Abject Bodies and Gender Instability in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960)

By Dan Spada, originally published on Raving Through Dark Nights. Republished with permission.

The way performance functions in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” reflects a deep, abiding preoccupation with gender roles and the truth economy that is generated therein. The oscillation between masculine and feminine, and the instability of gender is depicted in the construction of characters that do no satisfy ideal, conventional roles regarding sex and gender, but rather expose a profoundly unsettling inconsistency in respect to bodies, both abject and normalized. The gender role reversal in Psycho is blindingly obvious, particularly in the scene where Lila goes to explore the house and find Mrs. Bates, while Sam acts as a decoy to distract Norman. This scene and the following one, in which it is revealed that Norman has been preserving the skeleton of his mother and dressing up in her clothes, stress the transience of gender, and how it is not always in sync with biological sex. Sam’s aggressive homo-social taunting of Norman in this sequence, and Lila’s exploration of the house, leading up to the discovery of the skeleton and Norman’s performance as his mother, all hint towards an inherent gender instability within the characters of the film and a masculine/feminine malaise that is developed throughout the course of the film.

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Before Lila begins to look for Mrs. Bates and Sam distracts Norman, they search through the cabin one for any clues. They find a slip of paper Marion wrote on regarding the stolen money (just numbers and equation signs) that missed the toilet when she flushed the rest down. Lila becomes desperate to search the house and speak to Mrs. Bates, and Sam fulfills the typical role of male protector by saying, “I don’t like you going into that house alone.” This dialogue is in line with the heterosexist ideology of the time, and an ideology that Sam’s character clearly held true. He sounds resigned when he says that he’ll find Bates and keep him occupied.

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It is important to note that Sam’s gender performance, like everyone’s inside the world of the film (and outside, according to feminist and queer theorist Judith Butler), is a failure. He cannot provide for Marion in the way that she wants and needs him to (as evident from the first scene); ironically, right after Norman watches the swamp swallow the car with Marion’s body in it, Sam is seen writing a letter to Marion professing that he doesn’t care if they are poor, cramped, or miserable – at least they’ll be happy (and alive). This could be why he overcompensates when in pursuit of the truth about what really happened to her, and this overcompensation comes on particularly strong throughout the scene in which he keeps Norman occupied. His hyper-masculinity in this scene is almost to be expected, especially with someone as weak as Norman.

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However, Sam’s hyper-masculinity does not surface until after they enter the office. Norman is already suspicious of the couple, and Sam is clearly nervous, at first (before entering the office), to be diverting Norman’s attention. He knows that he is a potentially dangerous person, although he is not yet sure in what way. The sexual tension between the two is immediately felt in Norman’s body language. His confidence (both in body and speech) when he asks, “You looking for me?” slowly begins to dissipate shortly thereafter. His body then enters a visible state of unrest, and Sam’s teasing line, “I never can keep quiet enough for her, so I thought I’d look you up and talk”, with all its erotic undertones, hints towards a fluctuation between homo-social and homoerotic interaction – that also begins to dissipate after those few seconds.

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Sam then begins to try to bully the truth out of Norman, which, although it does not work (in regard to what he wants to hear – about the money and Marion), puts him in a progressively more distressed state over the duration of their conversation. It seems that Hitchcock implies that when Sam says “Buy a new one, in a new town, where you won’t have to hide your mother,” when talking about the hotel and the money, that Norman is actually thinking about himself and his gender identity. Hitchcock is also suggesting the possibility of Norman thinking Sam is aware of his secret, which makes him noticeably tense up – his jaw muscle begins to contract faster, and his speech begins to tremble.

In the office scene, the frame is split perfectly in two. Sam inhabits one side (the left – customer), Norman the other (the right – owner): one proper body, one abject; one (normalized) heterosexual identity, one (shamed) queer; one searching for what he will not find, and one hiding something everyone is looking for – but also the opposite, something no one expected to find. Lila exploring the house while Sam distracts Norman also could be looked at as a gender role reversal – why is it Lila exploring the house while Sam distracts Norman? Shouldn’t they use Lila’s female sexuality to keep Norman’s attention while Sam (born explorer, essence of man) searches the house? Or were they already unsure about Norman’s sexuality? They certainly were not given any clues to his gender trouble at that point.

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The revelation of Norman as Mrs. Bates is a different kind of performance when looked at against those outlined by Judith Butler. Butler offers drag as the ultimate portrayal of gender instability. However, almost always, drag offers some sort of comedic edge (whether it be inherent in the participants/the performance or reactionary from the audience) and her syllogism that if one understands drag as a portrayal of gender instability, then they must believe gender to be socially constructed, is reductive and unrealistic. With Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock offers his character’s gender trouble in a less deductive and more effective/affective way: Norman is not a sideshow, a circus act for the people from within the film or the audience to laugh at (up until the end, when a feeling of camp arises). Hitchcock is not setting it up so that once the audience witnesses the wig falling off Norman’s head in the big reveal that they will instantly be convinced of gender’s contingent foundations. Hitchcock is, however, offering a deeply troubling ambiguity that confounds the characters within the film, and finds the audience feeling a deep unease in regards to what they have just seen. It’s the slippage between masculine and feminine, the undeclared sexuality of Norman that is emphasized by Hitchcock and felt by the audience; it is that uncertainty which functions as the crux of the film and is the key to its understanding. With drag, you only get the performance. With “Psycho”, you get more: the visage of the boy next door and the spirit underneath the skin of Norman Bates – the creation of a monster a little too human for our liking.

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About the writer: Dan Spada has a Bachelor’s in Women Studies and Film from Hunter College. He currently works for Tribeca in the Acquisitions Department. Dan was on the Pre-screener Committee for the Hampton’s International Film Festival taking place this October (2014) and was on the selection committee for this year’s Rooftop FIlms Summer Series.

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