fact I have sex with other men, told me I belonged to a cultural community.
Even in our era of blossoming queer representation, disidentification is still a key puzzle piece in most of our development. “The process of appropriating and re-coding artefacts of straight culture with queer meaning is not obsolete, though one might assume that gay men had to do it in the ‘bad old days’ and don’t have to do it any longer,” Dr. David Halperin, author of How To Be Gay tells me. “In fact, I too assumed it was obsolete when I was coming out in the 70s. But it turns out that the process is still going on.”
Max is 15 and lives in Paraguay, and tells me that playing Tomb Raider in 2013 helped them to realise they were non-binary. “After finishing the game, something changed,” they tell me. “I could no longer enjoy games with male protagonists. My entire media consumption changed too, almost every YouTube personality I followed was a woman. It all started with Lara Croft. A few years later, I was able to explore femininity and queer characters further with games like Life is Strange, which led to me discovering I was trans.”
It gives me tingles to think of people almost ten years younger than me using the same disidentifications to discover themselves in 2018 (Tomb Raider: Legend was a huge awakening for me back in the noughties). Though some might read the concept of disidentification as a depressing reflection of queer life, a marker of a world where we must all subsist on straightness, for many of us childhood memories of disidentification are special. They’re even magical. I can still hear Uma Thurman and Lucy Liu, whispering across the years. “Tricks are for kids”.