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The guest posts keep coming! We knew no one could resist the chance to throw out hundreds of words about female villains. Next up is Amy who lives in Southern California and occasionally maintains the blog My Friend Amy which recently turned eleven! She loves stories in all their forms, arguing about sports, and over committing herself to various projects.

Psycho is one of the best known horror films of all time and the actual psychosis behind the actions of Norman Bates in the film continue to intrigue. So much so that a few years ago, A&E greenlit a backstory to the film in the form of a TV show—Bates Motel Despite the eye rolling that was to be done over Hollywood’s lack of original ideas, the concept was fresh in some ways. The story was to be set in present day. And even more interesting was the prominent role Norman’s mother would play. The real flesh and blood mother before she became nothing but a corpse in the fruit cellar.

It shouldn’t be surprising that a movie like Psycho would invite an exploration of backstory. The film was based on a book that spawned several sequels in book and film form. The question of how Norman became a man running a hotel with multiple personalities manifesting as his mother, and an unhealthy relationship to women and sex is a fascinating and valid one. There was a story before the story—something that helped make the world of Psycho feel so real.

And that story, of course, involves a woman. You can’t have Norman without Mother, it doesn’t work. But Mother, as she shows up in the Psycho film, is nothing but another part of Norman’s brain. We find out very little of her, we don’t even know her name. She’s villanous to us throughout half the movie, we see her as an elderly lady bent on controlling her son, so much so that she kills an attractive young woman who shows up at the motel. A later sequel, Psycho IV, explored the Norman and Norma relationship as well, establishing Norma as cruel and controlling. Interesting to note, this film came thirty years after the original. The question of Norman and his mother has persisted through the years.

There’s a way in which this all feels familiar and makes sense in a society that privileges male narrative and never hesitates to cast blame on complicated women.Norman is the way he is because his mother failed to love him properly, nurture him properly, abused him, confused him about sex. There’s almost an uncomfortable—"she was asking for it"—connotation to her death. But is that really the best we can do in imagining Norman’s backstory? Should Norma really be reduced to nothing more than how Norman’s own sick mind manifests her?

Bates Motel takes a different approach to Norma. So much so that she oftentimes feels like the core of the show over Norman. This show fleshes her out, giving her layers, motivations, sympathies, and heart. While never excusing what is undoubtedly abusive behavior on Norma’s part, the show strives to present the complexities of abusive relationships within families, exposing the cyclical nature of it in families, the need, the desperation, and the devastating effects. It approaches what could be a satisfying explanation for how Norman Bates became Norman Bates and in so doing elevates the position of Norma. She is absolutely essential to who Norman is—not just as the part that his brain manifests, but the actual Norma and the decisions she makes in raising him and taking care of him that affect his life.

The foreboding sense of tragedy that lingers over the show, of course gives it a kind of delicious pain. Norma labors to make her life work. She is a single mother with no money and nothing ever goes her way. It’s impossible not to root for her. She’s a control freak, yes, and she often makes her life harder than it has to be. She’s trying to take care of a son with a serious mental illness but her own limited understanding of mental illness and lack of money make this difficult and scary for her. Her own needs get in the way as she wants to be loved and adored by Norman all the while knowing their relationship isn’t exactly healthy. She encourages him to be dependent on her and recoils when he lacks knowledge of how to take care of himself. She recognizes his problems and knows he has issues, but is powerless to do anything to truly help him. Her own internalized misogyny is the enemy of them both. Norma lives life at 110%. She’s always trying to make it work, so much so that it can be exhausting just to watch her (much credit to Vera Farmiga). Norma and Norman both want to be healthy and sound, but they are both so broken and lack the support and resources they need.

When thinking about female villains, Norma was the first to come to mind. I love a difficult woman. And Norma is a villain to our mind in many ways. We have no problem when watching Psycho the first time in believing that Norman’s mother is really such a bitter controlling old woman. Even after we learn that Mrs. Bates was really Norman, we assume she was the way we originally thought her to be...only dead. What I love about Bates Motel is that it finally does for a female character what is done over and over and over again for male villains. It fleshes out her backstory, attempts to explain how things could wind up the way they do, and makes sympathetic the abusive character.

By giving Norma a voice, a story, and life of her own, Bates Motel helps us to understand she was as much a victim as a villain. Norma Bates story is very much about how hard it is to be a woman. She suffers greatly at the hands of powerful and rich men. Despite her many failings, she is still human. She longs for connection, for love, for security, and understanding. Norma wants to be known for herself and that’s what Bates Motel has given us.


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