The Parlor Scene: Exploring Gender and Sexuality in Psycho

Shaun Soman

 

While Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) is indisputably best known for the "shower scene,” the film deals with a number of subjects beyond that of works typical to the “slasher” genre. Not only was Marion Crane’s murder at the hands of Norman Bates startling for its suggestive and graphic nature, but the scene’s placement forty-eight minutes into Psycho – with approximately one hour of screen time remaining – also jarred viewers who were led to believe that Janet Leigh was the film’s protagonist. Given Leigh’s untimely exit, one may naturally question upon whom or what Psycho focuses. While formal analysis allows for the potential to explore a number of themes, a particular scene of interest is that of the “parlor scene.” Occurring just prior to Marion’s death, the parlor scene serves as a window into Norman’s deranged mind; more specifically, it encapsulates the internal struggle between Norman’s misogynistic beliefs about women and his latent sexual desires for his mother, Norma. Although potentially overshadowed by the infamous shower scene, the parlor scene arguably epitomizes Psycho’s general themes; analyzing the scene’s mise-en-scène and editing uncovers the extent of sexist attitudes towards women and sexual deviancy concealed within Norman’s language. Overall, analysis of these film techniques suggests that Psycho primarily deals with a self-loathing, misogynistic man who has assumed, perhaps deliberately, a submissive role in relation to his mother.

Before one may utilize film techniques to analyze Norman’s sexuality, it is necessary to briefly evaluate the use of language in the parlor scene. As Robert Baker shows, the way we conceive of things is mirrored by the manner in which we speak of them (281). For example, referring to a woman as a “doll” implies that she, as a sort of “plaything,” is to be used at will and denigrates her to the status of a mere object (Baker 287). In regards to Psycho, Norman’s obsession with birds – more explicitly, his hobby of “stuffing” birds – reflects his sexist and misogynistic sentiments towards women. While the term “bird” may insinuate any number of positive or negative characteristics, each implication ultimately denotes an animalistic role; although hummingbirds, for instance, are thought of as “pretty” whereas vultures are abhorred as repulsive scavengers, each assumes a subservient position in relation to humans (Baker 287). Given this analysis, Norman’s remark that he enjoys “stuffing” birds because they are “passive” suggests a longing to sexually dominate women who “naturally” assume an inactive role in relation to men (Baker 294). Marion’s surname, Crane, implies then that she, too, assumes a submissive role – a comparison which both the film and Norman respectively reinforce through editing and the comment that she “eats like a bird.” Having established that Norman’s “stuffing” of “birds” reflects a suppressed desire to dominate women, such a comparison foreshadows Marion’s imminent death.

Having established a connection between Marion and birds throughout Norman’s language, the film’s subtle use of editing in the parlor scene emphasizes this correlation. The scene begins as Norman invites Marion into his parlor for supper – a gesture which is perhaps figurative of his desire to “stuff” her. Having entered the parlor, the camera intercuts medium shots of Marion with close-ups of two of Norman’s stuffed birds. First, the camera sees Marion glance to her right and cuts to an owl with outstretched wings and sharpened talons. The film then cuts back to Marion, who slightly moves her gaze to the left before the camera views a raven perched next to a portrait of soaring angels and cherubim. Through this simple pattern of cuts, the film seemingly suggests that Marion’s status is comparable to these passive creatures: more precisely, Marion’s position in relation to Norman is symbolized by the raven. Highly intelligent and symbolic of deception, Marion’s embezzlement, use of a pseudonym, and general deceit throughout Psycho is epitomized by the raven; furthermore, as Marion is murdered in the subsequent scene, the bird serves as an omen of her impending doom (Black). The image of a stuffed raven, then, denotes both Norman’s lust for Marion and his hatred towards women; having suspiciously reviewed the guest registry, Norman is alerted to Marion’s trickery and reacts by spying upon her as she undressed before brutally murdering her in the shower. Indeed, Norman’s assertion to Arbogast that he is not “capable of being fooled… [n]ot even by a women” accentuates this spite. Although Marion attempted to assume an active role by deceiving him, Norman learned of her deceit and, like his birds, and mother, put her back into her “rightful” role by murdering her and presumably preserving her body in a nearby bog (Lewis).

Just as the editing pattern in the parlor scene highlights Norman’s gender stereotypes by associating Marion with a raven, analysis of various examples of mise-en-scène within the scene unveils Norman’s insidious sexuality and his mother’s domineering influence. Returning first to the image of the raven, the camera notices a shadow cast by the bird’s perch which covers a portion of the angelic portrait. The shadow, an evocative phallic symbol, seemingly “penetrates” the painting’s border, denoting that his mother, represented by the matronly angel surrounded by cherubim, is the primary target of his lust. Although the raven rests upon the perch, marking Marion’s apparent control over Norman’s sexuality, such influence is later shown to be tentative. As the scene progresses, the camera sees Norman occupying the lower right-hand corner of the screen while the stuffed owl looms over him and two more paintings occupy the background. In stark contrast to the angels, the paintings in this shot depict partially nude women who initially appear to be covering themselves; upon closer inspection, though, each of these works is shown to portray women who are being sexually assaulted. Just as the first portrait represents Norman’s desire for his mother, the film gradually emphasizes his violent sexual fantasies by revealing that one of these more suggestive works covers the peephole into Marion’s cabin. At the surface, then, Norman yearns to subject women; however, these inclinations are reduced to mere voyeurism. Although Norman longs to express his sexuality by dominating women, he is prevented from acting on such impulses by a more compelling force, his mother.

As the film has already established Marion as the raven, analysis of the mise-en-scène in the parlor scene hints that the owl must represent Norma Bates, the other dominant female figure in Psycho. The most apparent similarity between the owl and Norma is that Norman has “stuffed” each. In relation to the owl, Norman has “mummified” its body, regarding his mother, though, the term “stuffed” assumes greater significance. In this case, Norman’s “stuffing” denotes both the preservation of his mother’s corpse and his lust for her – and implication that is seemingly confirmed when Norman proclaims that a “son is a poor substitute for a lover.” As was previously mentioned, the owl prominently displays its wings as its talons clench the perch, evoking both a passionate defense of its resting place against potential challengers and pending predation on Norman. Such a posture symbolizes Norma’s fierce control over her son; assuming that Norman has less-than-pure intentions, she chastises him for inviting Marion to dinner and forbids her from entering the house. In a similar manner, the owl seemingly wards of Norman’s other stuffed birds as each is oriented facing away from the beast; furthermore, the owl’s perch, another phallic representation, is directed away from Norman’s sexual paintings, further symbolizing Norma’s complete authority over her son’s sexuality. Given that even the mere thought of her influences Norman, his mother’s domination is absolute; when the conversation turns to the subject of his mother, he withdraws a hand from a bird that he had previously been stroking, perhaps cognizant of his mother’s disapproval. Despite Norman’s claim that his mother is “as harmless as one of those stuffed birds,” the owl’s menacing presence suggests instead that Norma, though deceased, is still as dangerous as the petrified bird suggests.

Analysis of mise-en-scène and editing in the parlor scene does not merely emphasize Norma’s relentless control and highlight Norman’s attitudes regarding gender and sexuality; instead, it also calls into question Norman’s gender identity. Throughout the parlor scene, Norman uses language which is evocative of birds; for example, the claim that “we scratch and we claw, but only at the air” evokes the image of talons while the following statement that “we never budge an inch” recalls the stuffed birds’ preservation. By using the first-person plural tense, Norman compares himself to the birds, and, by extension, to his conception of women. At various points in the scene, the camera sees Norman either directly in front of or nearby one of his stuffed birds. In one such instance, Norman’s head replaces that of the owl as he stands to welcome Marion into the room. Given the preceding analysis, the image of Norman in front of the owl suggests not only his predation of Marion, but also his status as a woman and the presence of the mother half of his personality. This comparison is reinforced throughout Psycho; Norman only enacts his murders while dressed as his mother, moves his head in a birdlike fashion while speaking with Arbogast, and has “preserved” his room in its childish state, emphasizing his dependence upon his mother even after her death. Although Norma’s manipulation suggests that Norman has been forced to assume this stereotypically feminine role, it may be argued that he has intentionally embraced this status. Jealous of his mother’s marriage to a new man, and intimidated by the associated prospect of independence, Norman ensured that he would continue to occupy a dependent position by poisoning each and preserving his mother’s corpse. Because acting upon his sexual urges for other women would threaten his occupation of a passive role, the feeble, effeminate Norman relied upon his more dominant, “motherly” half to protect himself from such temptations.

In conclusion, the parlor scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho invites the audience into Norman Bates’ twisted mind and encapsulates the greater themes of the film. At the surface, Norman’s hobby of “stuffing birds” and subsequent dialogue with Marion Crane appears to be a perplexing prelude to the renowned shower scene; however, a brief evaluation of language reveals Norman’s sadistic sexual desires and negative conceptions of femininity. Given this preliminary evaluation, analysis of the mise-en-scène and editing in the parlor scene unveils a number of comparisons. First, a brief cutting pattern between Marion and stuffed birds foreshadows her death. Second, the various portraits of angels and brutalized women gradually reveal Norman’s lust for both his mother and other women. Third, the dominating presence of the stuffed owl underscores Norma’s suppression of her son’s sexuality even after death. Finally, various comparisons between Norman and birds denote his assumption of a passive role. Given his childlike dependence upon his mother and fear of adopting an active role, it is arguable that Norman has intentionally accepted this status. Although Norma Bates had been deceased for a number of years, her relentless tyranny over every aspect of Norman’s life left him a scarred man. The trauma that Norman had experienced was so immense that, when faced with the thought of independence, he murdered both his mother and stepfather to ensure that he would indefinitely occupy the passive, dependent role he was conditioned to accept. Ultimately, Psycho revolves around a man – rather, a boy – whose sexuality and gender identity have been warped by his mother’s influence. Put more precisely, the film is about a childish man who has assigned himself a feminine role to ensure he never loses his beloved mother.

 

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Works Cited

Baker, Robert B. ""Pricks" and "Chicks": A Plea for "Persons"" Philosophy and Sex. 3rd ed. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 1998. 281-305. Print.

Black, Susa M. “The Raven.” Order of Bards and Druids. The Order of Bards, Ovates, & Druids, n.d. Web. 25 Feb. 2015.

Lewis, Susan K. “10 Ways to Make a Mummy.” The Perfect Corpse. PBS Online, 7 Feb. 2006. Web. 25 Feb. 2015.

Psycho. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Perf. Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles. Universal Studios, 1999. DVD.