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A Star Is Born has a problem with consent

The film positions a woman’s stardom as something that happens to a man.

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga star in A Star Is Born.
Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in A Star Is Born.
Warner Bros.
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

In each of the four versions of A Star Is Born that Hollywood has produced since 1932, the story has never been about the woman at its center — not really.

Sure, she’s got dramatic moments and big songs, and the narrative is superficially about her rise to stardom. But the story of A Star Is Born has always been about a man — about the psychology, troubled past, addiction, and ultimate downfall of the man she loves, the man who helps her to succeed but who ultimately is unable to handle her success.

Each version of A Star Is Born has floated the idea that a woman’s success is inherently tied to a man’s tragedy. Despite the number of lines given to its female star, no version of A Star Is Born has ever cared about her psychological makeup, pivoted around her decisions, or given her much agency over her own career. The films are sustained close-ups of his many tortured emotions; she’s essentially a sexy singing lamp.

I had high hopes that the newest retelling of this story, with Lady Gaga as the star and Bradley Cooper (who also directs) as the troubled addict who discovers her, would fundamentally alter the configuration of this narrative. But the new version of A Star Is Born not only perpetuates the problem, it adds a far more frustrating and troubling component. This version of A Star Is Born puts forth the idea that a woman’s “no” always secretly means “yes,” and that even if she does mean “no,” she can be worn down until she agrees, or else put on the spot and pressured into consent.

Like previous versions of this story, the newest A Star Is Born is critically adored — and it’s easy to see why. It’s a lush, well-directed film with great performances from both Cooper and Lady Gaga, and a killer soundtrack. But it’s important to acknowledge that superb filmmaking and a regressive, even harmful narrative, can co-exist in the same work.

To talk about how two hours of soft-glow musical montage disguise a host of problematic ideas, however, I have to spoil you.

So, spoilers for A Star Is Born coming your way.

This film’s narrative repeatedly overrides its star’s consent

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in A Star Is Born
Cooper and Lady Gaga in the 2018 A Star Is Born play characters with a troubling relationship.
Warner Bros.

Throughout the film, Lady Gaga’s character, Ally, says no, and her “no” is always converted into a “yes” by men. This happens again and again, from every man around her: her father and his friends; Jackson Maine (Cooper), the has-been performer who discovers her; and her manager, a manipulative British starmaker.

Here are some moments when Ally says “no” in the film:

  • In an early scene — our introduction to her home life — Ally gets home from a night out and her father asks her to come greet his friends. She says no, she has to sleep, but he lies to her and tells her it’s a friend’s birthday to manipulate her into hanging out. She winds up cleaning the kitchen, losing her window of time for sleep.
  • She initially says no to Jackson Maine when he asks for a drink. He asks again until she says yes.
  • Later, she says no to flying across the country to attend his next show, because she has to work. He initially accepts this, but later throws an artistic tantrum because she’s not there and sends his driver to park outside her house, ordering him to bring her to the show.
  • When she says no again, this time to the driver — and to her father, who insists she say yes — the driver tells her that he can’t leave without her. He remains parked outside of her house until she finally, exasperated by her job, spontaneously quits and gives in. She lampshades how creepy all of this by joking to the driver, “If I didn’t know Jack, I’d think you were a stalker.”
  • At the show, Jackson pressures her to come onstage and sing a song she wrote and introduced to him the night before. Ally is wearing casual clothes, has had no advance notice that she might be singing, and hasn’t warmed up. She very understandably says no.

Jackson’s reaction is to tell her that if she doesn’t join him, he’s going to play her song onstage anyway — and then he does, without asking for her permission. So, put on the spot, under pressure, and watching her song being performed without her consent, without her, she decides to join him halfway through.

  • Once her career takes off, her manager pressures her to change her hair color, add backup dancers, and overhaul her musical style. She initially says no to all of this, but ultimately is coerced into doing it all. The new, watered-down pop songs are ones she wrote, but it’s not clear whether she’s truly comfortable with any of these changes.
  • A few months into Ally’s career launch, Jackson goes incommunicado, and Ally flies to find him after he passes out at a friend’s house. If he relapses again, she says, she won’t come find him again. It’s a clear warning that she’s willing to end their relationship if he can’t stay sober. It’s not a literal “no,” but it’s worse: the possibility of complete rejection.

In response to this, Jackson immediately proposes to Ally. This is framed as romantic, but it’s clearly a reaction to her threatening to take away their entire relationship. While Ally is still stunned, Jackson’s friends suggest that they can get married right away, even that very day, without having to wait. So Ally is once again put on the spot and asked to immediately, spontaneously, make a huge and life-changing decision, under pressure from people around her. And it’s framed, once again, as something positive and romantic, something that’s good for her.

Jackson’s proposal, while sincere, is made as an attempt to keep Ally from being able to walk out, immediately after she threatens to do so. That’s not romantic — that’s an attempt to control their relationship. It’s a more subtle example of a “no” being turned into a “yes” than other moments in this film, but it fully undermines Ally’s agency and independence.

Narratives where a woman’s no always means yes directly contribute to rape culture. Sexual harassment and assault occur in part because men are taught to view women as saying no when they mean yes, and to wear women down through repeated asking until their no changes into a yes.

But A Star Is Born’s narrative never critiques this constant overriding of Ally’s decision-making. Instead, it consistently portrays Ally as saying no because she’s timid, not because she really wants to say no. It frames her as needing to be pushed and guided by the more experienced men around her into doing what she really wants.

This brings us to the other deeply frustrating aspect of this film: Ally, like arguably all of the “stars” before her, lacks control over her own life and career.

“I made you what you are today”

Constance Bennett in What Price Hollywood
In What Price Hollywood, the 1932 precursor to the A Star Is Born narrative, the female star has agency and initiative that her successors lack.
RKO Pictures via TCM

There are four films titled A Star Is Born, and they all stem from an earlier film called What Price Hollywood? In this 1932 version of the story, the “star” is full of initiative. Mary, played by Constance Bennett, is a sharp-eyed waitress pointedly seeking opportunities to get her big break. She has narrative agency, meaning that she’s able to make meaningful choices and her decisions affect the direction of the plot. While the director who discovers her tells her at one point, “I made you what you are today,” the film makes clear that’s not entirely true.

But each of the four successive Star Is Born films chips away at our star’s agency a little more, removing more of her decision-making capacity and making her husband responsible for most of the actions that affect both of their careers. By the time we get to the Cooper-Gaga version, the premise that he hands her career to her out of nowhere has become entrenched in the narrative.

Built into this shift is a change in the idea of what it means to be a star. The Star Is Born narrative thesis is that there’s an innate mystique around “stardom,” closely tied to the idea of a kind of mystical femininity that appears in conjunction with benevolent sexism. Beneath the manufacturing of image that comes after they’ve been discovered, the women stars don’t have to do anything, at least initially, to cultivate stardom; they simply have to be.

In What Price Hollywood? before Constance Bennett is discovered, she spends hours practicing how to walk down a staircase and deliver a line, to make it look spontaneous and effortless; by A Star Is Born (2018), Ally is able to simply walk onstage unrehearsed and unvocalized, open her mouth, and sing.

The less the women in these successive narratives have to do to achieve stardom, the more magical and mystical that stardom becomes. This not only removes the woman’s agency in her own pursuit of fame, it reinforces the genius of the man in her life who is able to recognize her stardom and present it to the world.

This disassociation of the woman star from her own fame results in a narrative that presents that fame as something that happens to her husband: she drops into his life, he makes her famous, and his inability to handle her success fuels his downward spiral. In all four versions, when he sees that he can’t control the direction she’s headed in, he lashes out, undermining her and sinking deeper into addiction and depression.

In one of the 2018 movie’s more brutal moments, Jackson, drunk and bitter, calls Ally ugly. The implication he’s making is clear: She’s famous only because he chose to see her as beautiful. His finding her attractive is a kind of benevolence. If he, or other men, decide to view her as unattractive, that stardom can vanish — because it was never really about her to begin with.

A Star Is Born doesn’t present us with any other kind of stardom for women — or even any other kind of woman. It’s a world where the only female character (apart from a few very minor roles) is surrounded by men who direct her actions. There’s no alternative representation of women excelling in a career independent of a man’s actions, direction, success, or reaction to her success.

That lack of women is inevitable in a fictional framework where the star is explicitly not like the other girls. But even that specialness doesn’t belong to Ally, because within that framing, a woman’s “stardom” is defined not by anything she does, but by the fact that a man recognized her — by the magical effect she has upon the man who looks at and hears her.

And in the most recent Star Is Born, this is all further complicated by the fact that how he’s seeing her is colored by his own personal demons, resentment, and addiction.

A Star Is Born builds to a tragic sacrifice that’s anything but noble

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in A Star Is Born.
A Star Is Born has always been a tragic romance. But its troubling viewpoint undermines both halves of that equation.
Warner Bros.

A Star Is Born tries hard to make us believe that Ally and Jackson’s love is an idyllic one that’s torn apart by addiction, and that’s why this story is a tragedy. It’s not that simple, however, because many facets of Jackson’s addiction and depression are inextricable from his complicated feelings about Ally’s career.

The film implies that Jackson sees in Ally the opportunity for redemption, a chance to make up for his own squandered success by helping her — something he clearly is sincere about. Yet it’s unclear whether his erratic behavior when drunk is fueled solely by his addiction, or whether he’s motivated to drag her into his acts of self-sabotage by his own secret resentment over her success — a resentment he frames to himself as disappointment that she has lost her “authentic” sound.

The film handles Jackson’s depression and suicidal ideation well by presenting them as pervasive issues that go largely unaddressed by the film’s characters until it’s too late — and like his addiction, they preexisted his relationship with Ally. But these issues also seem to be deeply interwoven with his sense of ownership over Ally’s career. His alcohol and drug abuse increase with her rising independence, as does the extremity of his behavior. When he ultimately realizes his disgrace is hurting Ally’s career, he decides to die rather than continue hindering her rise. It’s framed as a tragic, noble sacrifice — but while it’s absolutely a tragedy, it’s anything but noble, because it’s brought about in part by his inability to see Ally and her career as existing apart from him.

This is a frustrating element because Jackson’s inability to envision Ally as autonomous is not just the distorted thinking clouding his view of their relationship — it’s part of the Star Is Born narrative itself. He’s given a deep backstory, a complex sibling relationship, and a mile of daddy issues; she isn’t. He gets to be a self-made star with a history and demons that inform his stardom; she doesn’t. Even in 2018, after women have spent the #MeToo era fighting just to be able to do their jobs without male interference, A Star Is Born seems unwilling to imagine what a woman’s path to stardom without male interference could even look like.

The narrative treats the natural order of their relationship as one in which her fame is still part of his story. But when her fame surpasses his, and when he becomes unable to effectively direct their combined career trajectory, it’s so disruptive to that order that it can only be overcome by severing their relationship altogether. His death becomes the only thing that can ever truly “free” her from his influence. Because the narrative has sidestepped giving her any identity apart from him, it ultimately can’t separate his addiction from his troubling views about her and her career.

That’s the real tragedy of A Star Is Born: that it presents this co-dependent relationship built on a huge power imbalance and lack of female agency as something mythical and romanticized, tied to illness, and inevitably doomed.

There’s nothing inevitable about this story. Ally having more fame than Jackson is not some kind of confounding logic puzzle; it’s certainly not an impossible situation only escapable by death. It’s possible to have addressed his addiction in a way that didn’t conflate his personal demons with his inability to see her as a fully autonomous individual. A man’s addiction and mental illness do not prevent him from being able to understand and reevaluate his own toxic masculinity. And the remedy for one’s acceptance of his toxic behavior is not, and never will be, suicide.

A Star Is Born keeps being remade because Hollywood is besotted with the mechanics of stardom, refracted here through a lens of male power and female submissiveness. It’s deeply frustrating that this story has reappeared, with all its problems, at a moment when we’re taking a hard look at the very kinds of power imbalances and consent issues within the industry that this film reifies, and even romanticizes. Maybe by the time the next remake comes along in another 20 years or so, we’ll have finally figured out that it’s really just a bad romance.