Spectacles with Spectacles: The Representation of Woman in STRANGERS ON A TRAIN
19 June 2011
Briefly, Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951) captures two mens’ lives as they intersect. Guy (Farley Granger), a famous tennis player, “coincidentally” meets Bruno (Robert Walker), a mentally disturbed man, on a train. Recognizing him as a popular athlete, Bruno befriends Guy. Through the press, Bruno knows Guy is in a loveless marriage to Miriam (Kasey Rogers) and has fallen in love with another woman, Anne (Ruth Roman). Using this information, Bruno makes and unusual proposal to his new friend; Bruno suggests killing Miriam for Guy and, in return, Guy would kill Bruno’s father. Thinking Bruno is joking, Guy departs the train and forgets his encounter with Bruno…that is, of course, until Bruno shows up outside Guy’s home in the middle of the night with news that he has killed Miriam. The rest of the film captures Guy’s desperate attempt to save himself and his loved ones from Bruno’s madness. However, plotline aside, the real, or reel, story in Strangers on a Train is the film’s representation of women. In fact, an argument about women’s depiction in Hollywood’s early films by Laura Mulvey, a theorist foundational to areas of film study, can practically be heard screaming through Hitchcock’s film.
In 1975, Laura Mulvey wrote “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” a significant article in film theory, particularly feminist film theory. In part, Mulvey argues women who wear glasses in early Hollywood cinema defy the expected role of woman in society. Basically, wearing glasses suggests a woman in trying to see. To see violates the traditional expectation placed upon women; a woman’s role is to be seen by the male spectator (the male gaze), not try to see for herself. Mulvey discovered in her research that women who defy this expectation and see through their glasses in classic Hollywood narrative films typically end up punished by death or reformed (into a woman conforming to expectations) by the conclusion of the film. Strangers on a Train presents characters upon which Mulvey’s theory can be applied.
Miriam, Guy’s estranged wife, is a quintessential example of a how a woman defying the expectations of her gender on film is “reely” treated. When the audience first meets Miriam the following facts are made clear about her character: she is manipulative, contemptible, cold, and, perhaps most obviously, she wears glasses. Miriam’s glasses are not just any pair of glasses; they are large, thick, and darkly framed. According to Mulvey’s theory, the spectacles on Miriam’s face interfere with her presence as spectacle on-screen. That is, Miriam, as a woman, is there to be seen, and, by wearing glasses, viewers’ attention is drawn to Miriam attempt to see, which violates her role. Miriam is supposed to be the spectacle not the spectator.
Furthermore, to expand on Mulvey’s theory, women who wear glasses on film are also acknowledging there is a flaw in their sight. Reading into the double meaning of that statement, one can argue that there is a flaw in the sight or appearance of the woman. This claim supports why women in narrative, classic Hollywood films who wear glasses are never represented as sex symbols (actually, this is still true on contemporary Hollywood films). Stereotypically in cinema, glasses are a turn off, not a turn on; women are in film to be seen, not to see.
In Strangers on a Train, Miriam is hardly presented as a desired woman. In fact, she is revolting to her husband, and her deplorable behavior also makes her equally unattractive to the audience. (Yes, at the carnival, Miriam is with two men, but they seem more interested in each other than her, which attaches to a whole other theory predating Mulvey, one outing why women are actually exchanged from man to man in society…).
According to Mulvey’s theory, Miriam, as a seeing woman, has to die or be reformed into a conventional woman (by 1951 standards) within the film; without fail, Miriam is killed in Strangers on a Train, and the way Hitchcock captures her murder highlights Miriam’s glasses, linking her seeing with her demise. Bruno stalks Miriam around a carnival before he strangles her. Although Miriam repeatedly notices Bruno watching her, the two men she is at the carnival with never notice him. Again, Miriam is seeing or looking, which is something she is not supposed to do. Seeing Bruno does not prevent him from killing her; in fact, seeing Bruno seals Miriam’s fate. Finally isolated from the crowds of the carnival, Bruno approaches Miriam and puts his hands around her neck. In doing so, her glasses are knocked off her face to the ground. Hitchcock, remarkably, films Miriam’s strangulation through the reflection from her glasses. This deeply meaningful camera trick not only captures Miriam’s death, but also the real motive for her murder, the glasses. Additionally, in filming through the glasses Hitchcock restores Miriam as spectacle and the audience and spectator.
Interestingly, after Miriam’s death, another female character is introduced who wears glasses, Anne’s sister, Barbara (Patricia Hitchcock). In many ways Barbara is similar to Miriam; both Barbara and Miriam talk incessantly, which is as much of an annoyance to the audience as to the other characters. This unfiltered chattiness is also linked with seeing; because the women see they have more to say. For Miriam, this is a part of her doomed fate; however, Barbara is different. During Barbara’s first scene, she removes her glasses voluntarily. This is an important gesture. In removing the glasses on her own, Barbara may be suggesting a willingness not to see at times, making her a lesser threat to society, as represented, in cinema, by the spectacle (woman) and spectator (society). Ultimately, Barbara does not die, but she is erased. While the film resolves the fates of most characters, Barbara is forgotten in this closure. Although the film does not force her to die or conform, Strangers on a Train does not validate the role of a woman with glasses.
Truthfully, this is only the tip of the iceberg in applying Mulvey’s theory to Miriam and Barbara in Strangers on a Train. There are many more details to unpack when grappling with the unconscious (and, perhaps, sometimes, all too conscious) way Hollywood and Hitchcock, in this particular example, represent women on film. Yet, whether unpacking a lot or a small amount, what’s clear is in Strangers on a Train is women who defy their role as spectacle by attempting to become a spectator are punished in one way or another.