Hitchcock and Feminist Film Theory
In providing for a number of his films to be withheld from circulation for re-release many years later, Alfred Hitchcock has ensured that his popularity with a fickle filmgoing public remains as strong as ever. With this ploy, by which he has managed to continue wielding an unprecedented power over a mass audience, Hitchcock betrays a resemblance to one of his favorite character types—the person who exerts an influence from beyond the grave. That this person is often a woman—Rebecca in the film of the same name, Carlotta and Madeleine in Vertigo, Mrs. Bates in Psycho—is not without interest or relevance to the thesis of this book: Hitchcock’s great need (exhibited throughout his life as well as in his death) to insist on and exert authorial control may be related to the fact that his films are always in danger of being subverted by females whose power is both fascinating and seemingly limitless.
Such ghostly manipulations on Hitchcock’s part would be ineffective, however, were it not for the fact that the films themselves possess an extraordinary hold on the public’s imagination. Of course, some critics have been inclined to dismiss the films’ appeal by attributing it simply to the mass audience’s desire for sensational violence—usually directed against women—and “cheap, erotic” thrills, to quote “Mrs. Bates.” While these critics find themselves increasingly in the minority, it is nevertheless somewhat surprising to reflect on the extent to which feminists have found themselves compelled, intrigued, infuriated, and inspired by Hitchcock’s works.
In fact, the films of Hitchcock have been central to the formulation of feminist film theory and to the practice of feminist film criticism. Laura Mulvey’s essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” which may be considered the founding document of psychoanalytic feminist film theory, focuses on Hitchcock’s films in order to show how women in classic Hollywood cinema are inevitably made into passive objects of male voyeuristic and sadistic impulses; how they exist simply to fulfill the desires and express the anxieties of the men in the audience; and how, by implication, women filmgoers can only have a masochistic relation to this cinema.1 Since the publication of Mulvey’s essay in 1975, a number of feminist articles on Hitchcock films have tended to corroborate her insights.
Believing that the representation of women in film is more complicated than Mulvey’s article allows, I published an article in 1982 on Hitchcock’s first American film, Rebecca, which was based on the best selling “female Gothic” novel by Daphne du Maurier.2 There I argued that some films do allow for the (limited) expression of a specifically female desire and that such films, instead of following the male oedipal journey, which film theorists like Raymond Bellour see as the trajectory of all Hollywood narrative, trace a female oedipal trajectory, and in the process reveal some of the difficulties for women in becoming socialized in patriarchy.3 Subsequently, Teresa de Lauretis in Alice Doesn’t referred to that essay and to Hitchcock’s films Rebecca and Vertigo to develop a theory of the female spectator. According to de Lauretis, identification on the part of women at the cinema is much more complicated than feminist theory has understood: far from being simply masochistic, the female spectator is always caught up in a double desire, identifying at one and the same time not only with the passive (female) object, but with the active (usually male) subject.4
Mulvey herself has had occasion to rethink some of her essay’s main points and has done so in part through a reading of Hitchcock’s Notorious that qualifies the condemnation of narrative found in “Visual Pleasure.”5 Other feminists have returned, almost obsessively, to Hitchcock in order to take up other issues, fight other battles. In an extremely interesting essay on The Birds, for example, Susan Lurie analyzes a segment that has also been analyzed by Raymond Bellour: the ride out and back across Bodega Bay. Lurie is concerned to dispute the Lacanian theory relied on so heavily by Bellour and Mulvey—particularly in the latter’s argument that women’s body signifies lack and hence connotes castration for the male. In Lurie’s view, women like Melanie Daniels in The Birds are threatening not because they automatically connote castration, but because they don’t, and so the project of narrative cinema is precisely to “castrate” the woman whose strength and perceived wholeness arouses dread in the male.6 Thus, if de Lauretis is primarily interested in complicating Mulvey’s implied notion of femininity, Lurie is chiefly concerned with questioning certain aspects of Mulvey’s theory of masculinity and masculine development. And both develop their arguments through important readings of Hitchcock’s films.
Recently, Robin Wood, a male critic who has been a proponent of Hitchcock’s films for many years, has become interested in these issues.7 In the 1960s, Wood’s book—the first in English on Hitchcock—set out to address the question, “Why should we take Hitchcock seriously?” In the 1980s, Wood declares, the question must be, “Can Hitchcock be saved for feminism?”—though his very language, implying the necessity of rescuing a favorite auteur from feminist obloquy, suggests that the question is fundamentally a rhetorical one. And indeed, although Wood claims in his essay not to be interested in locating “an uncontaminated feminist discourse in the films,” he proceeds to minimize the misogyny in them and to analyze both Rear Window and Vertigo as exposés of the twisted logic of patriarchy, relatively untroubled by ambivalence or contradiction.
It may be symptomatic that in contrast to the female critics I have mentioned, the stated goal of the one male critic concerned with feminism is to reestablish the authority of the artist—to “save” Hitchcock. For Wood, political “progressiveness” has come to replace moral complexity as the criterion by which to judge Hitchcock’s art, but the point remains the same—to justify the ways of the auteur to the filmgoing public. The feminist critics I have mentioned, by contrast, use Hitchcock’s works as a means to elucidate issues and problems relevant to women in patriarchy. In so doing these critics implicitly challenge and decenter directorial authority by considering Hitchcock’s work as the expression of cultural attitudes and practices existing to some extent outside the artist’s control. My own work is in the irreverent spirit of this kind of feminist criticism and is, if anything, more explicitly “deconstructionist” than this criticism has generally tended to be. Thus, one of my book’s main theses is that, time and again in Hitchcock films, the strong fascination and identification with femininity revealed in them subverts the claims to mastery and authority not only of the male characters but of the director himself.
This is not to say that I am entirely unsympathetic to Wood’s position. Indeed, this critic’s work seems to me an important corrective to studies which see in Hitchcock only the darkest misogynistic vision. But what I want to argue is neither that Hitchcock is utterly misogynistic nor that he is largely sympathetic to women and their plight in patriarchy, but that his work is characterized by a thoroughgoing ambivalence about femininity—which explains why it has been possible for critics to argue with some plausibility on either side of the issue. It also, of course, explains why the issue can never be resolved and why, when one is reading criticism defending or attacking Hitchcock’s treatment of women, one continually experiences a feeling of “yes, but. . .” This book aims to account, often through psychoanalytic explanations, for the ambivalence in the work of Hitchcock. In the process, it continually demonstrates that despite the often considerable violence with which women are treated in Hitchcock’s films, they remain resistant to patriarchal assimilation.
In order to explain the ambivalence in these films, I will be especially concerned with showing the ways in which masculine identity is bound up with feminine identity—both at the level of society as well as on the individual, psychological level. In this respect, the book will confirm that what Fredric Jameson says about ruling class literature is also true of patriarchal cultural production. According to Jameson in The Political Unconscious, consciousness on the part of the oppressed classes, expressed, “initially, in the unarticulated form of rage, helplessness, victimization, oppression by a common enemy,” generates a “mirror image of class solidarity among the ruling groups. . . . This suggests . . . that the truth of ruling-class consciousness . . . is to be found in working-class consciousness.”8 Similarly, in Hitchcock, the “truth” of patriarchal consciousness lies in feminist consciousness and depends precisely on the depiction of victimized women found so often in his films. The paradox is such, then, that male solidarity (between characters, director, spectators, as the case may be) entails giving expression to women’s feelings of “rage, helplessness, victimization, oppression.” This point is of the greatest consequence for a theory of the female spectator. As I argue in the chapters on Blackmail and Notorious, insofar as Hitchcock films repeatedly reveal the way women are oppressed in patriarchy, they allow the female spectator to feel an anger that is very different from the masochistic response imputed to her by some feminist critics.
Not only is it possible to argue that feminist consciousness is the mirror of patriarchal consciousness, but one might argue as well that the patriarchal unconscious lies in femininity (which is not, however, to equate femininity with the unconscious). Psychoanalysis has shown that the process by which the male child comes to set the mother at a distance is of very uncertain outcome, which helps to explain why it is continually necessary for man to face the threat woman poses and to work to subdue that threat both in life and in art. The dynamics of identification and identity, I will argue, are fraught with difficulties and paradoxes that are continually reflected and explored in Hitchcock films.9 To take an example suggestive of Jameson’s mirror metaphor, when Scottie Ferguson in Vertigo begins investigating the mysterious Madeleine Elster, the first point of view shot shows him as a mirror image of the woman, and the rest of the film traces the vicissitudes of Scottie’s attempts to reassert a masculinity lost when he failed in his performance of the law.
By focusing on the problematics of identity and identification, then, this study aims to insert itself in the debates circulating around Hitchcock’s films and to examine some of the key theoretical issues developed in the various critiques. On the one hand, the book seeks to engage the problem of the female spectator, especially in the analysis of those films told from the woman’s point of view (i.e., Blackmail, Rebecca, and Notorious). But even some of those films which seem exclusively to adopt the male point of view, like Murder!, Rear Window, or Vertigo, may be said either to have woman as the ultimate point of identification or to place the spectator—regardless of gender—in a classically “feminine” position. On the other hand, then, my intent is to problematize male spectatorship and masculine identity in general. The analysis will reveal that the question which continually—if sometimes implicitly—rages around Hitchcock’s work as to whether he is sympathetic towards women or misogynistic is fundamentally unanswerable because he is both.10 Indeed, as we shall see, the misogyny and the sympathy actually entail one another—just as Norman Bates’s close relationship with his mother provokes his lethal aggression towards other women.
The Female Spectator
As the figure of Norman Bates suggests, what both male and female spectators are likely to see in the mirror of Hitchcock’s films are images of ambiguous sexuality that threaten to destabilize the gender identity of protagonists and viewers alike. Although in Psycho the mother/son relationship is paramount, I will argue that in films from Rebecca on it is more often the mother/daughter relationship that evokes this threat to identity and constitutes the main “problem” of the films. In Vertigo, for example, Madeleine is the (great grand)daughter of Carlotta Valdez who seems to possess the heroine so thoroughly that the latter loses her individuality. Rebecca’s heroine experiences a similar difficulty in relation to the powerful Rebecca, first wife of the heroine’s husband. Mamie’s main “problem”—as far as patriarchy is concerned—is an excessive attachment to her mother that prevents her from achieving a “normal,” properly “feminine,” sexual relationship with a man. In other films, the mother figure is actually a mother-in-law, but one who so closely resembles the heroine, it is impossible to escape the suspicion that the mother/daughter relationship is actually what is being evoked. In Notorious, both Alicia and her mother-in-law have blonde hair and foreign accents; and in The Birds, there in an uncanny resemblance between Melanie Daniels and Mitch’s mother, Lydia. In all these films, moreover, Hitchcock manipulates point of view in such a way that the spectator him/herself is made to share the strong sense of identification with the (m)other.
As feminists have recently stressed, the mother/daughter relationship is one of the chief factors contributing to the bisexuality of women—a notion that several critics have argued is crucial to any theory of the female spectator seeking to rescue women from “silence, marginality, and absence.” Very soon after the publication of Mulvey’s essay, feminist critics began to approach this idea of female bisexuality in order to begin to explain women’s experience of film. A consideration of this experience, they felt, was lacking in Mulvey’s work, which thereby seemed to collaborate unwittingly in patriarchy’s plot to render women invisible. In a much quoted discussion among film critics and filmmakers Michelle Citron, Julia Lesage, Judith Mayne, B. Ruby Rich, and Anna Marie Taylor that appeared in New German Critique in 1978, one of the major topics was the bisexuality of the female spectator. In the course of the discussion, the participants, attempting to counter what might be called the “compulsory heterosexuality” of mainstream film, concluded that more attention needs to be paid to women’s erotic attraction to other women—to, for example, Marlene Dietrich not only as a fetishized object of male desire, which is how Mulvey had seen her, but as a female star with an “underground reputation” among lesbians as “a kind of subcultural icon.”11 Several of the participants stressed that female eroticism is obviously going to differ from male eroticism; the experience of the female spectator is bound to be more complex than a simple passive identification with the female object of desire or a straightforward role reversal—a facile assumption of the transvestite’s garb. Julia Lesage insisted, “Although women’s sexuality has been shaped under a dominant patriarchal culture, clearly women do not respond to women in film and the erotic element in quite the same way that men do, given that patriarchal film has the structure of a male fantasy” (p. 89). In other words, there must be other options for the female spectator than the two pithily described by B. Ruby Rich: “to identify either with Marilyn Monroe or with the man behind me hitting the back of my seat with his knees” (p. 87).
Several of the women in this discussion were strenuously anti-Freudian, claiming that Freud’s framework cannot account for the position of female spectators. Recent Freudian and neo-Freudian accounts of women’s psychic development in patriarchy and applications of these accounts to issues in feminist film theory have, however, suggested otherwise. Thus Gertrud Koch, addressing the question of “why women go to men’s movies,” refers to Freud’s theory of female bisexuality, which is rooted in woman’s preoedipal attachment to her mother. This attachment, it will be remembered, came as a momentous discovery to Freud and resulted in his having to revise significantly his theories of childhood sexuality and to recognize the fundamental asymmetry in male and female development.12 The female’s attachment to the mother, Freud came to understand, often goes “unresolved” throughout woman’s life and coexists with her later heterosexual relationships. Hence, Teresa de Lauretis’s notion of a “double desire” on the part of the female spectator—a desire that is both passive and active, homosexual and heterosexual. Koch speculates that men’s need to prohibit and punish female voyeurism is attributable to their concern about women’s pleasure in looking at other women: “Man’s fear of permitting female voyeurism stems not only from fear of women looking at other men and drawing (to him perhaps unfavorable) comparisons but is also connected to a fear that women’s bisexuality could make them competitors for the male preserve.”13
In her book, Women and Film: Both Sides of the Camera, feminist film critic E. Ann Kaplan draws on the neo-Freudian work of Julia Kristeva to make a similar point about men’s repression of the “nonsymbolic” (preoedipal) aspects of motherhood. According to Kristeva/Kaplan, patriarchy must repress these nonsymbolic aspects of motherhood because of the “homosexual components” involved in the mother/daughter relationship.14 Elsewhere, Kaplan analyzes Stella Dallas, a film about an intense mother/daughter relationship, in order to argue that the process of repression is enacted in classical cinema and that the female spectator herself comes to desire this repression and to endorse the heterosexual contract that seals the film at its end.15 Another analysis of Stella Dallas by Linda Williams argues against this view and persuasively postulates a contradictory “double desire” on the part of the female spectator: on the one hand, we identify with the working class Stella and share her joy at having successfully sacrificed herself in giving away her daughter to the upper-class father and boyfriend and, on the other hand, because of the way point of view has been handled in the film, we are made to experience the full poignancy and undesirability of the loss of the close affective relationship with the daughter.16 In other words, we could say that the spectator simultaneously experiences the symbolic and the nonsymbolic aspects of motherhood, despite patriarchy’s attempts to repress and deny the latter.
In stressing the contradictory nature of female spectatorship, Williams’s essay can be seen as a critique not only of the position that, given the structure of classic narrative film as male fantasy, the female spectator is forced to adopt the heterosexual view, but also of the opposite position, most forcefully articulated by Mary Anne Doane, which sees the preoedipal relationship with the mother as the source of insurmountable difficulties for the female spectator. Doane draws on the work of Christian Metz and his theories of spectatorship based on male fetishism and disavowal, in order to disqualify female voyeurism. According to Doane, woman’s putative inability to achieve a distance from the textual body is related to her inability to separate decisively from the maternal body. Because women lack a penis, they lack the possibility of losing the “first stake of representation,” the mother, and thus of symbolizing their difference from her (a “problem” that we shall see is at the heart of Rebecca): “this closeness to the body, this excess, prevents the woman from assuming a position similar to the man’s in relation to signifying systems. For she is haunted by the loss of a loss, the lack of that lack so essential for the realization of the ideals of semiotic systems.”17 There are, I believe, several ways for feminists to challenge such a nihilistic position. One might, for example, point out the tortuous logic of these claims, as Helene Cixous has done (“She lacks lack? Curious to put it in so contradictory, so extremely paradoxical a manner: she lacks lack. To say she lacks lack is also, after all, to say she doesn’t miss lack . . . since she doesn’t miss the lack of lack.”)18 Or, one might say with Linda Williams and B. Ruby Rich that the female spectator does indeed experience a “distance” from the image as an inevitable result of her being an exile “living the tension of two different cultures.”19 Or, one might question the very “ideals” of the “semiotic systems” invoked by Doane—and, in particular, the ideal of “distance,” or what in Brechtian theory is called “distanciation.”
According to Doane, woman’s closeness to the (maternal) body means that she “over-identifies with the image”: “The association of tears and ‘wet wasted afternoons’ (in Molly Haskell’s words) with genres specified as feminine (the soap opera, the ‘woman’s picture’) points very precisely to this type of over-identification, this abolition of a distance, in short this inability to fetishize.”20 Now, as I have mentioned, many of Hitchcock’s films actually thematize the “problem” of “over-identification”—the daughter’s “over-identification” with the mother and, in at least one film (Rear Window), the woman’s “over-identification” with the “textual body.” Given Hitchcock’s preoccupation with female bisexuality and given his famed ability to draw us into close identifications with his characters—so many of them women—his work would seem to provide the perfect testing ground for theories of female spectatorship.
But the question immediately arises as to why a male director—and one so frequently accused of unmitigated misogyny—would be attracted to such subjects. I want to suggest that woman’s bisexual nature, rooted in preoedipality, and her consequent alleged tendency to over-identify with other women and with texts, is less a problem for women, as Doane would have it, than it is for patriarchy. And this is so not only for the reason suggested by Gertrud Koch (that female bisexuality would make women into competitors for “the male preserve”), but far more fundamentally because it reminds man of his own bisexuality (and thus his resemblance to Norman Bates), a bisexuality that threatens to subvert his “proper” identity, which depends upon his ability to distance woman and make her his proper-ty. In my readings of Hitchcock, I will demonstrate how men’s fascination and identification with the feminine continually undermine their efforts to achieve masculine strength and autonomy and is a primary cause of the violence towards women that abounds in Hitchcock’s films. These readings are meant to implicate certain Marxist/ psychoanalytical film theories as well, since by uncritically endorsing “distanciation” and detachment (however “passionate” this detachment is said to be) as the “proper”—i.e., politically correct—mode of spectatorship, they to some extent participate in the repression of the feminine typical of the “semiotic system” known as classic narrative cinema.21
Men at the Movies
The psychiatrist, the voice of institutional authority who “explains” Norman Bates to us at the end of the film, pronounces matricide to be an unbearable crime—“most unbearable to the son who commits it.” In my opinion, though, the crime is “most unbearable” to the victim who suffers it, and despite the fact that a major emphasis of my book is on masculine subjectivity in crisis, its ultimate goals are a deeper understanding of women’s victimization—of the sources of matrophobia and misogyny—and the development of female subjectivity, which is continually denied women by male critics, theorists, and artists (as well as by their female sympathizers). Some feminists, however, have recently argued that we should altogether dispense with analysis of masculinity and of patriarchal systems of thought in order to devote full time to exploring female subjectivity. Teresa de Lauretis, for example, has declared that the “project of women’s cinema [by which she means also feminist film theory] is no longer that of destroying or disrupting man-centered vision by representing its blind spots, its gaps or its repressed”; rather, she argues, we should be attending to the creation of another—feminine or feminist—vision.22 Although I fully share de Lauretis’s primary concern, I do not agree that we should forego attempting to locate the gaps and blind spots in “man-centered vision.” One of the problems with Mulvey’s theory was that her picture of male cinema was so monolithic that she made it seem invincible, and so, from a political point of view, feminists were stymied. An analysis of patriarchy’s weak points enables us to avoid the paralyzing nihilism of a position which accords such unassailable strength to an oppressive system and helps us more accurately to assess our own strengths relative to it. Moreover, I believe we do need to destroy “man-centered vision” by beginning to see with our own eyes—because for so long we have been not only fixed in its sights, but also forced to view the world through its lens.
While, as we have seen, some feminists have criticized Mulvey’s “inadequate theorization of the female spectator,” others have objected to her restriction of the male spectator to a single, dominant position, arguing that men at the movies—at least at some movies—may also be feminine, passive, and masochistic. Studies like D. N. Rodowick’s “The Difficulty of Difference,” Janet Bergstrom’s “Sexuality at a Loss,” and Gaylyn Studlar’s “Masochism and the Perverse Pleasure of the Cinema” take issue with the view of sexual difference as organized according to strict binary oppositions (masculinity = activity; femininity = passivity, etc.) and emphasize the bisexuality of all human beings and “the mobility of multiple, fluid identifications” open to every spectator, including men.23 These critics point to certain Freudian pronouncements to the effect that each individual “displays a mixture of the character traits belonging to his own and to the opposite sex.”24 In “Sexuality at a Loss: The Films of F. W. Murnau,” for example, Janet Bergstrom refers to this aspect of Freudian theory in arguing that Murnau’s films displace sexuality from the female body to the male body and thus carry “a shifting, unstable homoerotic charge” enabling viewers to “relax rigid demarcations of gender identification and sexual orientation.”25 Bergstrom concludes from this analysis that the issue of gender is not pertinent to a psychoanalytically oriented criticism, which ought to stress the bisexuality of all individuals, and should concern only those critics interested in “historical and sociological perspectives”—as if it were possible to divide up the human subject in this way.26
A passage from Bergstrom’s earlier essay, “Enunciation and Sexual Difference,” helps to illuminate the problem involved in considering the male spectator to be similar to the female spectator in his bisexual response. In that essay, Bergstrom had called for attention to be paid to “the movement of identifications, whether according to theories of bisexuality, power relations . . . or some other terms.”27 The weakness of this formulation, however, lies in its assumption that notions of bisexuality can be considered apart from power relations. On the contrary, in patriarchy the feminine position alone is devalued and despised, and those who occupy it are powerless and oppressed. The same Freud who spoke of bisexuality also, after all, spoke of the normal masculine “contempt” for femininity.28 Freud showed very precisely how men tend to repress their bisexuality to avoid being subjected to this contempt and to accede to their “proper” place in the symbolic order. A discussion of bisexuality as it relates to spectatorship ought, then, to be informed by a knowledge of the way male and female responses are rendered asymmetrical by a patriarchal power structure. As Hitchcock films repeatedly demonstrate, the male subject is greatly threatened by bisexuality, though he is at the same time fascinated by it; and it is the woman who pays for this ambivalence—often with her life itself.
An interesting challenge to Mulvey’s theorization of male spectatorship has been mounted by critics who have questioned its exclusive emphasis on the male spectator’s sadism, man’s need to gain mastery over the woman in the course of the narrative. A pioneering essay by Kaja Silverman entitled “Masochism and Subjectivity” and a later study by Gaylyn Studlar on the films of Josef Von Sternberg stress the male spectator’s masochistic pleasures at the movies. In placing emphasis on this aspect of male subjectivity, both critics point to the importance of the preoedipal phase in masculine development. Hitherto, as I have said, many film theorists have insisted on the fact that narrative cinema closely follows the male oedipal trajectory outlined by Freud, and in doing so cements the male spectator into the male Symbolic order. In the Freudian scenario, the child renounces preoedipal bisexuality and the mother as “love object” for “the requirements of the Oedipus Complex,” and in the process assumes his castration.29 Arguing against this view, Gaylyn Studlar generalizes from an analysis of the films Josef Von Sternberg made with Marlene Dietrich to argue that at the cinema we all regress to the infantile, preoedipal phase, submitting ourselves to and identifying (fusing) with the overwhelming presence of the screen and the woman on it. “Castration fear and the perception of sexual difference,” Studlar says, “have no importance” in her aesthetic, which aims to “replace” Mulvey’s theory with a more benign version of spectatorship. Studlar’s model “rejects” a position which emphasizes “the phallic phase and the pleasure of control or mastery” and thus, she maintains, can help deliver feminist psychoanalytic theory from the “dead end” in which it supposedly finds itself.30
While I believe that male masochism is indeed an important area for feminists to explore—is, in fact, one of the blind spots or “repressed” aspects of male-centered vision—the point surely is that this masochism, and the preoedipal relationship with the mother in which it is rooted, are in fact repressed by the male in adult life, as Studlar at one point acknowledges. For me the crucial question facing feminist theory is, “What are the sources and the consequences for women of this repression?” For that matter, what are the sources and consequences of the “dread of woman,” of “ambivalence” towards the mother, of the equation of women with death, all of which are mentioned by Studlar as crucial components of the masochistic aesthetic? How do the answers to these questions illuminate the undeniable fact that Mulvey had sought to understand and that Studlar disregards: i.e., that women are objectified and brought under male domination in the vast majority of patriarchal films?
The fact that men are driven to repress their preoedipal attachment to their mothers in acceding to a patriarchal order would seem to invalidate any attempt simply to “replace” a political critique that focuses on the phallic, sadistic, oedipal nature of narrative cinema with an aesthetic that privileges its oral, masochistic, and preoedipal components. As Christian Metz noted some time ago, although cinema is situated in the realm of the Imaginary—of the preoedipal—the male spectator himself has already passed through the Symbolic,31 has, then, internalized the “normal contempt” for femininity, repressed it in himself, and met—more or less—the “requirements of the Oedipus complex.” Hence, the necessity of discussing the way sadistic and masochistic, oedipal and preoedipal, symbolic and nonsymbolic aspects of male spectatorship interrelate. In this complex undertaking Kaja Silverman’s work on masochism seems to me to be of utmost importance.
In “Masochism and Subjectivity,” Silverman examines Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage and Freud’s discussion of his grandson’s “fort/da” game, on which Lacan’s theory is based, and concludes that in decisive moments in the history of the subject, the individual learns to take pleasure in pain and loss. Cinematic activity, like many other forms of cultural activity, replays these moments of loss, which are as pleasurable for the male spectator as for the female spectator. Referring to theories of cinematic suture, for example, Silverman explains that in relating to films, we experience “a constant fluctuation between the imaginary plenitude of the shot, and the loss of that plenitude through the agency of the cut.”32 Yet, she admits, there is a significant contradiction here, since in films themselves it is most often women who are “placed in positions of passivity, and more generally men than women who occupy positions of aggressivity. On the other hand, the subject—whether male or female—is passively positioned and is taught to take pleasure in his/her pain” (p. 5). Silverman “resolves” this contradiction by referring to Freud’s theory of dreams, in which the dreamer, though perhaps absent “in propria persona” from the dream, may be represented by a variety of people, onto whom the dreamer displaces his/her own fears and desires. In films where the female character occupies a passive position, she enacts on behalf of the male viewer “the compulsory narrative of loss and recovery” (p. 5). Unfortunately, Silverman’s essay, like Studlar’s, ultimately refuses to cede any importance to sadism in the male viewer’s response. Silverman writes, “Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the fascination of the sadistic point of view is merely that it provides the best vantage point from which to watch the masochistic story unfold” (p. 5, emphasis mine). Yet the reference to Freudian dream theory points to a way not of cancelling or “resolving” the contradiction she describes, but of understanding how it works as a contradiction. Just as Freud showed that the meaning of the dream resides neither in its latent content nor in its manifest content, but in the complex interaction of the two—in the dreamwork itself—so the male viewer’s response might best be understood in the Freudian sense of a sadomasochistic dialectic rather than of pure sadism (as in Mulvey) or “mere” masochism.33
Thus, whereas Studlar’s article places sole emphasis on the female as a possible figure of male identification—and mentions only in passing the fact that this identification is the “ ‘source of deepest dread,’ ”—Silverman’s analysis helps to explain the workings of both the identification and the dread: the dream mechanism of displacement enables the male subject simultaneously to experience and deny an identification with passive, victimized female characters. By acknowledging the importance of denial in the male spectator’s response, we can take into account a crucial fact ignored by the articles discussed—the fact that the male finds it necessary to repress certain “feminine” aspects of himself, and to project these exclusively onto the woman, who does the suffering for both of them.
It is part of my project here to explore this dialectic of identification and dread in the male spectator’s response to femininity—the movement between the two poles Alice Jardine has said characterize contemporary culture: “hysteria” (confusion of sexual boundaries) and “paranoia” (their reinforcement).34 The paranoia may be seen as a consequence of the hysteria but, as Jardine elsewhere observes, it is fundamentally a reaction against women who know not only too much, but anything at all: “Man’s response in both private and public to a woman who knows (anything) has most consistently been one of paranoia.”35 “I know a secret about you, Uncle Charlie,” says Charlie the niece to her uncle in Shadow of a Doubt, thereby arousing his murderous rage. Charlie is a typical Hitchcock female, both because her close relationship to her mother arouses in her a longing for a different kind of life than the one her father offers them and because she seems to possess special, incriminating knowledge about men. Charlie’s attitude is representative of the two types of resistance to patriarchy I have been discussing here—that which seeks to know men’s “secrets” (patriarchy’s “blind spots, gaps, and repressed areas”) and that which knows the kinds of pleasure unique to women’s relationship with other women. This book is devoted to understanding how female spectators may be drawn into this special relationship and how men may react to women who are suspected of possessing such valuable secret knowledge.
A Frankly Inventive Approach
All of this is to suggest that Hitchcock films as I read them are anything but exemplary of Hollywood cinema. Rather, if the films do indeed invoke typical patterns of male and female socialization, as Raymond Bellour has repeatedly argued, they do so only to reveal the difficulties inherent in these processes—and to implicate the spectator in these difficulties as well. Interestingly, even Mulvey’s essay, which uses Hitchcock films as the main evidence in her case against Hollywood cinema, actually ends up claiming that Vertigo is critical of the kinds of visual pleasure typically offered by mainstream cinema, a visual pleasure that is rooted in the scopic regime of the male psychic economy. In her reading of the film, Mulvey thus unwittingly undercuts her own indictment of narrative cinema as possessing no redeeming value for feminism.
Of course, Mulvey is not the first commentator to discover in Hitchcock films self-reflexive critiques of voyeurism and visual pleasure—a whole tradition of criticism celebrates the director’s ability to manipulate spectators so as to make us uncomfortably aware of the perverse pleasures of cinema going. But for all the claims of traditional critics to have had their eyes opened to the moral ambiguities inherent in film viewing, most remain incredibly blind to the relation of voyeurism to questions of sexual difference. For example, male critics frequently point to Psycho as a film which punishes audiences for their illicit voyeuristic desires, but they ignore the fact that within the film not only are women objects of the male gaze, they are also recipients of most of the punishment. It is left to feminist criticism to point out that after Marion Crane is killed in the shower, the camera focuses on her sightless eye; that when Mother is finally revealed, it is Marion’s sister who is forced to confront the horrible vision; that while she screams out in fright, the swinging lightbulb is reflected in the eye sockets of the female corpse; and that, finally, at the end of the film, “Mother” is agonizingly aware of being stared at and tries desperately to demonstrate her harmlessness to her unseen observers by refusing to swat a fly. In acknowledging such sexual asymmetry in desire and its punishment (where men possess the desire and women receive the punishment), we are forced to relinquish the more facile notions about Hitchcock’s self-reflexivity and his critiques of voyeurism—at the very least we would need to invoke the notions discussed earlier of male masochism and its denial or displacement.
An analysis of voyeurism and sexual difference is only one of the ways in which a book taking a specifically feminist approach can provide a much needed perspective on Hitchcock’s films. Indeed, there are many questions that I think begin to look very different when seen by a woman. What, for example, happens to the frequently noted theme of the “transference of guilt” when we insist against the grain of an entire history of Hitchcock criticism that a certain heroine is innocent because she was defending herself against rape? In patriarchy woman’s sexual “guilt” is unique to her and is not “transferable” to men. Or, to take another example, how do the theatrical motifs so common in Hitchcock films change their meaning when considered in the light of Western culture’s association of femininity with theater and spectacle? Or, again, how may we begin to rethink Hitchcock’s “Catholicism” when we view it in the context of Julia Kristeva’s work on religion and matrophobia—matrophobia being so strong an element in Hitchcock that it is acknowledged by even the most traditional of nonfeminist critics? While not the primary focus of this work, such concerns which have been central to Hitchcock studies will be given a new inflection in my readings. I am, however, by no means claiming to advance comprehensive, definitive interpretations of the films. Less ambitiously, I think of my book as a sustained meditation on a few of the issues that have been of paramount interest to feminist film theory.
In his recent work, The World, the Text, and the Critic, Edward Said has beautifully described the critic as one who “is responsible to a degree for articulating those voices dominated, displaced, or silenced by the textuality of texts. Texts are a system of forces institutionalized by the reigning culture at some human cost to its various components. . . . The critic’s attitude . . . should . . . be frankly inventive, in the traditional sense of inventio so fruitfully employed by Vico, which means finding and exposing things that otherwise may be hidden beneath piety, heedlessness, or routine.”36 Feminism, too, has by now its pieties and routines. Insofar as it all too readily accepts the ideals of male semiotic systems, feminism also needs to be challenged by a “frankly inventive” approach, an approach that, if it seems alien at first, is so only because it is situated in the realm of the uncanny—speaking with a voice that inhabits us all, but that for some of us has been made strange through fear and repression.
If it did not sound more frivolous than I intend to be, then, I would say that part of my intention in these pages is to defend that much maligned women, Mrs. Bates, whose male child suffers such a severe case of “overidentification” with her that he is driven to matricide and to the rape/murder of various young women. At the end of the film, “Mrs. Bates” (who has the last word) speaks through her son’s body to protest her innocence and place the blame for the crimes against women on her son. I think she speaks the truth. As I will argue, the sons are indeed the guilty ones, and, moreover, it is my belief that the crime of matricide is destined to occur over and over again (on the psychic plane) until woman’s voice allows itself to be heard—in women and men alike.
1. Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16, no. 3 (1975): 6-18.
2. Tania Modleski, “Never to be Thirty-Six Years Old: Rebecca as Female Oedipal Drama,” Wide Angle 5, no. 1 (1982): 34-41.
3. The most explicit statement of this may be found in an interview with Bellour conducted by Janet Bergstrom, “Alternation, Segmentation, Hypnosis: Interview with Raymond Bellour,” Camera Obscura, nos. 3-4 (1979): 93.
4. Teresa de Lauretis, Alice Doesn’t: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema, Bloomington: Indiana University Press (1984), p. 153.
5. In an unpublished paper delivered at the conference “New Narrative Cinema,” Simon Fraser University, September 1983.
6. Susan Lurie, “The Construction of the Castrated Woman in Psychoanalysis and Cinema,” Discourse, no. 4 (Winter 1981-82): 52-74.
7. Robin Wood, “Fear of Spying,” American Film (November 1982): 28-35.
8. Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act, Ithaca: Cornell University Press (1981), pp. 289-90.
9. For one account of this process see Mary Ann Doane, “Misrecognition and Identity,” Ciné-Tracts 3, no. 3 (Fall 1980): 25-32.
10. In From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, New York: Penguin, (1974), Molly Haskell notes the “complex interplay of misogyny and sympathy in Hitchcock” (p. 32).
11. Michelle Citron, Julia Lesage, Judith Mayne, B. Ruby Rich, and Anna Maria Taylor, “Women and Film: A Discussion of Feminist Aesthetics,” New German Critique 13 (Winter 1978): 87. Hereafter cited in the text.
12. Freud discussed differences between female and male sexual development in “Female Sexuality,” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. James Strachey, London: Hogarth (1974), Vol. 21, and “Femininity,” New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, trans. James Strachey, New York: Norton, (1965), pp. 99-119.
13. Gertrud Koch, “Why Women Go to Men’s Films,” Feminist Aesthetics, ed. Gisela Ecker, Boston: Beacon (1985), p. 110.
14. E. Ann Kaplan, Women and Film: Both Sides of the Camera, New York and London: Methuen (1983), p. 6.
15. E. Ann Kaplan, “The Case of the Missing Mother: Maternal Issues in Vidor’s Stella Dallas,” Heresies 16 (1983): 81-85.
16. Linda Williams, “Something Else Besides a Mother: Stella Dallas and the Maternal Melodrama,” Cinema Journal 24, no. 1 (Fall 1984): 2-27.
17. Mary Ann Doane, “Film and the Masquerade: Theorizing the Female Spectator,” Screen 23, nos. 3-4 (September-October 1982): 79.
18. Hélène Cixous, “Castration or Decapitation?” trans. Annette Kuhn, Signs 7, no. 1 (Autumn 1981): 48.
19. Citron et. al., “Women and Film,” p. 87. Quoted in Williams, “Something Else,” pp. 19-20.
20. Doane, “Film and the Masquerade,” p. 80.
21. The term “passionate detachment” is Mulvey’s, but it has been picked up by Annette Kuhn, who uses it as the title for the opening chapter of her book, Women’s Pictures: Feminism and Cinema, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul (1982), pp. 3-18.
22. Teresa de Lauretis, “Aesthetic and Feminist Theory: Rethinking Women’s Cinema,” New German Critique, no. 34 (Winter 1985): 163. Some of the reviews of the Kuhn and Kaplan books strongly criticized their tendency to focus on patriarchal cinema instead of concentrating on the female vision of women filmmakers. See in particular, Sarah Halprin, “Writing in the Margins: Review of E. Ann Kaplan’s Women and Film,” Jump Cut, no. 29 (1984): 31-33.
23. Gaylyn Studlar, “Masochism and the Perverse Pleasure of the Cinema,” Movies and Methods, Vol. 2, ed. Bill Nichols, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press (1985), p. 616. D. N. Rodowick challenges Mulvey’s reliance on binary oppositions by pointing to Freud’s essay, “ ‘A Child Is Being Beaten.’ ” See Rodowick, “The Difficulty of Difference,” Wide Angle 5, no. 1 (1982): 4-15. This little essay of Freud’s on a childhood masochistic fantasy has proved inspirational to several critics in thinking about spectatorship and identification. See, for example, Mary Ann Doane, “The ‘Woman’s Film’: Possession and Address,” in Re-vision: Essays in Feminist Film Criticism, ed. Mary Ann Doane, Patricia Mellencamp, and Linda Williams, The American Film Institute Monograph Series, Vol. 3, Frederick, MD: University Publications of America (1984), pp. 67-80; and Miriam Hansen, “Pleasure, Ambivalence, Identification: Valentino and Female Spectatorship,” Cinema Journal 25, no. 4 (Summer 1986): 6-32. See also Gaylyn Studlar’s response to Hansen’s essay, Cinema Journal 26, no. 2 (Winter 1987): 51-53. The Freud essay, “ ‘A Child Is Being Beaten’: A Contribution to the Study of the Origin of Sexual Perversions,” may be found in the Standard Edition, Vol. 17.
24. Quoted in Rodowick, “The Difficulty of Difference,” p. 15n. See Freud’s Three Essays on the History of Sexuality, trans. James Strachey, New York: Basic Books (1962), pp. 7-14. Also relevant is Freud’s paper, “Hysterical Phantasies and their Relation to Bisexuality” in the Standard Edition, Vol. 19.
25. Janet Bergstrom, “Sexuality at a Loss: The Films of F. W. Murnau,” Poetics Today 6, nos. 1-2 (1985): 193n. For an excellent critique of this essay, see Patrice Petro, Joyless Streets: Women and Melodramatic Representation in Weimar Germany, forthcoming, Princeton University Press.
26. Bergstrom, “Sexuality at a Loss,” p. 200.
27. Janet Bergstrom, “Enunciation and Sexual Difference,” Camera Obscura, nos. 3-4 (1979): 58.
28. See Sigmund Freud, “Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction Between the Sexes,” Standard Edition, Vol. 19.
29. See Claire Johnston’s “Towards a Feminist Film Practice: Some Theses,” in Movies and Methods, Vol. 2, p. 321.
30. Studlar, “Masochism and the Perverse Pleasures,” p. 605.
31. Christian Metz, The Imaginary Signifier, trans. Celia Britton, Anwyl Williams, Ben Brewster, and Alfred Guzzetti, Bloomington: Indiana University Press (1982) , p. 49.
32. Kaja Silverman, “Masochism and Subjectivity,” Framework 12 (1980): 4. Hereafter cited in the text.
33. In other work, Silverman takes this dialectic more fully into account. See, for example, her relevant analysis of Psycho, which she considers in the light of theories of suture. In The Subject of Semiotics, New York: Oxford University Press (1983), pp. 203-13. For his discussion of the dreamwork, see Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, trans. James Strachey, New York: Avon (1965), pp. 311-546. It should be noted that in his book on masochism, Gilles Deleuze insists that the process by which apparently masochistic urges of the tormentor are displaced onto the victim, thereby allowing an identification with the victim, is entirely compatible with sadism. Deleuze speaks of the “pseudo-masochism in sadism” and the “pseudo-sadism of masochism.” See his Masochism: An Interpretation of Coldness and Cruelty, trans. Jean MacNeil, New York: George Braziller (1971), p. 109. Deleuze maintains that the two perversions ought to be kept entirely separate, and, indeed, such separation is preferable to the kind of confusion that reigns in the current theorizing of the problem. However, my own study does not follow Deleuze’s line, but rather accords more closely with the Sartrean model of masochism and sadism as the two poles between which the subject oscillates in his attitude toward the other. In an excellent, as yet unpublished paper, “Masochism and Feminist Theory,” Sonia Rein points out some of the more problematic aspects of film theory’s adoption of the masochistic aesthetic and shows how masochism as it it theorized by Deleuze (upon whom Studlar heavily relies), is no more liberating for feminism than the sadistic model proposed by Mulvey.
34. Alice Jardine, Gynesis: Configurations of Woman and Modernity, Ithaca: Cornell University Press (1985), p. 48.
35. Jardine, Gynesis, p. 98.
36. Edward Said, The World, the Text, and the Critic, Cambridge: Harvard University Press (1983), p. 53.