“You Freud, Me Jane?” -Concepts of Spectatorship in Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie -
Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. [i]
In the history of cinema Hitchcock appears as one who no longer conceives of the constitution of a film as a function of two terms –
the director and the film to be made - but as a function of three: the director, the film and the public which must come into the film, or whose reactions must form an integrating part of the film. [ii]
The interest of visual narrative in Alfred Hitchcock’s movies is well-documented and widely-known. His films provide a context for the analyses of spectatorship which examine the theories, structures, and functions of the gaze. Furthermore, by letting the spectator negotiating and producing the film’s meaning, Hitchcock’s works acknowledge the presence of the audience. His film’s calculated narrative style, the self-consciousness within his works, and the address of the spectator make his movies a prolific source for the examination of different approaches to the media viewer. In film theory, Hitchcock’s concentration on the male character and the male gaze represents a specific and often problematic debate. In my paper I will examine some of the theories that shaped the discourse of identifying and positioning the spectator within the narrative of film by focusing on Alfred Hitchcock’s film Marnie (1964), since this movie is probably Hitchcock's most significant work to visualize the subjective psychological states of his problematic central character through the use of cinematic technique.
First, I want to focus on a psychoanalytical interpretation by explaining the dynamics that Laura Mulvey describes in her analysis of conventional narrative films in the ‘classical’ Hollywood tradition that not only typically focus on a male protagonist in the narrative, but that also assume a male spectator. Theories that work within this tradition have cited Hitchcock as a director exemplary of the Freudian or Lacanian exegesis. By the 1980s Mulvey’s theory generated considerable controversy amongst film theorists and was criticized to present an oversimplification of Hitchcock’s agenda. Since then scholars shifted their interest to a strong empiric or historic focus on the spectator. The collapse of the psychoanalytic interpretation was replaced by heavily contextualized analyses that questioned universalizing categories. In this context I want to discuss Janet Staiger’s approach which examines the relations between spectators and their interaction with the film which activates meaning. Thus, Staiger works against Laura Mulvey’s idea that the spectator plays a passive role in the process of interpreting. Furthermore, I want to examine the limitations of Mulvey’s approach by comparing it to the concepts central to a realization of reception studies as conceived by Staiger. In a final step I will provide a research model on how Hitchcock’s Marnie can be seen through the lens of the concepts central to reception studies.
In her now-classic essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, published in 1975, Laura Mulvey uses psychoanalysis to understand the fascination of Hollywood cinema. The central idea of her approach, which is often referred to as "the founding document of feminist film theory" [Modleski 1989], is that the narrative structure of classical Hollywood cinema establishes the male character as active and powerful, which means that he is the agent around whom the narration unfolds and the point of view is organized. The female character on the other hand embodies the passive and powerless part. Within the narrative of the film she is the object of desire for the male character. Thus, she concludes, women in films are displayed as sexual object (spectacle) and tend to interrupt the narrative. Furthermore, according to Mulvey, classical cinema stimulates the desire to look, and thus conveys structures of voyeurism and narcissism into the narrative and the media image.
According to Laura Mulvey, the specific textures of the cinematic apparatus enable the spectator to engage in the psychological process of projecting repressed desires onto the actors. She explains that there are three ways of looking within the medium of the film: the look of the camera, the look of the spectator, and the looks of the screen characters among each other. Mulvey concludes that our visual pleasure is produced by the characters of the narrative looking at another, whereas narcissistic visual pleasure emerges from self-identification with the protagonist (voyeuristic process of objectification of female characters and also the narcissistic process of identification with an ‘ideal ego’ seen on the screen). Here, Mulvey makes use of Freudian psychoanalytic theory by referring to scopophilia, the desire to see. According to Mulvey, the Freudian “Schautrieb”, facilitated by the various features of cinema viewing conditions, is gendered because in a patriarchal society “pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female.”[iii]
In the course of her analysis Mulvey demonstrates the ways in which voyeurism functions as an exclusively male prerogative. She states that male protagonists direct their gaze towards female protagonists and that voyeurism connotes women as “to-be-looked-at-ness.” [iv] Hence the spectator is actively made to identify with the male rather than with the female character in film, because the camera films from the point of view of the male character. Thus, the narrative typically focuses not only on a male protagonist in the narrative but also assumes a male spectator and the cinematic codes of popular films “are obsessively subordinated to the neurotic needs of the male ego.”[v] Mulvey states that:
The power to subject another person to the will sadistically or to the gaze voyeuristically is turned on to the woman as the object of both. Power is backed by a certainty of legal right and the established guilt of the woman (evoking castration, psychoanalytically speaking).[ ... ] Hitchcock's skillful use of identification processes and liberal use of subjective camera from the point of view of the male protagonist draw the spectators deeply into his position, making them share his uneasy gaze. The audience is absorbed into a voyeuristic situation within the screen scene and diegesis which parodies his own in the cinema.[vi]
[i] John Berger, Ways of Seeing. London: BBC/Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972
[ii] Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson & Barbara Habberjam, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1986, p.11
[iii] Laura Mulvey, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, in Braudy, Leo and Marshall Cohen, eds. Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings (6th ed.). New York: Oxford UP, 2004., p 841
[v] Mulvey, p.841