With Hitchcock going on general release today I thought I would post this essay on The Birds that was written 18 years ago, in my final year at University. It was part of a unit entitled Gender and Film so be warned that it relies heavily on sexual psychology.
“The Monstrous Feminine is constructed as an abject figure because she threatens the symbolic order” Barbara Creed
Discuss in relation to The Birds.
Submission Date: 8 March 1995
Mark Awarded: 62% (2:1)
This essay is not intended to present a criticism of Barbara Creed’s theories; instead her work is intended as a spring board in the construction of a separate argument. It accepts her notion that patriarchy labels aggressive non-conformist females as ‘base and abhorrent so as to eliminate the threat they pose to a male dominant society’ and from this point it will be shown that The Birds (1963) is a metaphor for the excessive control exhibited by the symbolic order to keep these women safely categorised.
In her discussion of ‘Woman as Witch’, Creed identifies the typical traits of the witch that lead to her representation as an enemy of patriarchal discourses. She is dangerous and wily and capable of drawing on evil powers to wreak destruction. It is possible to draw a parallel with Melanie Daniels as we meet her at the beginning of Hitchcock’s film. She is calculating and destructive having broken a plate glass window, and she is certainly an enemy of the symbolic order as she has been in court. We also see her dressed in black, the usual garb of the witch. Creed continues saying witches have powers of evocation over the animal order, something Melanie Daniels is directly accused of in the film:
“Why are they doing this? They said when you got here the whole thing started. Who are you? Where did you come from? I think you’re the cause of all this. I think you’re evil, evil!”
Creed argues that films like Carrie (1976) have revived the historical assertion that menstruation was linked to the possession of supernatural powers. Therefore when a woman bleeds from any part of her body it is seen as a display of this. Melanie Daniels bleeds excessively from the head wound inflicted by one gull, far more than from any cuts made in the multiple bird attack in the attic at the end of the film. ‘Woman as Witch’ concludes that ‘woman is not, by nature, an abject being.’ This concept is constructed by a dominant ideology designed to segregate her. As Melanie Daniels physically bleeds she employs her wily powers, continuing the deceptive game played with Mitch Brenner in the pet store. Both activities cease simultaneously as Mitch says the words, “Well, I think the bleeding’s almost stopped … so you came up to see Annie, huh?… I think you came to see me.” This man dresses the cut preventing the flow of blood as he simultaneously stops the use of her power. Melanie Daniels is indeed portrayed as the monstrous feminine at the start of the film, but in her submission to Mitch Brenner she no longer conforms to this label. What remains is an active female who can no longer be sectioned as abject so is no longer controlled in this manner under the jurisdiction of patriarchy. There is no definite placing of a female who operates in the symbolic order on her own terms, so her existence is problematic. Her punishment then becomes inevitable, existing as she does in the male-constructed field of cinema.
Several points in The Birds confirm the idea that Melanie Daniels is breaking from an identity imposed on her by society. Her dissident antics feature in the society columns; a phallocentric society that has contributed to the notion of Melanie Daniels as a monstrous feminine. Elsewhere it is suggested that her mother is responsible for her nature, running off when Melanie was eleven. Throughout the film, comments on women are displaced onto birds, and it is through this method that Hitchcock disguises what becomes a blatant agreement with Creed’s theories on women’s abjection being a label given to them by men.
“Birds are not aggressive creatures Miss. They bring beauty into the world, it is mankind rather who insists upon making it difficult for life to exist on this planet.”
Mrs Bundy’s argument expressed here has the backing of scientific knowledge, but Melanie’s circumstances have conditioned her to disregard this. When we are introduced to Melanie Daniels, it is in association with a Mynah Bird. This conventionally unrefined, uncouth animal represents her primary function of monstrosity. When she switches to a comparison with the Love birds, dressing the same colour as them, no longer the Mynah bird black, her secondary nature of active female begins to dominate, although she momentarily wrestle between the two. After she has completed her activity in delivering the Love birds, Melanie Daniels reduces Mitch Brenner to the object of female gaze by spying on him from the boat (significantly masculinity returns a greater gaze through a pair of binoculars). While active, having a surprising knowledge of how to handle a boat, she is never dominant so it remains difficult to marginalise her as aggressive or monstrous. On coming up against Mitch she looks at him with sexual coyness, still employing her power so she is still showing traces of her past as abject figure, yet is moving towards a different position. For this she receives her first punishment, the hit from the gull. The significant scene where Mitch stops her blood follows. A little later Annie Hayworth, on seeing Melanie’s distress asks “Something wrong? Is that cut beginning to bother you?”. The reply shows that Melanie Daniels has reached a stage in her development where she is no longer aware of the wound that previously bled female power; “No, it’s not the cut that’s bothering me.”
Annie Hayworth is an important figure because like Melanie Daniels she came to Bodega Bay in pursuit of Mitch and was successfully pacified. She took the typically female role of school teacher and when the audience meet her she is dirty from gardening, the task of maintaining the home or domestic space. The fact that she has been gardening though and not cleaning illustrates a latent active femininity. This is awoken in her contact with Melanie and she becomes dangerous to the dominating masculine order. It is Melanie and Annie who execute the responsible task of evacuating the school and becomes inevitable that this revival in Annie’s active nature will result in her destruction.
Initially Annie Hayworth merely incites Melanie:
” ‘Never mind Lydia, do you want to go?’
‘Then go.’ ”
Directly after this dialogue the bird crashes into her door and lies dead on her step; a threat of violent death to Annie if she continues to undermine patriarchal authority. The school teacher dies whilst performing the ultimate task for the benefit of females, saving the life of a young girl. She is martyred and the threat of Melanie Daniels is heightened as she now awakens dominant activity in other females.
The attempts to weaken Daniels fail, and male assumptions that she will react stereotypically are inaccurate.
” ‘Daddy, there were hundreds of them, no I’m not hysterical, I’m trying to tell you this as calmly as I know how.’ ”
When she goes into the attic at the end of the film it is a distortion of the scene almost two hours earlier when she goes upstairs into a room full of birds in the shop. At that stage the birds were caged, later Melanie was caged in the telephone booth with birds around her, now finally she is locked up with the birds. The punishment concentrated itself to a point where it is exclusively hers. She was always the individual to see the birds first in the sparrow and garage attacks, but now she is the only character on the screen who can see them, even Mitch is unable to view their number when he saves her. Despite her many fresh cuts the blood fails to flow as freely as it did before because she has discarded her power. She is not granted the escape of death because masculinity intervenes to prevent this with Mitch’s rescue. Instead she is left in a personal torture, unlike Dan Fawcett and presumably Annie Hayworth she is left her eyes so she can see birds attacking that not even the cinema audience can perceive. She has been excessively pacified, reduced to a catatonic state. She is treated by others as a child, a pre-menstrual female. The final few lines of the film emphasise the injustice of this retribution and again the comment on Melanie is displaced onto her feathered incarnation.
” ‘Can I bring the Love birds Mitch? They haven’t harmed anyone.’ ”
Due to the activities of others of the same kind, the Love birds are seen as threatening. This is an identical position to Daniels’ – she is punished for others’ transgressions by an ideology that doesn’t see its own guilt.
Alfred Hitchcock uses birds and their potential for lethality as a metaphor for his characters in his previous film, Psycho (1960). An examination of this proves useful as an introduction to the ideas to be developed further in The Birds. Norman Bates says “Only birds look well stuffed because they’re kind of passive to begin with.” This along with the assertion that women too are passive, is shown to be a myth in The Birds. In Psycho Marion Crane stands in the parlour speaking of her intentions to escape the moral trap she is in. She is oblivious to the black raven arched behind her representing the actual trap she is caught in. The dark bird resembles the arm and stabbing knife so presents a threat of what is going to happen. Having exited the room, the woman is caught in the male gaze through the hole in the wall. This gaze is shared with pictures of birds hanging on the wall so the threat is maintained. Following her execution, the psychopath returns to the scene and knocks one of these pictures down, the threat now realised. Another picture remains in place to show the crime will reoccur. Three years later the threat has evolved; in her house Annie Hayworth stands with a painting of a distorted woman behind her. The distortion of femininity in the picture frame signifies the way women are distorted in the frame of the film. The birds in Psycho have become hideous, inaccurate representations of women in The Birds. The women, Melanie specifically, are threatened with this misrepresentation and the threat is realised when she is made passive at the end. Following the sparrow’s invasion a dead bird falls out of the picture frame, mirroring the moment in Psycho where the picture of the bird falls off the wall. A confirmation that the threat was made and carried out.
Arguably it is immaterial what the birds represent since it is what they are doing that is important, yet these actions do raise answers to this question. The birds are reflections of women, this is made obvious, but in this argument only when they are related to Melanie. The Love birds and the Mynah bird and those that the ornithologist is familiar with are examples of this. The homicidal sparrows, gulls and crows are unlike any in reality. They represent women in cinema who themselves are unlike those on the other side of the screen. In this sense they are a definite enemy to Melanie Daniels who strives to dispel the myths they create. The birds shriek like the unsatisfactory portrayals of women in horror movies. Alternatively, or as well as this, the birds personify patriarchal ideology since they punish Melanie for her crimes against it. Typically patriarchy claims to be blind to this coercion; the sheriff is the embodiment of the ideological state apparatus and on investigating the Brenner house does not believe the evidence of his own eyes. When Melanie Daniels is trapped in the attic at the end the two constructions of femininity are in conflict and the male structured ideal destroys the female.
Another reading is that the birds assimilate the cinema audience and their entry into the film space. At the opening of the film the birds break up the titles with their invasion of the screen. It is the viewer of the motion picture who sees Melanie Daniels behaviour at its most iconoclastic. They have been saturated with visions supporting the myths that Daniels rebels against. This gives the audience a definite role in the narrative. In his essay ‘For the Birds’, Bill Nichols writes of ‘the more active sense of involvement of the viewer in Hitchcock’s film’ and how ‘the particular textual strategies of The Birds implicate us as viewers in imaginary relationships and ideological positions’. If the birds are the audience then the ideology they share is patriarchy and both are equally responsible for the torture of Melanie Daniels and all women who don’t conform. Like Marion Crane in Psycho, Daniels is destroyed by the voyeur. Of course this entire argument is speculative, but this is precisely what the film prompts in purposely offering no explanation of why the birds attack.
BOOKS AND ESSAYS:
Clover, Carol J.
‘Carrie and the Boys’
from Men, Women and Chainsaws
British Film Institute 1992
‘Woman as Witch: Carrie’
from The Monstrous Feminine, Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis
London Routledge, 1993
‘For the Birds’
from Ideology and the Male
Indiana Bloomington 1981
Granada Publishing Limited 1978