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‘The Birds’ as Hidden Drives of Women

In “The Uncanny,” Sigmund Freud identifies the mechanism of fear produced by horror stories as one that reveals what is hidden. The uncanny, he states, is something “which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression” (833). Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 film, The Birds, is set in a time and place ripe with restraint. The small town of Bodega Bay harbors good housewives, mothers and teachers who smile while their eyes reflect less-innocent feelings centered on one man—the lawyer Mitch Brenner. When a deviant, cosmopolitan socialite comes to town to court Brenner, birds start flocking and attacking. Viewed through Freud’s psychoanalytic theory of the uncanny, the birds in Hitchcock’s film represent unconscious female drives, which once awoken through the arrival of a sexy stranger, threaten the psychic sleepiness of the shuttered community.

The birds are uncanny because their winged beauty becomes murderous. They represent the freedom what threatens to kill the social order by resurfacing as an unreckonable force.

In his 1919 essay, Freud traces the roots of the German unheimlich (uncanny) to two converging meanings: familiar and concealed (828). Unfolding narratives in The Birds provoke the tensions inherent in this meeting of terms. When the attractive Melanie Daniels arrives in Bodega Bay to surprise Brenner with a pair of lovebirds, the town’s folk glare, Brenner’s mother and ex-girlfriend act threatened, and the local fowl refuse to eat. The suspicion inherent in the tense behavior of the community suggests that there is something below the surface that should be guarded from strangers, like a family secret shared by the intimacy of a closed group. As the birds in the film become increasingly violent, the hidden motives in each woman surface through their tentative relationship with Daniels. Strained conversations and emotional outbursts unearth their jealousy and despair.

What is the source of their angst? According to Freud, “every affect belonging to an emotional impulse, whatever its kind, is transformed, if it is repressed, into anxiety” (833). To the housewives of Bodega Bay, Daniels represents a dangerous freedom. Her bold antics in pursuing Brenner are amplified by her reputation: according to a gossip column Brenner’s mother read, the socialite had once jumped into a Roman fountain in the nude. In Freudian terms, Daniels is what the housewives of Bodega Bay once knew and had to hide beneath their small-town social mores: the power of their own libidinal drives.

The menacing birds in Hitchcock’s film are the materialization of the women’s latent sexuality. At the local diner Daniels tries to convince an elderly female ornithologist that the birds attacked children at the school. The woman retorts, “Birds are not aggressive creatures, Miss, they bring beauty into the world.” In other words, lovely creatures, birds or women, cannot be dangerous, and yet they are. The birds are uncanny because their winged beauty becomes murderous. They represent the freedom what threatens to kill the social order by resurfacing as an unreckonable force. Daniels becomes the focal point of the women’s hysteria as the avian horror plays out. A mother at the diner strikes out at the stranger: “I think you’re the cause of all this! I think you’re evil!”

The Birds was produced on the advent of the sexual revolution in America, more than two decades after Freud’s death. Hitchcock’s “uncanny” portrayal of women’s sexuality as both familiar and concealed is placed perfectly in the tension between conservative 1950s and the liberating 1960s. At the end of the film, Daniels is driven by her bold curiosity to an attic room where the birds trap and ravish her. In a state of shock, she allows herself to be taken into Brenner’s mother’s arms. Tamed at last, Daniels smiles up at her—a good daughter’s smile. As Brenner drives the family out of town through a mass of eerily docile birds, the viewer is left to wonder if they will attack again.

Works Cited

The Birds. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Perf. Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren, Jessica Tandy, Suzanne Pleshette. Universal Pictures. 1963. Film.

Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch et al. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010. 824-841.


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A visual world


From A Trip to the Moon by Georges Méliés, 1902


Theorists might argue that film influences and reflects cultural presumptions and biases. Contemporary culture is saturated with visual information: film, photography, and video. I often think we are rarely conscious of how visual our world has become and how many snippets of narrative we come in contact with daily, through television, Facebook, YouTube, and Netflix. Film is artistically constructed narrative. When we go to the cinema, we expect to be thrilled by a fictional work. In theory, much film (other than documentary) does not purport to convey reality, whereas other visual media, such as news, video clips, and commercials are presumably based on reality. However, with advances in technology, much of what is produced for television and the Internet has become more cinematic. When our day is filled with moving, clamoring pictures, are we able to distinguish the real from the embellished? Can we learn the devices filmmakers use to create their effects? Can we understand their connection to history, philosophy, and politics? Film theory sheds some light on the connections between culture, the work, and the viewer.

A vivid film can enter our dreams, follow us into our day, and color our emotions and perceptions.

Film theory can help us be more conscious consumers of the experiences we seek in film, but it can also wake a more general tendency to ask why, what, and how when presented with any product of art or culture. As Nealon and Giroux convey in the first chapter of The Theory Toolbox, theory prompts us to ask questions about what we might otherwise accept as “natural” (5). Moreover, they write, theory invites us to think and act, not merely consume (5).

It’s natural to be swept away by the cinematic experience; this is certainly one of the joys of film. However, film can be a powerful conveyer of messages. It functions very similarly to our own minds and memories in its rich presentation of images and sounds, its emotive impact, and its manipulation of time and space. A vivid film can enter our dreams, follow us into our day, and color our emotions and perceptions. Today we have movies in 3D; tomorrow we will have virtual reality movies. It seems that critical thinking about film is becoming ever more important as film becomes ever more engulfing and enticing.

Postmodernist theorist Jean Baudrillard argued that signs now precede reality—technology has become so astute at simulation that it has replaced the real (“The Precession of Simulacra”). When I first read Baudrillard several years ago, I reflected on a tangible experience that supported his theory. Upon returning to America after 13 years of living abroad, I noticed that people had begun to speak to each other in sarcastic manner that was similar to the way Americans in sitcoms spoke. It seemed to me that they were imitating the imitation of their lives. Since then, I have assimilated, and it’s no longer noticeable to me, but the question sticks with me: how much of what we have become can be traced back to the media we consume?

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. The Precession of Simulacra. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch et al. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010. 1556-1566. Print.

Nealon, Jeffrey T., and Susan Searls Giroux. The Theory Toolbox: Critical Concepts For The Humanities, Arts, And Social Sciences. n.p.: Lanham, Md. : Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2012. Print.