Alfred Hitchcock and feminist film theory (yet again)

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In an insightful essay appearing in another volume devoted to Hitchcock's work, “Hitchcock and Feminist Theory from Rebecca to Marnie,” Florence Jacobowitz writes, I agreed to write this chapter on the significance of Hitchcock to feminist film theory and criticism following the completion of a course I taught on women and film that included films by Hitchcock and other classical-era Hollywood directors, including Dorothy Arzner. The students' ambivalence toward these films extended beyond a particular auteur; for them, the problem with seeing any value in classical realism overrides a problem with specific directors like Hitchcock. Students are familiar with the basic tenets of feminist theory established in [Laura Mulvey's] “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” and hold firm to them: Classical realist films construct a male viewer and women, symbolizing castration “and nothing else,” are investigated, saved or punished, or fetishized as pure spectacle. My own experience over the past decades has been quite different. I present early feminist criticism like Mulvey's, generally referred to as “second wave,” that is, as a feminism extending beyond political issues like winning the franchise or achieving equal rights to questioning the dynamics of power in cultural and intimate life, by inviting students to see the advantages and disadvantages of its theoretical perspectives. My students almost never react without ambivalence to psychoanalytic approaches to film that frequently characterized work of this vintage, and which are brilliantly epitomized by Mulvey's pivotal essay. Invocations of Oedipus complexes make them crazy; the word “castration” sends them flying out the door. They are also loath to break down the codes of realism, unless they find a film “hammy” (or melodramatic). So, the challenge is to show why the early feminist work on Hitchcock, which may seem to them obviously “wrong,” was nevertheless so influential, and why it may still have something to say to us today. These changes in approaches to genre films and to gendered spectatorship have taken place gradually. I think that this evolution, like our own critical practice, would benefit from a rigorously historical presentation, although I grant that this is very hard to do in undergraduate classes or even via essays like this one.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge Companion to Alfred Hitchcock
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages18
ISBN (Electronic)9781316227756
ISBN (Print)9781107107571
StatePublished - Jan 1 2015

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


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