The Drive to Destroy the Female Glitch: An Exploration of Feminine Power and Sexuality in Marnie
Illustrated by Skylar Aung-Thwin
A surface reading of Alfred Hitchcock’s film Marnie may portray its main character as a troubled and suffering young woman who finally comes to terms with her childhood demons with the aid of her charming yet controlling new husband. However, when developed further, Marnie can be seen as a much more complex and stronger character than she is given credit for.
In her own society, Marnie is a glitch; she does not abide by the standards that are thrust upon her. She’s an anomaly, a deviation from the way women are expected to behave in society. She’s a smart and manipulative young woman whose priorities do not include fantasizing about marriage and waiting for a man to come sweep her off her feet. For those very reasons, Marnie is hunted, encaged and condemned by the supporting characters of this film. She is too strange and too powerful for them to allow her to continue on the way she has been behaving.
As seen quite often in works of literature, the woman is often depersonalized; she will be viewed as an ideal, a concept, or even a tool to be used by the men at their disposal. In the film, the recurring theme of knowledge arises in that what is known and unknown defines the balance of power. With the knowledge they obtain, some characters, such as Lil, will seek to get rid of Marnie, and others, such as Mark, will seek to control her. Even Bernice plays a role in Marnie’s suffering, for only she hows the truth behind her daughter’s suffering and chooses to purposely keep her clouded in the dark. No matter the difficulties that Marnie is faced with, she continues to work both with and against social norms that constraint her, and she successfully bends them to her disposal in order to create persona after persona, charming and blinding men in order to get her job done––a testament to her true power, as she creates illusions and false realities in order attain her goals.
Marnie fights against the patriarchal forces that try to confine and dominate her just as the narrator attempts to do in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story, “The Yellow Wall Paper”. Marnie also works to combat the issues that feminist writer Anne Sexton identifies in her poem “Red Riding Hood” in which she condemns women who purposely choose to deceive themselves to the realities of the oppressing forces that surround them. In her retelling of this classic fairytale, Sexton spins the tale of various modern day individuals who have all fallen prey to various forms of deception. With only slight adjustments to the more familiar story, her writing attempts to awaken the senses and calls for the rise of all those men and women that continue to believe that they have no choice but to accept the oppression the patriarchy has inflicted upon them. Marnie embodies the very qualities Sexton wishes the characters in her poem would be brave and smart enough to encompass.
Marnie’s fierce personality is without a doubt and product of her upbringing. The traumatic murder she had the misfortune of witnessing and participating in as a child has left a significant imprint on her adult life and is the very force that now unconsciously drives and motivates her behavior. When Marnie was a child, her mother worked as a prostitute. One night, one of her customers turned his affection towards a young Marnie, inciting a struggle between the man and her mother, forcing Marnie to help her mother by killing him. This trauma can be interpreted as the witnessing of what Freud considers to be the “primal scene” in which the child first sees their parents engaging in a sexual act and goes on to associate sex with violence. This would explain Marnie’s complete aversion to all sexual aspects of life seeing as she now unconsciously associates them with pain as well as her inability to cease repeating the same pattern of behaviour. All the while, she condemns the very norms she uses as tools of manipulation as she fiercely opposes any sexual label that may be placed upon her.
This character can be better understood if she is read along the lines queer theories developed by Alexander Doty. Marnie’s peculiarities persist as she fails to identify to any gender in particular, seeing as she holds both males and females in very low regard. Her asexuality allows Marnie to be labeled as what Doty considers to be a “stealth queer” character, seeing as her queer qualities are present yet very subtly implemented in the film. This may also explain why certain psychoanalytic terms such as female “penis envy” cannot even be applied to Marnie. Her hate for men runs deeper than any unconscious desire to procure the male genitalia. Throughout the film, psychoanalysis is used a tool to deconstruct the mystery that is Marnie Edgar. However, not even these concepts suffice when trying to understand all that lies behind the inner workings of Marnie’s personality.
In the film, Marnie’s power and strength are primarily derived from her ability to use social constraints and typical female stereotypes to her advantage. She is very much aware of how women are expected to portray themselves and behave in society. Her ability to play into these expectations is what allows Marnie to go from heist to heist seemingly unnoticed because she makes herself appear ordinary and innocent. Her personas are all quite similar. For every new identity she takes on, she dyes her blond hair to a dull brown or black, making herself appear less attractive and allowing her to fade in the background, going unnoticed. Her own mother is against her blond hair when she states, “too blond hair always looks like the woman is trying to attract the man”. This demonstrates just how ingrained stereotypes are in individual’s reasoning, as if women’s hair colour is but a ploy to seek male attention. Marnie also makes sure to exude modesty and never allows for her skirt to rise higher than her knees. Lastly, she always makes herself available to work over-time without any objections, adding to her apparent willingness to subject herself to the whims of the authoritarian forces that surround her.
“Many are the deceivers,” writes Anne Sexton in her poem “ Red Riding Hood” (267). A deceiver is precisely what Marnie is, though not in the sense that Sexton criticizes women for being. The women in her poem are all self-deceivers, purposely blinding themselves to what is going on around them as she calls on them all to wake up and realize what the patriarchy has molded them into, helpless and obedient. “Those two remembering nothing naked and brutal from that death, that little birth, from their going down and their lifting up”(Sexton, 272). Red Riding Hood and her grandmother are ignorant to what has just happened to them; they stand by idly as if nothing has occurred and they allow the huntsman to save them and they go back to eating their cake and wine as if the grave events that have just occurred were but a fleeting memory. Similarly to Marnie, these females behave the way they are expected to, dormant and grateful for the patriarchal forces that oppress them. However, by working with these restrictive notions and purposely adhering to them, Marnie is actually taking a stand against them and demonstrating how she is very much aware of the societal expectations of woman and choses to exploit them to her advantage.
Though the film’s ending may be designed in order to sway its audience in the belief that Marnie has indeed been saved by Mark, the equivalent of Sexton’s huntsman, all previous evidence that has been offered refutes such a simple conclusion. Held in Mark’s embrace, it appears that Marnie, now free of her torment, willingly surrenders to the patriarchal forces she once revolted against. This is a concept that is hard to accept seeing as her life’s work was defined by illusions and duplicity and mocked the very forces that sought to oppress her. As metioned, the woman is often viewed in works of literature either as a concept or an ideal that male narrators chase after, seek to create or even encage. This is the case in short-stories such as Edgar Allen Poe’s “Ligeia” in which the narrator essentially kills his second wife by incarceration her in her dark and grim bridal chambers for failing to live up to the splendor of his first love. A similar scenario also occurs in Boileau-Narcejac’s novel that inspired Hitchcock’s film Vertigo, where the male protagonist is driven mad in his quest to resurrect the qualities of his lost ideal woman in his new lover. Marnie destroys all of these scenarios for she ardently struggles against all Marks attempts to manipulate her into the image of a perfect woman.
In the film, Mark insists that “ he can’t let her go” because “ somebody has got to take care of [her]” as if he has an obligation not to Marnie, but to the general public, in order to get rid of this new problem that has arisen among them. Even though she is left with no other options but to marry Mark and participate in this marriage against her own free-will, she vigorously refuses all of his attempts to change her and to analyze her with his use of psychoanalysis. Only as yet another tool of deception, and in to assure her safety, does Marnie play the part of the loving wife for spectators that surround her. Even though she is forced into restrictive circumstances, Marnie continues to hold onto her identity as she refuses to allow anyone else to entrap her and dictate her life. She remains distant from Mark; they sleep in different bedrooms for she refuses to partake in any kind of sexual relationship with him. To the forces that surround her, Marnie is flawed; she presents an irregularity in the way society is accustomed to witnessing women behave. What does not allow the machine to function as it always has must either be fixed or removed from its mechanism for it to go on working undisturbed.
The attempts to destory Marnie revolve in part around the supporting characters in the film wielding knowledge as a tool of oppression. Seeing as Marnie is the deceiver, it seems appropriate that the one thing renders her weak and hopeless is the truth. In the film, Mark, Lil and even Marnie’s own mother, Bernice all manipulate the knowledge they’ve acquired of Marnie to suit their own agendas. Marc only gets the upper hand against Marnie once he has finally discovered that she is behind the robberies. As he gains more and more insight to her past and her childhood, he is fuelled by his need to gain some amount of power over Marnie, to make her vulnerable and place her in his debt. This is precisely what occurs at the end of the film, once Mark succeeds in bringing all her secrets to the surface, and Marnie prefers to stay with him than be sent to prison. In reality, she has no choice in the matter and must do so, for her own protection. In his quest to uncover her secrets, Mark has succeeded in assuring Marnie is under his control.
On the other hand, by investigating Marnie, Lil seeks to get rid of her. She recognizes that Marnie does not belong in her world and is but a hurdle to surpass in her own pursuit for Mark’s affection. She hunts down any information she can gather in order to dispose of her competitor. Throughout the film, Lil eavesdrops on private conversations and even invites Sidney Strutt, Marnie’s former employer, to the newlyweds coming out party. Lil’s determination in eliminating Marnie demonstrates just how powerful the drive to destroy Marnie is. Even another woman is ready to follow the rules of the patriarchy if it means getting rid of what does not belong, the glitch.
Even Marnie’s own mother will involuntarily partake in her suffering. Bernice’s withholding the truth about Marnie’s childhood and the true cause of her accident has caused her daughter immense pain and anguish. Without answers to her past, Marnie is weakened and made vulnerable. Without knowing the reason, she goes into a trance at the sight of the colour red and during thunderstorms and experiences terrifying nightmares as she sleeps. For instance, in the scene where Marnie is in Mark’s office working over-time, she is paralyzed by her fear of the storm, which leaves her vulnerable to Mark’s assault as he kisses her while she is barely conscious. Bernice chooses to ignore the truth just like Red Riding Hood and the grandmother in Sexton’s poem. They blindly ignore reality, which only creates more harm than it does good. Their ignorance weakens them, causing a dependency to the Huntsman. Without even realizing it, Marnie’s free-will is taken away.
A similar loss of free will occurs for the narrator in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story, “The Yellow Wall Paper”. In the story, the narrator is oppressed and controlled by the people that proclaim to care for her such as her husband, John, and her sister-in-law, Jennie. They take away her writing, the only creative outlet she has to make sense of her pain. Jennie “thinks it is the writing that has made [her] sick” and her own husband believes “the very worst thing [she] can do is think about [her] condition” (Gilman, 132,136). Her attempt to understand her feelings is seen as something to condemn. Writing is how the narrator tries to sooth herself and gain insight on her complex feelings. Just like Marnie, she too is left in the dark about her condition and is expected to stand by as others attempt to make choices about her life without consulting her. Knowledge is power, and in both film and literature, the women are meant to remain in the dark; if not, they are persecuted in the hopes of to destroy any power they may seek to acquire.
The traumatic event Marnie witnessed in her childhood has undeniably left a prominent impact on her personality and once understood, can shed some light on the forces that drive her and why she presents so many glitches in her adult personality. As said earlier, when Marnie was but a young girl, her mother was a prostitute, and Marnie was forced to murder one her mother’s customers as he began to attack her. When Marnie screams out: “I don’t like him to kiss me. Make him go mama!”, it is hinted at that one of the sailors had turned his affections towards a young Marnie when the situation escalated. What Marnie experienced was extremely traumatic and has essentially gravely impacted and damaged her psyche to the extent that she now presents physical and psychological ailments.
The primal scene, “which the child observes or infers [...].” (Laplanche and Pontalis, 335), is, according to Freud, one of the three primal phantasies, which in turn are “believed to be responsible for the organization of phantasy life, regardless of the personal experiences of different subjects.” (Laplanche and Pontalis, 331). In other words, what Marnie experienced was a sexual act that then turned violent between her mother and the only male figure that has ever been present in her life, the customers. These scenes do not need to be seen explicitly by the child for them to be affected by them. Marnie did not directly witness the sexual act yet was capable of associating the presence of this sailor with all the other clients that have passed through her home and what usually goes on when her mother kicks her out of her room which may explain why her infantile mind has associated them with a stand-in father figure. Because this scene “is generally interpreted by the child as an act of violence on the part of the father” (Laplanche and Pontalis, 335), the primal scene fuels Marnie’s neurosis in her adult life. It may also be the reason behind her inability to partake in a sexual relationship of any kind seeing as she now associates sex with violence and pain. The memories of this heinous event are locked away in her unconscious, yet they arise when Marnie comes face to face with one of her triggers. At the sight of the colour red, during thunderstorms and as she sleeps, in her dreams, Marnie is vulnerable for she reverts back into a frightened childhood version of herself, though she does not understand why.
However, with Marnie’s strength and resilience it is no wonder she does not adhere to every principal Freud has linked to these phantasies. During these scenes, individuals are said to always take on a passive role when they “experience” them. Marnie was far from being passive during her ordeal; even as a young and supposed helpless child, she took control of the situation and put an end to it by herself. Despite her age, Marnie demonstrated immense strength, which she continues to channel in her adult life. Witnessing this primal scene does not simply incite fear in her but it also stimulates a certain fascination, which may explain why in adulthood, Marnie continues to revert back to the very behaviour that had inspired her trauma to begin with. She now repeats the same behaviour she used to witness as child. For instance, men would pay for her mother’s services and now Marnie attempts to buy her mother’s love and affection as she buys her expensive scarves and sends her money to support her. With only herself to count on, Marnie must revert back to the only behaviour she believes will keep her safe and in control. Even though she still carries the trauma of this experience, it has not succeeded in completely rendering her powerless, essentially making her a danger to the patriarchal forces that attempt to control her, such as Mark, because it just shows that psychoanalytic theory does not suffice to truly understand this complex character. Marnie takes these psychoanalytic concepts and corrupts them; she makes them her own and changes the very theory that the film uses to entrap her with.
Where psychoanalytic theory fails to capture all that is a character like Marnie Edgar, queer theory can be better suited when attempting to grasp the extent of her complexity. Evidently enough and contrary to what the ending of the film wanted the audience to believe, Marnie is not your typical heterosexual character. She is what Alexander Doty defines as being a “stealth queer”. In his article “Queer Hitchcock”, he states that “[these stealth queers] are characters whose visual, aural and narrative (re)presentation generally resists the easy common, dominant-cultural practice equating things like “gender inversion”’(482). In other words, Marnie’s character presents “non-normative sexual behaviour” that is not in line with her own gender or any other obvious stereotypical depictions. Though she partakes in a few kisses with Mark, she is unable to go any further and is horrified and both disgusted by the idea of having to participate in any sort of sexual relationship. However, the same can be said of her views of woman. She cannot be labeled as a homosexual character for she seems to despise both genders quite strongly. She views women as “stupid and feeble” and men as “filthy pigs”. By her own accord, Marnie has distanced herself from both genders. She is attracted to neither of them nor does she identify with them.
In society, this makes her dangerous for she fails to fit into any sort of criteria that is used to separate males and females. She now presents a problem to the patriarchal forces and this why Mark, who is in turn frightened by the power Marnie appears to wield and the threat she presents to his male superiority, believes it is necessary to force her to conform by subjecting her to a non-consensual sexual relationship. He believes it is his duty to care for her, to fix all these aversion she presents, when truly he also seeks to fix the complication she represents in the eyes of society. Under the pretense of aiding her, Mark has essentially set out to entrap and encage Marnie by forcing her into a marriage she never wished for. Marnie’s loathing of all that is sexually related to men is yet another example of how psychoanalysis fails in certain areas to accurately explains her personality. Described as a “fundamental element in female sexuality” penis envy takes on multiple forms and is what occurs once the little girl has come to realize that she does not have a phallus and thus feels deprived (Laplanche and Pontalis, 302). The girl will then seek to acquire a penis through various means such as having a child or through coitus. The woman will then replace her desire for a penis with that of having a child. Marnie doesn't appear to present any of these desires nor for a sexual relationship or for having a child. She presents no maternal urges whatsoever; if she did, she would have been more attracted to Jessie and would not have viewed her as competition, but care for her and identify with her seeing as they originate from similar socio-economic backgrounds. Marnie does not seek to acquire a penis or anything else deriving from a potential sexual relationship with a man; she’s more likely searching to amass power and independence, not create new dependency towards a male figure. In her case, this psychoanalytic concept is best understood by what is considered an envy for power. Her contempt of all aspects relating to her gender demonstrates how Marnie continuously deviates from what is expected of her.
Marnie is a rich and profoundly complex film with numerous multidimensional characters. Its leading woman is no exception. Marnie takes both literary themes and psychoanalytic theories and unsettles them, making them her own. She holds a veil over the eyes of all those that surround her as she creates and embodies illusions of women that she never truly represented in the first place. Her creativity and her ability to make a fool out of the patriarchy will inspire those very forces to break her and make her conform to their wishes. Marnie is persecuted and investigated by both those who claim to care for her and those who seek to get rid of her as they dive into her past in order to find the answers they seek and use them to their advantage. The very answers they seek are buried far back in the memories of her childhood, memories Marnie herself has refused to acknowledge and she remains unaware of the impact they continue to have on her present behaviour. The very forces she has repressed within herself are unknowingly manipulating her. Marnie has been left with no other options and must now attempt to navigate a world in which she does not truly belong. She’s an outsider in her society for she fails to manifest the traits that are expected of her. She represents a crack in the armor of the all-powerful patriarchy and as her punishment, she is stripped naked of the shackles of her past and forced to conform to what is demanded of her. Marnie is depicted as the glitch, the complication driving the characters in the film mad in their attempts to repair the damage she has caused. Though the film leaves its audiences with the belief that Mark has successfully relieved Marnie of all her struggles, one must beg to differ that this ending is but another illusion. The story is laid to rest and Marnie is whisked away under the protection of her husband; viewers are left with the haunting melody of the children’s song. As the singing children “call for the doctor”, the audience is called upon to question the credibility of what they have just been offered, a semblance of normality that eclipses the true revolt.
Boileau, Pierre, and Thomas Narcejac. Vertigo. Translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury, London, Pushkin Vertigo, 2015.
Doty, Alexander. “Queer Hitchcock.” A Companion to Alfred Hitchcock, Edited by Thomas Leitch and Leland Poague. Leitch and Leland Poaguc, First Edition, Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2011.
Gilman, Perkins Charlotte. “The Yellow Wall Paper.” American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps, Library of America, 2009, pp. 131-147.
Laplanche, Jean and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis, The Language of Psych-Analysis. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith, W.W. Norton and Company, 1973.
Marnie. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Universal Pictures, 1964.
Poe, Allen Edgar. “Ligeia.” Complete Tales and Poems. Web-books publishing, pp.224-235.
Sexton, Anne. “Red Riding Hood.” Tranformations. Anne Sexton: The Complete Poems. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1981, Boston, pp. 267-272.
Vertigo. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Paramount Pictures, 1958.