Pulp Fiction offers prescient criticism of toxic masculinity

Ex-film producer Harvey Weinstein (pictured above) has been accused of sexual misconduct by several women. Themes of the film Pulp Fiction, produced by Weinstein, denounce Weinstein’s attitude (courtesy of Creative Commons).

Samuel L. Jackson quotes Tarantino’s dramatized version of “Ezekiel 25:17” in the 1994 film Pulp Fiction when he promises to “strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy [his] brothers.” 

Twenty-three years later, on Oct. 5, 2017, The New York Times released an article that struck down the powerful Harvey Weinstein. This article was the first instance of public accusations of sexual misconduct against Weinstein; it wasn’t an isolated incident, it was the start of a movement. 

Other dominoes began to fall. Powerful men like actor Kevin Spacey, comedian Louis C.K. and “Today” show host Matt Lauer were all also accused of various kinds of sexual misconduct. In the wake of what would become known as the culture-shifting “MeToo” movement it is important to consider: should we, as a society, have seen this coming? 

The 1990s were host to a particular film style that attempted to address personal, intimate issues in a way that would cause men to actually consider them without seeming emasculated. Quentin Tarantino’s cult classic, Pulp Fiction, is a particularly compelling example of this. Not only does the film address sensitive topics in a masculine way, but it was also produced by Harvey Weinstein and was a large factor in his ascension toward Hollywood’s upper echelon. 

One delicate topic in particular that Pulp Fiction exhibits is sexual assault. The film exploits this topic in a direct way without ever addressing the problems inherent in it. While the Marcellus Wallace rape scene might come to mind as the first example, the reality is that the scene serves more as a red herring than anything else. Its inclusion is more characteristic of Pulp as a genre than it is any kind of insightful look in relation to the issue of sexual assault. That doesn’t mean, however, that the film wholly ignores issues arising from power abuse. 

A lot can be learned from Jules Winnfield’s character arc in the movie. Samuel L. Jackson’s iconic portrayal of a violent hitman seeking reformation lends itself perfectly to a greater understanding of contemporary sexual politics. 

At the film’s outset, Jules is a hyper-aggressive figure who hides behind a masculine mask and solves his problems with the business-end of a .45mm pistol. Yet after experiencing what Jules deems to be “divine intervention,” he realizes the error of his ways and begins on a path towards betterment. Jules embodies a sense of true American manhood while simultaneously acting in a way that is more open and intimate than traditionally masculine roles would allow. 

Pulp Fiction is a movie produced by a monster, full of problematic expressions of power and allusions to troubling interpersonal incompetence. Yet the Jules storyline can be interpreted as a beacon of hope in this controversial masterpiece.

At its most basic level, the film says that people can change; Jackson’s violent hitman becomes a surprisingly effective pacifist by the film’s conclusion. 

When read more closely, however, Jules’s character arc illustrates hyper-masculinity’s inherent ineffectiveness and illustrates it in a way that doesn’t emasculate fragile male egos. It teaches audiences that “the path of the righteous man” is actually one of contemplation and introspection rather than violent masculinity.

Pulp Fiction is an allegorical redemption narrative that could have served as an indicator of the way men have been abusing power in Hollywood for years. While it is a classic, masterful piece of modern cinema, it’s important to consider who created the movie and to put it into the context of the world in 2019.