One of Alfred Hitchcock’s most well-known movies, Psycho (1960) continues to instigate debate and academic scholarship. While this movie was the precursor of many trends, such as the slasher horror genre, it has not escaped controversy. According to John Phillips, Psycho “[provided] the original model of the mentally disturbed cross-dressed murderer” (87) by equating cross-dressing with a form of mental illness so severe that its only logical manifestation is violence. Norman’s gender bending, expressed by dressing and living as his mother, threatens gender binaries, and thus creates a veritable monster. In this article, I will argue that Psycho promotes a transphobic rendering of its main villain, Norman Bates, in order to understand how the movie tries to contain Norman’s transgender identity. Using film studies and queer studies, I will examine Norman as a transgender character, Lila as an embodiment of the Law, and the psychiatrist at the end as a repressing force. Mainly, I will argue that Lila and the psychiatrist function to normalize Norman and to contain his non-normativity.
One of Alfred Hitchcock’s most well-known movies, Psycho (1960) continues to instigate debate and academic scholarship. Whether in the field of film studies, psychoanalysis or queer studies, Psycho has proven to lend itself to various frameworks of analysis. In the film, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) steals forty thousand dollars in order to marry her lover, Sam Loomis (John Gavin). While on the run, she stops at the eerie Bates Motel, where she meets Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), its lonely keeper. Marion is soon brutally murdered by the Mother in the famous shower scene. Lila Crane (Vera Miles) carries out the investigation into her sister Marion’s disappearance. At the end, it is revealed that Norman dresses up as his mother and kills the women who happen to stay at the motel.
While this movie was the precursor of many trends, such as the slasher horror genre, it has not escaped controversy. According to John Phillips, Psycho “[provided] the original model of the mentally disturbed cross-dressed murderer” (87) by equating cross-dressing with a form of mental illness so severe that its only logical manifestation is violence. Philips further argues that this film perpetuates the fear and demonization of transsexuality in our cultural imaginary by using it as stand-in for “castration, madness, murder and monstrosity” (17; 85). In Psycho, Norman Bates is portrayed as the weakling son, overpowered by his mother, who murders people. Norman’s gender bending, expressed by dressing and living as his mother, threatens gender binaries and thus creates a veritable monster.
In this article, I will argue that Psycho promotes a transphobic rendering of its main villain, Norman Bates, in order to understand how the movie tries to contain Norman’s transgender identity. Using film studies and queer studies, I will examine Norman as a transgender character, Lila as an embodiment of the Law, and the psychiatrist at the end as a repressing force. Mainly, I will argue that Lila and the psychiatrist function to normalize Norman and to contain his non-normativity.
Norman Bates: Disruptive Force
Alexander Doty argues that understanding Norman through a queer lens frees him from binary constructs. “Queer” functions as a broad umbrella term meaning someone who is “not clearly identified as homosexual, bisexual, heterosexual, while also . . . not fitting into current understandings of normative straightness” (157). However, the term queer is too broad, conflating gender and sexuality within one terminology. Thus, I use the term transgender, which more specifically refers to gender identity. Transgender encompasses “many gender identities of those who do not identify or exclusively identify with their sex assigned at birth” (“LGBTQ+”). By positioning Norman as a transgender character, my aim is to highlight his gender identity, rather than his sexuality, as it is constructed in Psycho.
Positioning Norman as transgender does not imply he is not queer. As a queer character, Norman does not “[fit] into current understandings of normative straightness” (Doty 157). Moreover, Doty claims that Norman’s gender and sexuality are both “muddled” and “incoherent,” which allows critics and viewers to read him in multiple ways (157). Norman is never on any side of the gender binaries, but rather inhabits the space between them by alternating between Norman and Mother and finally being neither. Throughout the film, Norman seems to avoid subscribing to either female or male identities. Doty argues that “you have to ignore or downplay too much in order to formulate an argument about [Norman] that works within the established binaries of heterosexual-homosexual and masculine-feminine” (157). This downplay is exemplified by the psychiatrist’s monologue at the end of the film, in which he attempts to explain Norman’s behavior in simplistic terms. Because Norman resists heteronormativity and gender expectations, he creates the terrorizing revelation at the end of the movie that he and Mother were one person all along.
Norman, like many of Hitchcock’s villains, resists binary modes of representation. Doty explains that the director “[creates] a compelling collection of men who often are neither cut-and-dried ‘gay villains’ nor just heterosexual men in ‘gender crises’” (166). David Greven, author of Psycho-Sexual: Male Desire in Hitchcock, De Palma, Scorsese, and Friedkin, argues that in general Hitchcock’s representation of gender and sexuality is too complex for simple readings. According to Greven, while Hitchcock sets into play normative binary codes such as hero/villain, female/male, femininity/masculinity, heterosexuality/homosexuality, and cisgender/transgender in his movies, he uses them to “[stage] a conflict between the idea of heterosexuality as normative and therefore desirable and queerness as non-normative and therefore undesirable to the point of being loathsome” (68). In the case of Psycho, Norman is occupying the space between heterosexual/homosexual and male/female, threatening the boundaries between these oppositions. Precisely because Norman does not occupy a specific side of the binary, he is positioned as the villain. This is contrasted with Sam Loomis, Marion’s boyfriend, who in the opening scene is already framed as masculine and heterosexual, being shown in bed after a sexual encounter with Marion. Norman’s queerness thus translates to undesirable and dangerous, while Sam’s normativity becomes so desirable that Marion is willing to go to great lengths to be with him.
The line dividing Sam and Norman is a thin one, as the psychiatrist tries to explain; all it took was one overbearing mother to turn the otherwise normal Norman into a murderer. In other words, Hitchcock seems to explore these binaries as social constructions. With characters such as Norman, Hitchcock highlights the very fragility of these constructs to problematize them. Ultimately, Norman Bates is a prime example of the resistance both to normativity and to clear-cut classifications.
Raymond Bellour and Alexander Doty indicate that the name Norman already points towards the character’s troublesome characteristics. According to Bellour, “Norman: he who is neither woman . . . nor man, since he can be one in the place of the other, or rather one and the other, one within the other” (125). Additionally, Doty claims, “that ‘Norman’ is a letter away from ‘normal’ and that within ‘Norman’ is ‘Norma’ (what his mother personality is called in the Robert Bloch novel) and ‘ma’” (159). I add to this that Norman also contains the word ‘norm’ in it, and up until the final revelation, Norman seems to conform to gender norms.
On the surface, Norman is a regular man running a motel and taking care of his disabled mother. He follows rules and habits, as when he explains to the private investigator, Arbogast, that he makes the beds every week, no matter what: “Today’s linen day. I change all the beds once a week, whether they’ve been used or not” (Psycho 01:05:07). Later, Norman adds, “I shouldn’t even bother to change the linen. I guess habits die hard” (01:06:26). He knows there is no use to changing the linens if the beds have not been used, but he does it out of tradition and formality.
Despite this seeming eccentricity, a closer look into Norman reveals that he does fit into the ‘norm.’ As the psychiatrist explains at the end, “Norman” is the conscious half of this individual’s personality, with the other half being the “Mother”, a persona he is not aware of. The psychiatrist observes that: “after [Mother committed] murder, Norman returned as if from a deep sleep . . . and like a dutiful son, covered up all traces of the crime he was convinced his mother had committed” (01:45:47). In other words, Norman is only conscious of his actions as a man, as a son, and as the Bates Motel keeper. While inhabiting this persona, he is an upstanding citizen, a charming young man, and a seemingly normal person.
If Norman is the conscious side of the character, then the Mother is definitely the unconscious side of him. In Psycho, the Mother remains hidden in an inaccessible place until she suddenly erupts, bringing violent repercussions to the norm as is the case when Marion is murdered. The Mother, up until that moment hidden away in the gothic-looking house, appears in the shower and brutally assassinates Marion. The murder unsettles the normalcy of Norman’s situation, forcing him to try to re-establish social rules by cleaning up the murder scene.
The film attempts to establish that Norman has a split personality, which creates an interesting paradox. Instead of assuming Norman as a single non-conforming individual, the movie tries to firmly establish a female persona and a male persona. However, neither of these personas adhere to gender expectations. Doty claims that “[the Mother] is represented as the dominant/masculine one, with the boyish Norman as the weaker/feminine (or effeminate) aspect of a split personality” (159). Although cultural norms associate masculinity with dominance, force, and violence, these traits do not belong to Norman’s male persona but to his female one. It is Mother who displays dominant characteristics whereas his male side is passive. As a male, he is the kind and lonely keeper of the Bates Motel. As his conversation with Marion demonstrates, he is a dutiful son: “who’d look after her? She’d be alone up there, the fire would go out damp and cold, like a grave. When you love someone, you don’t do that to them, even if you hate them” (00:40:18). As Mother, though, he is clingy, jealous, and plainly psychotic. In the conversation Marion overhears, Mother says: “I won’t have you bringing strange young girls in for supper . . . by candlelight, I suppose, in the cheap erotic fashion of young men with cheap, erotic minds!” (00:32:26). Norman is split between gender constructs and struggling to conform to either of them, becoming trapped within himself. He explains to Marion, “I think we’re all in our private traps, clamped in them, and none of us can ever climb out . . . I was born in mine. I don’t mind it anymore” (00:38:01-00:38:29). This is telling. Norman was born into his trap as in his male body, but also as into stiff social constructs, repressive binaries, or oppressive normativity. He cannot perform as a ‘normal’ man, because he is under constant inspection in regard to his masculinity; but he also cannot be solely a woman, as the shock of finding him dressed as Mother at the end points towards the social unacceptability of transition. Moreover, Norman might desire a life free from strict gender rules, conforming to neither a male nor a female identity per se.
Norman’s failure to comply to gender expectations can be exemplified by moments in which his masculinity undergoes scrutiny. Throughout the film, there are two notable moments in which this happens. The first one is when Norman wants Marion to have dinner at the house, to which Mother replies: “Go on, go tell her she’ll not be appeasing her ugly appetite with my food or my son! Or do I have to tell her, because you don’t have the guts? Huh, boy? You have the guts, boy?” (00:32:56). The second instance is when Arbogast, the private detective, shows up to question Norman about Marion:
ARBOGAST. Or if she had you, say, gallantly protecting her, you wouldn’t be fooled… you’d know she was just using you. Wouldn’t you?
NORMAN. I’m not a fool! And I’m not capable of being fooled! Not even by women!
ARBOGAST. I didn’t mean that as a slur on your manhood. I’m sorry. (01:11:08-01:11:21)
Both Mother and Arbogast question Norman’s ability to perform as is expected of by a man. Mother thinks he has no ‘guts,’ while Arbogast suggests that he can be fooled by women. Either way, these intense inspections suggest that he is not behaving according to his assigned gender. He is not meeting traditional expectations of masculinity.
The movie posits that Norman’s heterosexuality and masculinity are questionable. Greven considers Norman to be a blank (104), referring specifically to the scene in which Norman is peeping at Marion. The voyeuristic act of looking is usually sexually inflated, but Norman displays no signs of arousal. It is an extremely ambiguous scene, because it does not allow the audience to understand the motivations behind his act of looking. According to Greven, “Norman avidly looks at Marion from his non-normative voyeuristic vantage point without a definitive sexual purpose or agenda” (99) and thus symbolizes “a proliferation of sexual possibilities” (105) that could be read into the scene in a multitude of ways. Greven and Doty offer many readings of this moment, to which I will add two more. First, as Greven points out, Norman could be looking at Marion with heterosexual desire (105). Second, Doty claims that the voyeur could be Mother, not Norman, and she could be desiring Marion within a homosexual site, concluding that, “After all, the ‘mother’ side of Norman, with all its potential for a cross-gender homosexualizing or queering of his character, is watching these women, too” (164). Third, I argue that Norman could be looking at Marion from a transgender perspective, desiring not her but what she represents: femininity. Finally, it could be all these scenarios at the same time, as all of these gazes are equally possible. Norman does not necessarily have to adhere to a single gaze, being able to shift and adopt these simultaneously. Setting into only one of these probabilities falls back into over-simplifying a character that resists any fixed readings.
The desire to explain Norman and contain him is at the root of his terrifying force. He is riddled with contradictions, and such moments serve to create more possibilities instead of simplifying them. By splitting Norman in two, a male and a female persona, Hitchcock attempts to highlight the terror of non-conforming identities. The horror created by the final revelation that Norman is Mother “[is] metonymically associated with transvestism and the phenomenon of transgender in general” (Phillips 91). In other words, not only is Norman a trans-force within the narrative, as Greven and Phillips argue, but he also serves to expunge social anxieties around transgender phenomena. After all, he is the villain and must be punished accordingly.
Lila: Lawful Sister
Doty argues that Lila is another queer force in Psycho because, like Norman, she resists normative discourse. Once again, Hitchcock does not offer a simple representation. Lila does present many characteristics of a strong female lead, unlike other heroines of the time. I will argue, however, that she still functions within the narrative as a normative force to contain Norman.
After Marion’s disappearance, Lila sets off to California to find out by herself what has happened to Marion. Doty reads Lila’s act as her “[taking] over the narrative functions of both the lover and the law (Sam, Arbogast/the Sheriff) functions almost always fulfilled by heterosexual male characters” (175). When the private detective falls victim to Norman, Lila takes over exactly where he left off, at the Bates Motel, and thus fulfills Arbogast’s duty of investigating. Doty posits Lila as a “Final Girl” because she is the one that “remains to confront the killer at the end of the film” (175) after she discovers the actual corpse of the mother, and simultaneously uncovers Norman posing as Mother.
According to Greven, “Lila may be, in certain respects, a queer heroine, but, more pronouncedly, she is the embodiment of normativity. While she is excitingly forceful and active, she is also harsh and humorless, an unyielding presence” (86). As she takes on the role of the detective, Lila also takes on the role of revealing and exposing. Even though she might be seen as a queer figure, as proposed by Doty, she functions as the law and the “culture of repression” (Greven 86).
Lila is resolute about going into Norman’s own home. While Norman tries at all costs to keep intruders out of the house, Lila, quite literally, invades Norman’s private and safe space. Norman’s aversion to strangers coming into the house stems from his fear of them discovering Mother. Norman’s house symbolizes the closet where Norman keeps his mother and his female persona. In her investigation, Lila barges into his closet to bring to light what he keeps hidden, which is tantamount to “outing Norman.” As a Final Girl, that is exactly what she does. When Lila finally manages to enter the house, she encounters its inhabitant, namely, Mother. In a way, Lila is able to penetrate the unconscious of Norman in order to expose Mother to the system. Lila not only finds Mother’s corpse, but she is also the first to see Norman fully transformed.
Lila’s impulse to expose Norman serves as a transphobic mechanism that needs to contain Norman’s transgressions. Working to solve her sister’s disappearance, she also serves to bring Norman into the light, and to drag him out of the closet of his home. Lila stands in for the desire to uncover non-normative behavior. It is through this uncovering process that transgender characters can be properly assessed and normalized again. Lila becomes a transphobic element in the narrative as she works towards bringing Norman into the normative system to be judged and prosecuted. By bringing Norman, and Mother, to justice, the proliferation of meaning represented by Norman is contained again within regulatory discourse.
Psychiatrist: Repressing Force
At the end of the film, Norman is questioned by a psychiatrist, Dr. Richman (Simon Oakland). In a long monologue, the doctor explains to the police officers, and the audience, what drove Norman to commit these crimes. The main function of this monologue is to give closure to the narrative. According to Phillips, “by insisting on the closure that truth or resolution brings, conventional narratives dealing with [transsexuality] reassure the audience by returning to normality” (21). Thus, the monologue performed by a psychiatrist forces Norman to conform to social norms through the medical discourse used. Ultimately, it reassures viewers that the gender-bending instigated by Norman is both exposed and explained. Like Lila, the final monologue by the psychiatrist functions to contain Norman’s transgressions. It gives the audience a profile of Norman’s psyche. It explains that he was raised by his mother since his father passed away when he was young. He grew to be overtly attached to his mother, which rendered him clingy and jealous. All this background information is intended not to explain what made him a serial killer, but what drove him to cross-dress, linking cross-dressing with violence. Not surprisingly, the question asked is:
SAM. Why was he dressed like that?
DISTRICT ATTORNEY. He’s a transvestite!
RICHMAN. Not exactly. A man who dresses in woman’s clothing in order to achieve a sexual change or satisfaction is a transvestite. But in Norman’s case, he was simply doing everything possible to keep alive the illusion of his mother being alive. (01:45:55-01:46:16)
The psychiatrist’s answer is elusive at best; it does not fully explain Norman’s gender or sexuality. It does imply that he is somehow different from a transvestite because he suffers from split personality. According to Robert Corber, “the psychiatrist does indeed seem more interested in containing than in resolving the questions raised by the film. He reconstructs Norman’s psychological history from an overly schematic and reductive psychoanalytic perspective” (186). Furthermore, the psychiatrist places Norman into a coherent narrative by over-simplifying Norman’s motives. We are expected to believe that Norman is a somewhat normal straight man; however, when he feels attracted to young women, it leads him to cross-dress and murder them in cold blood. As the psychiatrist explains, he is not a transvestite; he simply wants to embody a heterosexual woman (Doty 168). In other words, the film tries to reject any hint of a transgender identity.
Moreover, the explanation the psychiatrist gives reinforces the idea of “momism” in Psycho. The term momism was coined by Philip Wylie in his book A Generation of Vipers (1942). As Corber points out, Wylie’s argument was that “American society was rapidly becoming a matriarchy in which domineering and overly protective mothers disrupted the Oedipal structure of the middle-class nuclear family by smothering their sons with ‘unnatural’ affection” (qtd. in Doty 160). Regarding Psycho, the momist explanation goes back to the serial killer Ed Gein, who inspired both the novel by Bloch and Hitchcock’s adaptation. Ed Gein, nicknamed the Butcher of Plainfield (Wisconsin), was mainly a grave robber who experimented with female human remains. He was also convicted of killing at least two women. His psychosis, like Norman’s, is attached to his over-bearing mother: he was “obsessively devoted to his mother until her death in 1945, [and he] never left home or dated women. After she died, he became increasingly deranged” (“Ed Gein”). Gein’s case is said to have influenced not only Psycho, but other films that also feature cross-dressing serial killers such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Silence of the Lambs (1991).
As I have touched upon, Psycho portrays Norman as effeminate, and the Mother as possessive, which is akin to Ed Gein’s experience with a strong mother figure who repressed her weakling son. This exposes a larger concern of postwar America, namely momism. According to Roel van den Oever, “Norman is ‘the great Momist nightmare’ incarnate, the literal embodiment of the domineering mother and her weakling son rolled into one” (109). There are two distinctively marked moments in which momism can be discerned in the film: Norman’s conversation with Marion at the parlor and the psychiatrist’s monologue at the end. In the parlor scene, Norman firmly claims that “a boy’s best friend is his mother” (00:37:16). Meanwhile, in the final monologue scene, the psychiatrist characterizes Norman’s mother as: “a clinging, demanding woman, and for years the two of them lived as if there was no one else in the world” (01:43:49). According to this momist explanation, the suffocating relationship with the Mother has caused Norman’s psychosis and the resulting murders. The concern with the rise of momism in America during the postwar years can be seen as underlying the creation and subsequent interpretations of Psycho. However, the momist explanation is not enough to contain Norman. For van den Oever, “the psychiatrist’s take on Norman is just one more interpretation, and quite possibly one more misinterpretation” (134). Psycho, and specifically Norman, cannot be pinned down to one explanation or another. Momism is only one of the underlying cultural ideologies that appear in Psycho. From other points of view, which are distanced from postwar America, one may find other, more suitable readings of Norman Bates.
Furthermore, the psychiatrist argues that Norman does not even exist anymore; now he is only Mother. Dr. Richman explains that “when the mind houses two personalities, there is always a battle. In Norman’s case, the battle is over and the dominant personality has won” (01:46:48). Even if Norman is not a transvestite according to the psychiatrist, he now only displays the personality of a woman. In other words, by the end of the movie, Norman is identified as male at birth with a female-identified personality. Even having transitioned from male to female is not enough to declare Norman as a transgender character, however. As the aforementioned quotations demonstrate, Psycho bluntly denies any trans- suffix to be attached to Norman.
Ultimately, despite trying to contain Norman’s transgender identity, the movie ends with the iconic image of Norman in the police station superimposed with the image of mother in the fruit cellar (Figure 1). The two split personalities seem to visually coincide and unite at last. The film tries to contain this super-imposition up until its final moments. When kept apart, these two oppositions are a puzzle to the viewer. When united, they formulate a new meaning to the story: it was not Mother that killed Marion, but Norman-as-mother. When cleaning the murder scene, Norman was protecting himself, not Mother. Additionally, van den Oever proposes that “Norman’s [final] gaze into the camera suggests that he has conscious knowledge of his episodes as Mother” (122). This idea sets forth yet another layer of interpretation, one not confining Norman into a fixed explanation but causing the possible meanings to proliferate. When Norman and the Mother are finally united by the movie, the mystery is not solved, only multiplied.
To conclude, Norman is at once woman and man, mother and son, murderer and victim. These binaries are not mutually exclusive but belong to the totality of Norman. This serves to highlight the flexibility of terms, the incapability of fixating meaning, and the explosion of possibilities within one single character. As Norman, he is the dutiful son, the responsible motel keeper. As Mother, s/he is the disruptive force, clingy, jealous, and violent. Norman resists all labels by appearing as both Norman and Mother at the end in the overlapped image of his face and her skull. Hitchcock’s Psycho is enriched with every new reading that tries to assess it, creating new readings of its subversive villain, Norman Bates. Finally, I have called this desire to expose and explain Norman transphobic. On one hand, Lila works to expose Norman. On the other hand, Dr. Richman works to explain Norman’s behavior. These two characters act towards expunging the narrative of transgender identities. When Norman is out and diagnosed, his threatening presence seems to be contained again. Audiences can be satisfied that normativity has won once again and that the transgender individual has found his proper place: within the police station.
Figure 1 – “Norman and mother”. Psycho, 1960. Author’s screenshot.
Gabriella Colombo Machado
Université de Montréal
1. For a more comprehensive analysis of queerness in Hitchcock’s oeuvre, see: Doty, Alexander. “Queer Hitchcock.” A Companion to Alfred Hitchcock. Edited by Leitch, Thomas; Poague, Leland. Wiley-Blackwell, 2011, pp. 473-489.
2. Think for instance of Guy Haines and Bruno Antony in Strangers on a Train (1951) as well as Brandon Shaw and Phillip Morgan in Rope (1948).
3. This is a term coined by Carol Clover in her book Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, Princeton University Press, 1992.
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