[This story contains spoilers for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.]
In the opening scene of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994), Pumpkin (Tim Roth) tells his lover Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer) about a bank robbery he read about. A man walked into a bank and handed a mobile phone to a teller. A voice on the phone informed the teller that if he didn’t hand over cash, the man who handed him the phone would lose his little girl. Money in hand, the man strolled out of the bank.
Honey Bunny leans across the table and asks what happened to the child. “There probably never was a little girl,” Pumpkin responds. “The point of the story isn’t the little girl. The point of the story is they robbed a bank with a telephone.”
This quick dialogue exchange exemplifies Tarantino’s approach to visual violence against women throughout his cinematic career. He is a filmmaker concerned less about the morality of his stories, and more about the initial emotional impact the story has on its audience. His vision isn’t centered on what individuals will do with the images they receive, but simply on eliciting a reaction. The landscape is different as Tarantino unveils Once Upon a Time in Hollywood than it was when Pulp Fiction debuted 25 years ago, and this kind of story-making can sit at odds with vocal online communities seeking politically correct, morally guided storytelling. But does that mean Tarantino’s films are sexist or anti-woman?
When a reporter at Cannes asked Tarantino why Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate had so few lines, the director responded, “I reject your hypothesis.” Which, without having seen the movie, came off as rather flippant to me. After seeing the film, it’s easy to see Tarantino’s frustration with the question. The movie is practically a love letter to the late actor, who was murdered 50 years ago. Robbie portrays Tate as gently flawed, and full of hope for the future. Baby on the way aside, Tate loved her career, Los Angeles, and was blazing a trail to make a real name for herself. Robbie creates a warm interior life for Tate using little dialogue.
A sense of deep dread grips all those who are aware of how her story ended. A group of young adults in their early 20s, too high to necessarily form their own opinions, were ordered to kill her. They barely took the time to question why. In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino draws a world where two white, cisgender, heterosexual males (played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt) were able to protect Tate through a series of chance. In avoiding the tragedy, Tarantino reaches a satisfying conclusion.
However, the conclusion was reached by murdering those young adults — two of them young women — in a comedic and explosively violent manner. The so-called Manson girls had been brainwashed by a madman. While they’re certainly responsible for their own actions, it seems short-sighted to mark them strictly as villains worthy of slaughter. Even more distressing is the fact that violence against women is generally played for laughs in a Tarantino picture. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood bares the same pattern for its final victims as Jackie Brown (1997) and The Hateful Eight (2015), a laugh at a dead woman’s expense. A can of dog food to the face, a brutal dog mauling and a blowtorch execution had my 6:00 p.m. Thursday audience in Burbank doubled over in hysterics.
In Jackie Brown, Tarantino uses the death of Melanie (Bridget Fonda), the blond surfer girl, as a punchline. Throughout the film, Melanie works the last nerve of everyone she comes in contact with. Being stoned in front of the television is her greatest aspiration. Playing opposite Louis Gara (Robert De Niro), the tagalong ex-robber recently released from prison, Melanie reaches her limit of public mingling and begins to tease him about not being able to locate his car in the mall parking lot. Merely frustrated, the formerly mild-mannered Gara shoots Melanie twice and leaves her body in the parking lot. The buildup of that scene relies on Melanie to be woefully cruel to Louis, to the point that viewers might say, “She’s asking for it.” When the shots ring out, there is a relief because the agitating factor has been eliminated. A woman’s life has ended.
In what could arguably be considered Tarantino’s most violent film, The Hateful Eight, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) suffers consistently at the hands of her captor, John Ruth (Kurt Russell). A word out of turn or a wrong song sung turn into the barrel of a gun across her face and a guitar beaten across the wall. The quick changes in John’s temperament provide comedic relief to tense situations, making the violence against a woman the literal punchline. A pretense of equality exists in the text. “I see you don’t have any mixed emotions about bringing a woman to the rope,” Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) says to John as they ride with Daisy to Red Rocks, where she’ll be hanged. “You mean her,” John retorts. “No, I do not.”
But when men are in pain, or their lives are in danger, it isn’t played for laughs. When Major Warren receives a bullet to the groin, his pain elicits groans. The camera sympathizes with his plight. When men are in pain, the camera lingers as they howl and contort in agony. When Melanie is shot, we never see her face again. When four of Domergue’s men shoot three unsuspecting women, two are given small moments to beg for their lives, but they are mostly silent before quickly being shot.
Kill Bill, starring Uma Thurman and featuring mostly women, gives more of an equal playing field to the amount of pain the sexes are able to inflict and endure. But it’s all at the behest of or in pursuit of a man, Bill (David Carradine).
Girl power is often hinted at but rarely proven in a Tarantino film. Moments in Jackie Brown and Kill Bill reach empowerment, but as a whole, they lack the substance to achieve the equality promised in the premise of many of Tarantino’s films.
While as in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, there can often be an understanding that the women in Tarantino films have earned the violence done to them, it can be unsettling to consider that art consumed in mass could help normalize violence many real women are faced with daily. One in four women in the U.S. will suffer a violent act at the hands of an intimate partner. Twenty thousand phone calls are placed to domestic violence hotlines nationwide daily. A series of scenes where women are violently injured can be triggering or induce painful memories of loved ones who have survived similar ordeals. So it makes sense that some people avoid Tarantino films.
Tarantino has crafted strong female characters and employed great actors to bring them to life, but he may have a blind spot when it comes to how his characters are treated onscreen.