Hitchcock’s Gender Roles: Psycho by Ben Elliott

One doesn’t have to dig very deep into Hitchcock’s work to see the director’s views of men and women. Psycho (1960) may be known for its suspense, mystery, and famous shower murder scene, but it also is full of male and female role commentary. In all three films, Men are shown as damaged and needing help, while women are shown as care-givers. Men think women are interested in money or status or success, while women are only interested in love. And men are always reluctant to take action, until the desire of the women to solve the mystery presses them into confrontation. Psycho (1960) may not be focused on these elements as much as the other two films, but they are there nonetheless. Hitchcock is never content to let the audience draw their own conclusions about men and women in his films; instead he comes out and has the characters say statements outright about men and women.

“Do anything you have a mind to. Being a woman, you will.”

Once more we find that from the very beginning Hitchcock wants us to see that women are objects of sexual desire that are to be sought after. Marion is shirtless twice within the first eleven minutes of the film.

In Hitchcock’s work women are flirts, and men are pigs who, be it rich, suave, or handsome, chase women. We see this early on with the wealthy rancher Tom Cassidy.

“I buy off unhappiness. Are you unhappy?”

As in the other films highlighted in the exhibit, women are portrayed as conniving, manipulative liars who can’t be trusted. Marion steals $40,000 on a whim. This also reminds us of the “damaged” man of Sam, who is in tremendous debt, needing to be taken care of by the “care-giving” woman theme seen in the other films. She has to weave a web of lies to avoid the authorities and other suspicious people. She lies about the money, her desire to switch cars, and eventually her hometown and name when she checks in to the Bates motel. We are reminded that women think with their emotions rather than logic like men.

“I’m not capable of being fooled, even by a woman.”

A gender role conflict somewhat unique to Psycho (1960) is that of the over-bearing mother on the dutiful son. Some critics feel that Norman Bates’ relationship with his mother is a direct result of events that may have transpired in Hitchcock’s own childhood. “The tendency to trace scenarios of male subjective crisis and integration has been well documented, not least by Bellour and is feminist commentators, and in numerous of these dramas critics have detected a tantalizing touch of queerness, if also of pathology.” (Allen, Richard, and S. Ishii-Gonzalès 212).

“A boy’s best friend is his mother.”

When Bates sees Marion, he immediately desires her. She is lost, confused, weak, and easily trusting.  Hitchcock’s commentary on the reckless logic-ignoring idea of women may be summed up with Marion’s line, “sometimes a girl deliberately steps into traps.” He spies on her undressing, in which we see her topless again 44 minutes into the film, furthering the need of Hitchcock to portray women as sexual objects of desire. Bates eventually murdering her reinforces the idea that, as Boyd and Palmer put it, “A key theme of Hitchcock’s films is that they tell stories “built upon the struggle to dominate and the dread of impotence,” upon, more specifically, “the form of a man’s desire… to dominate the woman.” (Boyd, Palmer), since murder is the ultimate form of domination.

A parallel in all three films is the role of the suspicious male investigator. It is present and embodied in three men in Psycho (1960): The cop, the car salesmen, and eventually and most importantly in Detective Milton Arbogast.

“Someone always sees a girl with $40,000”

The cop is suspicious, but takes little action. The car salesman questions her, but eventually shrugs off her strangeness in the name of business. Arbogast, on the other hand, is the rare character in Hitchcock’s films that takes action of his own accord, based on his own suspicion. In Hitchcock’s other films we looked at, it was only the woman’s suspicions that ever led to action by a man. Those aspects are present once again in Psycho (1960) later when Marion’s sister Lila has to convince Sam to go with her to solve the mystery of what happened to her sister. But Arbogast also serves as a kind of warning by Hitchcock of what happens when men go out on their own to solve problems without a woman’s help.

Like Spellbound (1945) and Rear Window (1954), Psycho (1960) portrays women as reckless emotional creatures that must poke and prod the logical, careful, over-analytical men into action in order to, in the end, solve the mystery. Sam cautions Lila to sit still and hang on, be smart, and be reasonable. Lila is impatient, overanxious, needs to know, and needs to go, without any plan.

“I won’t be satisfied till I go myself.”

Lila discovers that Bates’ mom is actually dead, and turns to see Bates coming at her with a knife. She screams and throws up her arms helpless; much like Marion did earlier in the film when she is stabbed to death in the shower. Her curiosity solved the mystery, but Sam grabbing Bates and saving her is the action that is needed, that she instigated, to solve the problem. Hitchcock’s portrayal of women as action initiators rather than actually acting themselves is prevalent in all three films, and this scene is the ultimate example.

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2 thoughts on “Hitchcock’s Gender Roles: Psycho by Ben Elliott

  1. Pingback: A proposito di bamboccioni in tv. | Un posto al copy

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