Hitchcock Annual (1993) - Hitchcock the feminist: Rereading Shadow of a Doubt
- article: Hitchcock the feminist: Rereading Shadow of a Doubt
- author(s): Thomas Hemmeter
- journal: Hitchcock Annual (01/Jul/1993)
- issue: page 12
- journal ISSN: 1062-5518
- keywords: Alfred Hitchcock, California, Feminist Analysis, Gender Roles, James McLaughlin, Laura Mulvey, Misogyny, Notorious (1946), Patrice Petro, Psycho (1960), Rear Window (1954), Santa Rosa, Santa Rosa, California, Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Tania Modleski, The Birds (1963), The Lady Vanishes (1938), Vertigo (1958)
- reprinted in "Framing Hitchcock: Selected Essays from the Hitchcock Annual" - edited by Sidney Gottlieb and Christopher Brookhouse
An analysis of gender ideology in which women are always innocent, always passive victims of patriarchal power, is patently not satisfactory.
— Michele Barrett, Women's Oppression Today
Because almost every film directed by Alfred Hitchcock depicts encounters between men and women which reflect the values of a patriarchal order, his films are not often claimed as feminist texts. Instead, many feminist critics conclude that, because his films mirror images and structures of a vicious and vengeful patriarchal system repeatedly subjecting women to male violence, the narratives close off any possibility of women escaping this oppression (e.g., McLaughlin, Mulvey, Williams). This critical perspective creates a narrative allegory which projects onto a film text its own narrative assumptions: thus a film like Shadow of a Doubt is read as a patriarchal tale of a young woman's transgression, punishment, and return to the family structure (e.g., McLaughlin).
I propose an alternative feminist reading of Shadow of a Doubt as a critique of the patriarchal ideology it represents, as a text which shows the cracks and fissures in the sexual roles born and existing in the institution of the family. From this perspective, the film becomes a feminist text. My critical approach is a textual feminism, open to the ambiguities and silences of the film text which reveal dislocations of the supposedly unified patriarchal voice; it is a critical approach which "seeks to expose, not to perpetuate, patriarchal practices" (Moi xiv). Central to my reading is the notion that Shadow of a Doubt represents gender identities not as fixed, stable metaphysical essences (i.e., as patriarchal categories), but as subversive, divided constructs of a divided patriarchal order. Patrice Petro has said that "while the narrative development of The Lady Vanishes clearly works to fix and center traditionally patriarchal female and male positions, it also explores the negative side of this Oedipal paradigm"women's power to resist, "to refuse, to withdraw from, and disturb the symbolic space" (131). Shadow of a Doubt, too, creates these negative, marginal spaces, spaces which this paper will explore.
In one of the best feminist studies of Shadow of a Doubt, Diane Carson concludes that Hitchcock is a misogynist because this film fixes women between two nightmare worlds: that of complacent submission to domestic tyranny and that of doomed rebellion against that tyranny. This 1943 film paints a portrait of a typical American family in Santa Rosa, California: a stodgy father, fussing mother, college‑age daughter impatient with her routine family life, and a boy and girl several years her junior. When their Uncle Charlie comes to visit the Newton family, the older girl, Young Charlie (Charlotte), first welcomes him as the person who will shake the family out of its lethargy and then discovers that he is a notorious murderer of widows, a discovery which leads her Uncle to try to kill her. Eventually she turns to blackmail to force him to leave and must push her Uncle to his death in order to save her own life.
Carson sees in Young Charlie's story a daughter punished for...
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Thomas Hemmeter is a professor of English at Beaver College. One of his essays appears in Hitchcock's Rereleased Films, reviewed in this issue. He has also contributed an essay to Literature and Film in the Historical Dimension, ed. John Simons (Florida State University Press).