The Complication of the Male Gaze and the Assertion of the Female Gaze in Rear Window

In “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975), Laura Mulvey posits cinema as a site for male anxieties to find comfort through the dominant cinematic methods of representing the male and female character. She argues that the male character is constituted by his masculine characteristics, and the woman is constituted by her absence of masculine characteristics, especially the penis. Therefore, the woman becomes a site of men’s fear of castration. Mulvey investigates how this gender dynamic is acted out within film. She argues that “patriarchal culture” depicts “the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning” (Mulvey 7). Through her essay, Mulvey targets two forms of scopophilia, or experiencing pleasure through looking, as evidence of how male dominance is asserted in cinema: voyeuristic scopophilia and narcissistic scopophilia. Voyeuristic scopophilia, or the active observance of the visual representation as an object and the sexual pleasure that act induces, is associated with sadism because it is the active infliction of control upon the guilty person, whether it be punishment or forgiveness. Because sadism demands action, it plays into the film’s plot development. Narcissistic scopophilia is the simultaneous identification and mis-identification with the characters on-screen—the ego is at once both extinguished and reinforced. Narcissistic scopophilia is associated with the atemporal images that are shown through films.

Mulvey’s development of how films invoke this scopophilia, however, is what empowers film analysis within the psychoanalytical lens. She argues film’s ability to create these scopophilic experiences begins in the setting that films are consumed in. Mulvey isolates the theater as the first incubator of scopophilia in film—the dark auditorium and the bright screen allow the audience members to feel both separation from one another and from the reality of watching a screen. Audience members participate in the voyeuristic illusion of “looking in on” “…a hermetically sealed world which unwinds magically, indifferent to the presence of the audience…” (Mulvey 9). As the setting of the film promotes scopophilia, the production of the film genders the scopophilic experience. The male characters and the videography enact the active male gaze. Through the conducive environment and camera tactics reinforcing the male gaze, only the men of the film have the power to forward the story while the women are sexually objectified. Thus arises the two forms of scopophilia: the cinematic experience allows for voyeurism (specifically with the women as sexual object, embodying to-be-looked-at-ness) and narcissism as the audience member identifies with both the eye of the male protagonist and the eye of director enacting the male gaze. What proceeds from this film development is the reinforcement of the dominant ideology, the male-centered ideology.

Mulvey grounds her method for film analysis in director Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954). A mystery thriller, the film follows photojournalist L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart) as he attempts to prove that his neighbor, jewelry salesman Lars Thorwald, murdered his wife. Jeffries, relegated to a wheelchair with a casted leg, spends his days at his apartment window almost compulsively watching his neighbors. He is fascinated by the attractive ballerina, “Miss Torso,” the single middle-aged woman, “Miss Lonelyheart,” the conflict-fraught married couple “the Thorwald’s;” the emotional male pianist; the older female sculptor; and various married couples. Jefferies’s intrusive stares are interrupted only by his nurse, Stella, and his wealthy, beautiful, and sophisticated girlfriend, Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly). Jeffries is apprehensive toward Lisa (especially committing to her) and rarely pays attention to her. Instead, Jeffries becomes consumed by his conviction that Thorwald has murdered his wife after hearing a woman scream and observing Thorwald’s subsequent suspicious ventures out of his apartment in the middle of the night. Jeffries watches as Thorwald cleans knives and saws and hires movers to carry a large, rope-bound trunk. Yet, Detective Doyle, a friend of Jeffries’s, rejects Jeffries’s theory. With Lisa and Stella’s collaboration, Jeffries exposes Mrs. Thorwald’s murder at the hands of her husband. Jeffries’s voyeurism intertwines the isolated sub-plots of his neighbors’ lives, his investigation into the Thorwald’s, and his love story with Lisa within the fixed binary of the setting: inside Jeffries apartment versus outside of it.

Hitchcock employs no subtlety in his creation of Rear Window as a metaphor for film and the theater. As though opening theater curtains, the film begins as the window shades are lifted. His uneasy, scanning videography eerily replicates the eye as it tracks one’s surroundings and his diegetic sound reinforces the film’s sealed world as “real.” Jeffries, forced into passivity by his injury, represents the audience itself; his apartment becomes the theater; and, his window, in restricting the visual field, serves as the film screen. Read directly from Mulvey, Rear Window’s analysis appears to limit itself as an exposition of scopophilia: Hitchcock’s repeated use of Jeffries’s subjective camera fosters narcissistic scopophilia, and the reification of Jeffries’s neighbors (specifically Miss Torso and Miss Lonelyheart, named as gendered objects) enacts voyeurism. Lisa is a mere demonstration of how the audience/screen divide dictates Jeffries’s sexual attraction to her: she is only desirable when she can be fetishized on the “screen side” of the apartments. Mulvey argues “the look is central to the plot, oscillating between voyeurism and fetishistic fascination,” yet a closer analysis of the film indicates this self-reflexive film does much more (15). While “the look is central to the plot,” it is not to be assumed that this is the confined to the male look. Rear Window enacts the male gaze to question it, complicate it, and ultimately move beyond it.

Hitchcock’s systematic degradation of the male gaze’s monopoly begins as Hitchcock’s eye-like videography is disassociated from Jeffries’s authority. Hitchcock severs the look of the spectator from his screen surrogate Jeffries in Rear Windows’s repetitive scenes of Jeffries sleeping. Subjected to the shaky, panning first-person shot, Jeffries’s closed eyes cannot be equated with the video camera, and thus cannot be adopted by the spectator himself. Hitchcock uses Jeffries’s loss of authority over the visual field to highlight his limited understanding of the events that occur outside his window. While watching Thorwald as he comes and goes from his apartment late at night with sample case in tow, Jeffries falls asleep. The camera pans from Jeffries, asleep in his wheelchair, to the Thorwald’s apartment, where Thorwald is leaving his apartment with a woman dressed in all-black, and returns to Jeffries still asleep. The woman’s ambiguous identity allows for speculation that she is Mrs. Thorwald. Occurring after Jeffries hears the female scream, this scene suggests that Jeffries’s suspicions may be erroneous. While Jeffries is correct, as revealed at the end of the film, the male gaze is exposed as incomplete, subjective, and a peculiar perspective and, in various instances, alienated from the spectator.

From the isolation of Jeffries’s male gaze, Rear View becomes an exposition of the audience itself, and most importantly, by Lisa’s hand. As Jeffries is rendered immobile, Lisa is constructed as active through her movements into, within, and outside the apartment. The active/passive characters are inverted: man is passive, and woman is active. Lisa’s character exposes the audience and its culture. Recurrently, Lisa enters the apartment (theater) without announcement or while Jeffries is asleep, disillusioning the audience members’ sense of privacy and control assumed in the theater; and turns on the apartment lights, exposing the audience (Jeffries) and disrupting the audience member’s suspension of ego. Lisa literally and figuratively shines a light on the audience, forcing them to confront themselves. After Detective Doyle visits Jeffries’s apartment and negates Jeffries and Lisa’s theory that Thorwald murdered his wife, Lisa comments on both her own and Jeffries’s visual disappointment at the theory’s dismissal: “You and me with long faces, plunged into despair because we find out a man didn’t kill his wife. We’re two of the most frightening ghouls I’ve ever known” (Hitchcock). Lisa directly invokes the sadism of the audience that Mulvey identifies in her essay as the voyeurism that drives plot. Lisa and Jeffries’s desire for the excitement and pleasure of investigating the possible murder overshadows the murder’s significance: they seek to punish the guilty, not ensure the safety of the potential victim. Lisa ends the scene by closing the blinds, the same blinds that symbolize theater curtains in the beginning, and declaring the “Show’s over for tonight” (Hitchcock). Lisa’s exposure of the nature of their voyeurism and agency over the “show” reaffirm her active status and that she, too, can “articulate the look and create the action” (Mulvey 13).

Lisa’s status as an active female character and the complication of the male gaze’s dominance allow her to assert a potential female gaze. As the female gaze interacts (both in accordance and in contradiction) with the male gaze, the viewers lose confidence in the male gaze’s permanence and Jeffries’s gaze’s dominance. For brief moments, Hitchcock includes the subjective camera as Stella’s gaze (as she compares her view of the Thorwald’s flowers to the image Jeffries took earlier), Doyle’s gaze (as he looks smugly in on Miss Torso), and Thorwald’s gaze (as he catches Jeffries watching from his apartment.) Hitchcock’s portrayal of Lisa’s gaze, however, is how the film’s unstable attribution of the first-person shot to its characters culminates in an answer to Mulvey’s unasked question: if not a castrated man, what constitutes a woman?

Hitchcock mainly answers this through Lisa, yet Stella serves to answer the question as well. Lisa begins to establish her feminine identity in an early scene in which Miss Torso is entertaining three male suitors in her apartment. As both Lisa and Jeffries look on and the subjective camera is simultaneously both of their gazes, Lisa and Jeffries discuss Miss Torso’s interactions with the men. Jeffries, asserting that Miss Torso’s apartment is alike to Lisa’s, remarks, “She’s like a queen bee with her pick of the drones.” Lisa responds, “I’d say she’s doing a woman’s hardest job. Juggling wolves” (Hitchcock). The contradictory interpretations of the shared visual field reorient Lisa as a “maker of meaning” just as much as Jeffries is. Through her female gaze comes her subjective construction of the world.

Acting out of his castration complex, Jeffries repeatedly trivializes Lisa and her pursuits, namely fashion. Lisa’s devotion to “female” pursuits is no more than her failure to be man. Yet, Rear Window demands the respect for “feminine intuition,” as Jeffries’s theory depends on it. Lisa sees the importance of Mrs. Thorwald’s left-behind purse, jewelry, and her wedding ring as evidence of her murder in a way that Jeffries cannot. Lisa, with Stella’s corroboration, argues a woman willfully leaving home would never leave behind such items. Lisa acquires the forwarding force for the story because of her construction of the world, her female gaze. The female characters in Rear Window become emblematic of the incomplete “reality” a male gaze portrays. They elaborate on aspects of the film’s world that the male gaze dismisses.

Sexual assault is the most evident aspect that goes unnoticed under the male gaze. The scene in which Miss Lonelyheart rejects a suitor’s unwanted sexual advances begins with Jeffries focused on Miss Torso as she exercises in bed, exemplifying the male gaze. Lisa calls his attention to Miss Lonelyheart, who is entering her home with a man. Already, Lisa and Jeffries’s gazes are proved distinct as she has clearly seen Miss Lonelyheart while Jeffries was still captivated by Miss Torso. As Jeffries gaze maintains focus on Miss Lonelyheart, the frame stays on Miss Lonelyheart with her as the dominant, reaffirming the filming technique as a mirror to the ways eyes themselves track. When the frame switches to Jeffries and Lisa, Jeffries eyes stray from Miss Lonelyheart to Lisa, employing the reliance of the audience on the male gaze to see the movie. As Miss Lonelyheart reacts to her suitor’s unsolicited advances, Lisa’s eyes never stray from the apartment, while Jeffries repeatedly looks away. When eroticizing Miss Torso’s image, the frame is steadily upon Miss Torso, implying that Jeffries gaze is just as steady. However, when unwanted sexual advances occur, Lisa’s gaze is the unwavering one, Jeffries’s is not. Hitchcock raises the uncertainty as to the completeness of reality portrayed through the male gaze, the subjectivity of the male gaze at deeming what is worth attention.

The interplay of Mulvey’s method for analysis and Hitchcock’s Rear Window appears almost as though Hitchcock created his film to exploit and mock the characteristics Mulvey herself isolates. Hitchcock’s manipulation of the set—the interplay of dark and light, the containment of sound, and the window-as-screen—targets the setting Mulvey argues promotes voyeurism. Hitchcock’s filmography, distorting the gaze’s owner through transitions between the first-person shots, the characters’ faces, and the “subject-less” panning, confuse the audience’s voyeuristic and narcissistic attachment, expanding Mulvey’s scope. Hitchcock’s excessive employment of the male gaze allows for both overt and covert commentary, exposing the gaze’s nature at the same time it perverts it. Rear Window is more than an exposition of the sadistic and narcissistic sides of the male gaze, as Mulvey limited her analysis to, but also an assertion of the limited nature of the male gaze and the argued presence of a distinct female gaze. Under Hitchcock, a woman is more than an absence of masculinity, but the presence of femininity.

Works Cited

  1. Hitchcock, Alfred, director. Rear Window. Paramount Pictures, 1954.
  2. Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen, vol. 16, no. 3, 1975, pp. 6–18.