Voyeurism: Rear Window

In this essay, I shall try to illustrate whether analysing the movie Rear Window as a classical example of the Freudian concept of voyeurism, is appropriate. Voyeurism is defined in The Penguin dictionary of psychology as: “Voyeurism: characterized by a pattern of sexual behaviour in which one’s preferred means of sexual arousal is the clandestine observing of others when they are disrobing, nude or actually engaged in sexual activity. Arousal is dependent upon the observed person(s) not being aware of their being observed.

Arthur S. Reber, 1985, p. 825)”. Freud used the term “scopophilia” to describe the initial stages of the tendency to look. According to Freud, scopophilia can be active and passive. What is known to us as voyeurism is the active form of scopophilia. He believed that the first stage we might experience the need to look and get pleasure from it, is our childhood. Freud also believed that during our childhood years, the discovery of our sexual identity is linked to the perception of women as the “weak sex”.

He thought that the male child instinctively knows that by having a phallus he can give sexual pleasure to the powerful figure of the mother. That gives the male child the felling of superiority opposite the female who thinks that it used to have a penis too but she has been castrated. That is why her role in life is passive. Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window is, in my opinion, an example of how Freudian theory can be applied to classical Hollywood narrative.

The movie centres around a middle-aged photographer (Jeff) who has been immobilised due to an accident he had in the line of work. He spends the last days of his “captivity” looking outside his window. His talent for observation leads him into suspecting that his neighbour killed his wife. In his effort to prove this to his detective friend, he is being assisted by his girlfriend (Lisa) and his nurse (Stella). This film constructs a very powerful connection between the different kinds of looks and between the audience and the characters of the film.

Although there are 3 kinds of looks associated with cinema, (the crew filming, the audience watching it and the look between the characters) we see a connection between the voyeuristic tendency of Jeffries looking out of the windows (that resemble small cinematic screens) and the audience watching his actions on a big cinema screen. We also see whatever is happening in the film through shadows, which is what cinema screening is in the first place. Most of Jeffries’ spying takes place in the night, in the darkness. We, as spectators, are seating in the dark, watching too.

This makes us uncomfortably conscious of whatever is happening in the film. We are voyeurs, the same as Jeff, drawing up pleasure by watching into people’s houses. Jeff and Lisa are two characters with contrasting style of life. On one hand, Jeff lives “out of one suitcase”, he does not want to get married and he likes to wear combat trousers. Lisa, on the other hand, works in the fashion industry; she wants to get married and likes to wear $1100 dresses. Even their “perversions” are different. Jeff gets sexually aroused by watching his neighbours while Lisa gets aroused when she dresses up for him to show her latest buy.

In human history through time, the male would be out in the world, leaving his mark. But because of Jeff’s injury, he has to rely on the female figures of the movie. This is leaving him with the sense of temporary castration and without any sexual desires. He has to replace his stimulus with whatever he can: in this instance, watching his neighbours leading their lives. His need for voyeurism has reached the point of perversion. In the beginning of the film, after he takes a look around the neighbourhood, his leg itches him.

He relieves it with a wooden spoon and his motion reminds me of masturbation. His face lights with satisfaction, like he had just relieved himself. The only activity that can bring him sexual pleasure is watching the people opposite. He is obsessed with what is happening outside his house and not at all interested in the woman who sits next to him. That can only mean that he can derive sexual pleasure only through looking. And the satisfaction he gets when he scratches seems to be more than when seeing Lisa appearing in a sexy nightwear.

Close to the end of the movie, she enters his line of vision by going opposite to the Thorwald’s apartment, and becomes the point of focus for his sexual interest, giving him the chance to save her and emerge heroic. Seeing her through his lens has made Jeff reconsider his opinions on marital bliss and the adventurous side of her proves that he has a future with her. Throughout the film, I have to remember that this is a professional voyeur. He is paid to look at people through a lens. So I have to say that looking is an essential part of his everyday life.

In a conversation he has with his nurse in the beginning of the film, she tells him that ” We have become a race of peeping toms” reinforcing our suspicions about Jeff’s part in the narrative. In a conversation he has with his editor from the magazine, he tells him that he has to get him out of there before he does something drastic. Then the camera shows us the Thorwald’s house, taking us where Jeff’s look is pointing. “Can you just see me rushing home to a hot apartment to listen to the automatic laundry and the electric dishwasher and the garbage disposal and a nagging wife?

We immediately see the image of Anna nagging. Elise Lemire, in the essay Voyeurism and the post-war crisis of masculinity (Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, 2000, pp. 57-90) says that in this way, Hitchcock makes it clear that he uses the camera to record and project Jeff’s fears and desires. As mentioned earlier, Jeff’s injury brings him frustrating feelings of castration and leaves him sexually incompetent. He can only be an active voyeur, rather than an active lover. We can see how his low interest in sex is manifested by the lack of interest for Lisa.

She is standing next to him and he chooses to concentrate on the actions of his neighbours. He knows he cannot live up to her expectations and so he chooses to become an active and, sometimes, aggressive observer. He uses his binoculars first but, as this is not intrusive enough, he soon exchanges it for his lens, which resembles a gun. He has the power to shoot whenever he wants and destroy lives. I cannot miss noticing that his lens also resembles the phallus. Freudian theories on scopophilia evolve around the childhood and the curiosity for the things surrounding us.

This could not be truer for Jeff as he is the one acting in a childish matter by refusing to take responsibility over his relationship with Lisa. When she asks him if he would be willing to change his job in order for them to have a future, he dismisses her by making fun of the line of her work and, in a way, of her whole world. He says:” Can you see me driving down to the fashion salon in a jeep, wearing combat boots and a three-day beard? ” She thinks that he would look handsome in a “dark blue flannel suit”, suggesting that he could easily adapt though the change if he wanted too.

This unwillingness to conform suggests an immature attitude towards life and could be why he is so curious about his surroundings, as a child would be. We, as audience, need to identify with the main character. Traditionally, we identify with the male character. But as I mentioned earlier, it is difficult to do so because we feel uncomfortable. This is also reinforced by Jeff’s lack of ability for action. So, we start identifying with Lisa. In the meanwhile, she starts changing from this fragile creature that she was in the beginning of the film into a powerful and capable individual.

Those aspects of one’s character are, usually, masculine traits. So, we find ourselves identifying with the masculine character that makes us feel more secure. Laura Murvey, in her essay: “Afterthoughts on “Visual pleasure and narrative cinema” inspired by Duel in the Sun” (Psychoanalysis and Cinema, 1990, pp. 24-35) uses Freud’s essay on Femininity to describe what were his views on the existence of femininity as a term. He said that libido, which is a biological function, “has been entrusted to the aggressiveness of men and has be made to some extent independent of women’s consent”.

She thinks that he did not take into consideration that female libido exists and that “its structural relationship to masculinity under patriarchy cannot be defined or determined within the terms offered”. She says: “It is not my aim, here, to debate on the rights and wrongs of this narrative division of labor or to demand positive heroines, but rather to point out that the “grammar” of the story places the reader, listener, or spectator with the hero. ” I can see that her observation is valid by the way Rear Window is constructed.

We can only see through Jeff’s instruments of vision (binoculars, lens, eyes), as if Lisa’s point of view is not important. His look motivates the action, his suspicions we follow throughout. So, maybe, we can assume that Hitchcock also takes into consideration only the male gaze and dismisses the female. I think that by listing all the above points, it is clear that Hitchcock gave an excellent example on how to introduce Freudian ideas through classical Hollywood narrative. His use of camera techniques is a good way of showing to the audience how a voyeurist would see the world.

Jeff’s physical state made him a very good example of Freud’s perception of a voyeurist. And he also underlined the lack of the “feminist gaze” by giving us only the male point of view. In that way, we, as audience, can presume that a voyeurist can only be a man. Some scenes in the movie, for example the scene where Jeff is not able to see the details of what is happening in the Thorwald’s apartment make him take his lens to allow him to view in more detail, reinforces Freud’s concept of voyeurism and how it is classified as a perversion.

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