Natasha Walter's Notebook: A woman's eye view of a notorious misogynist

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The Independent Culture
In the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford sits a rumpled white bed, with a brass standard lamp next to it and a slippery maroon dressing-gown flung across it. Above it hangs a not particularly accomplished abstract painting, all swirls and sloshes of primary colour. Beside it sits a television. The whole set-up looks a bit amateurish and forlorn, plonked down in the middle of a gallery.

But, as with every museum installation now, you have to read the card next to the exhibit to see what the real significance of it is. Then you learn that it is called Scottie's Bedroom, and is an exact re-creation of the bedroom in Hitchcock's Vertigo where Scottie, played by James Stewart, brings Kim Novak after she has jumped into the river. The artist, David Reed, has placed one of his own paintings above the bed in the gallery. And on the television next to the bed, a video of the relevant scene is playing, in which you can see that Reed has also digitally placed his own painting above the bed in the film.

Once you have grasped all of that rather complicated stuff - the relation of the exhibit to Vertigo, the way the artist has not just used the film as the inspiration for an artwork, but has also tried to inveigle his own painting into the film - the exhibit does take on some resonance. In Hitchcock's film, Scottie's bedroom is full of sexual tension. It becomes, for a few dreamy moments, the epicentre of a narrative that is the ultimate homage to women's sexual glamour and men's desperate lust. Reed seems to be saying, I want my painting to hang in that intimate, fraught space. I want it to be a part of that seething landscape.

But in a way, the looming presence of Hitchcock's bedroom scene seems only to accentuate the forlorn quality of the exhibit in front of you. You can't help wondering, did David Reed have so little faith in his own work that he was just trying to pick up by association some of the mesmerising qualities of Hitchcock's work? And that problem runs throughout this exhibition, which is called "Notorious: Alfred Hitchcock and Contemporary Art". Far from looking all the more exciting because of its proximity to Hitchcock's oeuvre, the art that is displayed here tends to look dwarfed by it.

Faced with one of Douglas Gordon's artworks, entitled Airmail White Portrait or Surface Mail White Portrait, which consist of rows and rows of stamps stuck to a canvas, stamps that show Hitchcock's face, what reaction can you drum up? Only that Hitchcock is so interesting that some poor sod thought that it would be interesting to stick his picture in little rows - and was wrong.

That sense of let-down occurs here for all the artworks except those of Cindy Sherman, who is represented by some of her familiar photographs that look like film stills. These do not refer directly to Hitchcock's work in the way that Reed or Gordon do, but the curators of this exhibition were right to include them. In her photographs, Sherman uses wigs and make-up and strange settings and poses - a woman looking into a mirror, a woman fallen across a bed, a woman in a gingham dress in an ungainly sprawl - to suggest that the photographs are film stills. The women in them share the watched quality of the stars in Hitchcock's film, with their self-consciousness and sense of the rightness of their poses. And all of them are Cindy Sherman herself.

It's fascinating that it's a female artist whose reaction to Hitchcock's work appears most compelling. It has been a given for a generation that Hitchcock was a misogynist. We all know that he was obsessed by his cool blonde actresses, from Grace Kelly to Janet Leigh, and that he set up more and more chilling ways in which they were made physically vulnerable, from the way that Kelly walks into a murderer's flat in Rear Window, to Leigh's death scene, an experience that left her unable to shower again in real life. And even on set, in their working life, he tended to treat them sadistically - who can forget Tippi Hedren's complaints about the way she was terrorised by real birds while filming The Birds?

Indeed, it even became a staple of film criticism that Hitchcock's films managed to embody a way of seeing that was absolutely hostile to women. In 1975, a critic called Laura Mulvey published her influential essay called Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Imagination, in which she used Hitchcock's Vertigo as the prime example of the classic cinema in which we invariably see "the image of woman as passive raw material for the active gaze of the man".

Yet that view of Hitchcock's work is too narrow to encompass how compelling it is for female audiences. In this exhibition, when you see Cindy Sherman playing with her wigs and mirrors and make-up, you feel how energetically she is engaging with the strange legacy of Hitchcock's dreams. And she is doing so with more anger, certainly, but also more confidence and sense of fun than any of the male artists who are displayed around her.

The cameras of paparazzi often seem to embody that classic Hitchcockian view of women - by hunting down the female celebrity, catching her in their lens and using her image to make themselves rich, they also make her unbearably passive and self-conscious. Diana, Princess of Wales was the epitome of the paparazzi's prey because she was so much a Hitchcock heroine come to life, with her silence, her blondeness, her elegance, and then her violent death. But now it looks as if the paparazzi's object will stop being quintessentially female. The gender tables are turned, since the prime prey for the paparazzi of this generation is her son, Prince William.

For those of you who read only this serious and moral newspaper, it is worth pointing out that last week saw a sudden explosion of interest in the poor prince by other newspapers. Cameras were invited to Highgrove to view the prince taking a driving lesson. And then less welcome cameras showed him at a Cartier polo tournament chatting to various eager-looking girls, including Victoria Aitken.

And William is already showing elements of the talent that his mother had for keeping his audience hooked. He shares her ability to be both an apparently reluctant poser for the camera, and a consummately professional one. There was a familiar chameleon-like quality to his two appearances - one in wrap-around sunglasses and suit, looking slightly louche for one so young; the other in a thick sweater over a check shirt and jeans, looking slightly nerdish for one so privileged.

This is, of course, only the beginning for him. In a year he will be 18 and the gloves of the press will be taken off more often. Soon he will be seen with a girlfriend, or drinking, or making a fool of himself in some way. Soon friends will betray him and intimate secrets will be revealed. Soon he will be able to read a blow-by-blow account of his actions every day in the press. It will be a slow drip, drip of torture, the life in a goldfish bowl to which he is doomed. There is only one way out for the poor young man - whisper it softly - abolition of the monarchy.

Today I'm at the wedding of a friend who has already been living with her partner for a few years. At some point during the celebrations, I'm bound to ask her the question. Not: "Where's the honeymoon?" Not even: "Where did you get your dress?" But: "Are you changing your name?"

When my friends first began to get married, I made certain assumptions about their sense of independence, and always blithely rang them up at work or sent them mail under their own names. It never crossed my mind that any young woman now would want to give up, gratuitously, a chunk of her own identity. If you've been called a certain name for more than 20 years, signed it thousands of times, spoken it day after day, what kind of a wrench would it be to give it up? So why do it? But then, gradually, I noticed that quite a few of them were giving me e-mail addresses or signing cheques in a different name, and when asked, they sighed and said yes, they hadn't wanted to, but it seemed to be expected, or well, they hadn't ever really liked their own names, or no, nobody had asked them to, but they felt it was such a powerful statement of their love.

Wasn't this one of the battles that feminists fought for us, that women shouldn't feel that we had to step in line with this tradition? Why should we feel that we can't love, passionately and faithfully, without being marked by some sort of brand name? It seems to me a great and important freedom that women should feel as though they own a complete name for life, rather than feeling as though we are bundles marked for whatever contingency comes up: first with our father's name, then with our husband's name. And what will these women do on the divorce that happens now to 45 per cent of wives - revert to their maiden names, or stick with the name of the husband that will then mean little to them?

Even the Spice Girls, once the fledgling stars of a fresh kind of girl power, have been quick to dump their surnames. "When I say I'm Victoria Beckham, a lot more people take notice and know who I am," Posh Spice confided delightedly to the tabloids. How are the mighty fallen.

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