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Inglourious Jewess

Inglourious Basterds has been called the "ultimate Jewish revenge fantasy," in every review and blog post I have seen.  I am not interested in adding my two cents to the debate about whether revenge fantasies are "good for the Jews" or "bad for the Jews."  Instead, I would like to offer a different angle on the film. 

Last week I wrote about the deficit of "kick-ass Jewish women" in film, and Sylvia suggested that Shoshana of Inglourious Basterds fit the bill.  Now that I've seen the movie, I completely agree.  The true hero of Inglourious Basterds is the heroine: Shoshana Dreyfus, a kick-ass Jewish feminist.

Before we get started, I need to warn you that there are spoilers ahead.  Okay, let's keep going.

In the opening scene of the film we watch Shoshana Dreyfus' family get killed by the Nazis after being betrayed by the French family that was hiding them.  Shoshona escapes, and goes on to own a cinema in Paris, passing as a gentile thanks to her blonde hair.  When a Nazi film is set to premiere at her cinema, she quickly concocts a plan to burn the theater down, killing all the high-powered Nazi officials, including Hitler, inside.  Though Shoshana proves to be the most effective Nazi-killer in the film, her revenge is motivated by more than just anti-Semitism.  In burning down the theater, Shoshana is also burning down the patriarchy.

Shoshana's struggle is not simply a Jewish struggle.  Even as a convincing gentile woman, she faces oppression because she is a woman living in a world controlled by men.  Her family was dependent on a man for survival.  They are betrayed by a man, and executed by men.  Men decide that she will premiere the Nazi film, and men tell her how to run her theater.  A young German soldier takes an interest in her, and refuses to leave her alone despite her assertive rebuffs.  When the soldier refuses to accept that "no means no" and resorts to violence to prove his dominance, Shoshana simply shoots him. Take that, you would-be rapist!  I also found it deliciously subversive that Shoshana's love interest is a black man, similarly undermining the power of the white male.

Shoshana's feminism is especially pronounced in comparison to the character Bridget von Hammersmark, the only other significant woman in the film.  Hammersmark, a German actress, uses her sex appeal and her charm to help bring down the Nazis.  Perhaps ironically, her endeavors fail and result in the 'inglourious deaths' of a few Basterds, and as well as her own.

Although Shoshana is killed before her plan is fully carried out, she is present at the climactic end in the form of a homemade film spliced into the Nazi movie. The film is a closeup of her face as she says: "My name is Shosanna Dreyfus... and you've seen the face of Jewish vengeance." Then the theater is consumed by flames and Shoshana's sadistic laughter.  I know I said I wouldn't go there, but her laughter seems to suggest that women are allowed to enjoy violent, sadistic revenge fantasies too.  

About whether Tarantino's film is "good for the Jews," I do not care to speculate.  However, I will make the claim that the character of Shoshana Dreyfus is good for Jewish women.  Shoshana's story highlights the fact that Jewish women are doubly marginalized by their gender.  The Jewish revenge fantasy might be to kill the Nazi oppressor, but the Jewish woman's revenge fantasy includes a second enemy: the patriarchy.

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Shoshana's character is definately ballsy and strong, and that is a part of "what feminism means to me." Judith explained how this broader definition ("any behavior that is strong and outspoken and kick-ass -- that is, not conforming to conventional gender expectations") has some benefits, like helping more people identify with feminism.

But my analysis of Shoshana's feminism is also based on her relationship to Private Fredrick Zoller, the German soldier who attempts to woo her. Shoshana's assertive and straightforward rebuffs, as well as her refusal to defer to men, even her lover, lead me to interpret Shoshana's character as feminist.

Judith pointed out that there are certain basic values within feminism ("e.g. the worth of
all people, inclusivity, a commitment to share power and resources, etc.") and to me, those all reflect a commitment to egalitarianism, and do not address that tricky issue "I don't get it" was getting at - whether or not a feminist can embrace violence as Shoshana does, or perhaps whether or not a feminist can enjoy a violently perverse film like this one, as I will admit I did.

Can you be a feminist and still be titillated by violence?  The jury is still out on that one. The "pornography of violence" is a big issue for feminists, and there is no consensus as far as I can see.

Unfortunately, I think the violent nature of the film clouds our discussion of feminism.  Regardless of whether or not you approve of Shoshana's violent, murderous choices, she is a strong, Jewish woman who values herself equally to men and refuses to play the "womanly" role they expect of her. And for that reason, I think she is a feminist.

I see feminism as the idea that men and women are equal. Feminist films can come in a variety of expressions: subtle examinations of gender relations, positive and negative, or obvious examples of female power. I, too, liked the way Zoller came across like a romantic comedy hero. She, however, did not fall into the traditional pattern. Then he turned out to be much more realistic than that trope - a self-centered jerk. The movie was both a condemnation and praise of revenge. I found myself looking forward to redemptive violence, but when it came, it was unexpected and sickening. The film had its fair share of humor, and watching Nazis laugh at the propaganda film as I laughed at Inglourious Basterds was disconcerting.

Feminism means that women should have political, economic and social equality with men. But, obviously, that is not nearly powerful enough a statement. Feminism means that women can be stronger than a locomotive, faster than a speeding bullet, able to leap ... Do you now get it? Feminism is the XX inspired, quasi mystical power that once resided exclusively in men. The ability of a CEO to lead, inspire, and create an empire from a corner office demands a belief system that accommodates that same CEO flying around in a cape with paint on clothing, saving the world from injustice. Feminism demands a belief system where women can save the world - as equals of any caped male crusader.

Feminism must not include a belief in "the worth of all people, inclusivity, a commitment to share power and resources". That is humanism. Feminism must mean the ability to 'kick ass' in a board room or a fantasy revenge film. Leah's blog is dead on. The fact that Tarantino's film allows a 'kick ass' women who didn't need a Barbie doll figure or spandex to prove the point is a plus for all feminists. And, the fact she was Jewish was just as necessary to the film as it was for Tarantino to create the 'Jewish Bear', another revenge hero who needed an American baseball bat to become her equal.

This is an interesting -- and age-old -- debate that you've raised, Leah, about what constitutes feminism. I haven't seen the movie, so I can't comment on this particular example, but I've thought a lot about this feminism question. In part, it comes down to whether or not you see feminism as an ideology or as a mode of behavior (liberated, powerful, fearless, bold, whatever). I think there can be something useful about defining feminism very broadly and non-ideologically -- it allows more people to identify with feminism in some way, rather than feeling that they can't be feminists because they don't toe some specific line (e.g., the old "I'm not a feminist because I shave my legs" kind of argument). Maybe if we define feminism as any behavior that is strong and outspoken and kick-ass -- that is, not conforming to conventional gender expectations -- we can get away from the "I'm not a feminist, but..." phenomenon.

On the other hand, I don't think this kind of behavior is *necessarily* feminist. I think feminism describes not only a way of behaving but also a change you want to see in the world. Something that is pro-active, not just reactive. I'm uncomfortable with some of the essentialist directions that this thinking can lead, in terms of saying that there are "male" and "female" ways of behaving. But I do think that there are certain basic values that feminism upholds (e.g. the worth of all people, inclusivity, a commitment to share power and resources, etc.) I don't think these values necessarily come more naturally to women than to men, but I think feminists are committed to working towards a better world where these values are reflected. As to how to make that world come about... that's a related debate about how change happens and whether "the masters tools can dismantle the master's house."

So I guess what I'm saying here is that while I don't support defining feminism in ways that are too limiting and I see the benefit of making it a broader category, I think if we broaden it too far, we risk making it meaningless and not focused at all on real structural change in the world.

I can see where the main character is a Ì¢‰âÒballsyÌ¢‰âÂå strong woman, but I donÌ¢‰â‰ã¢t get the feminism connection at all. What is feminism to you? How does she exemplify that?

As a male with huge attitude, I had a good laugh. Your blog. This what I call 1970's feminism - male in skirt syndrome, teen style. I watched the movie and I saw the heroine as a real woman, not a feminist. Tarantino brought in a few white man fantasies a white woman is f**d by black man (I see some women have a same dreams. Few teen sadistic wet dreams with the baseball bat. As a whole, I can say, it was dis-service to Jewish "race". Real Jewish male or female does not shrink away from violence or even a taking life. But we did it as human beings, look at Warsaw ghetto uprising, Jewish partisans or even now the Israeli army. Stop living in 70's but keep on writing! Stan

So, if a woman acts out the sort of fantasies that we see as stupid in a man, that makes her a feminist? I'm not sure I buy it. The game stays the same, we're just letting more players in to kill each other?

If feminism refers to a different consciousness, hopefully one more egalitarian, or less hung up on killing as an empowering act, one would hope that it stands for more than that.

Given the horror of the Holocaust, I can understand the cartoonish response and enjoying some sort of catharsis in seeing some roles reversed. But to be feminist, wouldn't there have to be a different response, entirely?

Or, perhaps we have two things: consumer feminism and radical feminism. Sounds like Sylvie is a good consumable feminist.

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How to cite this page

Berkenwald, Leah. "Inglourious Jewess." 8 September 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on January 20, 2018) <>.


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