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Six female characters from films directed by Quentin Tarantino Graphic: James Bareham/Polygon

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A women’s roundtable on the women of Quentin Tarantino movies

The Polygon staff digs into Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood and the director’s entire filmography

Quentin Tarantino’s place in popular culture has never been as succinctly boiled down as in the McSweeney’s article entitled “An Oral History of Quentin Tarantino as Told to Me By Men I’ve Dated” exists. The director’s brash work is notorious for appealing primarily to men, and in the way a movie like Goodfellas spurs extreme defensiveness, the idea that women could love his work, or rather that they could love his work without still having some reservations about it, has yet to become accepted fact.

In fairness, the appeal of Tarantino’s work to women, as well as his treatment of female characters, isn’t an easy one to dissect. In the wake of the release of Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood, Polygon’s own Karen Han, Emily Heller, Simone de Rochefort, and Jenna Stoeber put their heads together to discuss Tarantino’s oeuvre, starting with his treatment of Sharon Tate, and branching out to discuss not only the director’s love of shocking his audience, but of feminism in modern film as a whole.

[Ed. note: Spoilers for all of Tarantino’s work follow.]

Karen Han, Entertainment Reporter: The portrayal of Sharon Tate has been the flashpoint of mixed reactions to Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. What did you make of her role in the film?

Jenna Stoeber, Video Producer: She’s a well-developed character, but that development is weirdly positioned over the course of the two-and-a-half-hour runtime. The scene in the movie theater tells us a lot about her, but it’s also framed so that we see her dirty feet. If it weren’t Tarantino, I maybe wouldn’t think that much about it, but it is, adding this layer of extra meaning. We’re getting character development, but she’s also being objectified.

Emily Heller, Staff Writer: I agree that Tarantino does a good job of humanizing Tate, but she embodies a lost innocence in our collective consciousness, and in the movie, she’s used as a symbol of hope. It undercuts the portrayal of her as a well-rounded, grown-ass woman.

Karen: I still think Tarantino manages to humanize Sharon, reclaiming her from being just “the woman who got murdered,” which is how we tend to think of her. I don’t think the hubbub over her not having enough lines was warranted; his portrayal of her came off much more kind and sensitive than I expected.

Sharon Tate dances to a record in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate in Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood.
Sony Pictures

Jenna: Margot Robbie does a great job, but this gets at my frustration with the film: It relies on the audience having some familiarity with the ’60s, on our knowing Sharon Tate’s story, and who Charles Manson and the Manson Family are. That plays against Tarantino in some miserable ways, especially with regards to Roman Polanski’s inclusion and the overwhelming praise the characters give him without any nod to what we know about Polanski now. We’re watching this movie with a sort of double vision where we’re supposed to know Sharon Tate’s story, but forget what we know about Polanski.

I think there was a way to deal with Polanski, similar to how the cigarette ad in the credits cites “throat burn,” acknowledging what we know about cigarettes from a modern standpoint while still allowing the characters to smoke them. There’s nothing regarding Polanski that indicates that Tarantino knows what’s up, despite the fact that, in the past, he has in the past defended Polanski’s behavior and had to apologize for doing so.

Emily: Then there’s the character of Pussycat, the hippie Cliff picks up and drives to Spahn Ranch. Even though Cliff doesn’t have sex with her, the film still sexualizes an underage girl, specifically someone who we know has been brainwashed by a cult leader and is probably having coerced sex with him. It’s as if Tarantino wants us to remember a very specific slice of history and forget every other context we have.

Karen: I think that’s true, insomuch as he’s trying to put as much of a rosy sheen as possible on these events because it’s an era he’s attached to. With regards to Pussycat, I’m not sure how much her arc is meant to reflect on Cliff. Are we supposed to be proud of him for not having sex with her? And what about the implication that he killed his wife for being a nag?

Emily: And the scene with his wife is played for comedy, like in Pulp Fiction when they kill the kid.

While hanging onto Catherine’s (Lena Dunham) hands, Pussycat (Qualley) leans towards Cliff (Pitt).
Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) flirts with Cliff (Brad Pitt).
Sony Pictures

Jenna: I struggled with that whole daydream/flashback. If it’s a daydream, we can assume Cliff is talking himself up, i.e. “Yeah, I totally kicked Bruce Lee’s ass!” But if it’s a flashback, then this nobody-stuntman beat up Bruce Lee, and also killed his wife on a boat.

Karen: Like a Natalie Wood scenario.

Jenna: I hadn’t thought of that. Oh my god.

Karen: I’m also curious with regards to the fight scene if, when Bruce Lee starts vocalizing, people in your theater laughed, and if you think that scene is meant to be comedic? I had a conversation with some other folks in which it was posited that a lot of Western media has conditioned us to laugh at martial arts just because it’s foreign, even if the vocalizations are really a part of the art. On the same token, did people laugh at the scene with Cliff’s wife? When I saw The Hateful Eight, the audience laughed every time Kurt Russell hit Jennifer Jason Leigh. It’s not funny, and I don’t think it’s meant to be. I think it reflects more on the audience than on him as a filmmaker.

Jenna: Bruce Lee is portrayed as such an overwrought blowhard that I really think the scene was meant to be played for laughs. That bums me out because I love Bruce Lee, and I love his work.

Karen: We just had a piece go up on the site about Bruce Lee and how he really was an arrogant guy, so how much of it is accuracy, or blowing up aspects that are historically there?

Jenna: For me, the distinction is in the fact that Sharon Tate is played very earnestly, whereas most of the other characters are overwrought caricatures. Her scenes have a very different energy from those between Cliff and Bruce Lee.

Emily: Especially in comparison to the flashback where Bruce Lee is training Sharon — that was really sweet, and has more depth than this caricature-esque portrayal.

Jenna: That’s why I thought the Cliff-Bruce scene was a daydream, but other people I’ve talked to are certain it was a flashback. The fact that it reads both ways is fascinating, but who the butt of the joke is changes in a way that’s very important.

Karen: To open this up to address all of Tarantino’s work, what do you make of the treatment of women in his films?

Simone de Rochefort, Senior Video Producer: I think that he has highs and lows. He’s created many nuanced female characters who kick ass, but sometimes he undermines them within the same film. In Death Proof, there are a bunch of awesome women who work in film and are very competent, but then in one scene they leave their hot friend with a scary guy as collateral for the car they want to drive. That’s not something any women I know in life would do, but in the world of a Tarantino movie, it’s just something that passes without comment.

Zoë Bell hangs onto the hood of a speeding car.
Zoë Bell in Death Proof.
Dimension Films

Jenna: Tarantino is so often working intertextually and making movies that reference specific genres that are usually not great for women. It feels like Tarantino is just mimicking the tropes without appreciating the effect they have, and I don’t think he cares. That’s what bothers me. You homage genre films — and I don’t think we should give up on those genres — but you have to think about those tropes and how you’re using them. Why does Kill Bill open with the scene telling us the comatose Beatrix had been raped for years? This isn’t a rape/revenge film; it’s a revenge film. Yes, the scene is meant to signify that Beatrix is a badass who can shake off that kind of trauma, but we already know she’s a badass. Two whole movies prove that to us. What does the rape add for anyone?

Emily: There’s an argument that Tarantino is equal opportunity with his violence. His movies are about terrible things happening to all kinds of people, generally. But there’s a different implication in seeing those things happen to women and people of color that he seems to be willfully ignoring. It’s not equivalent, especially given the way violence is portrayed in the genres he’s referencing. That said, I do think such an assessment is complicated by the fact that he has written and continues to write very meaty roles for women.

Karen: I think it’s worth bringing up The Hateful Eight again, in that the violence against Daisy was, as you mentioned, described as equal opportunity, which in that case I think holds up. The intent didn’t seem, to me, to create a scene that was funny for being violence against a woman, just as most of the violence the men inflict on each other in that movie isn’t necessarily for laughs, either.

John Ruth (Russell) gestures at Daisy Domergue (Leigh), who is handcuffed to him and sports a black eye.
Kurt Russell and Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hateful Eight.
The Weinstein Company

Simone: Sometimes I feel like he’s daring us to laugh at things he knows we shouldn’t laugh at, and that he gets off on that.

Emily: I would agree that Tarantino has a tendency to ask us to confront things we don’t like about ourselves, and things we don’t like about our society. I think the question is: Does his intention matter if we’re still laughing at terrible things happening to people? Folks were laughing during Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood when Cliff was bashing in the Manson girl’s head.

I was really uncomfortable in that scene, even though I’m not usually uncomfortable with the violence in Tarantino movies. I think it’s supposed to read as catharsis in the same way that killing Hitler in Inglourious Basterds did. Hitler is a caricature of evil in our consciousness, as is Charles Manson to a lesser degree, but it’s not Manson who’s being brutalized.

I of course have no sympathy for the people that killed a pregnant woman in cold blood, but I do feel uncomfortable with the idea that it would be cathartic for us to watch Cliff and Rick savagely murder a group of drugged-up, brainwashed teenagers.

Jenna: This is getting back to what I said about double vision. We’re supposed to know, as modern audiences, that this group of people murdered Sharon Tate. But they don’t in this movie. As characters, they haven’t actually done anything outlandishly evil, so the intensity of the violence directed toward them doesn’t work as catharsis. Plus, they’re not referred to as the Manson Family, they’re just called hippies, so there’s this revisionist history. In Inglourious Basterds, it’s Nazis, and everyone knows we should slaughter Nazis. But here we just see three people we don’t know getting horribly murdered.

Shoshanna (Laurent) surveys an assembly of Nazis in her movie theater.
Mélanie Laurent in Inglourious Basterds.
The Weinstein Company

Simone: Building off what Emily said about watching someone get murdered being cathartic: it makes sense with Hitler in Inglourious Basterds, because the impact of what Hitler did affects everyone, to varying degrees. But do we deserve the catharsis of watching the Manson family get killed when we weren’t the victims of their crimes?

Jenna: From a cultural perspective, the murder of Sharon Tate was the end of this era. It did have a cultural impact, but it’s nowhere near the cultural impact of Hitler. But it’s hard not to draw parallels between this historical revision and his other movies, especially given how much Tarantino idealizes this period. It feels like this moment has a lot of personal meaning for him, so being able to write a new version of history where hippies didn’t murder Sharon Tate and all these cool guys still play cowboys is a big deal. Tarantino is revising history so the ’60s never ended.

Karen: Speaking of what Tarantino wants, there’s an argument that any feminism in his movies is unintentional or not attributable to him. Would you agree with that?

Simone: I think it does him a disservice as a creator to say it’s an accident that he has empowering moments in his movies. It’s certainly not his focus, but it’s not an accident. However, I also don’t give a shit about whether we call his movies feminist or not.

Death Proof is a movie where a bunch of women are having a good time, living their lives, and they’re all horribly murdered. And then in the second half, you have another bunch of women having a good time, a guy tries to horribly murder them, and they horribly murder him back. Whether or not this is feminist is so subjective, and it’s incidental to what I get out of Death Proof. It’s a riotous good time, and that moment where the women turn on Stuntman Mike and hunt him down is very, very good. It doesn’t matter whether or not it’s feminist; it’s a triumphant moment, and I don’t need to justify my pleasure by assigning this label to it.

Emily: What about the fact that Death Proof came out after Kill Bill and has to do with dangerous car crashes, and that’s sort of what happened with Uma on set?

All: [nervous laughter]

Jenna: You’re blowing my mind, because what if Tarantino is basically Kurt Russell in that the movie, as atonement for putting Uma in danger? I don’t necessarily believe that but I’m really struggling with how right it feels.

In black and white, Beatrix (Thurman) sits behind the wheel of a car.
Uma Thurman in Kill Bill.

SImone: I mentioned in my write-up of Death Proof that I really enjoy the first half even though it ends with all the women dying, because there’s something very effective about the inevitability of those deaths — especially Pam’s. She makes the quintessential mistake of getting into a stranger’s car, and the way the car is designed with the plastic window between her and Stuntman Mike is so claustrophobic and terrifying. I appreciate how horrifying it makes being a passenger.

Jenna: His writing is so dedicated to making strong, interesting, thorough characters, and the actors he chooses for these parts are so good, and he pulls such good performances out of them; the intentionality is there. On the other hand, the way that he films women is regressive — the feet shots, and how much he loves to do ass shots. There are a lot of those in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, and though there are some of men, too, they’re wearing pants, not short-shorts and miniskirts.

Part of that is the reliance on genre. A lot of these genres provide a certain kind of feminism, a very Hollywood kind, i.e. “women can be violent, too.” It’s not interrogating the cultural value we place on violence as a positive expression of strength; it’s just saying “women can do it too,” which is the most basic level of socially accepted feminism. I love action movies but to suggest that it’s particularly feminist doesn’t feel quite right.

Simone: In Tarantino movies, both men and women do things that Tarantino thinks are cool. I think that can be empowering and pleasant for women to see. But I don’t think a movie exists that is “feminist,” because women have so many different needs from movies. There’s no “feminist Quentin Tarantino movie.” I don’t think any feminist movie exists. It’s a fantasy.

Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) and Max Cherry (Robert Forster) look lovingly at each other in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown.
Pam Grier and Robert Forster in Jackie Brown.
Image: Miramax Films

Emily: I agree that it’s doing a disservice to say the feminism in his movies is accidental, but I do think it’s incidental. His movies often deal with people being deprived of power and then taking power back, which, when performed by women, can be seen as feminist. Women have told Uma Thurman that her character helped them get out of bad situations. But women were involved in the origins of Kill Bill, specifically Uma, who shares credit with Quentin for creating the character of Beatrix Kiddo.

Karen: We should address the Kill Bill car crash. That was the big thing where a lot of people went, “Tarantino is canceled,” but the way that particular discussion played out, at least as far as I can recall, is that he did offer a sincere apology, didn’t make any excuses, and Uma Thurman accepted that apology and said she’d be open to working with him again. But that’s made trickier by stuff like his sentiments towards Polanski — again, despite walking back his comments about him, he’s still included him in a positive light in this film.

I almost prefer that the “feminism” in his films is incidental. So much of the stuff we’ve seen in recent blockbusters has been so pandering — for instance, the “men and women in black” line in Men in Black: International. When it’s so obvious, it feels miserable. Empowered women should just be a natural part of the world, rather than the exception or a spectacle, like in Avengers: Endgame.

Jenna: At the end of the day, the women characters Tarantino has made are great. I love all these characters; they have such complex lives and are capable, strong, and skilled. I don’t find that a lot in the Marvel movies. I find their female representation to be kind of watery. In the Marvel universe we have Black Widow: Her story arc is that she can’t have kids, she’s real sad about it, and sometimes she punches people.

But the women Tarantino writes are great, like Jackie Brown. What I love about the film — which you get very little of in movies — is Pam Grier, in her late 40s, gets a love interest, and her strength isn’t from slaughtering people. She’s always pushing back against all these people trying to control her, whether it’s Ordell or the cops. She’s an older black woman, the star of this movie, and she wins without having to kill people. It’s the only Tarantino movie with a brand of feminism that’s not just “women can slaughter, too.”