The Commodification of Sharon Tate

Today, notable fashion and beauty name Vogue shared an image which at first seemed fairly typical of their content. However, the caption below it revealed an…interesting take on keeping beauty articles topical. Note: the ‘like’ in the screenshot is not my own and was a screenshot from the Twitter account of Andi Ziesler who shared the shot before the post was deleted and also compiled a list of fashion photography which invoked images of dead women. The list makes for a pretty interesting thread in how often themes of death feature in fashion photography.

The caption reads:
With this summer marking the 50th anniversary of the Manson family murders and the tragic death of Sharon Tate, the catalyst for the ’60s revival is a secret to no one. Tap the link in our bio to see how five It girls have modernized throwback looks.

Baffling, in a number of ways, it is difficult to imagine how anyone could link the anniversary of one of the most infamous and brutal murders to a fashion and beauty article without stopping to consider how distasteful that link is. However, there is no doubt that true crime media has reached saturation point, turning real-life cases into mysteries to be poured over and solved without any details spared. The Manson Family murders have remained a constant source of morbid fascination, largely because they have come to represent a cultural turning point in America – the end of the ‘Summer of Love’. Despite there being several murders that make up that point in time, it is Tate’s demise that is the most focused upon. Her being pregnant at the time of the murders, her relative fame and striking beauty arguably added to a mythology around her – one that means she has become a symbol of loss of innocence, rather than a victim with her own voice.

“I reject your hypothesis,” were the words that sparked a controversy around Quentin Tarantino regarding his new film Once Upon a Time In Hollywood. Challenged on Margot Robbie (playing Sharon Tate in the film) having less dialogue than any other character certainly struck a nerve. Tarantino has a habit of shutting down questions he has no intention of answering so that was no surprise. However, for me, it was Robbie’s more measured answer which raised an eyebrow. She said “I think the moments on screen show those wonderful sides of [Sharon Tate] could be adequately done without speaking”. By enhancing her lack of speech, it furthers the idea of her as symbol, rather than a woman. She becomes that commodity – an easy sell of something innocent being destroyed by something warped and by virtue of her tragic demise, stays frozen in time. Tate leaves behind a relatively small amount of interview and film material as well as existing at a time where Hollywood stars still had secrets. While there were some rumours and even statements from Tate herself about how unhappy her relationship could be, it has almost been rewritten, as if to emphasise the tragedy further, as if such a thing were necessary.

Tarantino himself has stressed that descriptions of Tate from those who knew her were “almost too good to be true” and of course, no one wants to see anything negative said about a victim of such an awful crime. Somewhat more difficult to swallow is his statement that she was “too sweet for this world”. It’s a reductive way to speak about anyone, but certainly about someone only 26 years old. However, he has suggested that he has added more footage to “just see her living, see her being”, although how much of a voice or depth she has been given remains to be seen. It seems difficult to feature her effectively as the notoriety of the murders always acts as the most cruel punchline.

The Haunting of Sharon Tate is another representation of Sharon Tate that has caused controversy, particularly within Tate’s family. The film’s premise is that Tate had a premonition about her murder in the lead up to the events. Supposedly based on a dream that Tate once had (although this has been disputed), I have not been able to bring myself to watch the film as the premise feels too exploitative. It feels like Tate has been turned into a fictional character – turned into a final girl from a horror film, without the option of an ending in which things turn out differently. Both Margot Robbie and Hillary Duff (who plays her in The Haunting of Sharon Tate), stress the honour of playing her with Robbie going so far as to recreate her looks at film premieres and wear Tate’s jewellery during filming. While this is almost certainly intended as homage, it also enhances the feeling (for me at least) that she is being turned into a character, with her looks at the forefront of her personality. The support of Tate’s family of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and dismissal of The Haunting of Sharon Tate at least shows that they have something of a voice, although the productions undoubtedly go forward without their input or green-light.

Of course, Sharon Tate was not the only victim of the Manson Family murders but she is the only one who is routinely turned into a symbol in this way. In the relative lack of information about her she has become the perfect victim for people to pin their worst fears about the world on. She has become embedded in pop culture in a way that reduces her to those still, silent photographs. In the way that people speak about her 50 years removed from the crime, she remains an ‘other’, an ‘idea’ of a woman. The removal from her as a person allows for the lapse in judgement and taste that results in Vogue Beauty’s Instagram post.

As someone who has always had an interest in true crime, I have a somewhat complicated relationship with media surrounding killers in that I do find the psychology of it fascinating. I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with an interest in it because it is so far removed from everyday life and provided the killer is not celebrated throughout, it feels like a relatively healthy way to process such crimes. However, there are some true crime productions which seem to forget the victims (especially the families left behind) and make the killer the focus. That’s understandable in that it is certainly the killer’s warped psychology that makes them fascinating, whereas victims are usually sidelined as ‘normal’. Those productions which go to the effort of finding victim’s families or even survivors offer a great deal more in terms of how awful these killers really are and the lives taken by them.

Kate Moir was 17 when she was abducted by David and Catherine Birnie in Australia. Despite her young age and the immense trauma she experienced it was her presence of mind to collect clues like the presence of a Rocky VHS and a different name to the one she’d been told on a medicine bottle. It was her incredibly impressive eye for detail even during a traumatic experience which not only saved her own life, but brought the Birnie’s spree to an end. Moir expressed her unhappiness at the film Hounds of Love using a scenario of a killer couple which appeared to deliberately invoke the Birnie’s crimes. She stated that she wanted the killers ‘forgotten’, which is entirely understandable given what happened to her. It cannot be easy to have a traumatic event in your life taken and repackaged by someone else. Moir released her book Dead Girl Walking in 2017 about her kidnap and has been able to introduce her own voice into the narrative. The director of Hounds of Love, Ben Young, has emphasised that the couple at the centre of the film are a composite of a number of case studies, rather than the Birnies, although the similarities are undeniable.

The resurgence of Ted Bundy-related media spurred by the Netflix Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes and Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile created intrigue and later, an outcry when some viewers started to focus on Bundy as an incredibly inappropriate sex symbol. However, for me, the most interesting thing about Bundy’s crimes is the way that the press have continued to interact with the case and how his trial became a circus. The Bundy spectacle is in full effect in Tapes, with him being indulged by speaking in the third person and profiling himself. Similarly, the casting of Zac Efron in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile feels designed to be confrontational and play on the idea of Bundy as an attractive serial killer who succeeded in his crimes for so long because he didn’t fit the imagined look of a serial killer. Both films are from director Joe Berlinger, who has, to date, directed three films on the West Memphis Three case. In the Paradise Lost trilogy, Berlinger explores those condemned because their outsider interests and appearances make them the most likely suspects for ritual child murder, whereas the Bundy films follow someone who would not be expected.

While Extremely Wicked purports to focus on the long-term partner of Bundy (who reported him to the police on several occasions and was ignored), there is a woman with an important voice who has been repeatedly sidelined, perhaps because her method of dealing with it is so different to other victims. During Bundy’s second prison escape he launched a brutal attack on a sorority house. One of the survivors was Kathy Kleiner Rubin, whose Rolling Stone interview is framed as such:

Ted Bundy may have lived and breathed, but Kathy Kleiner lived too — despite his best efforts — and she’d like to talk about it.

Just a note that the Rolling Stone interview contains some disturbing details of Bundy’s attacks on that night so if you might find that a challenging read, perhaps give it a miss. It is difficult not to be impressed by Kathy Kleiner though – her early life is marred by medical problems which seek to define the rest of her life, but she overcomes this and manages to get into college. During her time at college, she is attacked by Bundy and left with horrific injuries. Kleiner’s time healing was characterised by a “peculiar loneliness” where her sorority sisters did not return her calls and the media wouldn’t talk to her. Bundy became the centre of attention and while Kleiner was so linked to him, she didn’t feature. The article even details Ann Rule (author of Bundy book The Stranger Beside Me) offering Kleiner an autographed mouse mat as part of the book release, without ever interviewing Kleiner, which shows that the focus on the killer is often at the expense of the victim. Kleiner, within the Rolling Stone piece highlights the importance of media in learning about people like Bundy. She has also pursued knowledge about other killers, believing it important to understand them. In contrast to Moir, who wanted her killers forgotten, Kleiner sees an opportunity for education. Kleiner also peppers her experience with moments of humour, joking that a Kardashian may play her in the film or eagerly finding her name in true crime books.

Moir and Kleiner show two very distinct ways of dealing with their trauma, the attention (or neglect) of being a victim and the legacy of their attacker’s crimes. While the method of dealing with such an unimaginable trauma has to be a very individual thing, there are clearly ways in which the media and popular culture is failing victims. Either through deifying and ‘othering’ in the case of Sharon Tate, exploiting Kate Moir’s in-depth memories to basically recreate crime scenes or excluding Kathy Kleiner Rubin from her own narrative these women have become sidelined by their own tragedies. Obviously Tate’s representation lacks any of her input, but as she is increasing used as a symbolic character in productions, her family loses the ability to put their own vision and memories of her forward. If the last few years has been characterised by a boom in the true crime genre, I hope that the next move is a further focus on the victims and how they move forward and can assist in the understanding of killers and preventing more loss of life.

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