Context: This little essay examines and destroys the recent belief that the women found in Alfred Hitchcock’s films are simple damsels and distress or one-dimensional sex objects. In this essay, I argue that his female characters are not misogynistic portrayals of helpless females, instead some of his films’ best and strongest characters are women. They are strong and fascinating because they triumph over the villain and survive much trauma.
More and more, I’ve seen one charge laid against famous and talented English film director Alfred Hitchcock by modern viewers more than any other: misogyny. This label, as both a woman and a lover of classic films, saddens me.
While his films have misogynistic characters, his films do not have a misogynistic agenda, in my opinion. The ill treatment of some of his heroines comes from the purpose of the plot, the fate of the lifestyle they are living, or the actions of the men in their lives. The male characters are not treated any better in a Hitchcock film, either. As to the suffering of his female characters, I have this to say: a character suffers in the first half of a story so they can triumph in the last act.
Classic examples of that last reason can be found in “Vertigo”, “Notorious,” and “Marnie.” The men in those three films are emotionally cold and sometimes dangerous, and while they sometimes have the attributes of a romantic lead (probably because of the actors playing those characters more than the characters themselves), Hitchcock tries, I believe, to make it clear that the actions of these men are wrong and it is only when the men come to care about the women they are hurting do they have any sort of redemption.
Take for instance Devlin from “Notorious”—his character is very unfeeling at times, but the way Cary Grant plays him makes me think that he knows he’s being a bastard and that he hates himself for it, but it’s part of his job. So that makes his attempt at redemption in the climax of the film much more powerful.
The other two men I’ve listed are past redemption in some viewer’s eyes—and perhaps rightfully so. Sean Connery’s character in “Marnie” spends the film as an emotionless plot device—he forces the main character to marry him (though this is after she stole from him, so maybe 60’s audiences weren’t too offended by this), then he practically rapes her on their honeymoon. We never really get to know how he’s feeling and he treats Marnie like she’s this amusing possession or pet of his—something to be trained and kept—so he is the worst (emotionally) of all of the three men.
Then there’s Scottie from “Vertigo”. How do I justify this man? He falls in love with another man’s wife, loses her, then finds a woman who looks remarkably similar to his lost love and decides to change this new woman into a replica of the woman he lost. The villain in “Vertigo” and the anti-hero are similar to Devlin in that all men are changing the women they love, but end up making them more attractive in the eyes of another man. In “Notorious” the other man is Alex Sebastian, in “Vertigo” the role of ‘the men who have transform the heroine’ is taken up by Gavin Elster, who is behind the scenes for most of the plot, and Scottie, which makes the final revelation all the more tragic. The anti-hero of “Vertigo” is emotionally traumatized and mentally scarred, giving him more justification then the other men I’ve listed I suppose, but what he does is horrible none the less. Yet the interesting thing about that film is that we sympathize with him the whole way through the film. It’s hard to have loved and lost someone. I could make a whole other essay on that character alone.
So, back to the women: the women they abuse share the fact that they take on many different identities and that they are all changed by the men who control them.
Most of the women in his films, though they go through harrowing experiences, have a happy ending—it’s a staple of almost every story ever told—the character suffers but might be rewarded at the end, and typically is in most genres, except for tragedies. Some of his characters, like in “Notorious” and “Marnie” or even “The Birds” have ambiguous endings, so we never get to know if the women survive or if they go on to have the happier life that they deserve. Some characters (SPOILERS) like Judy in “Vertigo” or Marion in “Psycho” have very violent and shocking deaths, but they are, in some ways, punished for their actions through this violent end of theirs. Judy has been an accomplice in a murder and Marion has embezzled from her employer—so their deaths are sort of justified in the mindset of moviegoers at the time these two films were made.
But it’s the heroines who suffer the most that we remember. Young Charlie in “Shadow of a Doubt” has lost her innocence after nearly being killed by her uncle, Alicia in “Notorious” has been used by the man she loves and nearly died because of it, Marnie was abused at every turn, Judy in “Vertigo” had to betray and hurt the man she loved the most to help another murder his wife, Margot in “Dial M for Murder” was nearly killed by a man her husband hired, and Melanie in “The Birds” was attacked by lots and lots of birds. They stick with us because they were strong and very well written characters, played by talented actresses who brought their character to life.
If Hitchcock hated women, he wouldn’t have let the writers of his films write such strong and diverse female characters. He’d have simply banished them to the backgrounds of the plot while the men took center stage. But no, his female characters—good and bad—are likeable and courageous—we care about them no matter what they’ve done. And while in movies the women always suffer the most—in Hitchcock films this is still the case—Hitchcock’s heroines are able to, for the most part, come out of these traumatic circumstances and go on living, content to walk into the sunset, or at least the next chapter of their lives, after making their way through hell. That takes a lot of luck and bravery.
To talk about females in Hitchcock films is to talk about females in the movies period. The women in his films are so extraordinary and well crafted that the writers, the actresses who play them, and Hitchcock all deserve more respect than they usually get these days. Just because a female suffers in a film doesn’t mean that she’s a weak character, in fact, it shows how strong she is that she’s able to push herself through the pain and find hope in a better life. So the next time you see a Hitchcock film—or a film in general—try seeing the female characters’ strengths, not their weaknesses and don’t blame the director or the writers if the heroines are hurt. Suffering is part of life in the movies.