The Extreme Misogyny of ‘Vertigo’

I often wonder why Jimmy Stewart, an actor known for having a wholesome nature in an out of character, would play increasingly misogynistic roles in Hitchcock’s films over a span of a decade.

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I’m sure he had his pick of other scripts and Hitchcock wasn’t the only brilliant director around (*read any other piece I’ve written on him and you’ll recognize my admiration for his skills, but not for his particularly twisted attitude towards women). So, why did Stewart dive into cahoots with Hitchcock in script after script, knowingly demeaning dozens of fellow actresses?

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This baffles me, though it probably shouldn’t: this was a period of high masculinism in post World War Western Culture. Still, the blatantly abusive treatment of costars must be addressed, even so many decades later, especially in the case of films that filmmakers still copy and revere.

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Stewart often plays the savior. He’s a detective healing from a fall or resigning after a big scare; the professor catching a lie; the businessman who’s son was kidnapped- in all cases, he loses control and must regain it by the end of the film. In one case, he fails because he insists on becoming his own worst enemy. This is Stewart in “Vertigo” (1958).

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Stewart begins somewhat impotent- he fails to catch a bad guy and fails to prevent the death of a colleague due to an extreme case of vertigo. He quits the police force and casually offers to marry his friend, an artist who turned down his proposal years before. But he has no passions and figures he never will, so she is as good as he’ll ever encounter…until he drops her completely for a ghost.

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Stewart’s character, Scottie, is assigned to watch a wealthy man’s wife to see what she’s up to in her spare time. Judy, played by Kim Novak, is classically chilly, emotionally disconnected, blond, and naive- a Hitchcock leading lady. This character is beautiful, but nearly robotic in her movements. She is supposedly in a daze- swept away by the spirit of her long dead great grandmother- but really she’s an imposter playing the role of a dead woman walking. The scheme falls through when the ex-detective Scottie not only fails to protect Madeleine, but to stay detached as a professional priority: he falls in love with the woman.

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Scottie falls into an obsessive love with Madeleine- a woman who doesn’t really exist. When he fails to save her, his obsession with her unearthliness grows. There she was, a ghost, possibly a figment- Scottie’s waking dream. In this state, she can be found again and physically shaped if he looks hard and carefully enough. He succeeds: he spots a dead-ringer for Madeleine working in a shop, one day.

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Scottie forces the shop girl, Judy, into leaving her independent life and living solely for the purpose of becoming the dead lover. Judy hesitates not only because the thought of having to become someone dead -killing yourself in the process, and all to be adored- is repulsive, but because she has already been the woman. Judy is reliving the past and the one she loved in that past is forcing her to do so…but not as herself, as she hoped: in the fateful guise, only.

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Since the entire point of Novak’s role is to exist in three roles -as Madeleine, as The Imposter, and as Judy- all for use by Scottie, as Dreams to fulfill his desires, and because this obsession can only fail, Madeleine, the imposter, AND Judy must die. The loss of all facets of this dream is inevitable and vital to understanding Scottie’s absolute impotence as a character. But first he has to strain through to prove he has power…in all the wrong ways, leading only to suffering. Unfortunately, Novak’s overcompensating pawn-like characters are doomed from the start.

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In many ways, Novak’s character is better developed because she gets pulled apart in such a physical way. She is also the object of an obsession focused in the gaze, so her appearance is almost taken from a myopic consciousness. She is viewed so up-close that we almost feel her emotions ourselves- quaking, excitement, pain. Unfortunately, since she exists as a vehicle for Scottie’s satisfaction, she is taken less seriously and judged more as an object than the subject she proves herself to be in the course of the film.

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