Bruce Seaton
Prof. Leitch
3 Page Essay #3

Euripides Would Blush: Inversions of Gender Identity in Psycho

In the majority of Hitchcock’s films, villains take one of two courses of action when attempting to capture, destroy, undermine, or kill the protagonist- they either take some direct action, such as hunting the hero down or threatening someone the protagonist cares for, or they lure him into a trap. The course of action for many of Hitchcock’s greatest villains can be guessed by that villain’s gender. Male villains, such as Abbot in The Man who Knew Too Much, Professor Jordan in The 39 Steps, and Phillip Vandamm in North By Northwest hunt down the hero (or his daughter, in the case of The Man who Knew Too Much), and attempt to kill him. Hitchcock’s female villains are much more subtle, using misdirection, cleverly crafted lies, and seduction to reel the protagonist into a trap. Madame Anna Sebastian, of Notorious, Rebecca’s title character, and even Eve Kendall in North By Northwest are examples of these cunning women. This generalization is not entirely consistent, but represents a tendency in Hitchcock’s films (as well as in hundreds of other films) to portray male antagonists in a classically masculine way, and female antagonists in a similarly classically feminine manner.

Norman Bates is a notable exception to this trend, and represents a complete role reversal. Bates has a split personality, and both sides of that personality break from traditional views of villainy in film. As Norman Bates, he is a shy, boyishly handsome, and friendly (if a bit repressed) motel manager who takes care of his invalid mother and takes great care of the motel, changing the linens once a week “whether they’ve been slept in or not.” Norman enjoys taxidermy, a hobby which he enjoys because birds are passive, even when they’re alive. He leads a quiet, simple life of slow entropy. He is sometimes frustrated by his mother’s needs and her constant nagging, but he loves her very much and cannot imagine putting her in an institution.

As his mother, he is a jealous, nagging woman who finally resorts to murder when she feels threatened, either by a woman who attracts Norman, or by the private eye who comes to ask her questions and will surely find her out. She is vicious, violent, and cares little for the state of the world after she has killed, leaving the scene for Norman to clean up, which he does, and despite his horror and disgust at her actions, he does well. He can hardly stand the sight of blood on his hands, and washes them immediately after touching Marion’s corpse, but he can carry her body to the trunk of her own car and dispose of both in a swamp to protect his mother.

Norman is impressionable, often changing his attitude to get along with whoever is speaking to him, unsure, and melts under pressure. When questioned by Arbogast, he begins to stutter and his story, almost surely rehearsed, begins to melt in his mouth. He cannot be aggressive as Norman, and cannot even lie very well. We learn that he has killed in the past, using a classically feminine method that brings Madame Anna Sebastian to mind- poison. He’s also subtlely effeminate. He eats candy, picking it piece-by-piece from a bag. He is thin, pretty, and almost excessively composed. More importantly, he enjoys taxidermy, a hobby which also carries feminine facets. Norman points out that it is inexpensive; all he needs are “a needle and thread and some sawdust.” He stuffs things and sews them up. Taxidermy is only a step away from quilting!

Norman’s mother is stubborn, even self-destructively so. Before she is revealed as an alternate persona of Norman, she seems more like a vengeful Medea, striking at her victims with wild swings from a gigantic knife. Except when Norman carries her (or rather, her corpse) down the stairs, she seems like a large woman. The role-reversal is total; the male Norman uses words, bunglingly, to avoid confrontation, in an attempt at feminine coercion, while his mother persona takes care of her perceived enemies decisively and violently in a classically masculine style.

The purpose of this role reversal is largely up for debate, however, the story itself is based on actual events which occurred in the mid-1950s in Wisconsin, when a man named Ed Gein killed a series of women who looked like his mother, skinned them, and made clothes of their bodies. Hitchcock’s vision of the story, however, is set up in a way which makes the audience feel compassion, even sorrow for Bates. The later movies The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Silence of the Lambs are also based on the Gein case, but give the viewer no such sense of empathy. It is possible therefore, that Hitchcock is playing with the concept of identity in a way that has not been repeated in these other films. We are given clues in the movie to point us to the concept of Norman’s identity, or more accurately, his lack of identity.

The most obvious clue is near the end of the film, when the psychiatrist says “he was never all Norman.” Never is a long time. Could it be that Norman was so controlled as a child that he had no identity of his own, and that when his mother began to pay more attention to another man, Norman could only protect his incomplete self by destroying both her and her lover? Yes, it could. By killing his mother, Norman is able to imagine her as he pleases, or at least, as he always knew her to be. Because he has blocked the act of her murder from his mind, he is able to create an alternate identity in her place, thus complementing the half-life he would otherwise lead.

Another major clue that supports the theme of identity is in the film’s bird imagery. From the time that Norman refers to his mother as harmless as a stuffed bird, the audience is shown dozens of bird images, most of which do not seem to be harmless. Both Marion and Arbogast enter Norman’s bird room and look around immediately before they are killed. When Norman reenters Marion’s room and finds her dead, he knocks a picture of a bird off of the wall. These birds seem to be Norman’s mother’s calling-cards, but in reality, they are Norman's. Norman is the character in the film who most resembles a bird, not his mother. It is Norman who eats like a bird, picking candies out of a bag, it is Norman who is flighty, never sitting still, and attempts to hide or flee from situations, not his mother. Most of all, it is Norman who is passive. Only with the help of his mother persona can Norman exhibit masculine behaviors; when he is without the female presence of his mother, Norman is at his most feminine.