#CriterionMonth The sexist portrayal of Margot Tenenbaum in Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums

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Wes Anderson’s quirky, kitsch and, most importantly, recognisable style has been a staple in cinema in the last couple of decades. His distinctive eye for detail and deadpan characterisation has created a legion of fans, myself included. The Royal Tenenbaums has all the defining characteristics of an Andersonian classic: a dysfunctional family, a retro inspired aesthetic, a Nico infused soundtrack and a potentially sexist portrayal of a woman. Gwyneth Paltrow portrays Margot Tenenbaum, once a precocious child and play writing prodigy, Margot in the main narrative of the film is detached from her family in a loveless marriage to Raleigh St. Clair (played by Anderson favourite Bill Murray). With the news that her adopted father Royal (Gene Hackman) is supposedly dying from cancer, along with her adopted siblings, she returns back to the home of their childhood. She is defined as an enigma and at the beginning of the film little is known about her time away from the family. This is her character’s function in driving the plot forward: the inevitable revelation of her past.

In general, throughout the film, the importance of the feminine appearance is reiterated. Royal repeatedly tells his orphaned grandsons how beautiful their recently deceased mother was. This perhaps shows some redeemability in the character of Royal however, it also indicates a value to appearance. Royal’s obsession with starting a relationship again with his ex-wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston) also derives from his sexual attraction to her. Finally, Margot’s appearance is noted on several times throughout the film, indeed, Paltrow’s costume has almost been fetishsised since. This sets up a foundational misogynistic understanding of what it means to be a woman. In this Andersonian world, it means to be attractive.

In terms of plot, Margot is also established as having a quasi-incestuous romantic relationship with her adopted brother Richie (Luke Wilson). This relationship demonstrates some problems in Anderson’s portrayal of women. Margot is revealed to have taken part in a number of sexual relations with both men and women in her time abstaining from the family. This is her hermartia moment. Richie, in finding out that she does indeed have a sexual history, attempts suicide. The scene is movingly handled whilst filmed in typically Andersonian style. The emotional resonance is enhanced by the use of Elliott Smith’s Needle in the Hay playing in the background and acts as the catalyst to the film’s closing act.  However, the cause and reaction nature of this juxtaposition (Margot’s sex life/Richie’s suicide attempt) attaches a negative connotation to female sexuality.

Margot’s attempts to keep her life private are comparable (in this fictional world) to the moral reprehensibility of her adopted father. Royal cheats, lies and manipulates whilst Margot simply has sex.  The scene following Richie’s return home from the hospital is a frank conversation between himself and Margot. In this conversation Margot asks if he tried to commit suicide because of her and he resolutely responds yes. Indeed, Anderson establishes an enduring emotional manipulation as Richie states that he cannot promise he won’t do it again. The resolution here was Margot agreeing to start a romantic relationship with Richie. In the context of the film, this is combined in the happy but somewhat bittersweet ending. Should we be so forgiving of this kind of narrative?

It is disappointing characterisation, particularly as Margot has arguably taken on an iconic value in the same vein as Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction.  Her recognisable costume and aspirational romance are easily emulated in the real world. The problem being that it furthers internal misogyny. Margot and Richie are portrayed are star crossed lovers with Margot encompassing an effortless cool as opposed to emotionally manipulated and confined by their gender roles. The Royal Tenenbaums is one of my favourite films and Wes Anderson one of my favourite directors. However, this does not mean we should not interrogate and develop cinema away from the established misogynistic canon. We can enjoy films from the Criterion Collection but no film is infallible or above critique. This is how we develop Western cinema in a post-Weinstein and pre-egalitarian society.

You can view The Royal Tenenbaums on Criterion here.

4 replies »

  1. This is annoying. You gloss over all the genuine complexities of the situation between them, reducing it to “muh sexism”.
    Apparently you’ve never really been in *love*… or felt a deep possessiveness. And you don’t understand the emotions men feel. And you’ve probably never earnestly considered suicide. It wasn’t manipulative. It was bleak desperation, confusion, existing in a dire situation with no answer. Living in limbo, forever. Being stranded in a longing, an idealism, and waking up to find it never existed.
    This review is shallow. And dumb.

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  2. I always thought that Richie’s suicide attempt was more due to him reeling from the betrayal of Margot and Eli’s relationship as not only is he deeply in love with her but it is something Eli is very aware of, in addition Margot, Eli and Richie were the closest relationships he had growing up as he wasn’t very close to Chas, Etheline or Royal (post-divorce). That is why he says to Margot that he attempted suicide because of her, or I felt that is why at elast.

    While I feel your piece is absolutely fair in highlighting the hypocrisy of Royal’s philandering in comparison to Margot’s and indeed it is impossible to eliminate Margot’s sexual freedom and its exposure as a trigger for Richie’s attempt I feel it’s a little unfair to point to it as the sole cause.

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  3. Oh dear. 😬 You critique the obviously sexist values of a character who is SUPPOSED to be an asshole, and you completely ignore the fact that Margot is objectified through the male gaze by the film itself – not to mention her French female partner and the nude poster on the wall – while all male characters are not. Margot’s sex life is one thing that is absolutely NOT vilified, by the film. She – like the men in her life – is a complex character, and she isn’t even harshly punished for her philandering – her brother’s suicide attempt is not blamed on her, although of course it’s obvious that her choices were a major contributing factor. He makes a heartbreaking decision because he’s broken, and we all feel that when we watch the film. It’s not as though she is painted as a heartless femme fatale. The problem with the portrayal of Margot isn’t the fact that her dad is a sexist SOB, or that she cheated on her husband. It’s the fact that young female bodies are unilaterally presented in objectifying ways (which includes her own) and, as a secondary matter, the fact that she’s married to a man who looks older than her father with no plausible explanation given as to why. These are insidious trends that are both a symptom of – and a contributing factor to – a culture of objectification. They are jarring in a film that otherwise depicts women with complexity and agency. Of course, women can still be very much objectified WHILE retaining complexity and agency – that’s the Third-Wave, in a nutshell. I think what’s happened here is that you’ve watched the film, and on some level have picked up on the fact that there’s some sexism at play that bothers you… but you’ve not got the First or Second-Wave credentials to identify it accurately or communicate it onto others. Recommended reading: The Female Eunuch.

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  4. I always felt that Margot’s mysteriousness and promiscuity was due to a few factors, she is a playwright and many were known to have risky lives in the pursuit of truth and understanding of the human condition, she obviously had a very complex inner world and I think the film demonstrates she lived life, she explored, but she kept it from her family so she was free to do as she liked without judgment or concern. It was equally to live and rebel as it was to protect them from the truth. Like with the smoking, she knew it wouldn’t be approved of so she kept it to herself. Being kept as an outsider due to her adoption crafted her mysterious and distant persona. She is also very obviously depressed and experiences deep ennui.

    But, I also think some of this was due to being in love with her brother. There is no way seeing that hug at the airport could you deny she felt deep love for Richie. And probably, she knew it was inappropriate love early on, so because she could never be with him, she went out and tried out different lovers and experiences to fill that hole. And it never filled, so she cheated on her nice but otherwise boring husband and continued living inside her mysterious inner world until her and Richie had to face their feelings and deal with them.

    I really like Margot’s character, I think she subverted alot of female tropes, she chose to leave her finger off rather than try to save it which indicates while she is beautiful, she doesn’t care that much about her body or appearance. She is the epitome of not giving a shit and doing what you feel like, but she also clearly loves and feels very deeply. Watching her begin to open up to her family and feel apart of it was very satisfying. She tried to quit smoking, she opened up to her brother, alot, its subtle but you can tell she is far happier by the end of the film.

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