Saturday, September 07, 2013

Camille Paglia on Hitchcock, misogyny and the male gaze

Watched Hitchcock’s Notorious for the umpteenth time the other day, captivated as always by its almost flawless construction, unmatched elegance and fluidity, and the stunning performances by the three leads. Noting again how the film’s sympathies rest with the Ingrid Bergman character Alicia vis-à-vis the manipulative men in her life (this has always seemed very obvious to me, though I know people who disagree), I was reminded of the many allegations of misogyny in Hitchcock’s work. And this super interview of Camille Paglia, who rambles magnificently about Hitch and his artistic impulses.

I love her passion for the subject, even when I disagree with little specifics. This bit is notable, and I think it cuts to the heart of a major divide in “film reading” and how we tend to make up our minds about whether a movie is misogynistic (or racist, or whatever):

I’ve been very vocal about my opposition to the simplistic theory of ‘the male gaze’ that is associated with Laura Mulvey (and that she herself has moved somewhat away from) and that has taken over feminist film studies to a vampiric degree in the last 25 years. The idea that a man looking at or a director filming a beautiful woman makes her an object, makes her passive beneath the male gaze which seeks control over woman by turning her into mere matter, into “meat” – I think this was utter nonsense from the start. It was formulated by people who knew nothing about the history of painting or sculpture, the history of the fine arts […]

Hitchcock obviously had a complex and ambivalent attitude toward women. […] Any artist is driven by strange forces. The whole impulse in art-making is to untangle your dark emotions. There is some huge conflict and inner war in every major artist. And yes, the sexual battlefield is where those things were going on in Hitchcock. But look at his own life: From what people have been able to conclude, his actual sexual practice was fairly limited. He remained a virgin until he was 27, when he married, and he did produce a daughter. There’s some suggestion that perhaps his marriage was not particularly physical. He was almost a kind of priest or monk. The Jesuit-trained Catholic impulse in him was very strong. And if his film eroticism was voyeuristic, well, that’s what we want, for heaven’s sake, in a painter or a filmmaker! We want someone who lives through the eye.
The full interview is here. I also recommend Marian Keane’s piece “A Closer Look at Scopophilia: Mulvey, Hitchcock and Vertigo”, a riposte to Laura Mulvey’s thesis that the camera in Vertigo represents an active, controlling male gaze (which in turn implied that the film is “on the side of” the James Stewart character Scottie). A large part of Keane's essay can be found here, on Google Books.

Incidentally Paglia made related observations in an interview for this book on screen violence. An excerpt below:

Interviewer: I agree he was a great director, but he was nakedly misogynistic...

Paglia: I don’t accept this. That is an absurd argument. We’re talking about a man who made films in which are some of the most beautiful and magnetic images of women that have ever been created. I mean, for heaven’s sake, to call that misogynistic, when we think of Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief, when we think how fabulous Janet Leigh is in that shower scene, we think of Kim Novak in Vertigo [...] what I’m saying about all of the great artists from Michelangelo to Botticelli to everyone else is that in the fascination with these goddess-like figures of women there is an ambivalence, a push-pull in it, a complexity of response, but to stress the negative in Hitchcock...? I think you need far more complex terminology to deal with people who achieve at the level Hitchcock did. The women he created, for heaven’s sake, have absolutely dominated the imagination of late twentieth-century cinema. Everyone’s imitating it, everywhere, to this day.


  1. Thanks for reminding me of this interview. I remember being fascinated by it some 3-4 years ago when I was devouring one Hollywood film a day!

    And yes. It's good to see Camille Paglia, a prominent figure on the left, challenge a lot of the nonsense theories spouted by feminists. Similar views voiced by a conservative won't be taken too seriously and will be dismissed airly as the rants of a male chauvinist.

    For me as for Hitchcock,
    civilization, law and order are imposed on us — but that’s what makes life possible. When the structure of law dissolves or breaks, you have an eruption of the natural impulse toward rabid sex and violence — the basic
    animal drive in us.

    A great truism. Man is basically bad. He is inherently libidinous and uncivilized. At best he is a notch better than animals. Civilization, in its essence, is about reining in the male by having rules, social conventions and religion among other things.

    The idea that a man looking at or a director filming a
    beautiful woman makes her an object, makes her passive beneath the male gaze which seeks control over woman by turning her into mere matter, into “meat” – I think this was utter nonsense from the start

    Very much agree. Paglia is probably the first person on the liberal left to air these views. But people on the other side have been saying the same things for decades. George Gilder, the great public intellectual of the Reagan years wrote the following passage about women in the 70s -

    Her sexuality determines her long term goals....She has a central role in the very perpetuation of the species...The Women's Movement tragically reduces female sexuality to the terms of male sexuality. When this happens, she reduces herself to the male level of recreational sex. Paradoxically, when that happens the woman loses all her power over men and the reverence and respect toward the procreative potential of woman is lost. And that really destroys the family. But if the power of "choice" is given up, the woman actually ascends to a higher level of sexuality and her body attains an almost mystical power over men

  2. The Hitchcock imitators are too hip — they wouldn’t be caught
    dead affirming the old order, the old norms that in fact are going to survive them and will always return. There’s a cycle in human history: You have order, then disorder, then reaction — which can be fascism. Then it’s back to the old order, which leads to rebellion all over again, followed by disorder. It’s an endless series, which in my own work I’ve described as the Apollonian and Dionysian principles in history.

    I can't begin to tell how insightful this extract is! Positively brilliant.

  3. Since Exotic and Irrational Entertainment’s recent post ( on my favorite Hitchcock film, Rebecca, I have been revisiting my feelings about Hitchcock’s treatment of women in his films. I’ve loved his films since childhood, and think it’s worth asking as an adult if I really “should.”

    On the one hand, I am not at all bothered by his “alleged” objectivization of women. In my opinion, men in his films are objectivized almost as often--just look at the way Cary Grant was depicted in To Catch a Thief (even down to an early version of the much-hyped Daniel Craig “walking out of the waves scene” in Casino Royale.) To some degree as consumers of a visual art medium we are MEANT to fall in love with someone else’s grand Pygmalion project--and if we don’t, surely that statue or film or piece of art has failed to touch us in a meaningful way. When Paglia speaks of the pure joy that occurs in a viewer when the camera lingers on a beautiful face, I think she has hit on something really important. If we enjoy staring at Botticelli’s Aphrodite, it’s because we see something precious and inexpressible in the depiction of otherworldly beauty. Yes, it moves us. Yes, we stare. We’re supposed to.

    On the other hand, how Hitchcock consistently depicts women “in pain” does give me pause, and I think it bears discussion. Personally, while I don’t know if I quite approve of it, yet, I also can’t stop watching. It could certainly be argued that his camera takes a wicked delight in the torture of women in many of his films. However, I also don’t think we should rush to criticize him for it. After all, for every tortured woman in his films, one can also find a tormented man. For every Janet Leigh (Psycho) or Tippi Hedren (The Birds), one can point to a Jimmy Stewart (in Rear Window or Vertigo or the Man Who Knew Too Much) or a Gregory Peck (Spellbound). Ultimately, I think Hitchcock is interested in people: people’s problems and people’s pain. If he is sadistic in his portrayal of women, he is equally unkind to the men! Furthermore, though he may seem preoccupied with people being victimized, he also paints staggeringly portraits of people (men and women) overcoming adversity, physical limitations, injustices and victimization. Which is why his films are still beloved. Paglia speaks of how conventions and limits must exist in a film’s world in order for us to experience a thrill when those conventions are broken. Similarly, in the world of story--in order for us to feel the true glory of a hero’s victory over oppression or victimization, we must also truly engage with their earlier agonies. If Hitchcock manipulates us into feeling both--then we should congratulate him! He does what a storyteller is supposed to do--make us feel both the triumphs and the trials in equal measure.

    On a related note, I recently watched Jalani’s Anamika (1973), which certainly seems to have been inspired by Hitchcock. Societal limits, oppressed women, isolated men . . . injustices that push characters into extreme choices and situations . . . and those very situations giving the audience a chance to enjoy forbidden pleasures (I’m thinking of this scene in particular: ).

    All these elements speak in a universal language and create a film that both shocks and affirms traditional morals simultaneously. Anamika is not the only Indian film in which these elements play out (altho it does what it does especially well), and I think that this simultaneous appeal to tradition and shock value is part of what makes Hindi cinema so compelling to Western viewers who have tired of the modern “liberated” Hollywood formula.


  4. More of Camille Paglia at this link. She's so very good at understanding the broad trends of history. An unusually perceptive thinker.

  5. I remember reading a Camille Paglia interview back in the 1990s when she energetically defended child pornography - and her refusal to see the difference between voluntary participants in porn, versus kids who have no ability to conse, made me wonder how much of what she says is for effect, how much of her thinking is overshadowed by her need to be provocateur. Being the bete noire of feminism is what she made her name on. She is definitely interesting, but there is a manipulative bent to her views that makes it difficult to engage with them without being cynical at her own agenda, or dismissive of her tendency towards hyperbole. This is the woman who called "Revenge of the Sith" as the "greatest work of art in any medium in 30 years". What an incredibly overblown, stupid statement that was.

    1. you read no such thing. you are a liar.

  6. there is a manipulative bent to her views that makes it difficult to engage with them without being cynical at her own agenda

    Radhika: some of her views, certainly. Most of the Paglia enthusiasts I know take it as a given that she is a provocateur in some obvious ways, and that one mustn't take everything she says at face value. (Or, of course, you can take some things she says at face value and then feel free to reject or denounce them.) But I have also often found an honest pragmatism and clear-sightedness in her views - some of the things she has said about rape, for example, and her attack on the highly over-simplistic, meme-like idea that rape "has nothing to do with sex, it is only about power".

  7. Filmi Contrast: thanks very much for that comment - I think it captures a lot of things about why Hitchcock - and others like him - are such ambiguous, fascinating figures for viewers.

    I need to watch Anamika - must have seen it as a child when I wasn't too interested in that sort of film, but should see it properly now.

  8. She is definitely interesting, but there is a manipulative bent to her views that makes it difficult to engage with them without being cynical at her own agenda, or dismissive of her tendency towards hyperbole

    By the same token what about the manipulative arguments used by feminists ever since the 50s? Are those arguments very objective and totally agenda-free? Paglia is closer to the mainstream political and cultural center than many of the feminists she attacks. The hyperbole exists in the arguments of the feminists.