Matriarchy in The Birds: A Feminine Power Struggle between Melanie and Lydia
A frightened Lydia (Jessica Tandy, middle) reacts to an avian assault in The Birds
In 1963, Alfred Hitchcock released one of his eeriest and most unsettling films, The Birds. This film was initially met with intense criticism and confusion, with leading scholar Robin Wood even describing it as a “great disappointment” at first (152). However, after more careful examination, the deep symbolism and carefully crafted social critiques rose to the surface, earning acclaim and cementing the film in the insurmountable canon of Hitchcock’s greatest works. The plot is driven by a series of unexplained bird attacks, which eventually leads to the mental degeneration of the main character, Melanie (Tippi Hedren). However, while it seems the bird attacks are the leading storyline, there exists a dueling narrative that takes place simultaneously: a family melodrama between Lydia (Jessica Tandy) and Melanie. Hitchcock portrays these two women as constantly vying for maternal power over the family, and eventually, over each other. Lydia exists as the matriarch of the Brenner family, whose son Mitch (Rod Taylor) becomes the love interest of Melanie. As their relationship kindles, the women struggle to co-exist in the same space. Through their struggle for power, the film implies deep psychological associations between mother/child relationships, and uses these traits in order to produce a cycle — child to mother to child — in Melanie’s character development.
The Initial Threat to Lydia’s Power
The first half of the film introduces Melanie as a confident, vibrant young woman with a penchant for playful tricks, implying an underlying childishness to her character which returns at the end of the film. For example, at the beginning of the film Mitch and Melanie meet at a bird pet shop, where Mitch remarks that he had seen her in court before after one of her “pranks” ended up breaking a window. She plays it off as harmless, but becomes intrigued by Mitch, resulting in her concocting another “prank” to get closer to him. After following Mitch to Bodega Bay to slyly drop off love-birds as her prank, she is abruptly injured by a seagull, resulting in Mitch taking her inside a nearby restaurant to tend to her wounds. This scene is where the audience is first introduced to his mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy).
When Mitch makes the introduction, the camera pushes in with a close-up shot of Lydia’s face as she blatantly expresses her aversion and anxiety to Melanie. This first shot defines Lydia to the audience as someone extremely protective of her son, and wary of anyone who might take him away from her. Additionally, her face is framed in a straight-on angle similar to Melanie’s, which forces the audience to see their similarities—the same hairstyle, similar facial features—intertwining them as doubles for each other (Wood 159). However, the one difference is that Lydia is shot standing erect, looking slightly downwards at Melanie. This is a crucial detail, as it first establishes the power struggle between them that will oscillate over the course of the film. In this moment, Lydia holds the matriarchal power and control over the family, viewing Melanie as a potential threat to her motherhood, symbolized by her looking down at her rival. In addition, she takes up most of the frame and stands directly in front of Mitch as if barricading him from Melanie. The shallow focus of this shot also accentuates her wrinkled brow and slightly pursed lips, which increases the tension felt. Lydia is clearly uncomfortable, and the following sequence shots as duel POV between Melanie and Lydia further enhances this increasing discomfort. As they curtly exchange introductions and Mitch invites Melanie for dinner, the film intercuts between them, and we see Melanie’s open and friendly expression followed by the deep suspicion and worry of Lydia.
Lydia’s Loss of Power: Melanie’s Rise as Matriarch
As the film progresses, the tensions in the household continue to rise. In addition to the family melodrama, the ominous attacks on the community by local birds increases stress between the women, leading to their breaking point. The result is a matriarchal shift in power, catalyzed by Lydia’s discovery of the mangled body of Mr. Fawcet. Coming home in hysterics, Lydia loses all sense of composure, and her defenses break down. The recent destruction of her own home, coupled with the gruesomeness of Mr. Fawcett’s death, sends her spiraling. At last, she fails to retain any control over her life. In deep reflection, she confides in Melanie that she misses her husband and that she doesn’t want to be “left alone,” which is the first time her role as head of the house in the wake of her husband’s death is explicitly communicated to the audience. This gives insight into her character, revealing how she formed her identity around this position. Her not wanting to be “alone” further bolsters her identity as a matriarch; without her family, her position becomes null. However, in this moment of weakness, she leaves this role unguarded, which allows Melanie to step in and become the new matriarch, beginning her reign by unintentionally mothering Lydia.
Melanie (Tippi Hedren, left) and Lydia interact in a shifting, rivalrous mother/daughter dynamic
Lydia lies helpless in bed, depending upon Melanie for both physical and emotional comfort, which torments her. She even states, “I’m not even sure if I like you” to Melanie, who is attentively caring for her, giving the audience a glimpse into Lydia’s ruthlessness. The following shot highlights the exact moment of this reluctant passing of matriarchal power, as Melanie’s outstretched arm comforting Lydia indicates a metaphorical torch being passed. Moreover, the medium long shot and deep depth of field helps capture this moment, as the audience can clearly see the mise-en-scène: the crumpled sheets of Lydia’s bed, her antiquated bedroom, and her disheveled appearance. The entire shot is highly contrasted by Melanie’s neat appearance, and her bright green clothes serve as a point of focus. According to color theorists Edith Feisner and Ron Reed, green is symbolic of rebirth, new life, and freshness, which directly parallels the youth and vitality of Melanie (Feisner and Reed 187). More importantly, this power shift is signaled by the reversal of the women’s positions: now Melanie is the one standing over Lydia, who has to look up at her to speak. In the remainder of the scene, Lydia is shot with a high angle, whereas Melanie remains portrayed through direct-angles, once more underscoring the shift in power dynamic, and signifying the peak of Melanie’s matriarchy: dominance over the original matriarch.
Melanie’s Demise: A Return to Childhood
At the ending of the film, the cycle of Melanie’s character comes to a close. In the time between her initial assumption of matriarchal power to now, she is attacked mercilessly by the birds, leaving her completely stripped of her power and reduced back to a child. The peak of her character development came in her moment of power over the original matriarch, Lydia, but like all reins of power, this was short-lived. Directly following the attack (which symbolically occurred in a child’s bedroom), Melanie is not only reverted back to her initial childlike ways, but completely diminished to a state of infancy. She appears entirely catatonic, and her shell-shocked behavior resembles that of a baby. She is rendered almost entirely mute, except to cry out “no!” when led to the car, and can no longer walk, instead dependent on those around her to carry her outside. The height of this breakdown in character is depicted by the last shot of her in the arms of Lydia, who holds her like a baby — the final cyclical tribute alluding to her traumatic childhood.
This scene portrays the final shift in power between the women. The shot itself is a close-up of Melanie’s face from a high angle with a shallow depth of field and top lighting, perfectly illuminating her face. These cinematic choices underscore the defeated expression of her face and explicitly depict her bloodied bandage and facial wounds, further enhancing her brokenness. The position of the camera causes the audience to look down at her, which protracts emotions of pity in the midst of the intensity of their escape. This position of her body in the arms of Lydia brings the power struggle full circle: Melanie is once again looking up at Lydia who has resumed her position as matriarch.
The psychological elements associated with motherhood are subtly displayed by this shot, as the audience previously learns that Melanie grew up without a mother. Thus, seeing her now in such a vulnerable and needy state enhances the idea that Lydia has not only gained her power back over her family, but has additionally taken on the role of surrogate mother to Melanie. Robin Wood also investigates this final scene, stating, “Melanie’s broken condition: does it represent the possibility of development into true womanhood, or a final relapse into infantile dependence? All these questions are left open […] We can say, at best, that there is a suggestion of a new depth, a new fertility in the relationships—Lydia has become the mother Melanie never had” (172). Additionally, Michael Slowik gives a similar interpretation to the ending, stating “the film’s ending is deliberately ambiguous, and Wood has suggested that one could read the birds as granting the characters a reprieve now that they have forged more meaningful relationships with each other” (97-98). The interpretation of both these scholars that the women forged a “meaningful relationship” at the end of the film is somewhat correct — but arguably not “meaningful” in the traditional definition. These two women certainly craft a significant relationship, but one based on complete annihilation of the other. In this end shot, Melanie’s character is completely stripped of any confidence, power, and sense of autonomy, which is when Lydia finally accepts her. Once Melanie is clearly defeated, and no longer poses a threat to Lydia’s matriarchal power, Lydia begins to mother her, meanwhile still completely disregarding her own young daughter who is equally distraught and terrified. This neglect of her children and focus on Melanie in the end thus underscores the crux of my argument: Lydia’s only goal is to retain matriarchal power. Once her position is safe again, she assumes this role of mother over Melanie in an effort to reinstate herself: she failed to be a loving mother to her own children, and now she has another chance to dominate over someone new, eliminating her forever as a threat. Thus, this final scene is not so much about Lydia assuming the role of mother to Melanie, but Melanie becoming her new daughter, in order to cement her in a subservient position within Lydia’s matriarchal hierarchy—a tell-tale sign of a classically “happy” Hitchcockian ending, as unresolved issues brim beneath the surface.
Hitchcock’s Greater Body of Work
In line with Hitchcock’s body of work as a whole, the recurring dubious happy ending and, more specifically, the theme of a strained mother-child relationship, is in no way confined to this film. In fact, upon closer examination almost every mainstream Hitchcock film corrupts this relationship in some way. The most famous example of this corrosion between mother and child is Psycho (1960), in which the main character Norman Bates not only kills his mother, but becomes her. Necrophilia and incest aside, the premise of that mother-child relationship once again circles around the notion of power, and the continuation of Norman’s mother “controlling” him from the afterlife, as it’s dictated by the therapist at the end that “Mother” was the culprit behind all the murders. According to Bernard Dick in his article “Hitchcock’s Terrible Mothers,” “Hitchcock had been dealing with mothers, matriarchs, and maternal figures ever since he began directing” (239). Hitchcock’s fascination with motherly relationships thus defines him as an auteur, further solidifying this theme in The Birds. As Bernard Dick notes about the final shot of Lydia and Melanie, “Lydia looks benign, even maternal—not because she has accepted the idea that her son would marry, but because she knows he is not going to marry Melanie, who is obviously going to need plastic surgery, if not psychotherapy” (244). Thus, the cycle of Melanie’s character comes to a close, and she is once again subverted to a child, while Lydia remains the reigning matriarchy, fulfilling her ultimate goal.
Dick, Bernard F. “Hitchcock’s Terrible Mothers.”Literature/Film Quarterly, vol. 28, no. 4, 2000, pp. 238-249.
Feisner, Edith Anderson, and Ron Reed. Color Studies. 3rd ed., Fairchild Books, 2014.
Slowik, Michael. “‘Not for Tourists’: Hitchcock’s Sparse Sonic Set Pieces.” Hitchcock Annual, vol. 21, no. 1, 2017, pp. 71–104.
Wood, Robin. “The Birds .” Hitchcock’s Films Revisited, Columbia University Press, New York, NY, 2004, pp. 152–172.