11/1/2021 0 Comments
Psycho Killer, Queer-est’ce Que C’est?: Trans and Gender Nonconforming Representation within “Psycho”
Atticus Spicer, they/he
Allow me to set the scene. In leaving my bedroom after a Zoom that ends at approximately 9:30 p.m., I'm greeted by one of my roommates, who has decided to get his Friday night revelries started and is in the middle of noncommittally burning popcorn in our microwave. Somewhere along the course of our conversation, he mentions something about the Bates Motel. I pick up the bit, reference “Psycho” back, and am met with confusion— confusion beyond just a roommate who has started his celebration of the weekend earlier than me. Desperately, I try to jog his memory; I make vague stabbing motions with the sponge I’ve been using to clean the sink, I do a questionable impression of the film’s infamous theme, I explain that Janet Leigh, the actress who played Marion Crane, is THEE Jamie Lee Curtis’s mother. My efforts are fruitless; he’s not getting it.
Our other roommate enters the conversation and assesses the situation. They tell my confused roommate, “It’s the one where he stabs the bathroom door and sticks his face in,” and then smile wide and look at me to see my reaction to the fuel they’ve deliberately lobbed onto the fire.
Our other-other roommate, who is very deep into his version of celebrating the weekend, walks past and says, “No! That’s “The Shining,” “Psycho” is the shower one. It’s chocolate syrup.”
It’s useless; no amount of explaining it or intentionally-misleading him will fix it. My confused roommate simply has never seen “Psycho” and has somehow managed to walk this earth for twenty years without ever having had it explained to him or having come into contact with any of its numerous iconic scenes.
The moment passes, we toss out the blackened popcorn, and I’m lured to the couch to relax and create D&D characters. It’s lost on me then that what my roommate has revealed about himself and his film-awareness implies something incredible. He has no idea how “Psycho” ends, has never heard about why Norman Bates kills, has never seen the grand reveal, has zero awareness of what’s considered one of the most significant twist endings in cinematic history.
So that is where our story begins, with Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” because doesn’t it always?
“Psycho,” Where it Begins— Well, Sort Of
In terms of when horror began as a film genre, there are plenty of incredibly influential horror movies from well before 1960, when “Psycho” first premiered. Hitchcock didn’t invent the idea of a crazed yet dashing antagonist, someone charming who is revealed to be a killer in the final moments of a film. He didn’t invent the concept of murdering the lead actress unexpectedly well before the conclusion. He definitely didn’t invent a film plot bold and horrifying enough to make all previous horror films obsolete, despite what prominent film reviewer Andrew Sarris wrote about “Psycho” in the year of its release.
That said, what “Psycho” did accomplish was a complete revolutionizing of the genre regarding the degree to which violence was shown and emphasized. Marion Crane’s death scene, the infamous “shower scene” that my roommate had alluded to with his poignant observation of the chocolate syrup used as blood, was truly shocking. For audiences of the time this scene, and “Psycho” at large, served as a gut-punch of extreme violence, disconcerting and disorienting given its embrace of the then relatively new editing technique of using quick cuts to convey action. Its suspenseful atmosphere, intense score, and intentional use of the killer’s point of view during the murder disturbed many, helping cement it as one of the most influential films of all time.
But what’s most significant for this article’s discussion is the ending, in which Norman Bates, played by Anthony Perkins (who, interestingly, was a then closeted gay man), is revealed to have been dressing up as his dead mother, Norma Bates, while murdering people. The final shot features a slow zoom-in on Bates, sitting against a bare wall in the police station. As “Mother’s Voice” narrates about the officers’ inability to arrest her and condemn her for the crime, Bates smiles at the camera and his mother’s mummified corpse’s skull is briefly superimposed over his face. The shot holds on his stare, steeping the audience in a twist that throws into question everything seen before this point.
Beyond just containing the uncanniness of comparing a corpse and an apathetic man, as well as the creepiness of how mentally disturbed Norman is, this scene horrifies by exposing the true framework of the whole film. This ending essentially reveals that Norman as a character hasn’t been wholly one person the entire time, initiating the interpretation of his character as existing between two binaries. He’s neither himself, nor Mother, but rather an interstitial being, whose transition between the identities of Norman and Norma relies on his own outward expression of gender. For a film of this time, this conception of gender as worthy of exploration and possessing options beyond the strict binary of “man and woman” is critical and boundary-pushing. Although not the first horror film to use gender nonconformity or the “shock reveal” of gender expression as frightening, “Psycho” plays with gender roles in an interesting way throughout the entire story. Norman noticeably violates gender conventions regarding both of his halves: Norman struggles to assert himself or conform to assumed patterns of masculine expression, Norma displays significantly more aggressive traits and isn’t traditionally feminine at all. As Gabriella Colombo Machado points out, “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.”
Regardless, to talk about Norman Bates within a trans reading of the film at all requires making several huge assumptions about his actual conception of his own gender, which isn’t truly explored. Rather, the film consciously avoids labeling Norman’s identity, relying instead on implication, the hint of “wrongness,” to elicit shock and horror amongst audiences who likely had very few cultural frames of reference for how to confront gender identity as a concept. As such, it is difficult to completely accept Norman as trans, gender nonconforming, cross-dressing, or genderfluid. Some may even choose to read “Psycho” as a film purely about a cisgender man experiencing a mental breakdown. Some elect to read him as a person possibly suffering from dissociative identity disorder, with Norma serving as a separate personality entirely.
Essentially, the process of analyzing Norman’s place in trans readings or representation gets complicated very quickly, raising the question of his importance in the discussion at all. If Norman is cisgender and merely representative of a man with mental health issues, then why discuss his importance within trans and gender nonconforming representation? It boils down to societal interpretation and impact. Despite Norman’s unconfirmed gender identity, his shock reveal as, at the very least, a heavily trans-coded character means that he represented the experience of being trans for a large segment of the population at the time; the influential nature of “Psycho” as a film in general means that that legacy was secured.
All of this is to say that because of the general societal ignorance concerning gender identity and presentation, transgender identities were often conflated with things like cross dressing and simple expressions of femininity or masculinity, so much so that these terms often are incorrectly used interchangeably. Additionally, because of the ways films like “Psycho” actively avoid specifying the identity of their antagonists despite using gender expression as a theme or plot point, discussions of trans representation in horror tends to deal in the subtext anyways. The inclusion of interstitial characters like Norman/Norma Bates is more often the norm than the exception.
As a result, horror movies listed in discussions of trans and gender nonconforming representation often feature characters who are very much not explicitly trans, or whose readings as trans only seem plausible at best. The critique that these readings are not valid representation because of the doubt that they inspire in their gender nonconformity is fair; yet, at the same time, the process of applying queer readings and a queer perspective to narratives that don’t perfectly align with the trans and gender nonconforming experience still has the added benefit of helping one understand social perceptions of the community. Queer readings of even unconfirmed, only heavily-coded characters remain relevant given their intense impact on the way the public perceives the community. Basically, Norman Bates or other horror standouts like Buffalo Bill may not, technically, count as canonically trans characters, but the cultural impression and instinct to label them as such almost makes up the difference and secures them as “trans representation.”
However, all of this inevitably presents the issues of fairness and treating these characters with some amount of humanity. Sure, characters like Norman Bates may provide the bulk of trans representation for the purpose of discussing how the genre tends to view trans and gender nonconforming identities, but these aren’t entirely accurate or authentic, nor are they fair. Queer readings of Norman Bates are useful for understanding how a genre, dominated by heterosexual and cisgender filmmakers, uses gender expression as a way of highlighting and exploiting social fears about gender. But these readings aren’t truly representative of the experiences of actual trans and gender nonconforming individuals outside of horror films, and ultimately shouldn’t be taken as such.
Above all, it’s incredibly important to maintain a clear understanding that these readings and interpretations of these characters as trans happen solely because of their social impact and their reflection of social fears, not because of their accuracy in their portrayal of these identities. (In fact, it seems particularly critical to note here that regardless of the trend of using trans, especially transfeminine, characters as violent and crazed killers, it’s remarkably more likely that a trans person will be the victim of a violent crime than the perpetrator.) Despite the value these characters hold in studying horror as a genre attempting to represent these identities, they’re often still a painful reminder of the transphobia inherent in filmmaking and the cyclical nature of having these types of characters comprise the bulk of representation. Essentially: heteronormative society views trans and gender nonconforming identities as “Other” and horror uses this ignorance for a scare factor, while simultaneously using these inaccurate characterizations of trans and gender nonconforming people as further evidence of that “Otherness.” These characters, while interesting to study and important in discussing the genre, still prove highly problematic and have the capacity to magnify transphobic talking points in the real world— which is an intense, worthwhile topic in its own right and deserves more of a discussion than this article can provide, so expect further elaboration in part three of this series.
Overall, it’s okay to identify with these characters and to use them in analyses of the horror genre’s treatment of certain identities. Norman Bates, while not an example of authentic or even “good” representation, still deserves consideration as representation and will, for better or worse, forever remain a staple of the genre’s discussion about the trans and gender nonconforming experience. However, one must always be careful to understand the distinction between representation as useful in critical readings of a film and as true to real life experiences. “Psycho” fails on account of the latter. At the same time, as discussed in the previous article in this series, the marginalization that the LGBTQ+ community faces both onscreen and offscreen means that authentic representation is hard to come by; even harder to come by are horror films from queer filmmakers who may be the only individuals truly capable of providing those accurate portrayals. This may be changing, and is something to be discussed further within this series, but for now, Norman/Norma Bates persists as one of the most easily identifiable examples of trans and gender nonconforming representation in the genre.
As always, I look forward to a time in which horror does, in fact, include countless examples of legitimate trans and gender nonconforming representation. For now, I’ll keep examining the ways horror fulfills and fails my expectations about queer representation, and until next time, myself and everyone at The Michigan Gayly hope you have a safe and happy Halloween.
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