The Problem With “Hitchcock Blondes”

A director’s legacy of possession

Under the guise of Madame Realism, Lynne Tillman writes, “It’s funny that in the language of painting what someone paints becomes his or, sometimes, hers. His nudes. His people.” The habit of giving an artist possession of what he creates isn’t exclusive to the language of painting, it also inhabits the language of film.

Alfred Hitchcock was obsessed with possession. A reoccurring motif throughout his films is of a man possessing a woman, or in the case of Vertigo: a spirit possessing a woman, ending up with a male trying to possess her. Hitchcockian men will go to any length to gain possession of their female leads. Take for example Marnie, where Mark (Sean Connery) blackmails Marnie (Tippi Hedren) into marriage and rapes her during their honeymoon. In her memoir, Hedren writes that it was a widespread belief that, “the rape scene that had driven Hitchcock to make Marnie in the first place, that a man taking his frigid, unattainable bride by force was Hitchcock’s fantasy about me.”

Hitchcock’s need to control Hedren extended the instructions he gave on set: “Do not touch The Girl.” A simple conversation with a male cast or crew member would result in Hedren receiving an icy reaction from Hitchcock, or vulgar limerick recited. And when Hedren rejected Hitchock’s touch, he answered in two ways: forcing himself on her and then refusing to let her work. Hedren writes

I’ve never gone into detail about this, and I never will. I’ll simply say that he suddenly grabbed me and put his hands on me. It was sexual, it was perverse, and it was ugly, and I couldn’t have been more shocked and more repulsed. The harder I fought him, the more aggressive he became. Then he started adding threats, as if he could do anything to me that was worse than what he was trying to do at that moment.

Hitchcock followed through with his threat of trying to ruin her career by not casting her in any more of his films after Marnie, while at the same time not letting her out of her contract. A classic case of a rejected man: if he couldn’t have her, no one could.

More so than any other artist, Hitchcock isn’t only given possession of the themes and actors inside the frames of his own films, but also other peoples’ films, real life events, and actual people. I expect Hitchcock would be very happy about his ability to possess, even if it’s only grammatical. His birds. His suspense. His Marnie. But also: Hitchcockian suspense; a Hitchcockian conspiracy; Hitchcockian composition. Hitchcock blondes. It would make sense to refer to hair dyed an Yves Klein blue a Klein blue, but a Hitchcock blonde? Hitchcock did not invent the blonde; Jean Harlow did.

Vanity Fair wrote two features on Megyn Kelly in 2016 that namecheck Hitchock in reference to her hair. In the January article on dressing Kelly for her cover shoot, Rachel Tashjian wrote, “And while a haircut is only a haircut, Kelly also recently swapped her suburbia chic mane for a sleek crop worthy of a Hitchcock blonde.” Following this line is a quote from stylist Jessica Diehl: “She’s definitely not a damsel in distress.”

Eleven months later, in the annual Holiday issue roundup, James Wolcott writes,

[Kelly] remained icily impervious and immaculately composed, a Hitchcock blonde unrattled even by Trump’s dripping-fang slurs, establishing herself as Fox News’s diamond star. Cross her at your peril.

There’s an irony to describing a woman as such in the same sentence as her strengths as a no-nonsense reporter. Blondes, in Hitch’s own words, made the best victims, “They’re like virgin snow that shows up the bloody footprints.” If ‘Hitchcock blonde’ is synecdoche, it’s hard to say what it stands for. The mixed messages verge on unintentional irony.

A Hitchcock blonde is: a liar; a thief; dead. As Durga Chew-Bose wrote last year for the Toronto International Film Festival:

In Rear Window and especially in Hitchcock, we experience women only if they are women in danger, or women dead, or women living pint-sized (dollhouse narratives), or women as merely bodies who stretch in the morning and curl up into bed at night, who entertain male guests, and seem preternaturally built for gliding across the room.

A Hitchcock blonde is always, always possessed.

The only way it makes sense for Vanity Fair to use the term ‘Hitchcock blonde’ is in reference to Kelly’s own history with sexual harassment from a a hefty and powerful superior, similar to Hedren’s abuse from Hitchcock. Thinking of it this way is more comforting then what the term really is: a lazy way to describe women with blonde hair that continues on a tradition of assigning possession of women to a man.

During grad school I took a class where the only thing we studied for the semester was Hitchcock’s Vertigo. The class was taught by a professor who I can only hypothesize that, having spent his life studying Hitchcock, saw himself as a reincarnation of Hitch, treating his students as the filmmaker treated his actors.

For four months I was drawn to the transformation of Madeleine to Judy, and then back to Madeleine. How the transformation of makeup and hair shifts the character in and out of good standing. Mary Haskell in her book From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies writes:

In Stewart’s desperate efforts to remake Judy over in Madeleine’s image (and our own sympathy with the attempt), Hitchcock exposes the romantic impulse to turn women into an art object. In our instinctive preference for the elegant, silent, “period”, Madeleine to the noisy, everyday, modern Judy we are made aware of both sides of illusionism.

I have to disagree with Haskell on her claim that it is a romantic impulse, for me, the impulse is better explained as controlling. In both instances the female is an object, based on her aesthetic decisions she is either an object of art, or an object of scorn.

The importance Hitchcock placed on the physical qualities of his leading females shows, among other things, his inherent distrust of them. He perpetuated a prevalent trope that a female’s worth is based on her looks that makes it impossible to win: too attractive and she shouldn’t be trusted, not attractive enough and she is worthless.

I explained this thesis during a seminar, the response from my professor was, “This is why we all like you, you are just so cute.” As the semester evolved, patronizing remarks turned into pats on the back and squeezes of the forearm. Hitchcock’s possessiveness prevails, not only in sentences and magazines I read, but every time what I have to say is ignored and in place is a comment about how I look or an unwanted hand on mine.

Tatum Dooley is a writer living in Toronto.