Hitchcock Nods to Feminism but Stops Short
Paper by Christopher Anderson.
Alfred Hitchcock as an auteur has certainly demonstrated “technical competence,” “recurrent characteristics of style” or “signature” and “interior meaning” in his films (Sarris, 516-517). Indeed, his narrative even becomes predictable, or at least is similar in three of his films: The Lady Vanishes (Hitchcock, 1938), The Birds (Hitchcock, 1963) and Rear Window (Hitchcock, 1954). All three films involve not only the suspense in solving a conflict or mystery (public goal) but more particularly, the private goal of heterosexual coupling seemingly despite all initial odds. Hitchcock depicts gender roles just slightly outside of traditional roles by the presence of very strong women main characters. Hitchcock is able to buttress his assessment of gender relations by close-ups, subjective camera angles, point-of-view shots (POV) and highlighting the male gaze. This paper will argue that although Hitchcock attempts to raise women to an equal power with men, he ultimately succumbs to the patriarchal paradigm and portrays men (more often than not) as more powerful and in control than women.
In the opening of his films, Hitchcock depicts women as strong, confident, independent yet still feminine and very beautiful. In The Lady Vanishes, Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) is depicted as an in control wealthy American, able to travel abroad without a male in comfort. Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hendren) in The Birds is seen as capable and adventurous as she navigates locating Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) both in San Francisco and Bodega Bay, even masculine enough to drive fast along a curvy highway and navigate a motor boat across the bay. Rear Window depicts Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) as an independent working girl, taking charge by bringing dinner and suggesting a life together. Although independent and confident, the mis en scene (particularly the costumes of rather fitted skirts or dresses and high heels and coifed hair) restrains her. Interestingly, “Hitchcock, indeed, always told his actors that they needed to be part masculine and part feminine in order to get inside a character (Mogg, 16).
The restraint continues early in the films. Their strong, independent female dominance is again restrained by elements of mis en scene which tend to objectify women as mere eye-candy. Female body parts dominate. When the waiter brings in the champagne to the women in The Lady Vanishes, the three women are scantily clad with emphasis on Iris’ legs as she stands on the table. We have Mitch’s (Rod Taylor’s) POV of the women’s arms reaching up and flailing, trying to catch the bird in the shop in The Birds and then of course a close up of his hat capturing the bird (resolving that conflict) and putting the bird back in the cage with the dialogue “back in your gilded cage Melanie Daniels.” Additionally, the first glimpse of Lisa in Rear Window is Jeff’s (James Stewart’s) POV scanning his photographs and stopping on portrait of Lisa on Jeff’s shelf, but it is a negative, rather than a photograph. That leads one to believe that Lisa is not fully developed as a human being. Even before that scene, we are treated to Ms. Torso dancing around in her negligee, throwing high kicks and butt wiggles, in addition to the two women who strip their clothes presumably before sunbathing on the roof.
Men then rise to a superior position of the women and have the upper hand early in the relationship (private goal). In the first scene with the two main characters together in, Iris and Gilbert Redman (Michael Redgrave) in The Lady Vanishes , the male bursts into Iris’ personal hotel room while she lies (vulnerably) in bed. He has control of the situation as he puts his hat on the bed post, and grabs a toothbrush. Likewise in The Birds, the next main scene where the two main characters are together, after Melanie get’s nipped by the bird, we have Mitch in a superior position, helping her, tending to her wound as he stands above her, cross-examining her about her intent to come to Bodega Bay, and finally takes control of the relationship by insisting she come for dinner. He also stands above her as she sits in her car, cross-examining her after dinner about her Rome escapade and reason for being in Bodega bay. We get his dominant, subjective POV of her sitting and looking up at him, trying to explain. It is his power-trip. Similarly, in Rear Window, after their first dinner, we have Lisa on the couch (now lower than Jeff who is wheel chair bound) while they argue about whether they are right for marriage. We get a POV from Melanie (over the shoulder) of Jeff, yelling at her, and telling her to “shut up” and “simmer down.” Even when she says “goodbye” he pleads using his male gaze to keep it “status quo” to which she acquiesces by suggesting she will see him “tomorrow night.” His gaze was controlling and he won that argument.
Hitchcock also gives the men the upper hand ultimately resolving the conflict (public goal). In each of the films, there is a period of disbelief about the public goal or conflict. People on the train denied the existence of Ms. Froy (The Lady Vanishes), the Sheriff and Mrs. Bundy deny that birds could attack and kill (The Birds) and Lisa/Stella at first, and Mr. Doyle deny that a murder could be committed across the way with shades open (Rear Window). Eventually, in each movie, the couple comes together to solve the public goal. We have a collaboration of the genders, a sort of team-work. Yet in each the man appears to be in control of the narrative or the plan for resolution. Indeed in The Lady Vanishes, once Gilbert is convinced Ms. Froy existed, he is on board, leading the questioning, taking the risks such as going out the train window into the car where the wrapped patient laid, leading the gun fight, and learning the secret tune. In The Birds, Mitch helps rescue children, battens up the windows and doors in the house, and rescues Melanie from the phone booth and the attic. Perhaps to a lesser extent, in Rear Window, although Jeff is relegated to a wheelchair, he calls the shots mostly in unraveling the mystery. Here the films diverge as Lisa is featured in her knowledge of what a woman might take with her on a trip (jewelry/wedding ring), taking the physical risk of breaking into Thorwald’s apartment etc. This is a twist for Hitchcock, although she is doing it to please Jeff and she is carrying out his script of unraveling the mystery.
In the end, traditional roles appear solidified. In The Lady Vanishes, Gilbert seems to win not only Iris, but successfully gets to the foreign office. Mitch rescues Melanie and drives all the women presumably to safety in The Birds. Although more ambiguous, arguably Jeff leads the relationship in Rear Window. Jeff is “proud” of Lisa and thereby accepts her as a worthy partner because she demonstrated risk and courage. The scene where he is on the ground after falling out of the window, his male gaze as he tells her he is proud is almost fatherly (patriarchal and patronizing). Moreover, it seems she fakes it to be with him. She reads a book on the Himalayas when she thinks he might see her, but switches to her fashion magazine when he’s asleep. She appeases him.
Some commentators are infuriated with Hitchcock’s portrayal of women, and suggest that “Hitchcock’s women are outwardly immaculate, but full of treachery and weakness” (Bidisha, web). Others suggest that films “exhibit a complexity of the female lead characters that make it impossible for the film analyst to discount them as mere misogynistic portrayals of women” (Pluskovich, web). Since Rear View appears to be the anomaly of the three films analyzed in that Jeff is confined to a wheelchair, somewhat emasculated himself and forced to give some power to the women (nurse Stella and Lisa), the male/female representation of it deserves more pointed analysis.
Jeff’s attitude simply represented Hitchcock’s attitude towards women. He admitted they were powerful, yet in industry he considered not serious enough, and thought they were not competent enough to engage in the same duties men committed to, unless they proved they could. That’s exactly how Lisa eventually won Jeff’s heart, by proving she can work alongside with him for the same objective, or in other sense, completely adopted his viewpoint and judgment, and managed to complete the task. Now that she proved she could be part of his world despite her “incompleteness”, he was ready to accept her into his world (Hitchcock’s Misogyny, web). Thus, Hitchcock depicted gender relations in Rear Window based on what he saw in society, and more particularly, in Hollywood, at the time.
Moreover, of all the movies, the male gaze in Rear Window was profound. Some commentators suggest that the male gaze is used in films to “explain the hierarchical power relations between two or more groups or, alternatively, between a group and an object” (Manlove, 84). Jeff grabs Lisa’s hand, gazes at her and tells her he is “proud” of her at the end. The lasting scene is indicative of both hierarchy and patriarchy. Further, for most of the movie, Jeff’s gaze of his neighbors “dancing, composing, making love” is more of a voyeuristic pleasure and distraction ultimately fading into anonymity while the crime plot became an active scene (Toles, 228). That voyeuristic pleasure, though, is a sexually based objectification and thus condescending. In any case, Hitchcock includes such gazes in the movie because that’s the way it was in reality. These films are “‘subjective’ (much of the film is ostensibly told from the point of view of one character)” (Mogg, 3). Indeed, Hitchcock “creates a ‘world’ to reflect the principal characters and their essential egoism” (Mogg, 8). We see and interpret the plot through Jeff’s subjective point of view. He thinks women have to prove themselves by engaging in masculine risk-taking behaviors to be accepted. Hitchcock matches society’s perception of gender relations with Jeff’s perception in Rear Window.
Thus we see that Hitchcock gives a nod toward feminism by casting women in roles depicting some strength, confidence and independence, but he stops short in allowing the male to lead the public and private resolutions. Hitchcock is trapped in society’s patriarchal paradigm and will not allow his female characters in his films to break out of it and rise above. Movies reflect reality.
Pluskovich, Michaela. “A Second Gaze at Hitchcock’s Women.” Student Film Reviews RSS. N.p., n.d. 08 July 2016.
Bidisha, “What’s Wrong with HItchock’s Women.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 2010. Web. 08 July 2016.
Manlove, Clifford T. “Visual “Drive” and Cinematic Narrative: Reading Gaze Theory in Lacan, Hitchcock, and Mulvey.” Cinema Journal 46.3 (2007): 83-108. Web.
“Hitchcock’s Misogyny” Feminism and Film, N.p., n.d. Web. 08 July 2016
Mogg, Ken. Senses of Cinema. Great Directors, Issue 36, 15 December 2010.
Sarris, Andrew. Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962.
Thomas, Paul. Film Quarterly 42.4 (1989): 40-42. Web.
Toles, George E. “Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window as Critical Allegory.” Boundary 2 16.2/3 (1989): 225-45. Web.