Month: April 2012

The Feminine Mys-beak; Analyzing the Role of the Female in “The Birds”

Flighty, predatory, territorial, aggressive, and cacophonous; no matter how Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 film The Birds is dissected, it is remarkably obvious that the master auteur paints his notorious avian villains with such connotatively “negative” traits in mind. The scores of feathered specimens in The Birds take on a unique identity in what ultimately becomes a singular unified mass of a character, but what begins as a mere monstrous animal offensive on human victims instead becomes an symbolic examination of one of Hitchcock’s most consistently represented subjects; that of gender, particularly the female, and the implications which render her a weak, sexualized, “inferior” monstrosity within herself. From Hitchcock’s vast repertoire, we can extract films such as Psycho, and Frenzy, both at some point chronicling the death of a female (or females) murdered in a sexual context at the hands of a male. The woman, albeit possessing some agency throughout, ultimately succumbs to the male, a victim of his sexual insatiability, his sexual desires, and ultimately simply becoming “his” victim. The Birds, however, is slightly alternative to Hitchcock’s standard representations of the overt “male victimizing female” model by objectifying her sexual beauty, but also giving her “power,” yet funneling it into vicious, predatory outlets directed at other females. So, taking into consideration the basic premise of The Birds, how does Hitchcock engage the relationship between bird attacks and women and how does that relationship create a unique gendered ideology within the film?

The film’s narrative is simple, following Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) as she travels from San Francisco to a small town of Bodega Bay, pursuing Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) in a petty bid for vengeance. There, she meets the women in Mitch’s life; Annie (his former lover), Lydia (his mother) and Kathy (his much younger sister), with the bird attacks occurring shortly after Melanie’s arrival. But it is not so much Melanie’s journey that’s the point of interest, but rather the gendered treatment of the female characters and their constant comparison to the birds, which come to symbolize issues of feminine anxiety.

Hitchcock does not present the female as free from sexual objectification and the film builds the relationship between the female and birds by working to “cage” the female and to “free” the birds. In this context, it is important to understand that the film’s most prominent female character, Melanie, is a victim of a scrutinizing male gaze which ultimately contributes to her “othering” and “blame” for the bird attacks which occur throughout the film. We are introduced to Melanie on the streets of San Francisco. In a long shot, we see her across the street from our vantage point as she confidently flaunts a short skirt, high heels, and an altogether unmistakably feminine “cosmopolitan” flair. She approaches a pet store just as a young boy passes by, whistling at her so his attraction to her is made clear. Melanie stops, turns to face the boy (and the camera), with a look of disgust, but ultimately smiles and “welcomes” the gesture which at once renders her an attractive female, but also imprisons her as a result of her overt beauty and sexual appeal. Melanie then looks to the sky at the large number of seagulls flocking above the city, the film’s first connection of female sexual objectification with the ominous gathering of the birds, associating an issue of feminine passivity (Melanie “welcomes” the whistle as she is adorned with quintessentially attractive “female” attire) with the presence of an unusually large congregation of birds. They are “free,” and Melanie is confined to a “cage” of male objectification, adorning herself with attractive clothing and indulging in the various catcalls she receives on the street. She is a pretty object, simply something to be looked at.

Melanie enters the pet store and, as she’s waiting for the clerk to make a phone call, also willingly “welcomes” another position a male (Mitch) places her in when he decides to treat her as if she were a store employee. Mitch’s introduction to Melanie recalls the opening shots of the film, giving the audience his perspective and framing her in a long shot at a slightly lower angle, emphasizing her elongated legs in a sexual fashion as she poses suggestively over the counter. Melanie plays along, pretending to know the answers to the questions Mitch asks about lovebirds he is looking to purchase for Kathy. He asks her if she feels awful about “keeping all of these poor little innocent creatures caged up like this,” to which she responds with “we can’t just let them fly around the shop, you know.” Melanie unknowingly incriminates her position as a “free” female within the context of the film, condemning her symbolic counterpart (the birds) to cages; the scene concludes when she lets a bird go from its cage, Mitch being the one who wrangles it back in, commanding “back in your gilded cage, Melanie Daniels!” after he successfully achieves what she (and the female shopkeeper) can’t.

It is revealed that Melanie is involved in an ongoing courtroom battle where she is accused of breaking a plate glass window after playing a prank on an unnamed party, with Mitch telling her that he came to the shop knowing she wasn’t an employee, instead hoping to turn the tables on her and make her the victim of a prank as well. Melanie’s pride is hurt, and she seeks to “one-up” Mitch so as not to let a man “win” over her, although her “place” as a passive woman controlled my males is further emphasized when she calls her father’s newspaper to track down Mitch’s license plate, referring to him as “daddy” and asking if he is “in his office,” indicating that her father possesses enough power to have his own office; it becomes clear that Melanie is a “Daddy’s Girl,” (in contrast to someone like Norman Bates as a “Mama’s Boy,” etc.) relying on her father for money and favors, further “caging” her and tying her to a male-dominated society where she can only become an active, assertive woman with the help of a more powerful male (in this case, that being her father and his newspaper, which will provide Melanie with information that will lead her to Mitch’s apartment with the lovebirds).

Another scene during the film’s opening visually (as well as figuratively) “cages” Melanie and her position as an attractive female. As Melanie approaches Mitch’s apartment building, we see only a medium shot of her legs, high heels, and the bottom portions of an elaborate fur coat and only a glimpse of her delicate gloved hand as it carries a cage with lovebirds inside (again, an overtly sexually suggestive shot emphasizing the slender, dainty proportions of her legs and hands). The framing fragments Melanie’s body into this singular image of fetishistic sexuality (high heels, slender legs, etc.), imprisoning only a sexualized portion of her for us to see. As the camera follows her to the elevator, we see a man’s feet and legs standing inside as she enters, panning up to reveal a middle aged man staring blankly down at either the birds or Melanie’s legs (this is never clarified). He looks up to her face and the camera follows, revealing a determined woman oblivious to the fact that she has just been “checked out.” As the elevator doors open, we return to the fragmented shot of Melanie’s legs and the birdcage, alternating with close up shots of the man’s head as he follows her out of the elevator, looking her up and down. He’s ambiguously either piqued by the presence of the birds being carried by such a well-dressed woman, enamored with Melanie’s beauty, or perhaps both. He informs her that Mitch will not be around for a few days to retrieve the birds she’s left on his doorstep, sending Melanie into another petty quest for vengeance by traveling over 60 miles to Bodega Bay, where Mitch is visiting family.

Melanie’s journey to Bodega Bay not only serves as an advancement of the film’s plot, but also displaces her physically from the comforts of the city which cages her. She leaves San Francisco to drive nearly two hours only to prove a point; that she will not be trumped by a man and that she will have the last laugh, which is in itself a devious, spiteful approach that speaks volumes about Melanie’s desire for attention and scandal, bringing it upon herself to physically carry out her feelings of attention depravity and resentment of dominant personalities that encroach upon her own.

Static, extreme long shots frame her car as it traverses the coastline, rendering her miniscule presence amidst the landscape as invasive yet unimportant seeing as her goal is to achieve something extremely juvenile. She is similarly “othered” by the townspeople, seeing as the upon Melanie’s arrival at Bodega Bay she is objectified yet again for her cosmopolitan, dainty appearance in a fur coat and high heels (a store clerk asks her if she’s ever manned a boat before and is shocked to find that she has, offers to order the boat for her, doesn’t charge her for his services, etc.).

Melanie’s initial meeting with Annie, Mitch’s former lover, also “others” her, but not in a way that suggests she is being scrutinized for “arousing” the person who views her as occurred with the boy on street, the shopkeeper, etc.. However, it is because of Melanie’s sexual attractiveness that makes Annie probe her with questions concerning her reasons for traveling to Bodega Bay. When Melanie reveals to her that she isn’t “exactly” there to see Kathy, Annie rolls her eyes and responds with a knowing “Oh,” turns away from Melanie, and stares out into the bay as she asks if Melanie is “a ‘friend’ of Mitch’s.” The camera quickly zooms in on Melanie’s face, which gives a mischievous grin, an inclination that she knows she’s hit a sore subject with Annie (perhaps a romantic past? We are to believe this is the case). She tells her “No, not really,” knowing the answer sounds ambiguous and therefore eliciting feelings of jealousy on Annie’s part. This is a gender-specific case of jealousy between two heterosexual women, one a former object of his desire and one his future object (at this time, unbeknownst to us or to her). Regardless, Annie recognizes Melanie’s attractive qualities and is resentful of Melanie’s position.

Shortly after, Melanie follows through with her plan to leave the lovebirds inside Mitch’s house. It is here that the film begins to more clearly connect the negative elements of female psychology with the seemingly erratic, nonsensical bird attacks. The initial bird attack speaks to Melanie’s initial intrusive “othering” by the townspeople, but also as a representative reflection of her emotional psychology. Since Melanie has “won” the prank war with Mitch, she has essentially “proven” that she is the dominant force in the male-female dynamic of this specific instance. Hitchcock, never one to allow an assertive, dominant female to truly “succeed” in a vast majority of his films, pits her as the victim of a lone seagull attack as she boats away from the Brenner dock. Melanie and the bird are essentially one and the same. Something that was once “passive” and meant only to be an object of beauty viewed in a cage has now turned into something beastly and offensive, just as Melanie’s existence as a beautiful woman has allowed her petty revenge plot to “succeed” (would the clerk have helped her get a boat if she was an ugly old woman? Would the man in the apartment have paid enough attention to her to know she was dropping the birds off at Mitch’s house if she were any less attractive?), she’s also placed herself back into the cage of sexual objectification and juvenility, eliciting the audience’s distaste at her petty character just as fear is provoked by the normally “passive” seagull.

As Mitch tends to Melanie’s wounds in a shorefront diner, we are introduced to his mother, Lydia, who greets Melanie with a skeptical stare that indicates her initial wariness and unease at the thought of Mitch pairing with such a strikingly beautiful woman. It’s eventually revealed that Lydia has seen Melanie in various gossip columns within newspapers attempting to cast scandalous light on the daughter of a competing newspaper’s owner. In essence, Melanie is used as a business tool (another object in a “game” of sorts, which similarly calls for a certain type of scrutinizing “gaze” to be cast in her direction), which works because Lydia reveals that she’s uneasy with Mitch being so fond of a girl who was reportedly swimming naked in a fountain in Rome. It is also revealed that Lydia is a widow, Mitch’s father having died years prior to the film’s narrative. She is therefore, like Annie, a single woman who is seemingly jealous of the affections Mitch shows for the attractive Melanie (and we, as an audience, are more perceptive of the disapproving looks she constantly throws in Melanie’s direction).

Both Lydia and Annie, as indicated during their initial meeting of Melanie, possess a different type of gaze in opposition to the sexual one many of the males in the film possess. Their gaze is predatory, prying, and judgmental; like a bird of prey sizing up its competition or meal. Annie scrutinizes Melanie’s good looks and cosmopolitan charm in a matter of seconds, jumping to the conclusion that she must be romantically involved with Mitch (why else would an attractive woman be looking for him?), and Lydia’s disapproving stares (and all-seeing “perspective” on Melanie’s life she’s formed by reading the gossip columns) indicate a female-on-female gaze in the film that demarcates the mysterious, suppressed, often vicious underlying feminine psychological and/or emotional relationships Hitchcock creates between these three women.

Delving deeper into the psyche of the female characters, during a conversation that begins as Annie sets down a newspaper she reads (perhaps one of the gossip columns that mentions Melanie?), she reveals to Melanie that Lydia is fearful of being abandoned (presumably, she does not think a female can survive on her own) not in fact simply “jealous,” but rather afraid that a woman could give Mitch the one thing she couldn’t; love. Annie says that Lydia felt uncomfortable around her during their relationship “simply because I [Annie] existed.” Annie also says that she still lives in Bodega Bay simply to be near Mitch. Essentially, Annie is a perceptive, insecure woman just as Lydia is. She removed herself from the urban center of San Francisco (something Melanie finds extremely odd. Why would a woman want to live in a despicable place like Bodega Bay?) because she can’t let go of the feelings she has for a man, the very act of abandonment Lydia fears will happen to her if the right woman gives Mitch “love.” Hitchcock weaves these three women into one of his classic “erotic triangles,” (although this time it is reversed, considering the females pursue the male’s affections). Lydia and Annie simply desire his presence while Melanie eventually desires him as a romantic partner (or does she simply desire a challenge where she can assert herself over the other two women she competes against?).

Each of these instances is directly tied to “female” issues; Melanie refuses to be shown up by a man and travels to Bodega Bay; Annie and Lydia feel resentful of Mitch’s growing affection for Melanie, etc. It is only after Hitchcock’s exploration of the feminine psychology revolving around each woman’s “attraction” to Mitch that the frequency and severity of the bird attacks increase. Prior to the attack on Kathy’s birthday party, Melanie and Mitch retreat from the other guests to a hilltop overlooking the ocean, where they discuss Melanie’s lack of a strong mother figure in her life and what she does with her free time (it amounts to nothing more than taking a class and working one day a week while having the others “free”). Hitchcock abruptly cuts the audience loose from the conversation, choosing to pan down the hill to Annie’s face in a medium shot as it views the pair on the hill with a set of judgmental eyes (the “predatory” female gaze returns). As Annie looks away, Lydia steps into frame behind her, similarly casting a judgmental glance at the couple on the hill (her “predatory” female gaze). These two characters, despite having a similar goal, are aligned together in their positioning (both facing the same direction, sharing the screen, participating in the same act of “gazing” in a non-sexual, predatory manner at the same subject) and therefore aligned “against” or “offensive” in relation to Melanie’s passive or “defensive” unknowing reception of their gaze.

Immediately after we see Lydia gazing upon Melanie and Mitch, the flock of seagulls begins their attack on the children. Hitchcock offers no concrete explanation for the attack, only leaving the audience with visual clues (Annie and Lydia judgmentally gazing, the context within which they gaze, the previous night’s conversation between Annie and Melanie, etc.)  that function to pair the attacks with some sort of female-related anxieties. Recall the first bird attack which occurs shortly after Melanie places the birds inside the Brenner home, which positions her as a dominant woman who lacks submissive qualities. Similarly, recall the seagull that smashes into Annie’s door as she coaxes Melanie to attend Kathy’s birthday party (we are to assume she intends to spite Lydia). While the characters can see no pattern to the attacks, to the viewer their seemingly “nonexistent” patterns are inextricably related to issues of feminine sexual jealousy or possessiveness thanks to their parallel positioning. The origins of which, however, remain completely ambiguous; Hitchcock is not a woman, therefore he knows nothing about what a woman “really” thinks. Perhaps the cacophonous sounds of a woman’s prying anxieties (Mitch indicates that he is working on a case where a woman was murdered because she changed the channel while her husband was watching “the game,” a quintessentially “male” thing to do) or petty (as he sees them) are symbolized by the erratic structure of the bird attacks and their similarly cacophonous squawking. He can only observe feminine psychology concerning their passive position or their relation to other women in a bid to “gain” a man’s affection. Hitchcock, instead of trying to get “inside” feminine psychology and “explain” it overtly to the audience, instead directly parallels his female characters with the literal “monstrous others” of the film (the birds) by associating instances of human female ruthlessness, jealousy, scrutiny, clinginess, and territorialism with similar (albeit literal) offensive attacks taken by the birds that only seem to proceed feminine emotional displays.

The next bird attack follows a similar pattern. Kathy suggests that Melanie stay the night at the Brenner home while Lydia fumbles through what seems to be dozens of reasons why that’s not a good idea (after throwing Kathy a disapproving look, of course). A few seconds later, a cascade of sparrows flows from the chimney into the living room. This marks a shift in location of the bird attacks, seeing as they’re now inside the family’s domain to mimic Kathy’s welcoming of Melanie into their home. After the attack, the camera follows Lydia as she laments over broken dishes and household objects destroyed during the assault. A police officer offers justification for the attacks, but the camera remains fixated on Lydia as she traverses the mess. She asserts that the birds “attacked,” although the officer quickly offers up a logical alternative (“the kids probably scared them, that’s all” he says) that discredits Lydia’s position and renders her opinion inferior. The camera remains focused on Lydia (despite the officer, who is speaking, still standing near the center of the room where our focus “should” be) as she makes her way over to a picture of her dead husband that looms over the scene. It’s tilted slightly as a result of the attack, harboring one of the dead sparrows atop it, further indicating that the home is completely off-kilter and “broken” both physically and emotionally. The once-present patriarch is now simply an image perched on the wall, useless save for its power to remind Lydia that her home was once shared, presumably equally, with a man who provided her with stability and reassurance. Melanie, after seeing how distraught Lydia is (and assumedly recalling Annie’s words), sees an opportunity to assert herself as an alpha female and tells Mitch she’ll spend the night, much to Lydia’s dismay. Now that Melanie has “invaded” Lydia’s home and threatens her relationship with Mitch, it becomes clear that the presence of the female coupled with some sort emotional disturbance acts as a catalyst for the bird’s behavior.

Lydia’s psychological dependence on the male presence in her life is further emphasized in a scene which sees her travelling to a male acquaintance’s house. As she approaches the door in a medium shot, her face is reflected in a nearby window, projecting her image literally on to a surface of the house. Essentially, the house represents a familial domain or safe haven similar in nature to the way Lydia views her own home. When she knocks on the door, her friend does not answer. She enters the house, passing by a set of broken glassware that’s shattered almost exactly as hers was the previous night. The camera movements mimic Lydia’s anxiety, zooming in on the broken glasses, cautiously peering over the wall to reveal a long hallway. She travels down the hall and enters her friend’s room, the camera mimicking a shot-reverse shot “conversation” between Lydia and the gruesome discovery she makes. The camera systematically reveals more of the room as Lydia “discovers” it, always cutting back to her anxiety-ridden face from scenes of dead birds and a disheveled room. The final shot of the sequence frames her friend, dead, in a long shot, a series of jump cuts forcing our perspective closer to the empty sockets where the man’s eyes once were. Lydia, in shock, retreats back through the house (each shot that preceded the discovery is again repeated as she leaves, save for Lydia retreating through the house instead of making her way deeper into it), indicating that this has happened once and it can (and most likely will) happen again. After all, this is a male who fell victim to the birds in a house that, by all means, could house a family as Lydia’s does. Lydia values the strength and reassurance a male’s presence provides her with, and for the birds to have killed a man inside his own home makes Lydia feel even more susceptible.

Perhaps the scene which incriminates the female the most occurs as Melanie makes her way to the diner to report the attacks to her father via telephone. A shrill old ornithology expert contest Melanie’s claims that the birds launched an attack, telling her that birds “bring beauty into the world,” but just as she says that a waitress’ voice drowns the utterance out, proclaiming the order of “three fried chickens with a baked potato on each!” The irony here seems to be that while birds are generally objects of passive beauty, humans cannot help themselves from “caging” them and killing them for their own consumption, just as Hitchcock is doing here with women; he “cages” Melanie as a victim of the male gaze because of her sexual attractiveness and similarly incriminates Lydia for being a clingy, doting woman who’s self-proclaimed most intense pleasure in life was making her late husband breakfast (essentially taking pleasure in “serving” the male).

As the old woman continues to contest Melanie’s claims, a mother asks a waitress if she’ll tell the gathering crowd to lower their voices because they’re scaring her children. More residents offer their opinions on the matter, with one proclaiming that it’s “the end of the world!” Eventually, the anxiety spreads to many of the patrons, with the mother eventually scaring herself so badly that she makes a scene and leaves, only to return minutes later after the birds begin another attack. Again, Melanie has caused a panic amongst a group of people; each of them listened to her claims about the bird attacks, and shortly thereafter an attack occurred. Melanie and Mitch make their way back to the restaurant after attempting to flee to find a small group of people huddled in a corner towards the back of the building. Each of them is unmistakably female. The mother approaches Melanie and accuses her of bringing the birds to the town, asking her “Who are you? What are you?” It takes another female to see that Melanie is the vessel for destruction, whose petty act of vengeance and sly attempts at challenging other females’ positions with Mitch.

This scene is the closest that Hitchcock comes to presenting the audience with clear cut reasoning for the bird attacks by placing the blame, at least in a character’s eyes, on Melanie. As a result of the aforementioned tensions between the most prominent females in the film and their close relationship with the bird attacks, women are meant to be viewed as the “monstrous other” instead of the actual non-human creatures who physically threaten the people of Bodega Bay. The birds are simply symbolic of the interior convolution of Melanie, Lydia, and Annie as each woman attempts to subvert another’s position, primarily revolving around each of their relationships with Mitch. In essence, the female does not literally transform into the monster, but her actions are presented as harbingers of doom, of bringing the bird attacks with her like a storm cloud following overhead.

It is interesting to note, then, that Annie is the only focal character to die by the film’s end. She is the most passive of the three women, only acting in reactionary and defensive terms when she feels that Melanie could potentially begin a relationship with Mitch. After all, Annie tells Melanie that she has accepted that her relationship with Mitch is over, but that she can’t bear the thought of losing him as a friend, which is why she’s removed herself from the cosmopolitan center of San Francisco (where a woman like Melanie thrives on fashion, fun, and meaningless activities like taking a once-weekly course in “rhetoric”) and placed herself directly in reach of Mitch, who never fully acknowledges his past with her. Annie is still jealous of Melanie and Mitch, yet dies because her bitter, spiteful feelings are not as intensely domineering or predatory as those of Melanie and Lydia, respectively. Annie succumbs to the fact that Melanie and Mitch are entering into the early stages of a courtship (whether it’s sexual or relationship-oriented), and therefore dies because she cannot accept it, further painting the picture of a woman as dependent on a male’s affection in order to “live” even after their romantic entanglement has ended. Since the bird attacks are ultimately pinned on Melanie’s presence in the town, it can be argued that Melanie inadvertently “killed” Annie.

All of this culminates in the final attack sequence. Mitch, Lydia, Kathy, and Melanie are holed up inside the Brenner home when it begins. Mitch, the only male, takes control of the situation by boarding up the outside and barricading all windows and doors with the necessary protection to keep the invaders “out” of the house. If we are to believe that someone like Melanie or Lydia is actually the “cause” for the attacks (as the mother in the diner accuses Melanie of), then Mitch fails to realize that the threat has been inside his home the whole time. Melanie remains silent as the birds attack, cowering on the couch as the intense cacophony of screeches and squawks sound overhead, engulfing the house and bearing down on the psyche of both Lydia and Melanie, whose faces share similar expressions of anguished defeat. Mitch leaves the now-helpless women in the parlor as he makes his way about the house, closing shutters that have come open and barricading doors the birds are diligently pecking through, again (recalling the opening sequence of the film) accomplishing what the females can’t; protecting the house. The scene also recalls the opening sequence by essentially reversing Mitch’s observations about the cruelty of keeping birds in a cage. Now that the female relations in the film have come to a terrifying head, the humans are the ones forced into a “cage” by the birds, seen as a direct result of the female tensions which occurred throughout the film.

The final moments of the film see Melanie attacked and crippled by birds that managed to find their way to a bedroom upstairs. The Brenners decide to leave the house as they are too vulnerable if another attack should come. The film gives the audience a small shred of hope, though. The group makes their way to the car and Melanie sits in the back seat with Lydia. A close up shot shows Melanie as she looks up into Lydia’s eyes as they stare down at her with a pitiful sense of reassurance. Melanie finds comfort in the gaze (which replaces the “predatory” female gaze seen earlier in the film) that resonates as motherly, and she nestles her head into Lydia’s neck as if she’s found the mother she never had growing up. An extreme long shot shows the car as it drives away, a glimmer of sunlight peeking through the clouds as hordes of birds cover the ground. The light represents a divine sense of hope for the family, especially now that one of the most turbulent female relationships within the film has been “fixed,” or codified as “acceptable,” although there is a misogynistic tone that suggests that the females are still responsible seeing as the hope symbolized by the ray of light comes only after they reconcile their relationship, indicating that it is indeed a sour female relationship that instigated the attacks.

It is through these kinds of depictions of female relationships throughout the film that make The Birds one of Hitchcock’s most violently misogynistic entries into his filmography. It is clear that females are much more “observant” in the film, like birds, and keep watch on each other and their romantic partners (even the mother in the restaurant is the first to accuse Melanie of being “responsible” for the whole thing, and the vicious feminine gaze is embodied not only by Lydia and Annie but by each of the women who seek refuge in the restaurant). The film functions to characterize the birds (and their attacks) alongside the females, positioning each bird attack either directly after or just prior to a scene that exposes some sort of deep-seated issue concerning an emotional, sexual, or relationship-oriented anxiety that stems from a uniquely feminine perspective. Whether it’s the jealousy Annie feels when she glances at Mitch and Melanie conversing on a hilltop or Melanie’s juvenile attempt to get the last laugh with a petty practical joke, Hitchcock portrays his female characters in a critical way, indicating that they are the harbingers of doom and destruction as a result of their mysterious emotional and psychological activity their perceived “freedom” affords them, and actively seeks to “ground” or “cage” them as objects of beauty meant, quite simply, only to be looked at.

Jay Manuel Says Male ‘Top Model’ is “not something we would do”

It’s been discussed time and time again on countless message boards, website threads, and blogs alike. Hell, even my friends as casual viewers have proposed it amidst one of our weekly “endurances” (it can no longer be called “viewings”) of Tyra Banks’ America’s Next Top Model. What they all say is simple; replace the tears, sob stories, and aggressively “real” (i.e., within the context of reality show “real”; crying, backstabbing, and all around bitchery) conflict the show loves so much with the tanned-and-toned physique of 14 male competitors instead. But, while giving a presentation at the University of Pittsburgh (attended by yours truly), fashion/television personality and America’s Next Top Model creative director Jay Manuel put to rest one of the most heavily contested rumors in the 9-year old show’s history.

A male version of the usually all-female reality competition is “probably not something we would do” according to the 39-year old Canada native who, in response to a question on the topic from a member of the audience, provided rationale for that decision that may surprise you.

Manuel says that the discussion at the round table of one of Tyra Banks’ production meetings (…shit your pants a little? The thought alone is ominous enough) revolves around the appeal of the show’s all-female contestants to not only the target audience of 18-49 year old females, but rather to their male “partners” (alright, “boyfriends,” “husbands,” “apparent television slave,” etc.) who are “forced” to watch the show by their daintier half.

Manuel says countless males come up to him on the street and tell him they know him from the show they’re “forced” to watch by their ladyfriends, saying they enjoy looking at the scantily clad bodies but, as every good “bro” would have you believe, are in NO WAY (AT ALL!!) interested in ANY of the fashionable aspects of the show whatsoever. So, Top Model not only solidifies itself as secondary foreplay for all the heterosexual couples out there, but also as a dazzlingly charming alternative to the “no sex tonight, guess I’ll just masturbate in the shower” that’d no doubt occur as punishment. Surely the legacy Banks and company sought after off the inaugural cycle nearly a decade ago (only about 5 years in Mr. Jay time; seriously guys, the man is going on 40 and has the youthful complexion of a gerber baby’s ass…dipped in the containing jar’s mashed carrot content for coloring, of course)

Despite Manuel’s insistence that a core part of the viewers of Top Model are straight men (again, who knew?) who would be alienated by watching shirtless men for an hour (44 minutes with commercials, guys, and about 55% of that dedicated to God Banks, so it’s not ALL bad), he also cited the failure of other male modeling competitions like Manhunt as a model for an all-male Top Model‘s projected failure.

“Are men really as interesting to watch in a competitive aspect like that?” he asked the audience (i.e.; men are boring). What he really meant to say was “Unless you want to watch an hour-long brofest punctuated by the most desperate self promotional tactics on the face of the earth, you’ll take your ANTM-xploitation and its mass murder of feminism as long as we continue to skullfuck it down your throat.”

Norma & I; Spectatorship and the Female Body in “Sunset Boulevard”

It’s hard to imagine the history of cinema without considering the issue of misrepresentation. Every “minority” (that is, of course, because we are to assume and base any observation off of the notion that the spectator is male, right?) under the sun has been done a massive injustice in some way or another by the very medium we look for to exude honesty, clarity, and (for the most part), subjective interpellation on contemporary screens. Consistently represented as an object of sexual desire, the image of the female body has been placed on display for countless audiences since the creation of the medium itself. From early silent films to contemporary productions, the female body has consistently been the most prominent possession of the male spectator’s gaze, often facilitating (while also fulfilling) fantasies of the dominant, intended (generally) heterosexual male audience of American cinema. Generally, films which prominently display the female body adhere to conventional norms which would be deemed “beautiful” by their respective audiences. Billy Wilder’s 1950 film Sunset Boulevard instead chooses to emphasize the body of an aging film star, Norma Desmond, fallen from the graces of Hollywood’s silent era, attempting to regain prominence on the screen in a time period which sensationalizes her age versus the “youthful” image she so desperately aims to project. Sunset Boulevard ultimately presents the female star body in contrast to its conventionally “sexual” representation, opting for an aggressively critical view of Norma Desmond (and female stars in general) which condemns the industry which treats her as a disposable commodity, product, and lifeless object of spectacle. However, as a result of this depiction, the film implicates its audience in unique ways. Favoring what could initially be construed as a sadistic criticism, the film funnels elements which initially point to a portrayal of Norma as a “victim” into a characterization that reverses socially-coded roles the female body has played throughout the rather “recent” history (i.e., since the spread of cinema) of a “spectating” American society.

Facets of Norma Desmond’s life prior to her introduction to Sunset Boulevard’s audience function to build a framework for the film’s initial critique of her position within the film industry. The audience is given pieces of information pertaining to Norma’s life as a silent film star primarily through other characters’ recognition of her former place within the industry. It is Joe Gillis, a screenwriter Norma hires to help her finish a “return” script, who first notes his familiarity with her face upon meeting her. Joe, along with many others who come across Norma, does not immediately recognize who he is looking at when first gazing upon her. In fact, it is only through visual association that many of the characters come to recognize Norma in the first place, only understanding who she is (or “was,” in this case) by recognizing her physically through association with her body’s former place on film screens (“You’re Norma Desmond!” he exclaims, “You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.”) (Sunset). Of course, vision is a sense most people possess and use to recognize everyday objects, but Norma’s face is presented as one which used to be a familiar object but has since retreated to the deeper parts of the public’s (and audiences’) memory after her successful silent film career came to an end. They have no reason to recall her days of stardom since she is no longer relevant to the film industry, instead associating her face with the faded grandeur it represents. She is a product used by an industry which no longer needs her, casting her aside to rot.

Norma’s post-filmic career amounts to nothing more than pitiful attempts at writing a script she hopes will facilitate her “return” to the screen. She does so within a decrepit mansion which serves as a metaphor for Norma and her body. The house is old, decaying, and assumedly once maintained a greater level of grandeur and aesthetic beauty than its current dilapidated state would suggest. Norma’s body, which was also more conventionally “beautiful” and young, similarly shows signs of age. Wrinkles and crow’s feet are visible on Norma’s face throughout the entire film, but are often juxtaposed with photographs of Norma showing what her face looked like when she was still a film star. This suggests that while Norma is still a physical being, the very thing which makes her human (life, itself) is also the cause of her position within the industry; she is old (by film industry standards), decaying (in a figurative sense), and no longer represents the youthful conventional standard of beauty valued by the film industry.

However, despite the fact that Norma is presented as “decaying” does not necessarily mean she is not a powerful woman. She has commanded the spectatorship of an entire nation of people who flocked to see her silent pictures when she was still a commercially viable star. It is, after all, this type of audience which made her and Gloria Swanson commercially viable enough to provide them a pedestal from which to fall in the first place, though the distinction between “commercially viable star” and “powerful woman” is something the representation of Norma Desmond’s character delicately straddles. As a result, the film converses with its audience on a dual track of association, speaking to their literal relationship to the film based on associations and references to “their” world and incorporating them into the diegesis of Sunset Boulevard. The film relies on the dual spectating groups gazing upon Norma (both male and female, both the diegetic audience and audience viewing the film itself) to make a case for her irrelevance to both. The film industry in 1950 America no longer “favored,” for lack of a better word, Gloria Swanson as an actress who could carry a picture to financial success, similar to how the film’s treatment of Norma sees her at the tail end of a career nosedive. The use of Gloria Swanson to portray Norma Desmond relies on the audience’s familiarity with the latter’s situation, based simply on the assumption that the film’s audience would draw conclusions based on former’s career and relate them to a characterization of the fictional character. Hence, Norma Desmond uses her financial power (given to her as a result of her willing participation in and harnessing of the objectifying realm of a male dominated film industry) in an attempt to regain the “visual” power that results from being an attractive, youthful woman in front of a camera.  She will “buy” a screenwriter to finish her “return” screenplay, while also commanding his sexual attention at the same time.

If Norma is to be successful at “returning” to the screen she vacated with the coming of the “sound” era, she must convince both the audience of Sunset Boulevard and the audience within Sunset Boulevard that she is still capable of commanding the spectator’s gaze. In Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Laura Mulvey states that “the determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness” (203). In essence, the female body is the defining point of interest of the male gaze, with Mulvey further commenting that “the beauty of the woman as object and the screen space coalesce; she is no longer the bearer of guilt but a perfect product, whose body, stylized and fragmented by close-ups, is the content of the film and the direct recipient of the spectator’s look” (Visual 206). Mulvey’s observations point to the classical representation of women in films as the object themselves, created and viewed by a male-dominated industry and perspective respectively. Sunset Boulevard, however, utilizes the aforementioned metaphor of the mansion to frame Norma’s insistence that the gaze—any gaze, for that matter—be focused on her, in an attempt to regain the visual power she’s since lost.

Despite the mansion’s exterior implying that its owner is a forgotten film star, the interior of Norma’s home is maintained to its inhabitant’s personal standards of self-indulgent grandiosity, becoming a metaphor for its owner’s insistence on commanding the look of a spectator. Its marble flooring is waxed (as Norma tells Joe on New Year’s Eve), its rooms ornately decorated, and its lavish appearance generally maintained. Similarly, Norma attempts to maintain a sort of interior balance within herself by adorning her body with lavish costumes which recall those she donned in the films she once starred in. Norma becomes fixated on glamorizing her outwards appearance in an attempt to appear youthful and relevant to the film industry, wearing headpieces, jewelry, and flamboyant gowns and accessories (none more excessive than the ensemble she wears on New Year’s Eve) to reflect not only the monetary stability being a film star provided her but also to preserve her body’s physical image as a commodified star whose physical appearance will earn money. As Norma reveals towards the middle of the film, however, most of her financial prosperity comes from business ventures (“I’ve got oil in Bakersfield pumping…what’s it for but to buy us anything we want?” she asks Joe) and not with income from making films, which renders her decorating her body like delusional attempts at physically appearing as a film star versus actually being one (Sunset). This does not, however, demean her prowess as a businesswoman. The film casts her in an exaggerated light in reference to her attempt at a return to film, but this exposition of the source of her income only strengthens the impression of Norma as powerful in her own regard. She is not simply a “has been” film star; she is now an expanded brand of business ventures, making a stake in male-dominated business industries since she has arrived at a temporary (at least, to her) roadblock along the road to becoming a relevant film star once again.

Because of the emphasis on Norma’s image and the consistent obsession with her appearance, it becomes clear that her presence in the film industry is what facilitated her insistence on creating a spectacle of her body. Because silent films relied on visual spectacle to appeal to an audience (pantomime performances, lavish costumes and sets, etc.) Norma is conditioned to do the same in her efforts to “return” to prominence. As a result, she continuously forces Joe to watch her old films, look at her old head shots, and fondle her when she forcibly places herself within his embrace (at the pool when she dries him off, when she clutches him during a screening of her film, etc.). This sort of “reaching” and “fondling” of Joe indicates a firm grasp she has on the male gaze; even though she “paid” for Joe’s presence in her life, she has command and control over it. She is not the victim of his gaze, but rather the being which facilitates and demands it. She is his possession, but only because she chooses to do so, and he is merely a manipulative reversal (of sorts) of the traditional “femme fatale.”

Norma also dresses herself in the aforementioned costumes, creating a physical spectacle of her body simply by wearing them and drawing attention to herself by way of their flashy materials and construction, commanding again Joe’s gaze but also the gaze of the audience (the flamboyance of Norma’s attire is of key importance, because they appeal to both genders, not overtly sexual enough to only demand the male gaze). Norma is essentially forcing her body to be gazed upon not only by Joe but also by the audience of Sunset Boulevard, what with her flashy attire and gestural mannerisms (which mimic those performed in silent film pictures) suggesting Norma’s undying insertion of herself into the film industry. If the films won’t come to her, she will literally bring them (and the life that comes with being a film star) to herself; she will buy the most expensive clothing and jewelry, “perform” exaggerated expressions and physical movements in everyday life, and fine-tune her body to her perceived level of perfection since she consciously desires to be the “product,” not the helpless victim of the male gaze who is unknowingly subjected to the male gaze. She recreates the familiar spectacle of silent films in her everyday life, even going as far as to impersonate silent film icon Charlie Chaplin in an attempt to humor Joe but also draw another line of familiarity between the audience of Sunset Boulevard and her own world. Her identity as a true “product” of the film industry becomes apparent, as does her insistence and power enough to command that it return, what with the industry literally intruding upon her life through her conscious decision to draw attention to herself as a spectacle. This does not, however, strip her of her commanding, powerful presence; merely it marks a willing desire to attain the attention by her own means, not the means of the men who “created” her (she tells Max she doesn’t want to speak on the phone when she receives a call from one of DeMille’s assistants, letting the phone call go unacknowledged because she is not being appropriately sought after in the way she hoped to orchestrate).

After all, as Norma says, “I am big, it’s the pictures that got small,” so she will force the “small” (as she perceives it) industry upon her life through her grandiose life practices of Gloria Swanson’s metaperformance and Norma’s conspicuous consumption (Sunset). The term metaperformance is given to film performances that essentially entail the actor or actress performing within their initial performance; In other words metaperformance describes a performance in which the actor or actress is playing an actor or actress who is “acting” within the context of the containing film. To conceptualize metaperformance is to understand the medium of film itself, seeing as one must recognize that the person they are seeing act the part of a character onscreen is in fact a person who exists within reality and is only portraying a figure in a fictional (sometimes biographical or reality-based) medium. Metaperformance describes the extra layer of performing within a performance on top of the actor or actress’ initial performance. In essence, metaperformance is two performances contained within one performer. Norma has been used and discarded by the industry that made her a star in the first place, without a single role or performance since the silent film era ended. Her overemphasized enunciation, extravagant costumes, and bodily motions reminiscent of those belonging to an actress in a silent picture indicate that Desmond has taken on the responsibility of “acting” in her everyday life. She is tied to the industry which “created” her much as a car is tied to the manufacturer which produced it. When a BMW breaks down or requires an extra part to work again, those who designed and built the car will supply the replacement, continuing a line of consistency from producer to product. Here, Norma carries silent film “performance” with her in everyday life, signifying that her body is a product of the film industry, albeit a self-made spectacle with no one “important” (an actual diegetic film “audience”) viewing it in order to make the product a commercially viable one.

A key scene in Sunset Boulevard uses elements of metaperformance to emphasize Norma’s body as a physical product. Just minutes prior to shooting Joe, Norma is attempting to thank him for turning Betty Schaefer, his “real” love interest, away from the mansion after she arrives to retrieve him. Joe retreats to his room and Norma, sans elaborate makeup and ornate costuming, attempts to follow him. She repeats Joe’s name over and over as he ignores her and enters the room, shutting the door behind him. Norma rushes to the closed door, but stops dead in her tracks as she catches a glimpse of herself in a mirror hanging in the hallway. The audience is given two images of Desmond’s face; one that gazes at itself, and one which gazes back. The image takes on dual meaning. At once the scene registers as showcasing the true nature of the “audience” for Norma’s body (the only audience member being herself). Because Norma is able to “gaze” upon this “natural” (only intended to imply that she is physically “there”) image of herself in the mirror, she is able to see her body as a physically unfit object for a man to see what with chemical peels dangling from her temples, wrinkles creasing over her face, and not a stitch of makeup on to cover it all up. She rips the peels off, attempting to “fix” her face by running her fingers over it and through her hair. Because the illusion of “youth” is spoiled when she sees the very means by which she hopes to achieve it (the chemical peels), she deems her body unfit for the male to gaze upon. She removes the “falsities,” fixes her hair, and readjusts her posture to suggest that which a film star would have as she stepped before a camera shooting a motion picture. By incorporating more “camera-friendly” elements into her physical appearance in this scene, Norma again makes herself “acceptable” for the male, Joe, to physically “see” her in an emotional state, emphasizing the intrusion of the film industry’s standards of the female body as objectified spectacle onto her “real” life, albeit harnessed in a conscious effort to persuade Joe to stay in her life (it is only when he goes against her powerful will that she “snaps” and kills him).

The final sequence of the film proceeding the murder of Joe at the hands of Norma similarly emphasizes Norma’s physical objectification by the film industry which cast her aside years prior. A crowd of reporters and camera crews swarm Norma’s house after word gets out that she shot Joe. Reporters and journalists (including a cameo by real-life gossip columnist Hetta Hopper) hope to capitalize on the misfortune the “famous star of yesteryear” brought upon herself, indicating the media and public desire to sensationalize stars and exploit their connection to the industry even when they are no longer a commercially viable “star,” as is the case with Norma (Sunset). Norma ignores reporters attempting to question her as she preps her face (once again, maintaining the spectacle) for the cameras downstairs, thinking they are part of a motion picture crew when in actuality they are there to document her arrest. Norma’s delusions of starring in another picture lead her to believe that she is on the Paramount lot filming another picture, pantomiming in full costume as she wafts down the stairs of her mansion towards the cameras as if she were playing the role of a princess for a film.

As Norma reaches the bottom of the stairs she pauses, thanking everyone in the room for welcoming her back to the set of a picture and expressing excitement for her future as a film star. The power of the scene comes from two sources, the first of which drawing from the fact that it is one of the only scenes in the film where Norma commands an audience who watches her perform. Granted, they are not gazing upon her body for its brilliant costuming or to see a brilliant performance for the screen as she desires, but rather they sensationalize and objectify her as a culmination of what it means to “fail” in the eyes of the film industry. Norma then turns toward the camera from which the audience of Sunset Boulevard gazes upon her, contorting her arms in a stew of acrobatics and gestural exaggeration as the lens blurs, distorting her face into a monstrously unidentifiable mixture of makeup, motion, and costume (the only things which become traceable in the silhouette created by the blur). At once this scene demonizes both the media and film industry which produced Norma, but also condemns the star herself for lending her life to such a monopolizing industry which sensationalized her body onscreen as well as in its state of post-stardom fragility which facilitates her delusions.

The scene also functions to implicate the audience of Sunset Boulevard for participating in the capitalist structure of the film industry which killed Norma’s career. The popularization of synchronized sound ushered the silent era of Hollywood out, putting stars such as Norma Desmond (and Gloria Swanson, who plays Norma, for that matter) out of work as “fresh” faces were implemented into the “talkies.” Sunset Boulevard is one such “talking” picture documenting the effect the transition from silent films to sound films, and viewing the descent of a silent film star by way of a sound picture lends itself to the condemnation of the audience as well. The audience viewing Sunset Boulevard indulges in consuming the spectacle of Norma’s presentation of her body as spectacle within a film which uses sound technology that killed her career. The audience is therefore “guilty” of rendering Norma’s body as a product as well, playing into the producer/consumer model which dictated the decision to transition to sound films from the silent era. Norma was simply “loose fat” which needed to be cut during the transition, the film chronicling her expenditure as a used product audiences no longer desired via the very technical innovation which put her in that place to begin with. It is this reversal and implication of the audience which functions as a testament to the dual relationship of the narrative and its elements to the audience of the film itself. Norma, on one hand, can be viewed as the victim of such a cruel and scrutinizing industry, but her power to transcend the narrative of Sunset Boulevard and make a predatory move upon the spectator of the film speaks volumes about her mastery of bringing the gaze upon herself. She is controlled by the industry which “created” her, but she spends a vast majority of the film proving that she has a relevance to the art of spectacle, commanding attention upon herself and harnessing that attention to aide her “return” to the diegetic public which once bowed at her feet.

It becomes clear through the seamless blending of Norma Desmond’s extra-filmic life with delusions inspired by her “reign” as a silent film star that her body is nothing more than a commodified product. She adorns herself in lavish costumes and moves about her deserted mansion in highly exaggerated fashion, mimicking the pantomime of her former days acting in silent pictures. Even when the film attempts to inspire sympathy for Norma, that sympathy is turned into guilt, using the medium of the sound picture to incriminate the audience for consuming it and, in essence, killing Norma’s silent film career. Through such technical and thematic elements, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard creates a critical view of the female star’s body and the industry which “produced” it, shying from the typically sexual representations of the female body and instead condemning the industry wide standard of objectifying female stars’ bodies through the use of its star as a self-created spectacle for both diegetic and non-diegetic audiences. But, Norma’s commanding of an audience’s spectatorship based simply on creating visual spectacle out of her life and body remains a testament to her power as a physical point of awe, simply without any commercial outlet to funnel her awesome qualities into. The real victim of the film, then, becomes the audience of both Sunset Boulevard and the diegetic audience within the film; we are all at the mercy of Norma Desmond, regardless of how the male gaze “wants” to frame her, she will ultimately seek control and (usually) succeed.