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  • Writer's pictureKathy Michelle Chacón

Feminine Fear: How Two Hitchcock Heroines Navigate their Patriarchal Worlds

By Kathy Michelle Chacón

Grand mansions. Mysterious suburbs. Black and white film. Alfred Hitchcock’s early 1940s films mark the start of his Hollywood career and collaboration with influential figureheads such as David O. Selznick.1 Using themes of Gothic romance and film noir, Hitchcock’s 1940 thriller, Rebecca, and 1943 mystery, Shadow of a Doubt, center the stories of two female protagonists as they navigate the darkness in the world around them. Although the films were released a mere three years apart, they forward vastly different representations of the feminine. In her 1984 article, “At Last I Can Tell it to Someone!”: Feminine Point of View and Subjectivity in the Gothic Romance Films of the 1940s, author Diane Waldman discusses Gothic romance films of the 1940s as works that articulate “feminine fear, anger and distrust of the patriarchal order”.2 While Alfred Hitchcock developed a reputation as a misogynist for his work on films such as Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963) in the sixties—with writers like Molly Haskell highlighting the director’s tendency to submit “his heroines to excruciating ordeals, long trips through terror in which they might be raped, violated by birds, killed”—a cinematic richness emerges when engaging with the women of Hitchcock’s early 1940s films not through an auteurist lens but within the context of the United States at the start of the forties.3 Using a socio-historical lens of femininity in America in the early 1940s and close sequence analysis, this essay will investigate the extent to which Rebecca and Shadow of a Doubt articulate Waldman’s observations and reflect a feminine point of view unique to the cultures surrounding the films’ releases. Working within the understanding of shifting gender norms and expectations due to America’s involvement in World War II, this essay will investigate the ways in which Shadow of a Doubt indeed reflects a feminine existence that is more critical of patriarchal structures and norms while Rebecca challenges Waldman’s theory.

Although only three years went by between the release of Rebecca and Shadow of a Doubt, the works were created and released in two drastically different Americas — the country as it was before and during World War II. With the first treatment of Rebecca submitted in June 1939, the film’s development began before the start of the war and long before America officially joined.4 Released a year and a few months prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, Rebecca emerged during a time when American women primarily remained within traditional roles of the household.5 While the majority of women were homemakers at this time in history, those who did work outside the home typically remained within the limited roles of receptionists, secretaries and department store clerks.6 This reality transformed dramatically once the United States joined the war in 1941.7 In her article, How World War II Empowered Women, historian Annette McDermott recalls the estimated “six million women [who] joined the civilian workforce during World War II in both white and blue-collar jobs” and assumed work in positions varying from government workers to taxi drivers.8 Once limited to traditional roles and expectations, American women of the World War II era found new opportunity and purpose in the patriotic duty to help their country while the men of the nation were overseas at battle.

Rebecca mirrors traditional public consensus of women at the time of the film’s release in 1940 while Shadow of a Doubt reflects the nation’s more progressive notion of the average woman in a post-Pearl Harbor America. In this essay, I will explore the extent to which Rebecca screens fear and distrust of the patriarchal order and instead reflects a feminine fear and distrust that works within patriarchy and forwards a more conservative reading than its film noir counterpart, Shadow of a Doubt. I will investigate the contrast in ideological world views on women between Rebecca and Shadow of a Doubt through intimate analysis of the film texts as it pertains to the theme of marriage and fear. First, to explore the ways in which the two films view marriage, I will be analyzing Maxim de Winter’s confession to the second Mrs. de Winter in Rebecca’s cabin at the film’s climax. In this analysis, I will utilize Diane Waldman’s theory of feminine validation and invalidation to uncover the ways in which Rebecca understands the dynamic between husband and wife. Alternatively, I will explore Shadow of a Doubt’s position on matrimony through a reading of the sequence that involves Young Charlie and Uncle Charlie at a neighborhood bar. Later, I will explore what each film fears and villainizes through analysis of Rebecca’s use of set design and character and Shadow of a Doubt’s anxieties towards facade and the domestic space.

Rebecca toys with audiences for a majority of the film through the secrecy surrounding the character of Rebecca and her relationship with Maxim. The details of the first Mrs. de Winter’s death are finally revealed when Max confesses the truth of her demise to the second Mrs. de Winter in his late wife’s cabin on a stormy night. In this scene, Max sits on a chair while the second Mrs. de Winter kneels in front of him in a submissive position listening to him recall the details of his first wife’s death. Although the scene contains a conversation between the married couple, the film refrains from cutting back and forth for a shot-reverse-shot to cover a majority of their dialogue. Instead, for a large portion of their conversation, the pair share the screen in a medium shot as Max confesses his version of the events surrounding the discovery of Rebecca’s body. Separated in frame by cobwebs hanging off of a lamp, the couple trade in the luxurious setting of Manderley for a small, unkempt abode. Dimly lit, dirty, and uninviting, the cabin and the haunting words of Mr. de Winter reflect a domestic space that is plagued with fear and unhappiness. In this exchange, marriage becomes dark and dreadful. Additionally, as Diane Waldman argues in At Last I Can Tell it to Someone!, the scene forefronts the invalidation of the views and suspicions of the feminine as Max reveals that he never loved his late wife.9 As Waldman writes, the second Mrs. de Winter’s, “happiness is purchased at the price of the invalidation of her independent judgement.”10 While these observations, the gloomy portrayal of marriage and the disprovement of female discernment, can be read as suggesting a fear of domesticity and patriarchy, the second Mrs. de Winter’s response to this darkness is one that instead reflects feminine fear that functions within these oppressive structure, not against it. When Max reveals that he was the one who placed Rebecca’s dead body in her sailboat, the second Mrs. de Winter slowly gets up from her kneeled position and walks away from her husband as if taking a second to process the gruesome details. Once she has had a short moment to collect her thoughts, she turns around and runs straight to Maxim. Squeezing his arms tightly, she reaffirms her love for him and pleads for a kiss, “I love you more than anything in the world. Oh please, Maxim, kiss me” she begs.11 Standing in front of a wall decorated with various picture frames, the pair become a portrait of patriarchal ideals themselves. Despite Maxim’s angry outbursts, his confession of violence with the accidental killing and coverup of his first wife, and the fact that he has literally turned his back to the second Mrs. de Winter, she condones her husband’s actions in the name of marriage; “No, we can’t lose each other now.”12 Clinging onto his back and looking up at him longingly, she becomes small in the frame while standing next to her much taller husband and in her power to condemn harmful male behavior. Not only is the second Mrs. de Winter unable to stand up against her husband’s horrifying actions, she becomes an accomplice to his crimes as she enthusiastically instructs him to lie to the police regarding his involvement in Rebecca’s death. In this sequence, the second Mrs. de Winter does not stand in opposition of the patriarchal order but exists unquestioningly within it. Her ideals of marriage are not ones that reflect apprehension towards patriarchy but forward a conservative fear of losing the nuclear family unit. This gross protection of patriarchal ideals and overlooking of male violence can be understood within the context of pre-World War II America where women had little freedom to imagine an existence outside of oppressive and restricting boundaries in both their private and professional lives.

On the one hand, Shadow of a Doubt engages with the theme of marriage in a manner that indeed articulates a fear and distrust of patriarchal norms and expectations. When Young Charlie runs away from a family dinner in Shadow of a Doubt, Uncle Charlie chases after her and physically forces her to enter a seedy bar with him. The two sit across the table from each other in a booth. The image is reminiscent of a couple on a date, only there is something much more sinister boiling underneath. While Uncle Charlie attempts to gaslight Young Charlie in the hopes of convincing her that her suspicions about him are merely suspicions, he carefully folds a napkin. The film cuts back and forth between an insert of Uncle Charlie forcefully turning the napkin in a choking motion and Young Charlie watching his hands in horror. This suggestive action prompts Young Charlie to fearfully confront the man sitting across from her. With her eyes closed, as if too afraid to come face to face with the monster, she asks, “How could you do such things? You’re my uncle. My mother’s brother.”13 Although she is unable to look him in the eyes during this confrontation, Young Charlie makes an attempt to stand up to the wrongdoings of a well respected man regardless of his status as a patriarch and family relationship to her. When asked, “What do you know?” the young protagonist pulls out the ring Uncle Charlie had given her previously and places it on the table in front of them.14 Now, wearing an angry expression, she looks her uncle straight in the face. Not only does the ring symbolize hard evidence to validate Young Charlie’s suspicions, it symbolizes her refusal to condone male violence in the name of family. Although the pair are uncle and niece, the exchange of the ring between them, both the initial gifting and return, speaks to a larger theme of marriage between man and woman. Much like the representation of marriage in Rebecca, matrimony in this sequence becomes riddled with bleak tones of violence and horror as the ring bears the initials of a murder victim. However, the heroine’s response to this reality is rooted in a more critical assessment of patriarchal order. After this exchange, Young Charlie gets up to leave but her uncle demands that she sits down. The scene concludes with Young Charlie ultimately walking away from the table but defeatingly accepting her Uncle’s pleas to allow him time to leave Santa Rosa. While both Rebecca and Shadow of a Doubt screen a female protagonist who becomes involved in the crimes of a close male companion, the latter film favors the narrative of a young woman who raises opposition to problematic gender norms and expectations. Although Young Charlie eventually agrees to keep silent in order to help her uncle evade capture, she practices resistance in the face of male violence but ultimately falls short under the constraints of patriarchal order and traditions. However, her attempts to confront her uncle and her possession of a ring that backs her judgement speaks to an awareness she holds on the nature of men. Her resistance to her uncle, a figure of misogyny and evil, reflects a more progressive consciousness and distrust of patriarchal order as discussed in Diane Waldman’s article.15

Another way to assess Rebecca as a work that forwards a feminine fear that works within the confines of patriarchy and patriarchal ideals is through analysis of what the film creates fear around. The mysterious Rebecca de Winter never appears on screen, but her looming presence takes form as the Manderley mansion. In her book, Hollywood Heroines: Women in Film Noir and the Female Gothic Film, Helen Hanson discusses Rebecca as a character who assumes the female predecessor role which is prevalent in many female gothic stories as she, “haunt[s] the marital house of the heroine.”16 Throughout the film, both Rebecca and the house become sources of anxiety and fear for the female protagonist. An encounter with a man who identifies himself as Rebecca’s favorite cousin prompts the second Mrs. de Winter to finally enter the bedroom of her predecessor. As she runs up the stairs to approach the room, the camera pans up to capture the high ceiling and tall windows that surround the hallway. Standing between dramatic stairways and colossal structures of meticulously decorated glass, the second Mrs. de Winter appears small and powerless within the immense setting. In an extreme wide shot, she finally enters the room only to be swallowed by the vast space and indistinguishable shadowy figures that loom over her. From behind a veil of sheer curtains, she slowly creeps into Rebecca’s sleeping quarters accompanied by an eerie musical score. She discovers an immaculately made up bed and a vanity completely set with everything needed for a perfect mistress of Manderley — a framed portrait of Mr. de Winter, an elegant hairbrush, and other luxurious dishes and trinkets. This sequence encapsulates a larger theme at work in the film, one Tania Modleski's The Women Who Knew Too Much reads as screening the narrative of a woman coming into a world of maturity and social order, an order she identifies as patriarchy.17 Rebecca, however, does not tell the story of a young woman’s hesitation to assume the position of the wife due to her anxieties about the oppressive nature of patriarchal order. Rather, the film centers a female protagonist whose horrors stem from her inability to perform her patriarchal duties adequately. The grandeur of the Manderley estate and the second Mrs. de Winter’s angst surrounding the house reflect a fear of not being able to control the home and, in turn, not being able to be the perfect wife. Released in a prewar America, Rebecca mirrors a culture where the majority of women held the title of the homemaker and feminine value largely derived from one’s successes in the domestic sphere.

Comparingly, Shadow of a Doubt functions differently in what it chooses to villainize and fear. Released amidst America’s involvement in the war, the film takes a different approach to the wartime film. Unlike Foreign Correspondent (1940), Hitchcock’s British prewar film which he arguably used to “alert America to the dangers it would soon face as Europe went to war”, Shadow of a Doubt and its female protagonist do not find horror in the threat of bombing or warfare but in facade. With appearances of soldiers in uniform in the background of the bar scene previously discussed, the film chooses to include subtle indications of the war rather than forefronting the international event within the overall narrative of the work. After Young Charlie discovers the newspaper listing that details the investigation of the Merry Widow Murderer, a murderer she suspects to be her uncle, she returns home for a family dinner. With the Newton mother preparing the meal in her apron, Young Charlie volunteering to assist her mother in the kitchen and both the Newton father and Uncle Charlie sitting at the table waiting to be served, the scene is a textbook example of the conventional nuclear family. While the entire family is gathered at the table beginning their meal, Young Charlie announces the nightmares she has had about her uncle and her desire to see him leave Santa Rosa. Her comments are quickly contradicted by her mother who says she wishes that Uncle Charlie could stay forever. The tension between Young Charlie and her family builds as her father and his friend discuss methods of murdering each other and Uncle Charlie makes grisly remarks about widowed women, calling them “faded, fat, greedy women.”18 The family unit becomes polluted with horrific discussions of violence and death though nobody but Young Charlie, and Ann who asks if she can sit next to her mother instead of her Uncle Charlie, raises any objections to the horror. Instead, as the Newton mother excuses her husband’s grotesque talk of murder at the dinner table as his way of relaxing, the horrible details of male brutality become a normal and acceptable feature of the family space. This is how the film views the nuclear family; “Do you know if you ripped the front off houses you’d find swine. The world’s a hell.”19 Shadow of a Doubt is fearful of the evil that exists beneath the surface of domestic life. Young Charlie treads carefully through the film with great caution of the patriarchs that surround her. This profound distrust of patriarchal order is best understood within the contexts of shifting gender roles at the time of the film’s release. With the backdrop of international turmoil and women’s breaking away from traditional homemaker duties, Young Charlie speaks to a changing feminine consciousness surrounding women’s complacency within oppressive structures.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca and Shadow of a Doubt center the stories of two young female protagonists as they negotiate patriarchal order in two very different ways. While the second Mrs. de Winter’s fears exist within an obedience to patriarchy as she dismisses the criminal acts of her husband and longs to be a perfect wife, Young Charlie finds horror and bewilderment in domesticity and male violence. Although their ideological world views differ greatly, both Rebecca and Shadow of a Doubt stand today not only as key works in Hitchcock’s Hollywood filmography and collaboration with other filmmakers, but as snapshots of their time that function as lenses into American’s culture and values on femininity before and during the second world war.


1 Leonard Leff, Hitchcock and Selznick (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1987), p. 38.

2 Diane Waldman, ‘“At Last I Can Tell It to Someone!": Feminine Point of View and Subjectivity in the Gothic Romance Film of the 1940s’, Cinema Journal, 23:2 (1984), p. 29.

3 Molly Haskell, From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1973), p. 349.

4 David Boyd, ‘The Trouble with Rebecca’ in David Boyd and R. Barton Palmer (eds), Hitchcock at the Source: The Auteur as Adapter (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2011), p. 119.

5 Claudia D. Goldin, ‘The Role of World War II in the Rise of Women's Employment’, The American Economic Review, 88:4 (1991), p. 741.

6 How World War II Empowered Women: How Did Women's Service During World War II Inspire Their Fight For Social Change And Equality?, History, [accessed 15 December 2019]

7 How World War II Empowered Women: How Did Women's Service During World War II Inspire Their Fight For Social Change And Equality?, History, [accessed 15 December 2019]

8 How World War II Empowered Women: How Did Women's Service During World War II Inspire Their Fight For Social Change And Equality?, History, [accessed 15 December 2019]

9 Waldman, ‘“At Last I Can Tell It to Someone!": Feminine Point of View and Subjectivity in the Gothic Romance Film of the 1940s’ pp. 29–40.

10 Ibid., p. 31.

11 Alfred Hitchcock, Rebecca (Los Angeles: Selznick International Pictures, 1940).

12 Alfred Hitchcock, Rebecca (Los Angeles: Selznick International Pictures, 1940).

13 Alfred Hitchcock, Shadow of a Doubt (Los Angeles: Universal Pictures, 1943).

14 Alfred Hitchcock, Shadow of a Doubt (Los Angeles: Universal Pictures, 1943).

15 Waldman, ‘“At Last I Can Tell It to Someone!": Feminine Point of View and Subjectivity in the Gothic Romance Film of the 1940s’ pp. 29–40.

16 Helen Hanson, Hollywood Heroines: Women in Film Noir and the Female Gothic Film (London, I.B.Tauris & Co Ltd, 2007), p. 60-61.

17 Tania Modleski, The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory (New York: Routledge, 2015), p. 45

18 Alfred Hitchcock, Shadow of a Doubt (Los Angeles: Universal Pictures, 1943).

19 Alfred Hitchcock, Shadow of a Doubt (Los Angeles: Universal Pictures, 1943).




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