“Nature” is Man Made
Politicians write the law, police officers enforce it, lawyers argue it, and judges interpret it. We have a whole system in place to ensure the law is being followed, but rarely do we ask where the concept of law comes from. Common answers include God, reason, morals, ethics; and we characterize these assumed sources using one word: “nature.” But what does this really mean? We associate nature with the conventional, common, and ordinary; when something is abnormal or atypical, we consider it “unnatural.” But if it is unnatural, then how can it exist in nature? Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Queer Theory attempts to answer this question by contesting the very meaning and use of the word “natural.” She argues that what we expect to see in nature is rarely what actually occurs. Her theory focuses on gender roles and expectations, and she argues that “natural” expectations are instead man-made. Therefore, what is considered “unnatural” is in fact “natural.” Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds brings Sedgwick’s theory to life by describing the atypical, “unnatural” story of a young woman named Melanie and her pursuit for her lover-to-be, Mitch. The Birds’ storyline is “unnatural” in two main ways: First, Melanie is an independent woman who untraditionally goes after a man. And more obviously, this storyline is coupled with random, violent attacks from birds ─ repeating “unnatural” occurrence in the film. Using Sedgewick’s Queer Theory as a lens to explore this untraditional romantic relationship and storyline poses the epistemological question, “what does the term ‘natural’ mean?” The Birds illustrates that the word “natural” cannot be synonymous with “normal” because abnormalities are also “natural.” Therefore, whether or not this is our aim, the mere classification of something as “natural” condemns and oppresses the unconventional.
Hitchcock exposes the twisted view of what mankind considers “natural” in The Bird’s teaser trailer. In it, Hitchcock lectures the audience about the history of man’s relationship with the bird species. He says it is a history in which “man has played a conspicuous part.” (0:35). He points to a cave drawing of a hunted bird (0:42), he shows off his bird-feathered quill (0:51), his plumed hat (1:04), chicken egg (1:42), and his caged bird (4:00). These images are all conflated with the idea of what is “natural.” Hitchcock’s use of the word “conspicuous” connotes the idea of man’s superiority in determining the course of nature. The audience becomes keenly aware of man’s power to justify his distortion and destruction of nature’s integral parts, while society turns a blind eye.
After the trailer establishes the epistemological fallacy of man’s definition of “nature,” The Birds attacks man’s superiority and the way he practices what is allegedly “natural.” In the film’s opening scene, Melanie walks down the San Francisco streets, and the audience hears off-screen bird chirps. Seconds later, a young boy passing beside Melanie whistles at her. She turns around and smiles, as if complimented by the elementary school boy’s attention. As Melanie turns around, however, she hears a bird’s cry in the exact same pitch and tone as the boy’s whistle. At this point, (1:45) she looks to the sky, and her smile slowly fades. Melanie’s reaction to these two similar sounds uncovers an interesting concept of what society considers to be “natural.” Melanie’s initial smiling at a young boy’s sexual implication goes unnoticed until it is paired with a bird call. Along with Melanie, the audience does not question the young boy’s objectification of Melanie. Whistling at a beautiful young woman is assumed to be a “natural” thing for a growing boy to do. The Birds exposes society’s blindness to what we consider to be “natural” through Melanie’s lack of condemnation for being objectified and her obvious uneasiness at the bird’s call. The film suggests that the audience ought to question how we distinguish the supposed “natural” from the ostensibly “unnatural.”
Through a recurring cage motif, The Birds suggests that since we have the power to define and alter “nature,” the word itself is void. The cage imagery in the film symbolizes the imprisonment of the inferior, and man’s distinction between human and animal. According to Sedgewick, however, these subjective distinctions are only considered “natural” because society has failed to question them. The first time the audience is introduced to a cage image is in the pet store, when Mitch refers to Melanie as being entrapped in a “gilded cage” (5:24), and when he brags about being a lawyer who enjoys seeing people put in jail. Melanie then purchases the two caged love birds at the pet store. The cage is emphasized in the scene when the two birds sway in the car (9:11) as Melanie speeds to Bodega Bay en route to Mitch. The shot shows the birds moving within their cage through inertia, a metaphor for the lack of control the birds have over their movement and transport because they are entrapped in a man-made cage. The birds are forced into moving with a car, something that is man-made and “unnatural.” This image is symbolic of man controlling “nature,” which by definition should not be controllable. Perhaps this is an insight into the invalidness of the word itself.
The Birds also shows the covert ways in which mankind controls nature, how he forces love in the name of nature yet condemns love that transpires naturally. The first time the love birds are introduced, they are seen in a cage, as if they are forced to be together. The audience sees no interaction between the two birds, and we are left to assume that the birds are, in fact, in love. Hitchcock could be suggesting that humans try to force the birds to fall in love by placing them together in a cage and assuming that they would mate. The film further explores this notion when Cathy, Mitch’s sister, first discusses them. Cathy runs up to Melanie and tells her, “They’re just what I wanted! Is there a man and a woman? I can’t tell which is which.” (27:46). Cathy assumes that in order for the two birds to be in love, they have to be two different genders. She also uses the words “man” and “woman” rather than “boy” and “girl” or even “male” and female.” This language shows Cathy’s belief that all love is modeled after traditional human love, which of course must be “natural.” The film shows how Cathy’s upbringing does not allow her to entertain a possibility that two different genders may be in love; even suggesting so would be “unnatural” for her.
Hitchcock’s script, just like Sedgewick’s Queer Theory, suggests that the concept of gender is not ingrained in “nature.” Through Cathy’s inability to discern the gender of the two love birds, the film explores the concept of gender fluidity and reinforces Sedgewick’s notion that no individual’s gender and personality traits align perfectly. The Birds makes readers question the epistemology of gender and the reason society holds that each human falls into one of two distinct, differentiable genders. While the initial thought may be that this classification is “natural,” Cathy’s observation proves otherwise. It shows that “naturally” there is no distinguishing features between genders, that sexuality and gender are two independent concept, the latter being “unnaturally” man-made.
Not only does the film imply man’s distortion of nature, it showcases nature rebelling against mankind in protest. Nature appears to be flipping the roles of humans and birds through the vicious bird attacks on the human population of Bodega Bay. Through the attacks, Hitchcock entraps the humans in a cage as they fear the outdoors, where they are susceptible to the attacks. The birds become the oppressors, which could be condemning humans for justifying their past unprincipled behavior as pervertedly “natural.” One of The Birds’ last scenes is Mitch’s family and Melanie fleeing from the house to head to the hospital (1:30:00). Just before everyone gets in the car, Mitch’s sister asks if she can bring along the caged love birds with them (1:38:00); Mitch tells her yes. This final scene could suggest that the humans have learned nothing about their perversions of “nature” and that they can only amend their thought process if society itself realizes its misconceptions.
While the film’s entirety questions the very idea of what “nature” means, one scene could be hinting at a way to react when we witness mankind oppressing the unconventional in the name of “nature.” As Mitch’s mother speaks on the phone with her chicken food provider, Mitch annoys his mother when he disagrees with her. He tells his mother that he is “only quoting the law” (28:05) and means no disrespect. This brief exchange illustrates man’s mere “quoting of the law” as his justification for critiquing. Mankind criticizes untraditional relationships and proposed alterations to the old-fashioned gender norms because the “laws of nature” rule against them. “Natural laws” are commonly cited against the “abomination” of homosexuality, transgenderism, and queerness. The Birds dismantles this argument by suggesting that these “laws” should not be considered because it is not man’s place to say what is natural or unnatural. In response to Mitch, his mother firmly tells him, “Nevermind the law” (28:30). Perhaps Hitchcock is suggesting we do the same.
The Birds takes the audience through a series of steps to reach the conclusion that “natural law” has no meaning and should therefore be disregarded. The film first identifies the logical fallacy of the word “natural.” It then condemns the word’s use in justifying a certain behavior or convention as wrong. And finally, as Mitch’s mother suggests, it articulates the goal of ridding ourselves from the very notion of classifying something as “natural.” Melanie’s characteristics and her relationship with Mitch may be atypical in our eyes, but that is only because we are so used to the societal expectations based on void natural law. How can we, in the same breath, consider Melanie and Mitch’s relationship “unnatural” but consider two love birds caged together as a “natural” one? How can we regard Melanie’s pursuit for Mitch as “unnatural” but not consider a young boy objectifying Melanie he passes her in the street as “natural?” Using the word “natural” in the context of gender norms, romantic relationships, and human behavior is an insult to nature. Calling one’s behavior “natural” implies all others are abominations. But who has the right to decide what is “natural” and what is an “abomination?” If society asks questions such as these and debates the epistemology of “natural law” and expected human behavior, the logic we always assumed to rule will begin to break down.