A Smidge too Manly, A Smidge too Motherly: An Analysis of Midge, the Friend-Zoned Female in Hitchcock’s Vertigo
“In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly” (Mulvey 11). This quote from Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema”, outlines her thoughts on classical Hollywood cinema, wherein woman is projected as image, and man is projected as the bearer of the look. Utilizing Hitchcock’s renowned film, Vertigo, as a specific example, she analyzes the the sexist, voyeuristic, and fetishistic representation of the character Judy, and Judy as Madeleine. What about the film’s alternative female character, Midge, however? Bespectacled, bold, and slightly boyish, Midge Wood does not easily fit into Mulvey’s analysis – she does not possess the “strong visual and erotic impact” characteristic of female characters (11). As such, this investigation will attempt to not only explain how Midge confounds the norm, but also why she is so different from the typical damsel-in-distress.
Despite the fact that Midge and Scottie were once engaged, the depiction of Midge in Vertigo, is hardly reminiscent of a potential love interest. There is no true element of romance in their interactions, and it appears instead that Midge takes on two different personae: that of a man, and that of a mother. Firstly, regarding Midge’s wardrobe, the shapelessness and baggy nature of her clothing denotes a manliness that is especially exaggerated when juxtaposed with Judy’s feminine outfits. Decked in round, thick-rimmed glasses, lengthy, dark skirts, and long-sleeved cardigans with masculine collars, Midge seems to care very little about her appearance – an ironic situation since she, herself, is a professional undergarment designer. Midge dresses modestly, keeping the same hairstyle all throughout the film, and even denies Scottie’s suggestion for her to wear a hat when she goes outside, saying instead that she “[does not] need it” (Vertigo). These simple, and loose-fitting costumes and make-up display Midge’s character as less feminine, and in comparison to Judy’s tailored outfits which exhibit her feminine curves, Midge can almost appear manly. Her physical appearance certainly never attracts the male attention of Scottie, and in this regard, Midge does not align with Mulvey’s argument of female characters as an erotic spectacle, fetishized by the male gaze in film.
Another manlike characteristic to Midge is the fact she has a job and is financially independent. Although her “first love” (Vertigo) is painting, Midge is practical, and has managed to prosaically profit from her passion, designing undergarments for commercial sales. She does not need to marry a man in order to provide for herself, and this fiscal independence has masculine connotations in itself. In addition to this, numerous times throughout the film, Midge actually works while speaking to Scottie, multi-tasking, and not giving Scottie her full attention. Figure 1 [not included here due to copyright] displays Midge seated at her work desk, similar to how Gavin speaks to Scottie from his own mahogany desk. Midge does not simply focus on Scottie, and her life and actions exist outside of his presence.
Furthermore, Midge does not speak like a “typical” female, either. Sassy, and abrasive, she is not afraid to challenge Scottie, one particular example being when Scottie abruptly enters her apartment and she replies: “Now, that’s the kind of greeting a girl likes. None of this ‘hello you look wonderful’ stuff. Just a good straight ‘who do you know’ –” (Vertigo). She even makes physical threats like “you’ll tell, or you’ll be back in that corset! Come on!” (Vertigo). The corset, being the cast that Scottie is put in after his initial injury, is a specific symbol of the gender role reversal between Scottie and Midge. Historically used to reinforce an hour-glass figure in women, the garment has clear connotations of femininity – an association of which Scottie is aware when he self-consciously asks: “Midge, do you suppose many men wear corsets?” (Vertigo). This situation of Scottie wearing a corset, and Midge threatening to put him back in one through injury, displays the role reversal in their relationship.
This reversal can further be seen when Midge catches Scottie, after he once again faints from his acrophobia. Like Prince Charming saving a troubled princess, Midge catches a faint-hearted Scottie, and as seen in Figure 2 [not included due to copyright], Midge takes a dominant position in the frame as she places a comforting hand on Scottie’s back. Despite an obvious height difference, Scottie is in a lower position, demonstrating his dependence on Midge in this particular scene. Dependence, especially in the context of mainstream Hollywood cinema, is an attribute very commonly connoted with females, and by literally and metaphorically leaning on Midge, Scottie’s vulnerability, weakness, and lack of manliness are visually apparent. Consequently, Midge’s strength, independence, and manliness are displayed. Further analyzing this relationship, the embrace can most effectively be compared to the hug between Scottie and Judy, also shown in Figure 2. In standard Hollywood fashion, Scottie, as the male, takes the physically higher position, while Judy, as the female, leans her weight on Scottie, and even cuddles into his neck. While Scottie takes this masculine position with Judy and Madeleine, his relationship with Midge is more unconventional as he succumbs to his own weaknesses, and Midge adopts the masculine role.
For Midge, masculinity can also be seen in her agency and her demonstration of aggression. Her power and control over her own actions, and the fact that numerous times throughout Vertigo, it is she that calls Scottie, it is she that suggests a date, and it is her apartment that Scottie goes to (all my italics), all indicate her dominance in the relationship. Generally, she initiates the events between them, and it is even Midge who ended their engagement, not Scottie (Vertigo). All of these events are of her own choice and will, exhibiting an agency that Scottie himself does not possess. Her aggression can also be plainly seen when Midge wrecks her own portrait, and throws the paintbrush at a window, before violently pulling at her own hair, and exclaiming “Stupid, stupid, stupid!” (Vertigo). This intense display of aggression further connects Midge’s persona to that of a man, spurning Mulvey’s impression of females solely as an image in cinema.
As for Midge’s motherly persona, the characters themselves overtly express this relation. For example, when Midge worriedly suggests that Scottie should “go away for a while” (Vertigo) following his initial acrophobic incident, Scottie rejects the advice, saying, “Don’t be so motherly, Midge” (Vertigo). In addition to this, Midge refers to herself as Scottie’s mother when she is comforting him in the sanatorium, pleading, “Ah, Johnny, please try. Johnny, try! You’re not lost. Mother’s here” (Vertigo). In this scene, Midge proceeds to lean down and kiss him lightly on his forehead, an affectionate gesture that adds to their mother-son dynamic. These verbal admissions of Midge’s maternal actions and concerns for Scottie extinguish any possible romantic undertones, despite the fact that a romantic partner might be just as concerned as a mother figure. In addition, Midge’s advice and concern is almost always one-sided and unreciprocated. While Midge is proactive in her attempts to find solutions to Scottie’s momentous troubles, Scottie never really helps her in any significant way, much like how children are never aware of any problems that their parents may have or endure.
Moreover, like a mother, there is no sexualisation to Midge’s character even when brassieres are quite literally out in the open. Conventionally one of the most sensual and feminine garments, it only elicits curiosity, and not arousal from the protagonist, Scottie. When he asks after the “do-hickey” (Vertigo), Midge almost condescendingly responds, “It’s a brassiere. You know about those things. You’re a big boy, now” (Vertigo). Like a child stumbling upon his mother’s laundry, this referral to Scottie as a “big boy now” implies a superiority within Midge as she appears to possess greater knowledge about the “adult” world.
Although this investigation primarily aims to analyze Midge, Scottie’s presence in her characterization thus far is unmistakeable. To address this circumstance, Mulvey’s quote from Budd Boetticher must be considered. According to him, “What counts is what the heroine provokes, or rather what she represents. She is the one, or rather the love or fear she inspires in the hero […] In herself the woman has not the slightest importance” (Mulvey 11, my emphasis). Taking from this, the heroine or female character is only supposed to exist in relation to the male protagonist – they are there not only for the male characters’ enjoyment but also for the male viewers’ enjoyment. Why is Midge so different, then? She, unlike typical heroines, has an identity outside of Scottie, and though she can be described as “Scottie’s ex-fiancée” and “Scottie’s friend”, she can additionally be labelled as an “artist”, and an “undergarment designer”. Furthermore, though she explicitly professes love for Scottie, she is never sexualized by him or the audience – a baffling circumstance which can be explained through another quote from Mulvey, stating that “In [Hitchcock’s] Vertigo, subjective camera predominates. […] the narrative is woven around what Scottie sees or fails to see” (16). Since the film is based on Scottie’s perception of the situation, the atypical portrayal of Midge begins to make sense. She is not displayed as a potential love interest, but instead as a man and a mother, simply because Scottie perceives her as a man and mother. To him, she is no more than these two roles, and placed within this zone of friendship, Midge is treated as such. Consequently, it is not so much that Midge does not “fit” Mulvey’s analysis of women in classical Hollywood cinema, but instead that it does not apply to her. Despite her own desires, Midge’s role in Vertigo cannot contradict with the protagonist’s perception, as it is his subjective point-of-view that predominates the film.
Regardless of this ostensible futility in the face of the male gaze, however, Midge certainly attempts show Scottie her “more-than-friendly” intentions, most evidently demonstrated in her gift of a self-portrait. Painted in the style of the Carlotta painting, which has so enraptured Scottie’s heart, Midge forcibly tries to make Scottie view her as a potential lover by likening herself to his current romantic obsession. She sexualizes and objectifies herself, and this moment is pivotal as both Scottie and viewers alike are privy to the image that Midge, herself, paints – how Midge perceives herself. Of course, Scottie cannot handle this new perspective to his friend and maternal figure, and he quickly exits the room, cancelling their prior plans, and stating that it is “not funny, Midge” (Vertigo). Thus, Midge’s overt offer to adopt a more romantic role is rejected, and the effect is momentous, signified by her reversion to a purely platonic role in her next scene wherein she comforts Scottie and tells him that “Mother’s here” (Vertigo). The character settles and succumbs to what Scottie wants, or perceives her to be, cementing herself as a man, a mother, and ultimately, a friend.
Throughout history, and even now, women are objectified and sexualized in media. Laura Mulvey’s analysis of “woman as image” (11) in classical Hollywood cinema is certainly relevant, but despite this circumstance “ordered by sexual imbalance”, there are still female characters that defy and even transcend the debasing norms. Although Midge is represented more as a man and mother, than a strong female character, her insistence on simultaneously being independent and a romantic interest lends hope for future acceptance that the two characteristics are not, in fact, mutually exclusive. Contrary to what is represented in classical Hollywood cinema, females can have both independence and sexual appeal, and it is not the women that need to change, but instead, the perception of these established roles. Hollywood may attempt to swindle viewers into thinking that “the woman has not the slightest importance”, but it is characters like Midge Wood, that gradually expand expectations, asserting a dominance and strength that can hopefully put the cliché damsel-in-distress trope to rest.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema.” Screen (1975): n. pag. Web.
Vertigo. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Paramount Pictures, 1958.