What Hitchcock Got Wrong With “Marnie”

Recently, while researching another article, I came across this quote from filmmaker Anna Biller as she discussed films of the 1960’s and the men who made them. Of these she said: “those films were made for men’s pleasure. They didn’t include women as a viewer or spectator, whereas a movie like Marnie does” (Patterson 1). The movie Anna Biller mentions, Marnie, is the 1964 feature from Alfred Hitchcock. As Biller’s film, The Love Witch, deals heavily with many different feminist themes it is difficult to see why she would cite a film like Marnie as being a sort of inspiration for her work. Marnie, considered by many Hitchcock purists to be one of his greatest films, is certainly one of his most difficult as it directly deals with topics such as rape and mental health. Unlike Anna Biller, however, I don’t believe that Marnie was made with a female viewer in mind. Rather, I agree with another author who states: “If you want some full-on misogyny, rampant woman-blaming and outright abuser apologism, look no further than Marnie” (Bidisha 1).  With Marnie, Hitchcock legitimates patriarchal dominance of the 1960’s, diminishes the issues women of his time faced, and confirms sexist views of women held by society at the time. My opinion on the film differs from Anna Biller’s as I definitely do not see Marnie as any kind of feminist film.

Alfred Hitchcock was, doubtlessly, one of the world’s finest filmmakers. Of the many films he directed in a career that spanned over 50 years, the vast majority of them are considered classics. His oft imitated (though never duplicated) visual style and storytelling methods are the base curriculum for any eager young filmmaker today. The ways he pushed against censorship with many of his films continue to be a topic of discussion today. Seldom discussed, however, is Hitchcock’s views on women. Actress Tippi Hedren, who worked with Hitchcock on The Birds and Marnie described the director as an evil, deviant, and a misogynist (Goldman 1). His love for women is certainly clear in many of Hitchock’s film, casting women such as Grace Kelly, Doris Day, Kim Novak, and Tippi Hedren as the typical “Hitchcock Blonde.” However, the women in his films are flawed and subservient, damsels in distress needing a man to save them. While authors in the early 20th century such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Kate Chopin illustrated the ills of female subjugation and authors in Hithcock’s own time, such as Betty Friedan, continued this same view, the women in Hitchcock’s films are happily subjugated. What makes Marnie so unique is that its title character is unhappy because she is a dominant and independent woman. The film does not find a happy resolution until Marnie submits to the patriarchy—the complete opposite of any sort of feminist manifesto.

Tippi Hedren as Marnie and Sean Connery as Mark Rutland.

Marnie, played by Tippi Hedren, is a thief. She uses her feminine charms to get herself bookkeeping jobs, finds the opportunity to clear out the safe of a few thousand dollars, and then disappears, changing her name and moving on to a new job. Her activities are discovered by her latest boss, Mark Rutland, played by Sean Connery. Rutland blackmails Marnie, forcing her to marry him, and begins to psychoanalyze her to no end. Marnie does not want to sleep with him, or any man for that matter, something that Rutland finds to be completely appalling. The fact that she does not take joy in sex after he rapes her leads him to investigate her past. From Rutland’s perspective, a woman that does not want to marry or enjoy a man’s affections must be mentally ill. He discovers that Marnie’s mental problems are the fault of her mother, who was a prostitute and single mother. One stormy night, when little Marnie was crying, one of her mother’s johns tried to comfort her. Believing that this john was molesting her daughter, Marnie’s mother attacks him; Marnie then killed the john with a fireplace poker to protect her mother. With this memory resurfaced, Marnie is suddenly free of her ‘mental illness,’ and finds comfort in the arms of her abusive, rapist husband. This is supposed to be a happy ending because they are ‘in love.’

Marnie legitimates male dominance in its era through portraying her aversion to men as a flaw that must be amended. It is established early in the film that Marnie’s mother was a single woman who raised a child on her own; and that Marnie is just as independent. In a conversation between the two early in the film, Marnie states, “We don’t need men, Mama, we can do very well for ourselves.” Her mother agrees, saying, “A decent women don’t have need for any man.” In fact, Marnie’s mother credits her daughter’s success to a decision to not get settled down with a man and a family. These sentiments of women empowerment, however, were not shared by men at the time, who preferred wives to be stay-at-home and domesticated caretakers, and certainly not shared by Hitchcock. Rutland, however, sees it as his duty to tame this woman. During a conversation about animals, Rutland tells Marnie about a pet jaguar he had at that he trained her to trust him. He goes on to explain that women are predatory animals, and that he takes joy in domesticating them. His actions and words towards Marnie show that he doesn’t view her (or any woman) as human, they are no better than wild animals. According to this, Rutland encapsulates society’s views about women at the time, that they needed to be domesticated by a man in order to live a fulfilling life.

Even though Rutland rapes Marnie and forces her into marriage, he demands her gratitude for not beating her.

At one point in the film, Rutland tells Marnie: “I don’t think you’re capable of judging what you need nor from who you need it.” Rutland encourages Marnie to read about how women are supposed to behave, how it’s not a woman’s place to be frigid. Rejecting this, Marnie says, “I don’t need to read that muck to know that women are stupid and feeble and men are filthy pigs.” When Marnie begs Rutland to leave her alone, he rapes her. Throughout, he consistently states that he is trying to save her through these actions. He forced her into a marriage, raped her, and then states that she should be thankful for this because any other man would have had her put in jail for being a thief. While Marnie is an independent woman, just like her mother, Rutland sets out to prove that independence is not a trait women should have. The independence of Marnie’s mother is why her daughter ended up ‘broken.’ The so-called happy ending of the film is in Marnie’s rejection of her own independence and complete submission to her husband. These support views at the time which held that women were meant to be domesticated.

Marnie’s independence is seen as a mental illness throughout the film and part of Rutland’s task in domesticating this ‘wild animal,’ is to get to the nature of this perceived insanity. He reads books such as “The Sexual Aberrations of the Criminal Female” and “Frigidity in Women The Psychopathic and Criminal.” The prevalent idea in this film that motivates Rutland’s actions is the false belief that women are insane. Such ideas go back centuries with the history of Female Hysteria. The term “hysteria” comes from the Greek word for uterus, hystra, as Plato once compared a woman’s uterus to a living creature that wandered through a woman’s body and caused illness. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, hysteria was a diagnosis given to any problem women presented; frequently leading to forced hysterectomies in order to cure this illness. Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” addressed this issue directly, presenting a woman who was seen as being mentally ill because she wanted to be free from the confines of her marriage. While “hysteria” had ceased to be a diagnosis before the 1960’s, the issue of women’s health was frequently equated to their lack of male supervision. Author Betty Friedan points out in her 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique, which discussed the lives of several housewives from around the United States who were unhappy despite living in material comfort and being married with children. Friedan’s book spoke out against a psychology that kept women domesticated, it sparked second-wave feminism and led to many reforms to create equality between the sexes. Marnie, however, holds that the psychology prior to Friedan’s book was sound, by presenting a woman who’s frigidity is the result of mental illness that can only be solved through marriage and forced domestication.

Psychology book stating that women withholding sex were criminal.

In response to her perceived mental illness, Marnie states, “Oh men. You say ‘no thanks’ to one of them and, bingo, you’re a candidate for the funny farm.” Rutland proves her wrong, showing that her independence is dangerous and cures her of this mental illness. His rape of her, forcibly removing her from a lifestyle that allowed her free though, are shown to be benevolent actions in Marnie. Hitchcock’s film, while visually appealing, is incredibly misogynist. While women in Hitchcock films are frequently portrayed as damsels in need of rescue (The Birds, North by Northwest), manipulative criminals (Psycho, Vertigo, To Catch a Thief), or just dimwitted (The 39 Steps, Rope). One does not need Tippi Hedren’s testimony of sexual harassment to see that Hitchcock had very stated ideas about women that were popular at the time. Marnie, however, is the most misogynistic film of the lot.

Hitchcock’s onscreen cameo.

Works Cited

Bidisha. “What’s wrong with Hitchcock’s women?” The Guardian. 21 October 2010. Web https://www.theguardian.com/film/2010/oct/21/alfred-hitchcock-women-psycho-the-birds-bidisha

Goldman, Andrew. “The Revenge of Alfred Hitchcock’s Muse.” The New York Times Magazine. 5 October 2012. Web http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/07/magazine/the-revenge-of-tippi-hedren-alfred-hitchcocks-muse.html

Patterson, John. “The Love Witch director Anna Biller: I’m in conversation with the pornography all around us.” The Guardian. 2 Mar 2017. Web https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/mar/02/love-witch-director-anna-biller-conversation-pornography

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