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Analysis of Alfred Hitchcock’s Films Through Feminist Film Theory

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It is easy to get lost in a film. It is easy to be fully immersed with the plot, to feel horror and joy alongside the characters. However, it is important to look beyond the screen when analyzing a film. Someone crafted what the audience is seeing on-screen, and sometimes it is important to wonder why a film looks or sounds the way it does. There are no accidents in film; every aspect is carefully placed by the filmmakers. In most cases, the people behind the creation of a film are men. Therefore, a film is not a projection of what reality is, a film is the creator’s vision of reality. With feminist film theory, one is able to analyze how the female characters of a film are treated while acknowledging that the ones who created the female characters and their stories are men. Hitchcock’s films, The Birds and Vertigo, both show how men can craft stories in film specifically to punish women who they view to be unruly or deviant.

The Birds, while following a primarily female cast, is a film about men. Men engulf the whole film, both on the screen and behind the camera. The female protagonist of the film, Melanie Daniels, and the two side women of the film, Lydia Brenner and Annie Hayworth, are all consumed by the main male character, Mitch Brenner. Melanie falls in love with Mitch during the movie, and she pursues him throughout the film. Lydia, Mitch’s mother, clings to Mitch as the last male figure in their household after the death of her husband. She fears being abandoned, and surrounds her whole life around Mitch and, as a result, the women who surround Mitch. She grows to despise the women who Mitch is attracted to out of fear and jealousy. Annie Hayworth, a schoolteacher, is one of Mitch’s ex-lovers. She moved from San Francisco to Mitch’s hometown solely because she could not bear to be far from him, even when they were no longer romantically involved. Through the first half of the movie, this conflict between the three women over the leading male dominates the screen. This shows how important Mitch is, even when off-screen. However, the filmmaker’s male presence in the film is far more important, and this is seen best through the treatment of the leading lady, Melanie Daniels.

Melanie is playful and duplicitous, and the first scene of the movie shows the audience this while she leads Mitch around the shop, pretending to be a bird saleswoman but knowing nothing about birds at all. Her confidence in her lie is shaken when Mitch asks to see one of the birds, to which she reaches inside the cage and fumbles in an embarrassing manner. Mitch, through the encounter, never loses his composure. Melanie’s punishment for attempting to show power over a man by playfully tricking him is swiftly punished by the men behind the camera, and it only foreshadows what is to come later in the film.

Melanie, now intrigued by and attracted to Mitch, buys the two lovebirds he asked for in the shop with the plan of delivering them as a prank. This leads her to the main setting of the film, Bodega Bay. Her entire plan to deliver them goes well, and she is cool and composed for the entire time. We follow Melanie’s point of view, watching from her perspective as Mitch runs around to find who delivered the birds. At this moment, Melanie has a small victory. They both meet up at the docks, Melanie with a confident, cunning smile, which is swiftly replaced with shock as a seagull flies by and swipes her head. This small moment of power in the hands of a female character is swept away in an instant, replaced by the status-quo, as Mitch leads the injured damsel back into a restaurant to get her head checked.

The action heightens as the audience learns more about the birds. They’re violent creatures with no explanation for their attacks. Truthfully, there does not need to be, and in the end, it did not even need to be birds. The birds, through the lens of Melanie and her suffering, are only the tool in which the filmmakers punish its leading female. As the film progresses, the leading male becomes much more active, combating the birds and performing the ‘masculine role’ of protecting the women in his life: his lover, his mother, and his sister. The house is boarded up, and the birds attack the house, leaving all of the female characters in a state of panic and shock. Unsurprisingly, the male lead is quick to act as he fixes some boarding after the house. It is after the attack that the filmmaker’s retribution is finally enacted. Melanie hears the flutter of birds’ wings and investigates, leading her up to the attic where the birds have broken through the roof. Before she can properly react, the birds are upon her. The scene is framed erotically and viciously, with images of her being assailed by the birds, cut up and bleeding, with the sounds of her moaning and calling out Mitch’s name alongside. For the rest of the movie, the previously witty, compelling character of Melanie is regressed to a doe-eyed, speechless figure, struck with the trauma of the event. The filmmakers have properly punished Melanie and put her where they think she belongs.

This trend of a duplicitous female character being ‘put in her place’ does not only occur in The Birds. The female lead in Vertigo has the same treatment. In Vertigo, the main female character, Judy Barton, disguises herself as Madeleine Elster in order to help Gavin Elster murder his real wife. Gavin wants it to look like a suicide, and he decides to trick retired detective John Ferguson (or Scotty) into being a witness for her untimely demise. Judy, disguised as Madeleine, and Gavin convince Scotty that Madeleine’s great grandmother is possessing her and urging her to kill herself. After some time following Judy around, he becomes convinced of the story, and he ends up falling in love with her. When the time has come for the murder to take place, Judy runs up the stairs leading to the church-bell tower. Scotty, having vertigo due to his acrophobia, is stopped in his tracks, and can only watch in horror as Madeleine (the real one) falls from the top of the tower.

After her death, he is obsessed with her, and stops Judy, now out of her disguise, in the streets. He convinces her to have dinner with him because she looks so much like Madeleine. He starts changing parts of her appearance — her clothing, her shoes, her hair — in order to make her look more like Madeleine. It is not until Judy puts on an item of jewelry that Scotty knew Madeleine owned that he began to see through Judy’s plans. He forces her to drive with him to the clocktower where the real Madeleine died, making Judy relive those same events. At the top of the clocktower, Judy confesses everything, but at the last minute, falls in the same manner as the real Madeline when she becomes frightened by a nun appearing in the clocktower as well.

Her death is the end of the film. The audience sees Scotty look over the ledge, the nun rings the church bell, and the Paramount logo appears on the screen. Death is important to Hitchcock, but with the death of Judy, there is no aftermath for the characters. Madeleine’s supposed death leads to the entire second half of the film, but Judy’s death is the last scene. In this way, Judy’s death is her being punished for her actions. Her death does not lead somewhere, it is the end-effect of all that she has done throughout the film. For the first half of the film, she held incredible power over Scotty; by the end of the film, the filmmakers punish her for it. However, they only punish her after she struggles helplessly in Scotty’s grasp as he interrogates her.

The view Hitchcock has of his female characters is widely recognized, even by Hitchcock himself. In his book Abject Terrors: Surveying the Modern and Postmodern Horror Film, Tony Magistrale says, “Hitchcock liked to quote nineteenth-century playwright Victorien Sardou’s inspiration to ‘Torture the women,’ although Hitchcock was also known to amend this advice by adding, ‘The trouble today is we don’t torture the women enough’”. To Hitchcock, the fictional women who are brought great distress at the hands of the filmmakers are somehow deserving of it in some way. The punishment is deserved; in this way, it is retribution.

This punishment, in Judy’s case, can even go beyond her death at the ending of the film. Judy’s psychological stress in the second half of the film leads the previously confident and unfaltering con-artist to break. Tony Magistrale describes this scenario as it pertains to Hitchcock’s films in general, stating:

A pattern typically emerges: Early in many of his pictures, especially the later work, the male protagonist finds himself under the romantic spell of a woman so beautiful that she appears unworldly. At first, he is nearly overwhelmed by her uniqueness, but midway through the film the dynamic shifts, placing the main female character under siege, in a position of crisis. 

The audience watches as Judy struggles to be with Scotty, struggles to actually be seen by Scotty for who she really is. She struggles as he tries to “change” her, which climaxes in a scene where she breaks down and exclaims, “Couldn’t you like me, just me the way I am? When we first started out, it was so good; w-we had fun. And… and then you started in on the clothes. Well, I’ll wear the darn clothes if you want me to, if, if you’ll just, just like me”. Judy struggles to remain herself while also wanting to be close to Scotty. More than anything, she wants his affection, and it is Scotty’s love for the woman she only looks like that brings her such torment in the film.

Both Judy and Melanie receive the “torture” that Hitchcock thought women needed more of. They are both punished by the writer’s own hands through the conventions of film devices, whether it is a devious plot or a supernatural occurrence. While, in the universe that the films take place in, the events can be excused as unfortunate occurrences, one must remember that these stories do not happen by chance. They are crafted with great care and thought out by the hands of men. In this way, all films can reveal what the filmmaker’s bias’ are, and Hitchcock is no different.

Works Cited

  • Hitchcock, Alfred. Vertigo. Los Angeles: Paramount Pictures, 1958.
  • Magistrale, Tony. Abject Terrors: Surveying the Modern and Postmodern Horror Film. Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 2005.

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Analysis Of Alfred Hitchcock’s Films Through Feminist Film Theory. (2021, August 06). GradesFixer. Retrieved February 5, 2023, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/analysis-of-alfred-hitchcocks-films-through-feminist-film-theory/
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Analysis Of Alfred Hitchcock’s Films Through Feminist Film Theory. [online]. Available at: <https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/analysis-of-alfred-hitchcocks-films-through-feminist-film-theory/> [Accessed 5 Feb. 2023].
Analysis Of Alfred Hitchcock’s Films Through Feminist Film Theory [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2021 Aug 06 [cited 2023 Feb 5]. Available from: https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/analysis-of-alfred-hitchcocks-films-through-feminist-film-theory/
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