Gender in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
At the last Cannes International Film Festival during a press conference for Once Upon A Time…Hollywood, a reporter asked Quentin Tarantino why actress Margot Robbie had so little screen time and dialogue as Sharon Tate. Tarantino responded, “I reject your hypothesis.” What hypothesis was that?
One could argue that it’s a career-long one for Tarantino, in which his ability to write about and work with women is questioned. Of course, the reporter was really referring to the criticism of how Tarantino treats women in the film. More specifically, the missed opportunity to give tragically-slain actress Sharon Tate a voice. Hollywood has never been kind to Tate. Her death is sited as the end of the 60s, but no one really knows anything about her beyond that.
Many thought that Tarantino’s retelling of this time in Hollywood would be a chance for him to do what he does best; rewrite history to right wrongs. Fans and critics assumed Tarantino would use his ode to 1960s Hollywood to change the fate of Tate and the others that were killed that night in August 1969. And he did, but he used two fictional male characters to do it; Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth (Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt).
By creating a fictional narrative around the 1969 Manson Murders, Tarantino is denying not just Sharon Tate’s voice, but female-driven narratives in general. Instead, he uses the characters of Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth to take Tate’s agency away in the final moments of the film, in order to redeem a story of male aging in Hollywood. In saving Tate’s life, the film’s narrative shifts from one about redemption against a terrible crime, to one about saving a fragile male ego.
DiCaprio and Pitt’s fictional characters reinforced gender norms. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood denounces the importance of telling female-driven stories in film by replacing them with male-driven narratives. This article will explore gender-enforced roles in the film. It uses Sharon Tate as a device to elevate the male narrative of aging in Hollywood, while denouncing the importance of her story
The Girl from Valley of the Dolls
To better understand the use of Tate in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, we can look at Malinalli Lopez Arreguin’s essay “The Importance of Female-Driven Narratives” about Do the Right Thing. In it, Arreguin argues that Rosie Perez’s character, Tina, is just a symbol to show Spike Lee’s Mookie character’s short-comings.
“Film critic Angharad N. Valdiva interprets the character of Tina as an objectified body within the structure of the film and warns that the simple addition of female characters to storylines are not enough: ‘Portrayal then, is not the entire answer or strategy from a multiculturalist position especially after we have experienced many instances of portrayals that were not necessarily a major improvement over absence’” (Arreguin 392).
Here, Arreguin explains that all too often female characters are placed in film as a body to play next to a male character. They are only there to move the male character’s storyline along. Tate’s story in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood merely exists to give purpose to Rick and Cliff. By putting Rick directly next to Tate in terms of location, he is tied to her, even if the two characters don’t interact until the end of the film. She represents new, young, free-spirited Hollywood, while he represents the older generation of 50s TV cowboys. She has an entire career ahead of her. He has already experienced most of his. Tate only exists in this narrative then to show Rick what he’s up against, what aging in Hollywood means for his career. It’s comical that Tarantino chose to make male aging the center of his film, when we know that historically women age out of Hollywood much earlier than men do.
Critics have been quick to call Tarantino’s film a movie about white men aging in Hollywood under the false pretense of a Manson Murders story. Richard Brody wrote in his review of the film in The New Yorker that it was an “obscenely regressive vision of the Sixties.” He goes on to explain that the film almost feels like it has an agenda of pointing out what the good old days looked like and why they were ruined.
“If only the old-line Hollywood people of the fifties and sixties had maintained their pride of place—if only the times hadn’t changed, if only the keys to the kingdom hadn’t been handed over to the freethinkers and decadents of the sixties—then both Hollywood and the world would be a better, safer, happier place. There’s no slur delivered more bitterly by Cliff and Rick than “hippie,” and their narrow but intense experiences in the course of the film are set up to bear out the absolute aptness of their hostility.”
Here we see how Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood takes a clear stance on Tate’s alliance with the new-wave of Hollywood stars. She is a threat to everything Rick Dalton believes in. She represents the very thing that is forcing him out of a job and out of relevance.
Some might argue that Tate’s role as Rick’s younger mirror is important because it helps you better understand his character and arc. But, at what cost? It is not enough to simply have a female character present. And, all too often, those female characters do not get to have their own distinct voice. We can see the result of Tate’s loss of voice in the movie theater scene where Robbie attends a matinee of Tate’s film The Wrecking Crew.
Before going into the theater to watch her own movie, Tate introduces herself to the worker at the ticket booth. The theater worker does not recognize her and just tells her the price of a ticket to see the show. “What if I’m in the movie?” Tate asks her. “You’re in this?” the theater worker asks her sounding unsure. Tate nods, but the worker is still not convinced, telling her that the blonde in The Wrecking Crew is the girl from Valley of the Dolls. Eventually Tate convinces her that she is in fact the girl from Valley of the Dolls, and the theater worker asks for her photo. When she goes to take the photo of Tate she pauses and repositions the actress in front of the film poster in the theater lobby. “Why don’t you stand by the poser so people will know who you are,” she tells Tate. Robbie smiles and shrugs, as if to show that Tate wouldn’t have been bothered by this either.
But this scene is bothersome. It seems to be Tarantino’s way of excusing himself for not focusing his film on Tate. He’s telling the audience that Tate was not that famous. People didn’t recognize her if she was walking down the street without Polanski. Perhaps this is his way of justifying why Rick Dalton is a more important character to care about in his movie. Rick has had a career. He was the star of a TV show. People know him. People love him. Tate will have that someday. In fact, because of Rick, she will get to live out her life and have a long, happy career. The irony here, of course, is that the real-life Tate was not so lucky. And by dismissing her young career in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, Tarantino is implying that her history as an actress, however short or small it was, is not important enough to explore. Her agency is not important.
Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man
For all the fun Brad Pitt is as Cliff Booth in the film, he’s also problematic. To understand gender identities in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, we must examine Cliff’s overly macho persona. In Laura Mulvey’s essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” she explores why men are given powerful roles in film, while women are only given roles where they can be a visual next to male characters. One of the reasons audiences connect to Cliff so much is because he is cool.
“A male movie star’s glamorous characteristics are thus not those of the erotic object of the gaze, but those of the more perfect, more complete, more powerful ideal ego conceived in the original moment of recognition in front of the mirror” (Mulvey 5).
Pitt is an example of how a male movie star is often presented as perfect. He’s cool under pressure and always knows how to save the day. Even his job—stunt man—makes him seem effortlessly cool and, more importantly, tough. He then represents the gender that appears more important in a film’s narrative. Although Cliff is technically seen as a supporting character like Tate, he is given more to do in the film because he is a man. We’re told we need him in the narrative as he is the only gender who can face evil, in this case the Manson Family.
Cliff decides to give a ride to a hitchhiking hippie teen named “Pussy,” who happens to be a part of the Manson Family cult. She has him drive her back to Spahn Ranch, where the Manson Family lives. From the moment Cliff steps onto the set where he used to film Rick’s now-canceled cowboy show “Bounty Law,” he senses something isn’t right. Cliff asks if George Spahn, owner of the ranch, still lives there. He does, but he’s napping. Eventually, Cliff argues his way into the house where George is living with Family member, Squeaky, so he can make sure George is OK. George doesn’t remember him, and Cliff becomes increasingly worried that the hippie group is taking advantage of his old friend.
This scene creates much of Cliff’s hero narrative. First, it positions him as a caring friend, as he worries that his old colleague may be in danger or being used by people who may not have permission to be on his property in the first place. It also presents Cliff as that classic male protagonist who won’t take no for an answer. He demands to see George. When he decides he needs to leave the ranch he doesn’t act scared, even though the audience knows by the lingering camera shots over the blank stares of the Family members that he is not among friends.
Finally, as Cliff goes to leave, he is met with a flat tire on his car, resulting from a trick (or threat) from Family member “Clem” who sits on the sidelines laughing at Cliff. Cliff demands Clem fix the tire, and to show his macho persona he punches Clem three times, to the horror of the onlookers from the Family. Two things happen in this scene. One, Cliff is shown in a dangerous situation, while simultaneously getting out of it by thinking on his feet and not letting the Manson Family intimidate him. Secondly, he uses violence to show his dominance. The Family may present a hostility towards him for coming to the ranch, but he shows them that he is not someone they will be able to defeat. Cliff is in the company of eventual murderers, and he manages to escape without a scratch.
Tarantino has stated that there were a lot of actors lined up who wanted to play the Cliff character in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. It’s not hard to see why. He’s the perfect fictional masculine figure, to Tate’s delicate femininity. Mulvey explains, “In a world ordered by imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female” (4). Cliff is the active male tough guy, while Tate is quite literally the damsel in distress. And, therefore, makes him a more exciting character to spend time with. She cannot be the character we connect with because she’s there to bring the audience comfort.
Meanwhile, Cliff is given power and the ability to argue and win against evil, making him a more prominent character. Ultimately, this shows us how Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is reinforcing gender norms. Both Rick and Cliff have clear and defined agency, making them the ideal heroes of our story. Gender is often thought of as a result of a patriarchal society. Although this is true, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood seems to be saying that reinforced gender norms are also a result of a lack of female narratives in film. “Gender identity is no less a construction of patriarchal culture than the idea that men are somehow superior to women; both are born at the same time with the same stroke of the pen” (Rivkin and Ryan 896). Gender identity, then, is not necessarily a difference in men and women, but rather a way in which the narrative is written.
Men are written as strong characters who save the day, while women are written as the characters that need saving. And there rarely seems to be a reverse of this identity for either gender, even in modern day Hollywood. In terms of Tate’s character in “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood,” we can see that gender norms are bestowed on her as she is left out of most of the important action of the film, as well as being left out of any important dialogue that propels the storyline forward.
More Than a Brother, a Little Less Than a Wife
Rick and Cliff’s macho male identities play out in the final moments of the film as they, by sheer luck, kill the members of the Manson Family who have come to kill Tate and her friends. After Rick yells at the Family members, they back their car down Cielo Drive and park, discussing what had just happened. They realize who Rick is – a once famous TV cowboy – and decide it’s him who they should kill because his TV western, like many shows in the 50s, showed violence and guns, teaching them, the audience, how to kill. Suddenly, the narrative moves away from Tate’s infamous death, and creates a scenario in which Rick and Cliff take control over both her fate, and the fate of the Manson Family. The Family bursts into Rick’s living room and square off against a tripping Cliff (he’s smoked an acid-laced cigarette) and a drunk Rick. There’s a lot happening in the scene, with a lot of the fake blood and gore Tarantino is known for. However, we don’t see Tate in any of this action. Even though the Family members were a last-minute decision away from entering her home and killing her.
It goes without saying that this, of course, is not what really transpired in real-life the night Tate and her house guests were killed. There were no Rick and Cliff to save the day. And herein lies the problem with this new narrative. Male characters are usually the ones moving a narrative forward, deciding how the story will end. Men control the film and represent power on screen. As a result, female characters are supporters, often dropping to the back of the action. Tate is nowhere to be found while Rick and Cliff kill the Manson Family.
Why? Why isn’t she seen as powerful enough to kill them? If we are playing with a fictional ending, why couldn’t she have saved herself from them? By giving Rick and Cliff the action of killing the Manson Family and, by extension, protecting Tate, shows that men are more persuasive than women. When the Family decides to turn on Rick because of the power he and his TV show represent, they are saying that Tate is not important enough to kill. Rick is cool to them. Rick is powerful. And for that, he is worthier of their wrath.
Rick and Cliff even use overly macho, powerful ways of killing the Family members, asserting the idea even further that men are tough and men can save the day. They bring out flame throwers and smash a woman’s face into a telephone. None of it seeming real or plausible in real-life, yet giving the audience even more of a reason to establish the men as the heroes of the story and to root for them. Tate then becomes simply a device in their game.
“Woman then stands in patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his phantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning” (Mulvey 6).
Rick and Cliff live out the fantasy of stopping the Manson Family from doing what they did that night in 1969.
As a result, Tate bears meaning in the narrative, but she does not make her own meaning. She has no action in this final scene. She has no agency in helping decide her own fate. She did not have this choice in real life, so it’s disappointing to see that a film that begins with Once Upon a Time, does not allow her to live out a fantasy of her own. “Perpetrators? They were just hippie assholes,” Cliff tells the police after the fact. Is this to say that the Manson Family would not have been as big of a threat to a man? Is this a way of saying that Tate was always destined to be silenced in her own narrative, even one that turned out to be a fantasy?
And yet, in the final moments of the film as Cliff is loaded into an ambulance and taken to the hospital because of injuries he sustained in the fight, Rick is invited into Tate’s house where he is greeted in the driveway by the actress. She introduces him to her friends as a “wonderful actor.” Suddenly, Rick has all of the validation he ever needed to know he is still relevant in Hollywood. Gender is fabricated, meaning it’s culture and society that have taught us to believe in things associated with being a man or being a woman. Therefore, a woman’s role in film is often associated with being a device in which the male characters plays off of. By Tate inviting Rick into her house, she is inviting him into the Hollywood elite that she and Polanski have some ownership of. The narrative is showing that the rewriting of history isn’t to save her at all, but rather to help Rick, and Cliff by extension of their friendship, face their aging out of the business.
Therefore, Tate is a device to elevate the male narrative. Nothing more. Gender in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood reinforces the imitated stereotypes of gender. Gender is determined in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood by the simplified idea that Hollywood male-led narratives are more important than female-led narratives, because we have been conditioned to find male narratives more believable and relevant. Judith Butler explains that we are surrounded by gender stereotypes that have formed over time and been passed down from parents and grandparents. We believe them because they are the only thing we’ve ever been told.
“The naturalistic effects of heterosexualized genders are produced through imitative strategies; what they imitate is a phantasmatic ideal of heterosexual identity, one that is produced by the imitation as its effect. In this sense, the ‘reality’ of heterosexual identities is performativity constituted through an imitation that sets itself up as the origin and the ground of all imitations” (Butler 956).
Here, we can see how Tate serves as merely a device in the film as she becomes an imitated gender stereotype. She is forced to play into a traditionally female role as a woman who is meek and mild and not at all capable of torching someone with a flame thrower like her male neighbor.
By placing Tate just next door to all the action, Tarantino only adds to a reinforced gender stereotype in film by glorifying the pieces of the golden age of Hollywood that worked directly against the female narrative. In doing so, he creates a work of art that celebrates white, male stardom, and dismisses the strides that women and film have made over the decades since his fictional characters ruled Hollywood. And, gender is Hollywood’s way of separating heroes from supporting actresses.
Brody, Richard. “Review: Quentin Tarantino’s Obscenely Regressive Vision of the Sixties in ‘Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood.’” Review of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, directed by Quentin Tarantino. The New Yorker, July 27, 2019.
Butler, Judith. “Imitation and Gender Insubordination.” Literary Theory: An Anthology, edited by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan, Wiley Blackwell, 2017, p. 955-962.
Lopez Arreguin, Malinalli. “The Importance of Female-Driven Narratives.” The Journal of South African and American Studies, VOL. 20, NO. 4, 2019, p. 391-394.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen, VOL. 16, NO. 3, Autumn 1975, p. 6-18.
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. Directed by Quentin Tarantino, performances by Margot Robbie, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Brad Pitt, Sony, 2019.
Rivkin, Julie and Ryan, Michael, Editors. Literary Theory: An Anthology. Wiley Blackwell, 2017.
What do you think? Leave a comment.