The Gendered Object: Hitchcock’s Objectification of the Feminine
Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 film Vertigo is the story of an acrophobic detective and his descent into deceit, obsession, and madness. Vertigo has frequently been criticized by feminist commentators as a reflection of the often misogynistic male gaze and desire. In the same vein of criticism, this essay attempts to examine how Hitchcock weakens male characters by feminizing them and strengthens female characters by masculinizing them, effectively creating a dichotomy between the masculine and feminine which propagates pre-existing structures of male dominance and female submission. Hitchcock also uses formal and stylistic elements of film to convey this dichotomy, further enforcing the idea of the powerful, positive masculine and the submissive, negative feminine. Additionally, Vertigo can be analyzed through a Lacanian psychoanalytic lens in which Scottie’s relationship with Madeline can be deconstructed into the interplay between Lacan’s three psychosexual stages: the Real, the Imaginary, and the Symbolic. Finally, I will examine how Hitchcock not only plays into traditional gender roles, but how he totally and completely objectifies the feminine.
On the surface, the portrayal of gender in Vertigo seems progressive. Scottie, the film’s protagonist, is an acrophobic who is cared for by a woman and ultimately deceived by a woman. The female characters in Vertigo do not seem to be overly-reliant on their male counterparts and for the most part defy the stereotype of the weak, defenseless woman. However, by looking more closely at the characterization of male and female characters in Vertigo, it becomes apparent that there are undertones of sexism deeply ingrained within the film. One of the very first scenes in Vertigo is of Midge and Scottie talking. Scottie states that he has resigned from the police force and that he will soon be out of his corset. (Hitchcock) While it is clear that Scottie needs the corset for health-related issues, the linguistic choice of the word “corset” is very telling. Corsets are a traditionally female garment- by confining Scottie to something inextricable from the feminine, Scottie is quickly associated with the constraints of femininity. It’s also important to note the circumstances in which Scottie is associated with femininity. Scottie did not choose to wear the corset- instead he is eager to be freed from it. This subservience to a feminine symbol automatically detracts from Scottie’s masculinity and feminizes him instead. Not only is Scottie forced to wear a corset, he has also resigned from his job. In patriarchal societies, men secure dominance by maintaining a career and masculine aesthetic. Within this scene, Scottie is deprived of both a career and a masculine aesthetic. By taking away qualities that are often characteristic of a man, Hitchcock replaces the masculine with the feminine. Further, when contrasting the characterization of Scottie with the characterization of Midge, Scottie is feminized even further. Midge is independent, holds a stable job, and does not have any physical or psychological illnesses- while Scottie is dependent on the help and care of a woman with whom he lives, does not have a job, and has a disability. The character of Midge is much more stereotypically masculine than Scottie. Thus, Hitchcock forms a dichotomy between the masculine and the feminine. Midge takes the place of the masculine, while Scottie is confined to the feminine.
Not only does Hitchcock create a conceptual dichotomy of the sexes, he also uses formal and stylistic elements of film to convey this dichotomy. When Midge and Scottie appear in a scene, they are rarely present together in the same shot. Scottie is often shown waving his cane around, with Midge’s bra-like contraption in the background, while Midge is often shown sitting or standing by a desk. (Hitchcock) Hitchcock physically associates Scottie with a bra, a symbol of femininity, and Midge with a desk, which could symbolize work and study, something emblematic of stereotypical masculinity. Hitchcock refuses to portray the masculine and the feminine in conjunction- instead they are separated, each confined to their own space. Hitchcock successfully achieves this dichotomy by not only placing Scottie and Midge by objects often associated with a certain gender, but by utilizing a shot technique which only portrays one character in a single frame- separating the masculine from the feminine. Hitchcock further pushes this dichotomy in the latter parts of the same scene. After Midge and Scottie have a conversation about his resignation and impending freedom from his corset, we observe the first inklings of Scottie’s disability- his acrophobia. Midge helps Scottie climb up the rungs of a step-ladder, after which his vertigo immediately sets in and Midge has to catch him as he nearly faints. (Hitchcock) By connecting the conversation about Scottie’s resignation and corset to a display of his acrophobia, Hitchcock links Scottie’s feminization to his debilitation. The feminization of Scottie is not a problem in and of itself, but the context in which it is done is the issue. Hitchcock uses notions of femininity to weaken male characters. According to Amy S. Wharton’s The Sociology of Gender: An Introduction to Theory and Research, patriarchal societies construct a system which stimulates the dominance of men and masculinity and the subjugation of women and their corresponding femininity. Wharton also contends that since femininity is subjugated, we perceive it as lesser to masculinity. When seeking to depose men of of dominance and power, it is common that we project feminine characteristics onto them in order to imply weakness (Wharton 57). Essentially, in patriarchal systems, femininity becomes synonymous with weakness and the projection of feminine characteristics onto men can be used as a tool of degradation and humiliation. This association of the feminine with the weak is toxic- it enables the propagation of pre-existing, gendered power structures (Wharton 59). When Hitchcock uses feminine qualities to depose men of their status, he perpetuates the system of dominant masculinity and submissive femininity. Not only does Hitchcock use femininity to weaken men, he also uses masculinity to strengthen women. When Midge displays masculine characteristics, she becomes the dominant character on the screen. It becomes clear that Hitchcock can only create a powerful woman with masculine traits, as he derives power from the imaginary of masculinity. Hitchcock does not simply enforce the deposing power of femininity, but he also harnesses the rewarding force of masculinity- allowing masculinity to retain dominance and forcing the feminine into submission. By doing this, Hitchcock’s Vertigo is simply a solidification of traditional gender roles. Vertigo can also be analyzed through a psychoanalytic lens. Jacques Lacan, a French theorist and psychoanalyst, postulated three major structures into which the psyche can be divided: the Real, the Imaginary, and the Symbolic. The Real is marked by a simple nature of need, needs which can be satisfied without any differentiation between personhood and a world of others. The Real is the concept of original nature from which we have been intrinsically separated upon our entrance into language. Lacan’s next psychosexual module is the Imaginary. The imaginary is the transition of the subject from primal need to what Lacan identifies as “demand.” This demand is what begins the subject’s descent into narcissistic fantasies of desire. While the Imaginary consists of the construct of the image, the Symbolic is the system of signifiers we use to form reality- it is the set of laws and communications we use to create order and interpret reality (Lacan 146). What differentiates the Real from the Imaginary is fulfillment. The Real’s need can be satisfied, but the Imaginary’s demand is unsatisfiable. This unattainable object, or even non-existent construct of desire, is what fuels fantasy- compromising reality in favor of desire. In Vertigo, the Imaginary of Madeleine is Scottie’s object of desire- his ultimate fantasy. However, due to the very nature of a demand, Scottie can never obtain his object of desire, as she is a construct of the Imaginary. According to philosopher Slavoj Žižek in Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture, the object of desire is “materialized Nothingness.” Therefore, Scottie can not escape the fantasy of Madeleine until he understands that her being is one of non-existence (Žižek 83). Eventually, at the end of Vertigo, Scottie realizes that Madeleine is a non-being and can only be constructed again through mimicry and impersonation- the Imaginary of Madeleine is incompatible with reality. There is no real Madeleine and her existence can not be forged. Thus, Scottie’s demand can not be satisfied. In Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Scottie’s Imaginary is his construction of and unsatisfiable demand for Madeleine. The system of meanings Scottie assigns to this fantasy constitutes the Symbolic Order.
In Vertigo, Hitchcock’s characterization of men and women does not simply conform to traditional gender roles- Hitchcock goes a step further by identifying woman as an object of art. Scottie first encounters Madeleine at an art museum, where she sits gazing at a portrait of her great-grandmother, Carlotta Valdes. The very first shot we see of Madeleine is a profile shot, which is followed by a shot of the painting of Carlotta- who sits in the exact same position as Madeleine. Throughout the film, the camera focuses on details of Madeleine that mirror Carlotta- such as the way she styles her hair or her profile. After a zoomed in shot of Madeleine’s hair, there is a following shot of Carlotta’s hair. (Hitchcock) Eventually, the two beings of Madeleine and Carlotta merge into one- Madeleine herself becomes a work of art.
- Quote paper
- Lena Dassonville (Author), 2016, The Gendered Object. Hitchcock’s Objectification of the Feminine, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/346603