The Woman We See Through Hitchcock’s Rear Window

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 masterpiece, Rear Window, tells the story of a man so desperately bored with his own life that he begins to watch his neighbors to pass the time. While the films’ undeniable focus is on a man named Thorwald who may or may not have murdered his wife, the film’s interest run far deeper than the issue of Jeffries’ sanity. Most of the focus on this film was Hitchcock’s mastery of suspense as well as its technical innovations. However, it also addresses some deeper themes, rather than just entertaining the audience. One obvious theme of the film is voyeurism. It’s seen in almost every shot, which are virtually all seen from the perspective of Jeff’s apartment. However, far more serious than the theme of voyeurism are the issues of gender dynamics which are prominent throughout this film. Hitchcock manages to entertain his viewers while addressing issues such as voyeurism, the male gaze, and masculinity paired with the emasculation of the male lead, while making a commentary on domesticity.
Voyeurism is an idea that is far from foreign to modern viewers as television runs rampant with reality programs. However, Hitchcock addresses voyeurism in a time when it was frequently referred to as “sick” or “perverse”. The fact of the matter is he managed to capitalize on the importance of the voyeur ahead of its time. In the film, Stella and Lisa frequently scold Jeff for his interest in his neighbors’ private lives, but Jeff’s voyeuristic tendencies lead to the apprehension of a murderer. This suggests a complexity that is not often afforded the voyeur, who is repeatedly called a “peeping tom”. Hitchcock doesn’t seem to be rewarding Jeff for his tendencies, but rather suggests that voyeurism is more than a fetish. He suggests that an interest in others is important. Jeff’s interest in others not only leads to the apprehension of Mr. Thorwald, but because of his voyeuristic tendencies, he also indirectly saves the life of Miss Lonelyhearts. Whether it is called voyeurism or something else, Hitchcock seems to express that the activity isn’t as detrimental as society says. In Jeff’s case, it is due to his limitation. The circumstances create the voyeur and as audience members, Hitchcock doesn’t shame Jeff, but illustrates that we are guilty of the same crimes.
However, Jeff spies on more people than the Thorwalds and Miss Lonelyhearts. The character of Miss Torso illustrates his more recreational voyeuristic tendencies. Due to the fact that most of the film is seen from Jeff’s apartment or through Jeff’s eyes, the audience is given incite to the male gaze. We see most of the women throughout the film as either objects of pity, such as the woman below Miss Torso who is seen as nagging and matronly or in the case of Miss Torso herself as sexual beings. Not only does Jeff watch her, but also the recently married man across the way watches her as an escape from his own wife’s nagging. The only complexity that is afforded her comes from another female character, Lisa, who suggests that she’s a victim. However, Jeff quickly dismisses the idea and continues to watch her. Throughout the rest of the film, there is little complexity to Miss Torso. Although we finally see her happy at the end of the film with the arrival of what is assumed to be her boyfriend, it is only in the films closing that the audience even begins to see her as anything but a sexual object.
Another important theme of this film is the importance of masculinity and the emasculation of Jeff. Part of the importance of masculinity is derived from the treatment of most women as sexual objects. However, we also see the importance of “being a man” in several other scenes. Jeff’s inability to do his job may as well render him impotent because he has lost that crucial element of his manhood. Hitchcock illustrates this through dialogue and props, such as Jeff’s smashed camera, but more importantly through the people surrounding Jeff. One example is in Jeff’s own apartment where he is doted on by Stella as well as Lisa. While Stella’s relationship is almost entirely professional, the audience recognizes Lisa as the Jeff’s love interest. However, Lisa deviates from the standard love interest of most of these films by acknowledging issues of class and lifestyle that mirror reality outside of the film. Her overall nature, which Jeff characterizes as frivolous, suggests she is of a higher class and in relationships of the 50s as well as today, money is a factor. Rear Window is no different. Throughout the film, we see both these women dote on Jeff as a child; the key difference being that he is clearly a grown man. This lack of masculinity is a driving force in the movie. There is an implicit understanding that Jeff feels he has something to prove throughout the film. In apprehending Thorwald and piecing together the murder of Mrs. Thorwald, he can re-affirm his masculinity. Even when Lisa suggests that she can sneak into Thorwald’s, Jeff is anxious about the idea. In the film’s finale, the showdown between Thorwald and Jeff, the audience sees the struggle between two men who face similar problems of emasculation. In using his wits and struggling with Thorwald in a physically weakened state, but still managing to bring him to justice even at the expense of his own life, Jeff’s masculinity is unquestionable.
Finally, and perhaps most important to the film is the understanding of domesticity and the married life as undesirable. Jeff’s hesitance to marry even a beautiful well-off woman, once again threatening his masculinity, is illustrated in what he as well as the audience sees in the windows of his neighbors. One example is the couple that moves in at the film’s beginning. The audience is shown the thrill of the new marriage, but over the course of the film, moviegoers are forced to watch as the relationship disintegrates. Eventually, the wife stops being shown all together and all that can be seen is the husband’s unhappiness as his wife nags at him offscreen. The more visceral example is Thorwald’s relationship with his own wife. As a bedridden woman, her husband is forced to care for her, once again stripping him off his role as masculine working man. The audience sees Thorwald’s descent as the institution of marriage itself along with his wife, leads him to murder her. With such examples as these as Jeff’s role models for marriage, it’s easy to understand why he would avoid marrying Lisa.
The film Rear Window has been the subject of study since its original release. While the obvious theme of voyeurism is a crucial element in the film, the issues of gender dynamics, the male gaze, masculinity and the lack thereof, as well as marriage as misery, are also important to the success of the film. While some of these themes are clearly stated in the dialogue of the film, others are left up to the viewer’s eye. Through visual clues, the importance of gender in the film Rear Window is elevated. The audience sees what Jeff sees, a world for men slowly being overtaken by women. By the film’s end, the gender roles of the time period are re-instated and Hitchcock would have audiences believe that everything was back to normal.

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6 thoughts on “The Woman We See Through Hitchcock’s Rear Window

  1. Obviously writin with a feminist point of view which only seems to cloud any hint of intelligence. For starters Jeffs doesn’t look out the window because he is “so desperately bored with his own life” He actually leads a very exciting life but becomes house bound after breaking his leg at his last photograph scene. Their is no lack of masculinity in the movie, where you could even get that from is preposterous. You only seem to focus on the women neighbors such as Mrs. torso, or the landlord living below, as objects of pitty when in actuality you feel pitty for every neighbor, the pianist when he is upset with his work, or the couple whose dog is murdered. It only seems you went out of your way to point out vague examples of males loosing masculinity and gender roles when there is much more to this film. Such a shame. You never read about men writing about male roles, maybe its because we understand the larger picture.

    • Um… I am a man, which is really the only thing you seem to be frustrated about that I can understand. The rest is unintelligible gibberish. I mean, good God, you’ve got spell-check on your computer. Use it once in awhile.
      I also presented this paper at an academic conference so, luckily for me, it seems to have some legitimacy.
      Oh, and “pity” is with one “t” but I could see how you’d get confused.

  2. I agree with your analysis to a large extent. The notions of spectatorship, the male gaze and women as objects are very much evident in the film. I general, I think the male characters in the film are emasculated in some way – including the pianist who is upset with his work as @John suggests earlier.
    I’m not sure about whether the gender roles are reinstated at the end though. Seems to me that the women still have control over the men (female empowered, male disempowered), although the men seem to be content with it.

    • Definitely a point to be considered. I’d definitely like to rewatch and retool this post (which has been a source of contention for some readers) but I appreciate your insight!

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