Monday, May 24, 2010

The Notorious Traffic in Women: Alfred Hitchcock Meets Gayle Rubin

The scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious in which Alicia Huberman wakes up after her drinking spree to find Devlin in her house dramatizes the film’s problematic gender politics in a particularly clear way. In this scene, we can see that Alicia’s role in the film—both in the awareness of the characters and that of its makers—is to be bought, sold, and traded around among men to achieve desired ends. Indeed, though Wikipedia argues that the uranium is the film’s MacGuffin, I would contend that Alicia fills that position, existing to drive the plot forward but having little specific importance herself. [1] Using the “political economy of sex” elaborated by Gayle Rubin in “The Traffic in Women,” it becomes clear why the men in Notorious relate to Alicia Huberman in the way that they do.

If, as Rubin argues, marriage has traditionally been a mode through which women are used to pay debts, the entire plot of this particular movie is set into motion by Alicia Huberman’s status as payment for her father’s debt to the United States. [2] The first intimation of such a system comes when Devlin informs her that, by becoming a spy on the Germans in Brazil, “you could make up a little for your daddy’s peculiarities.” In this respect it is particularly salient that not only do they expect Alicia to pay for the sins of her fathers, but she is to do so with her body, as such “debts are reckoned in female flesh.” [3] Thus, she is to use her “feminine wiles” to get information from and about Alex Sebastian, and the fact that she literally marries him merely makes this configuration so obvious that it cannot be missed.

Relatedly, Rubin argues that, though “it is women who are being transacted,” the beneficiaries are “the men who give and take them”; this is to say that the woman serves as “a conduit of a relationship rather than a partner to it,” and “women are in no position to realize the benefits of their own circulation.” [4] In Notorious, Alicia is “transacted” several times: from her father to the U.S. government, from the Englishman trying to take her to Havana to Devlin, from Uncle Sam to Alex Sebastian, and from Sebastian to Devlin. The first two of these happen in this scene, and indeed these otherwise quite peculiar interactions only make sense when read through Rubin’s lens. The sale of Alicia from her father to America, for whom Devlin serves as proxy, explains his behavior toward her in this scene. He ignores her insistence that she’s not a “stool pigeon,” ignores her when she tells him to go away twice, ignores her claim that she’s not interested, instead calmly explaining what it is they want her to do; this only makes sense if he is already sure she will do what he wants—if he already owns her. Devlin’s attitude toward Alicia in this scene also demonstrates the bodily component of his ownership, as he repeatedly insists that she drink from the glass on the bedside table and even commands her to “Finish it.” Though this is presumably some sort of hangover remedy, and later in the scene he asks her “Feel better?” his primary attitude toward her is unsympathetic, which is reinforced by the fact that the camera is more often in his position than hers, allowing us to see Alicia while his commanding voice comes from nowhere.

Near the end of the scene we have a second instance of Alicia changing hands when Alicia and Devlin’s conversation is interrupted by the Englishman who has been trying to get her to go to Havana with him. In this scene, like our previous encounter with the Englishman at the party, he takes a proprietary stance toward Alicia, insisting that she go and ignoring not only her general lack of enthusiasm but the fact that she specifically says she’ll “think about it,” not that she intends to go. This overriding of her wishes, combined with his offer to help her pack, as if she’s incapable of taking care of herself, indicates that he envisions himself to know what’s best for her. His parting words, “see you soon,” indicate complete confidence that she’ll do what he wants. The end result of the interaction with him in this scene is that his claim to Alicia is invalidated, overridden by her father’s debt to the United States. This is clear from the fact that, rather than turning him down herself, she says to Devlin “You’d better tell him.” After all, she’s not her own boss.

This early scene, then, provides a microcosm of the Alicia’s role in the film: America’s claim on her is stronger than her father’s, the Englishman’s, and, especially, her own. Consequently, she must go to Brazil and give up her body in payment of this debt—sexually, certainly, but she is also distinctly in danger of dying for the cause until Devlin swoops in to save her. Though in 1946 the Alicia-as-patriotic-spy thread of the plot might have seemed a bit transgressive of gender norms, and Devlin’s secret love for, and eventual rescue of, Alicia surely seemed romantic, looking at this film with feminist eyes over sixty years later shows just how enmeshed in a deeply problematic set of gender roles it was. Along with its love story and get-those-Nazis plot, moviegoers got to see Alicia traded around to form certain relationships which were advantageous to the men surrounding her—as surely as in any marriage economy described by Lévi-Strauss.

[1]The Wikipedia article on Notorious can be found at For an explanation of the MacGuffin, see
[2] Though Rubin specifically mentions debts incurred by owing someone a woman to replace one given for a previous marriage, I don’t think extending this formulation to other kinds of debt is unreasonable; I’m also sure that there is anthropological evidence for this practice in some place and at some time. (Gayle Rubin, “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex,” Toward an Anthropology of Women ed. Rayna Reiter [New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975] 182.)
[3] Rubin 182
[4] Rubin 174

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