Hitchcock’s Gender Roles: Spellbound by Ben Elliott


What makes Hitchcock’s portrayal of gender roles so intriguing is that he always seems to be making a statement about how men and women should be viewed in his films. Men and women are not only portrayed a certain way, their dialogue outright states Hitchcock’s feelings, or politics about men and women. As Boyd and Palmer put it, “Hitchcock’s politics are sexual politics. As Lesley Brill characterizes the underlying structure of Hitchcock’s films, “the plot of romance leads to adventure, with the killing of a hyperbolically evil figure the usual penultimate action and the winning of a mate the conclusion.” (Boyd, Palmer) Spellbound (1945) is a prime example of how men and women are depicted in Hitchcock’s films. 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.

Women are a focal point in all three films we chose to study. In Spellbound (1945), from the beginning, we see a woman patient, Mary, who flirts with the guards and male doctors. The nurse specifically tells the guard to watch her carefully, insinuating that she will try to use her sex appeal to manipulate him. Then we are shown Ingrid Bergman’s character Dr. Constance Petersen.

One of the other doctors is attracted to her and kisses her, but she brushes him off, assumingly because she is dedicated to her career. Women, being the object of desire, hold the power, and use it to manipulate men. It is not enough that women are shown this way, but also they are frowned upon when they don’t respond to male attraction and try to be independent and coy. Time and again Constance refuses help from men in the movie, and it is always negatively connoted. Hitchcock seems to be sending the message out that women are only complete when they are with a man. For example as one of Constance’s colleagues comments to the other male doctors when discussing her new-found fascination with “Dr. Edwards”, “The poor girl has been withering away under the science,” and another, “I had noticed she had been missing something in her life.”

Meanwhile, men are shown as superior, and chase the women. Older men, in particular, frown on the younger men, and tease the women in the film. The younger man, Dr. Edwards/John Ballantyne is a man of action. In the film it is the man that is forward, suave, and handsome. For example, he has to approach her and tell her why she came to his room. And that she is very lovely, and has to initiate their kiss.

Hitchcock shows his true feelings about women when Constance falls in love in the film. Suddenly she becomes restless and can’t help but go to “Dr. Edwards” room, insinuating that women are at the mercy of their emotions, and that emotion, not logic control their actions. As Pomerance puts it, “…The spirit of a young female with savoir-faire and curiosity, with unconquerable virginity and innocence and a willingness and ability to yield to the world-searcher of the masculine side, lived in this inner world of the artist. (Pomerance 59-60). At one point in the film a man, Dr. Alex, comments that “the mind of a woman in love is operating on the lowest level of intellect.”

Men meanwhile are shown to be calm, logical, and questioning. After John Ballantyne and Constance are on the run from the police, Hitchcock shows the difference in men and women in his opinion. Constance is willing to suspend belief and have faith in the man she loves, saying “it’s not your fault,” while John isn’t convinced and questions his own innocence. Constance will do anything to have what she wants, and says it herself when she says “I’m going to do what I want to do.” She repeatedly lies and manipulates men into believing her lies and doing what she wants, while John just says that they should give up and go to the police.

“I love you, but I’m not worth loving.”

Men tell her she’s even crazier than her patients once she falls in love. When all she knows about John Ballantyne is that his initials are J.B. he tells her “You’re crazy, to just run off with a pair of initials.” And then later, when she is talking to her mentor, Alex, about John, he tells her that she’s twenty times crazier than John is. And that her “love” talk is baby talk, and that she is acting like a schoolgirl. Hitchcock even goes so far as to have Dr. Alex say “Women make the best Psychoanalysts until they fall in love, after that they are the best patients.”

Throughout all three films, Hitchcock has a recurring character of the suspicious investigator. All of the investigators are male authority figures, detectives, or cops. Spellbound (1945) has a heavy dose; from cops who question her to see what she knows about “Dr. Edwards, to the hotel investigator, to the railroad cop, to the detectives in Dr. Alex’s office. Hitchcock reinforces his portrayal of men as questioners who make decisions after careful thought and applying logic to every situation by including these characters in his films. And these men are constantly fooled by the women in the films, emphasizing their devious and deceitful nature, from the cop in Psycho (1960) to the cops in Spellbound (1945.

While most of the representations of women are negative in Hitchcock’s films, there is also the positive aspect of loyalty that is shown in Spellbound (1945). Constance believes in her man against all logic or danger. She defends him fights and fights against even when it seems all hope is lost to prove his innocence. For example, in her final confrontation with Dr. Murchison, she puts herself directly in danger to get a confession from him that proves her love’s innocence. But even in her finest moment, she, and by proxy women, are still persecuted for being loyal.

“You’re an excellent analyst, but a very stupid woman.”

 It is only through her verbal manipulation of Dr. Murchison is she able to escape with her life, without being shot. He, instead, turns the gun on himself. In this scene, Hitchcock once again reaffirms the portrayal of women as the instigators of action. They may not take action themselves, but they verbally prod men to action time and time again throughout Hitchcock’s films.

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