by Logan Gion
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Janet Leigh, Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, John Gavin
Though Peeping Tom and Les Diaboliques came before it, Psycho merged the thriller and horror genres for the global mainstream, making the supernatural evil of horror plausible within the mental illness of an unassuming motel owner. Often cited as Hitchcock’s greatest film, Psycho cemented the slasher genre as a mainstay in cinemas for the next 60 years. Turner Classic Movies included it in its 15 most influential movies of all time. The American Film Institute ranked Psycho as the 11th greatest film of all time and put its villain, Norman Bates, as number two, second only to Darth Vader. In 1992, the United States National Film Registry selected it for historical preservation, and famed film critic Roger Ebert called it “immortal” because it tapped into the fear of “disappointing our mothers.”
Two months ago, I would’ve asked the same question. I was even fully planning to include this movie in My Five Favorite Films a couple weeks back. I loved this movie so much that I planned a movie marathon around it, and a bunch of my friends came… two of whom are transgender. Let’s just say this movie is a touchy subject in that community.
I personally identify as one of the alphabet soup and have people close to me that ascribe to some of the other parts of the movement. (I only need to befriend “Q” and “I” before I can summon “Gay Exodia”!) I’m well aware of Pride Month’s importance, but I was hesitant to do a themed post lest I fall into the “corporate pride” trap. After my rewatch of the film, though, this post became a necessity. Below, I’ll be breaking down the movie with the help of “Ashley” and “Rachel,” my two transgender friends that watched it with me. (I changed their names because some people are troglodytes.)
Marion Crane is managing a long-distance relationship with her boyfriend, Sam. They can only sneak away to see each other on their respective lunch breaks, and neither of their financial situations are going to change that anytime soon. That is, until a new customer comes into her office flaunting $40,000 in cash ($395,000 in 2022). Marion bolts with the money and, while en route to meet her boyfriend, decides to stay at the Bates Motel to weather a passing storm.
There, she has a life-changing conversation with the owner, Norman Bates, and his many bird friends. After flushing evidence (the first time a toilet flushing ever happened on screen) Marion decides to take a shower before heading back to return the money. Norman’s mother has other plans, though, and Marion’s shower–and life–are cut short.
Sam and Marion’s sister, Lila, are concerned, not only because Marion stole money, but also because she hasn’t met up with Sam yet. They, along with a private investigator named Arbogast, figure that she’s lying low in a motel somewhere. Arbogast tracks Marion to the Bates Motel and promptly runs into Mother Bates’ knife.
Sam and Lila follow Arbogast’s lead and discover the horrific truth: Mother Bates has been long dead, and Norman has adopted her personality as his own! Because TWO people finally went to the motel instead of one, the duo overpowers Norman and brings him to jail.
Sam and Lila are confused about why Bates was dressed as a deceased old lady, so a psychologist gives a rambling speech explaining Norman’s condition to them as well as the audience. Norman, meanwhile, has been completely absorbed by the mother personality, putting on a smile for all to see.
My friend Rachel had only seen clips of the film because it’s often mentioned when the topic of poor trans portrayals shows up. She warned me beforehand that the climax focuses on “a nice long shot of the ‘horror’ of a dude wearing a wig and dress.”
I’d seen the movie five times, so I mentally filed the film’s issue under poor mental health representation. I figured the horror was the evil mother personality within Norman Bates’ Dissociative Identity Disorder, a disorder that, according to many psychologists, probably doesn’t exist.
Rachel agreed to watch the movie, Norman’s secret was revealed, and it wasn’t too big of a deal… until the psychologist scene. There, the “Doctor” spends maybe five minutes with Norman and immediately diagnoses him, making hilariously baseless claims.
The police officer in the back then exclaims, “So he’s just a transvestite!”
“No,” replies the doctor, “transvestites dress up to fulfill a sexual desire.”
That’s when I was glad the couch I was sitting on had a tendency to eat people, so I sank below and out of everyone’s sight.
Afterwards, my other trans friend, Ashley, seemed nonchalant about the situation, simply saying that it was a “product of its time.” Rachel, however, was visibly upset. I apologized, but she wasn’t upset with me; she was upset with the movie’s cultural impact.
Rachel has only been publicly out as trans for a year and change. I actually knew her in high school, though we weren’t close friends until we reconnected a decade later. I never would have guessed that she had a desire to transition, but, according to Rachel, she repressed and delayed the process for ten years because of conditioned transphobia and a misreading the signs her mind and body were telling her.
Narratives kinda end up just passively guiding society without us really realizing it…even the ‘helpful’ narratives aren’t true for all of us and can still cause harm. Directly relevant for me is the ‘born in the wrong body’ and constantly hating your body idea. I thought that’s what it was to be trans. Personally, ‘I knew I was a boy,’ but I also knew that, given the chance, I’d prefer to be a girl. But that’s not possible, obviously, so might as well make do with what we have. And in my foolishness, I thought most men would be a woman if given the chance. And that’s, uh, not true. Not true at all…
This apathy and subtle revulsion towards my body wasn’t just depression or low self esteem. While not full on hatred, it was still dysphoria. I’m a decade late on starting transition thanks to believing the born-in-the-wrong-body narrative, the narrative that we always know from the moment we’re born, the narrative of self-hatred and pain. I never experienced anything quite like that so I’m obviously cis, right?
Around the time that Rachel watched Psycho with me, she also came out to her parents, which was a mixed bag.
I immediately knew where much of my internalized transphobia came from, and my parents got that attitude from watching movies like Silence of the Lambs or Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. It’s all right there, or just under the surface. A man wanting to be a woman is a villain, is a murderer, is a psycho. That’s why I have a problem with the movie.
Ashley has been publicly out for a few more years than Rachel, so I initially believed that her comparatively cavalier attitude towards the movie was because she’d had clocked more hours.
While Ashley agreed that “the bigotry of a sixty-year-old film washed off me like water off a duck,” that wouldn’t have been the case a few years ago:
I wouldn’t always have been nonchalant, especially…during early transition.
Anecdotally…the elder transgender people I know have grown thick skin because we’ve already had our worst fears come to life and we’re still here, trucking along, giving the proverbial (and often literal) middle finger to whoever or whatever tries to keep us from being our authentic selves.
After coming out, I lost a marriage, family, friends, my house, my dogs, so much money I stopped keeping track, and almost the custody of my child. Every back-of-the-mind fear I had that kept me closeted for thirty-three years came true. My worst nightmare became reality as the things I worried would end with my suicide came to fruition.
Yet I’m still here, having survived while sometimes fueled by little more than spite. I’m no longer worried about suicide and I’m unphased by things that seemed soul crushing only a few years ago.
I hope more-recently-out transgender people don’t go through anything close to what I went through, but the truth is I think they will. I also think a lot of them, through no weakness or fault, will be counted in the depressing number of transgender people who eventually leave this world.
The reason I can view films like Psycho and Silence of the Lambs as products of their time isn’t due to some emotional maturation, having learned to separate the impact of bigotry from the rest of the product. The truth is these horror films don’t hold a candle to the horrors I went through in my actual life, and I, sadly, assume the same can be said for others like me.
Certainly not, nor are either of my friends advocating for that. Psycho still remains a top-shelf classic, and, to be fair to the movie, there had never before been a twist like that in film. Most likely, Hitchcock put the psychologist scene in because viewers in 1960 might not have otherwise comprehended what they were watching.
I do, however, strongly advocate that Universal Studios puts an explanatory title card before the film, much like Disney has done with Peter Pan and Warner Bros. has done with vintage Looney Tunes. That way, viewers can contextualize the dated slurs and portrayals without erasing history.
For Psycho, yes.
For society, OF COURSE NOT! Transgender people had Psycho as their sole representation for decades! Greenlighting varied projects with realistic transgender roles is the actual answer.
As Rachel puts it, “We need a Captain Holt [of Brooklyn-Nine-Nine] for trans people!”
Separately, Ashley gave me the idea for next week’s post—a film on Netflix concerning trans people living a starkly different experience than hers.
I, meanwhile, am planning another Hitchcock marathon for my friends later this year. I just hope there’s not some transphobic character I forgot about in Vertigo.
Even if there is, I trust my friends will let me know, and I’ll think twice before minimizing their concerns.
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