Berenstein, Rhona J. “Adaptation, Censorship, and Audiences of Questionable Type: Lesbian Sightings in ‘Rebecca’ (1940) and ‘The Uninvited’ (1944).” Cinema Journal, Vol. 37, No. 3 (Spring, 1998), pp. 16-37.
In her article, Bernstein addresses the taboo subject of lesbian desire as it is subtly depicted in Rebecca. Even up until the modern day, she explains, societal recognition of lesbians is consistently and unfairly suppressed. Rebecca deWinter serves as an undeniable object of lesbian desire, at a time when female homosexuality was even less societally accepted and understood than it is today. Even though she is dead and unseen, Rebecca is arguably the most powerful presence of the film, not to mention its namesake.
The young heroine feels the wrath of Rebecca most acutely, and is constantly reminded of her omnipresence through her physical possessions and the undying loyalty, and possibly sexual desire, of Mrs. Danvers toward Rebecca. Introducing this subversive suggestion of lesbian desire was risky during the time when Rebecca was made, and it violated specific mandates of the production code. In the early stages of the film’s production, Joseph Breen, the head of the Production Code Administration (PCA) at the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) wrote a series of letters to David O. Seiznick indicating his objections to Rebecca. The most urgent objection, and thus the aspect of the film which was most readily changed, was that Maxim is left unpunished by the law despite murdering his wife – accordingly, in the film version, the incident is depicted as accidental. Next, Breen objects to the implication of Rebecca as a sexual pervert, and finally to the illicit relationship between Jack Favell and Rebecca, which is suggested to result in an illegitimate child. The second objection subtly implies but fails to explicitly mention the film’s treatment of lesbian desire, though Breen’s intentions are clear.
Thus, not only is the depiction of lesbian desire within the film understated, but even the censorship evaluation dances around the issue. The depiction of lesbian leanings in a mysterious, frightening film like Rebecca is an interesting statement, as the ghostly quality of Rebecca pervading the narrative is echoed by the lesbian’s unseen yet acutely recognized presence within society.