In Alfred Hitchcock’s 1938 film, The Lady Vanishes, a young woman on a train becomes disturbed by the sudden disappearance of a kindly older woman, a governess and music teacher. The latter, a spinster, is introduced to the viewer when she writes the letters of her name in the condensation on one of the train’s glass windowpanes, only to have them evaporate almost instantly. Within minutes, she is gone, and the other passengers, steward, and conductor claim to have never seen her. Asked to describe her, the young woman can only say she was “middle-aged and ordinary,” before admitting, “I can’t remember.” Later in the film, the older woman is reduced to “a hallucination, a subjective image, a character in a novel subconsciously remembered,” and even “nothing but lumps of raw flesh,” all before she is revealed as a British spy, the movie’s ultimate heroine in the final scene.
Today, women appear—or disappear—in any manner of guises. In the photographer Patty Carroll’s series Anonymous Women, it is household artifacts and traditions—upholstery fabric, curtains, telephones, slabs of bacon, leaves of lettuce, a braided loaf of bread, rolls of wallpaper, pillows, and plates—into which each model disappears, swallowed whole by the python of domesticity. In Whitney Otto’s novel Now You See Her, the vanishing woman works in an office, present but unseen. Her cat is indifferent when she trips over it, and when she presses her palm to her forehead, it is “only to notice her hand fading away with the motion, from fingertips to forearm.” In the more recent film Hello, My Name Is Doris, Sally Field plays an older woman who develops a crush on a younger man with whom she shares an office; at the beginning of the story, he adjusts her crooked glasses. As the film critic Manohla Dargis wrote in The New York Times, the young man’s spontaneous gesture of kindness is transformative: Wrinkles, apparently, “have a way of making women disappear one crease at a time,” and when she is noticed momentarily by a younger man, such recognition evidently “makes her visible, most importantly to herself.”