Last week in class I mentioned that I planned to write a blog entry comparing Hitchcock’s Psycho with Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, which came out the same year (1960). Like Psycho, Peeping Tom is a story about a psychopathic serial killer. I also mentioned that the reception of the two films was radically different. Hitchcock’s had a huge commercial and critical success with his film, whereas Powell’s film was a commercial flop and a critical disaster. Powell was practically “blacklisted” in movies for years afterward. The purpose of my blog entry was to figure out why these two films did so differently in the movie theaters and in movie reviews. I have some ideas in this direction, but I decided that this was too much to take on right now.
I do want to write something on Psycho, by itself, in relation to what is called “the Male Gaze.”
According to Glen Johnson, “the Male Gaze” (or “The Gaze”) is
a concept introduced by Laura Mulvey (“Visual Pleasure & Narrative Cinema,” 1975) to characterize cinema as an instrument of male spectatorship. Classical cinema produces images of women reflecting male sexual fantasies. Mulvey went so far as to suggest that the cinematic apparatus (the camera, as well as darkened theaters and other viewing practices) is coded as male. Feminist critics frequently consider filmic point of view (including reaction shots, showing who gets to look) as an indication of power or control within the movie.
Bob Bednar adds that Mulvey’s
essay outlines an idea about the “male gaze” in which men have the power to actively look upon passive female bodies. Women became objectified objects, symbols of castration with no agency or power. Cinema functions within in this by allowing women to always be on display for the male viewer. Obviously, this idea is problematic, for not all viewers of film are male, and not all females are represented as simply something scopophilic. Still, Mulvey’s idea about the male gaze has some validity to it, which we find in Hitchcock’s films.
Simply put, the Male Gaze refers to the idea that the point of view in Hollywood films is male, and that women are usually presented on screen for the sexual pleasure of men. Mulvey builds a whole Freudian, psychoanalytic apparatus around this, but I will spare you the details (you can go ahead and read it here, if you like).
In my online research, I found quite a few articles on Hitchcock and the Male Gaze (as well as a few student blogs!). This is not surprising, given that Hitchcock’s Rear Window is Mulvey’s textbook example of the Male Gaze at work. Other critics have examined the Male Gaze in other films by Hitchcock. This includes Psycho. (Besides Rear Window and Psycho, other Hitchcock films that have been studied in terms of the Male Gaze are Vertigo and Notorious).
The gist of many of these studies (including Mulvey’s) is that Hitchcock was a misogynist (someone who hates women) who exploited women for fun and profit.
For instance, in The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory, Tania Modleski describes how
in Film Studies, Hitchcock is often viewed as the archetypal misogynist, who invites his audience to indulge their most sadistic fantasies against the female. Some critics have even argued that Hitchcock’s work is prototypical of the extremely violent assaults on women that make up so much of our entertainment today. . . . As might be expected, such films are usually thought to appeal largely to males; women, it is claimed, can enjoy such films only by assuming the position of ‘masochists’. Rape and violence, it would appear, effectively silence and subdue not only the woman in the films – the one who would threaten patriarchal law and order through the force of her anarchic desires – but also the women watching the films: female spectators and female critics. (17).
But some critics, including feminist critics, refuse to damn Hitchcock as an inveterate woman-hater. The iconoclastic feminist cultural critic Camille Paglia (who wrote about Hitchcock in her controversial book Sexual Personae, and wrote a study of Hitchcock’s The Birds for the British Film Institute), said in a 1999 interview:
From the moment feminism began to solidify its ideology in the early ’70s, Hitchcock became a whipping boy for feminist theory. I’ve been very vocal about my opposition to the simplistic theory of “the male gaze” that is associated with Laura Mulvey (and that she herself has moved somewhat away from) and that has taken over feminist film studies to a vampiric degree in the last 25 years. The idea that a man looking at or a director filming a beautiful woman makes her an object, makes her passive beneath the male gaze which seeks control over woman by turning her into mere matter, into “meat” – I think this was utter nonsense from the start. . . . It was an a priori theory: First there was feminist ideology, asserting that history is nothing but male oppression and female victimization, and then came this theory – the “victim” model of feminism applied wholesale to works of culture.
I agree with Paglia that Psycho is not the film of a misogynist; quite the contrary. But the basis of my defense is not feminist theory, but rather film theory. Let’s call it the “Self-Awareness Defense” (Note: Self-reflexivity, a term you’ve been introduced to and which will be important in the second half of the course, is a term quite similar to “self-awareness”). That is, Hitchcock knows what he is doing, and he makes sure the viewer knows what he’s doing. Hitchcock doesn’t leer at women in his films, neither does he encourage other viewers to leer; he instead exposes the machinery of misogyny, the workings of the Male Gaze, to the viewer.
We can test my “Self-Awareness” thesis by looking at Psycho.
The partially-clothed Marion Crane is often on display in Psycho. And she is often watched by men. Travis Carr writes that
Before main character Marion Crane even reaches the Bates Motel she is being watched; she is questioned and then followed all the way to Los Angeles by a far-too-diligent cop after spending the night in her car on the side of an isolated desert road. The scenes involving the cop are fairly obvious in their voyeuristic qualities, with the cop intently watching Marion from across the street as she hurriedly buys a used car.
But Marion was being watched even before that. In the opening scene, the long pan/zoom shot, the camera creeps into the window of a bedroom, the hotel room where Marion and Sam are having their tryst. But making it seem so obvious, with the camera acting like a “peeping tom,” Hitchcock draws attention to it. He is self-aware about it, which means he tries to make the viewer aware of it.
Evangeline Spachis also notices that
throughout the first half of the narrative, Marion Crane is the subject of a number of gazes, from the leering Mr. Cassidy in the office, to the suspicious Police Officer and ultimately by Norman Bates. These gazes are represented both technically (camera angles, point of shot) and by the script and the representation of the characters.
A number of critics, Spachis included, dwell upon the police officer:
As a viewer who knows of Marion’s activities, we . . . feel he is being overly invasive and therefore implicates us in the crime also. The dark, opaque sunglasses the officer wears seem intrusive, aggressive and block the viewer (and Marion) a chance to interpret his character via his eyes.
In large part because of the sunglasses, the film viewer never really takes on the point of view of the police officer in this scene. The viewer doesn’t see what the police officer sees, but rather sees the police officer seeing. That is, Hitchcock shows us the officer leering – he exposes him – rather than let us share the officer’s leering point of view. This is another example of how Hitchcock is self-aware in Psycho.
The parlor scene is another example. There is a lot of looking and being watched in this scene. Spachis describes the scene:
The parlor room in which they have lunch is filled with Norman’s stuffed birds, many frozen in full flight indicating perhaps the action of capture and the bird’s all-seeing point of view on its prey. Norman’s declaration to Marion: “You, you eat like a bird” reinforces the interpretation that Norman has an ‘eagle-eye’ view of Marion.
Spachis reads the stuffed birds as extensions of Norman’s Male Gaze. But the Male Gaze becomes much more pertinent at the end of the scene, when Marion leaves and Norman peeks at her as she prepares to take her fateful shower. Carr writes:
After Marion leaves the parlor for her room, Norman watches her through a peep hole in the wall, the camera zooming in on his eye. This time, though, what Norman gazes upon is far more overtly sexual than anything previously; he watches Marion undress and prepare for a shower, and when the camera assumes the viewpoint of Norman the audience itself becomes an objectifying voyeur.
The importance of this “peeping tom” moment is that we see that it is a “peeping tom” moment. Hitchcock makes sure we see it.
Norman spies on Marion through a peep-hole hidden behind a painting. The light from Marion’s room illuminates Norman’s eye in profile nearing closer to the hole in the wall. The camera shifts to Norman’s point of view and instantly implicates the viewer in the voyeurism. We are both shocked at his invasion of her privacy and yet cannot turn away. Spying on Marion getting undressed invites us to witness the cause of Norman’s arousal and the manifestation of his desire from behind a wall – forever kept apart from any possible sexual gratification. Moments later, the famous shower scene occurs.
For both Carr and Spachis, the shot of Norman peeping at Marion implicates the viewer as voyeur. Hitchcock is saying: “Look, you’re a voyeur too!” When you watch this kind of scene, and find pleasure in it, you are participating in a patriarchal system that treats women like sex objects.
Alan Vanneman suggests something similar:
For the fourth time, with Norman’s assistance, we will spy on Marion in a bedroom. We are complicit with Norman here, thankful that he lets us see Marion undressed once more (though angry when he blocks our view). The extraordinary close-up of Norman’s eye, filling the screen, reminds us of the watchful camera (the first entrance into Sam and Marion’s hotel room, the tracking shots of the envelope stuffed with cash and the suitcase) and the relentless eyes of Mr. Cassidy and the state trooper.
I would just like to re-iterate something that Vanneman mentions: the viewer has seen Marion in a bedroom, in various stages of dress, three times before Norman peeks at her through the wall. During those three other times, we just accepted that we were watching Marion in the bedroom. We didn’t notice we were watching. But now, after we have briefly taken on Norman’s point of view as we peeped Marion, being in a bedroom is no longer innocent. We are aware of what it means now.
Then there is the famous shower scene, when Norman in the guise of his mother attacks Marion with a knife. Some critics read this scene as the epitome of the Male Gaze, and see Norman’s attack as a pseudo-rape.
Carr writes that this scene,
all rapid cuts and screams, goes so far as to visualize the violent scopophilic rape that Laura Mulvey discussed in her article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. It is an onscreen manifestation of the male’s desire to “rape” the female, and Marion’s murder (in which the audience is forced to, at times, assume the role of the murderer himself) is tantamount to that. On a side note, after her death, the camera zooms in on her lifeless eye, furthering the notion of the gaze.
Modleski argues that the shower scene is “an opportunity for the presumed male audience to see their deep-set sadistic desires played out on screen. This idea is emphasised in Laura Mulvey’s famous article ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (1975). . . . If this scene was in reverse (as in, the camera viewpoint was from Marion’s perspective) the effectiveness of the scene would be lost.”
Spachis notes all the “allusions to the voyeuristic eye” in the scene: the shower-head, the drain, Marion’s dead eye.
Vanneman claims that
the brilliance of the scene is that it keeps us relentlessly in the very middle of a horrifying event – we feel as if we are seeing “everything,” far more than we want to see – without ever becoming merely sadistic or gruesome. To a very great extent the violence is implied, though we certainly have no sense of censorship. In part, we are caught between two desires, the desire to see the naked body of a beautiful woman (Hitchcock has been teasing us with this for the whole film), and the desire not to see a brutal murder. But Hitchcock won’t give us the one without the other.
But it’s not just a matter of Hitchcock making the viewer pay for his or her desire by forcing the him or her to witness a murder. It’s that he makes us witness a murder to show us the end result of desire. Hitchcock is self-aware about watching in the shower scene, and if the viewer follows his lead, the viewer will become aware too. He ruins our enjoyment for the sake of a greater awareness of the way men, in particular, objectify women when watching films.
The basic premise of what I’m arguing is that if Hitchcock were a vehicle for the Male Gaze, he would not be so obvious about it, pointing it out to the viewing audience; he would make the experience of watching women for sexual pleasure seamless and invisible. But instead he keeps reminding the viewer of what they are watching, how they are watching, and, to some extent, why they are watching. Hitchcock is self-aware so that we might be aware.
If all this is still a little blurry, don’t worry. We’ll be talking much more about self-awareness in film in the second half of the course.
University of Maryland
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Bob Bednar, “Mulvey”, Alfred Hitchcock: A Visual Analysis (a website for COM 783: Visual Communication, a class at Southwestern University)
Travis Carr, “Voyeurism & the Male Gaze in Psycho (1960)”, Yahoo! Voices:
Glen Johnson, “Feminist film theory,” MDIA-ENG 451: Hitchcock (course taught at Catholic University of America, Spring 2013)
Modleski, Tania, The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory (New York: Methuen, Inc., 1988).
Evangeline Spachis, “Drawing back the shower curtain: Voyeurism in Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ (1960)”, Girl on Film (blog):
Michael Sragow, “The Savage Id” (Interview with Camille Paglia), Salon (website):
Alan Vanneman, “‘Here’s Lookin’ at You, Kid!’: Alfred Hitchcock and Psycho,” Bright Lights Film Journal