The Birds of Bodega Bay Versus The Independent Woman
Starting out as a literature mode in late eighteenth century, the Gothic, a movement that focuses on the struggle of women by using psychological terror, the supernatural, and doubling, has become a staple in film. It is no secret that Alfred Hitchcock routinely dabbles in the Gothic throughout most of, if not his entire filmography by exploring supernatural elements that disrupt character’s psyche and induce terror. In particular, one of Hitchcock’s most notorious pictures, The Birds (1963), uses the Gothic elements of psychological terror to explore its theme of women’s role in society. Over the course of the film, several different species of birds attack a small town called Bodega Bay shortly after a woman from San Francisco arrives. This women’s name is Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) and she does not fit the typical conventions of women during sixties. Instead of looking to become a housewife, Melanie chooses to remain independent and often indulges in promiscuous activities such as jumping into a fountain naked. These traits anger the more reserved resident of Bodega Bay, Lydia (Jessica Tandy), who is the mother of Melanie’s love interest, Mitch (Rod Taylor). It is in the final attack sequence in The Birds, that the film makes use of several prominent aspects of the female Gothic mode. By utilizing Gothic text elements like psychological terror and doubling, The Birds central theme of Melanie rebelling against the traditional role of women is punished.
Prior to the scene in discussion, Melanie, and the rest of the main characters in the film, have survived an attack by the birds of Bodega Bay and finally are able to rest after a day of chaos. As the scene starts, all of the characters in the house are asleep, with the exception of Melanie, who sits up awake on the couch. Throughout the scene, the lack of film score and dancing shadows on the walls caused by the fireplace puts the audience in the same paranoid state as Melanie. The silence of the scene is broken when Melanie hears a noise upstairs and independently follows the source to stumble upon a room filled with several different species of birds. Inside the room, the first shot of the sequence shows Melanie walking out of harsh shadows, made from low-key lighting, and into the light so the audience can observe the physical features of her face. These same features are the ones Melanie openly uses in the film to trick characters into thinking she is innocent so she can pull pranks. Immediately after allowing the audience to observe these features, in the next shot Melanie is violently attacked by the birds. Over the course of the next 130 seconds, any of the traits that made Melanie independent and unlike most female characters in film at the time become stripped away as she falls paralyzed and is unable to stop the birds from attacking. During the attack, other than the flapping and cawing of the birds, the only other noise that is heard is the sexualized moans of Melanie, as before the eyes of the audience she is slowly regulated to a sex symbol. By using the Gothic approach of centering the scene on the terror Melanie faces, the audience is able to witness the events unfold from the perspective of Melanie in order to realize the horror present throughout the film is directed at her. The overall aesthetic of the scene on a visual level, such as the low-key lighting, and emphasis on negative ideas, such as death, further cements the film’s place in the Gothic. The fall out of the two-minute attack further strengthens the argument that the supernatural attack of the birds was a result of Melanie’s willingness to circumvent gender roles.
In the second half of the final bird attack sequence, the audience is able to clearly see how the film explores the Gothic theme of women being punished for having agency and left alone for being submissive. Previously throughout the film, Melanie had agency such as when she followed the lead male character, Mitch, to Bodega Bay, however after the attack she does not impact the progress of the plot in anyway. Seemingly realizing that the birds were angry with her for upsetting the natural balance of gender roles, Melanie goes into a comatose state after the attack where she falls into the common damsel in distress role in film, allowing Mitch to carry her to safety. While Melanie is in this state, Mitch single handily escorts the family to safety, as the birds no longer threaten the group now that the gender roles are not being questioned. In addition, it is in this half of the sequence where the Gothic element of opposites doubling takes place. Throughout the film, Mitch's mother, Lydia, plays the domesticated housewife who is not fond of Melanie’s independent, counter-culture lifestyle. After the bird attack, Melanie is put straight into Lydia’s care and mirrors her exact docile state. It is in this scene Lydia understands Melanie can be controlled, and finally accepts that Melanie is good enough for Mitch because Melanie is similar to her. The themes and elements used to explore theme in The Birds throughout the film, and this scene in particular, are cornerstones within the Gothic mode.
In conclusion, The Birds central theme revolves around Melanie’s willingness to disregard gender roles of women and through the supernatural attack of different birds punishes her for it. During the fall out of the final attack sequence things return to the status quo as the birds cease attacking when Melanie allows Mitch to save the day. By using story and visual elements common in Gothic text; The Birds is easily able to explore the theme of gender roles in society during the film’s release. While this may not be entirely Hitchcock’s view of how women should be treated, The Birds as a film clearly sets out to punish women.
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