Rear Window (1954) is a sensationally written, well performed, and overall successful Alfred Hitchcock film. The unforgettable thriller reveals Jeff as an obsessive Peeping Tom who suspects his neighbor has murdered his wife. With the help of his girlfriend Lisa, he is able to invade the murderer’s private life and reveal enough evidence to prove him to be guilty. Seen from a different perspective, the mysterious Hitchcock thriller clearly underestimates the role of women as equally competent as men in the 1950’s. The women in Rear Window are nags rather than wives and regularly viewed from the male perspective in which their main purpose is to be appealing, less intelligent, or submissive to Jeff and simultaneously to the audience.
The majority of women tend to belittle their husbands, thus resulting in undesirable marriage. The first glimpse at an unhappy marriage is the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Lars Thorwald. Mr. Thorwald arrives home from work greeted by his bedridden wife. Though we cannot distinguish exactly what the troubled couple is discussing, we cannot deny the non-verbal body language between them. Mr. Thorwald is tense and even throws his hands in the air in despair just moments after greeting his wife. Meanwhile, Mrs. Thorwald is pointing and laughing at her husband that is overwhelmed in his frustrations. Her hostility and discernable disrespect towards her mate contributes to Jeff’s perception of marriage. Jeff fears matrimony, even if it is to the high-class fashion model Lisa Freemont. The Thorwald relationship is obviously violent. When examining another window, we see a preview of a typical newlywed couple emerging into a new home gleaming with excitement. As time goes on, the audience views from Jeff’s point of view as the delight of the newlyweds begins to dwindle, or as Toles puts it: “His now endlessly available wife clamoring in the background for the marital fulfillment the he owes her, has already been transformed into a second meaningless job”(231). This examination of the infancy of this marriage compares the grooms’ marriage to his bride to a job without benefits. Toles goes on to say, “The pleasurable image advertised during courtship becomes a standardized product whose mystique has evaporated”(231). The couple represents everything Jeff fears in furthering his commitment with Lisa. Toles evaluates the way the husband gazes out the window. He explains: “The husband’s periodic escapes to the apartment window are like a factory worker’s cigarette break: a harried ‘coming up for air’”(231). As we watch through Jeff’s eyes, we realize exactly why he has pessimistic presumptions about marriage. Despite the fact that it adds to the dramatic effect to the thriller, Hitchcock fails to show any positive aspects of the marriage relationship.
One of the opening scenes of Rear Window reveals young and vibrant sunbathers on the roof of the apartments and sets the motif of looking at women as objects. The girls carelessly strip their clothes off and toss them over the railing. Although this suggestive act is censored, perhaps the viewer assumes the sunbathers are completely naked. As George E. Toles states, “Feminist critics have referred to the appropriation of the female form for fantasy dispersals of our sense of human wholeness as the movement of ‘being’ to ‘being looked at’” (231). The sole purpose of the sunbathers is to be a pleasant view for Jeff, the overhead helicopter, and others who noticed them. One could argue that the careless shedding of clothes was not an act of seduction. The girls may have not been aware that they were involved in Jeff’s newfound hobby of voyeurism. Notice that even though the girls may have inadvertently done an innocent act, it still represents girls as oblivious, careless, and irresponsible. The scholar analyzes further: “The females
. . .are designated and chiefly differentiated by their capacity to hold – or repel- the male gaze” (231). The only distinguishable characteristic between many women in the film is the way men respond to their appearance. The women are fascinating to watch, whether they perform sultry dances or make a dinner for the date that will never arrive. The sunbathers and Miss Torso obviously captivated the male gaze by attraction, and Miss Lonelyhearts held the gaze with her peculiar ways of coping with her desire for a relationship. Furthermore, in another window, Miss Torso, as Jeff nicknamed her, is performing a sensual dance around the apartment. One scholar examines: “the fact that she is most often seen from behind, wiggling her bottom, confirms her identification with the darker, sensual side of Jeff’s desires” (Gordon 62). It is interesting to recognize the way she dances with her face away from the camera. By rarely revealing her face, Jeff loses the connection of seeing her as a person and views her as more of a fantasy. Jeff could more easily identify Miss Torso by her ballerina bottom than her face. Additionally, Toles reveals, “the principal function of her dance is to make herself into a creature of fantasy for Jeff” (232). As a professional dancer, Miss Torso may have been dancing to improve her ability. However, she was fulfilling Jeff’s needs of voyeurism and in return playing the role of the spectacle. This role of a woman as a spectacle is commonly reinforced throughout the film by constantly returning to Miss Torso’s window. Hitchcock presents an inaccurate representation of the women of Rear Window, in which their only shallow motive is to seek visual attention from male companionship
In addition to fantasy, Miss Torso and Lisa are exposed as less intelligent than the males in the film. Miss Torso is an obvious example of women of lesser intelligence. She dances absent-mindedly around her apartment as if she has no sense of logic. Jeff describes her as the “eat, drink, and be merry type.” Additionally, Jeff constantly questions Lisa’s logic. For example, moments after Lisa has graciously greeted Jeff, he begins to ask about her day. She enlightens him by sharing the minor details and Jeff seems to mock her as he presents questions such as, “Now tell me, what was Mrs. Hayward wearing?” in a sarcastic tone. Deeper into the discussion, an argument about the future of the relationship blossoms. As Lisa attempts to offer solutions, Jeff uses harsh responses by telling her to “shut up” and stop talking “nonsense.” John Fawell explains: “Jeff assumes that the urbane, glamorous Lisa Freemont does not have the moral fortitude or seriousness to share his life as a Robert Capa-like traveling photographer” (89). Jeff cannot treat Lisa as an equal because he assumes she could never understand his desires. He does not take her seriously because she dresses unsuitably in his eyes and holds an unrealistic expectation for the potential of their relationship. The conclusion Jeff has made about women is that no matter how perfect the woman may appear, she will not be suitable for him because the nature of women is not capable of handling the seriousness that is instilled in a career-oriented man. The sunbathers, Miss Torso, and Lisa all contribute to Jeff’s assumption of women as less intelligent.
Despite Lisa’s success, Hitchcock represents her as inadequate without a man. She has money, intelligence, breathtaking charm, and flawless beauty. On the other hand, she allows Jeff to hold her back. After Lisa and Jeff have a fierce quarrel about the future of their relationship, Jeff tells her, “It’s not you Lisa. You’ve got the world at your feet.” She desolately mumbles, “Not quite, it seems.” Jeff unsuccessfully tries to remind her of her socialite lifestyle to ease the tension. As Ruth Perlmutter points out: “The perfect girl, she is brought to life by Jeff’s refusal to notice her” (57). The money and the fame mean little to her because she cannot share her happiness with Jeff. She tells Jeff before she leaves, “I don’t care what you do, I’m in love with you.” Lisa is not concerned with the fame and fortune that she is wrapped up in. She needs Jeff to feel satisfied.
Miss Lonelyhearts and her neighborly artist are more obvious example of inadequate women. Miss Lonelyhearts acts out a fantasy of having the company of a male dinner guest. The sad representation of women shows that the missing man in her life will lead to depression and strange behavior. One scholar examines the work of the female sculptor in the film. Toles remarkably analyzes the art that the woman sculpts. He points out, “It is a spherical sculpture, with a hollow center, entitled (no doubt, jokingly) ‘Hunger.’ . . . Her sculpture reveals a preoccupation with signs of gender conceived as an emptiness rather than a fullness. Implicitly, it is the function of the unattainable male partner to fill the hole that has never been filled” (230). This subtle unidentified neighbor woman contributes to painting a picture of incompetent women. Women in Rear Window reveal a helpless nature without a patriarchal presence.
The female characters of the film display an overwhelming search for man’s approval because man’s acceptance is more important than female self-respect. Lisa goes to the extreme measure of staying the night with Jeff. Perlmutter describes, “Lisa brings an overnight bag to Jeff’s apartment and in showing its contents she executes a routine characteristic of strippers and beauty contestants. It is an overt seduction scene in which she shows her wares to the voyeur. . .” (57). The overnight bag shocked Jeff and likely shocked the traditional moviegoer. Although the petite bag is under the guise of staking out the killer, it suggests that Lisa is willing to compromise her virtue for the attention of the desired photographer. Lisa is flirting with sin to catch Jeff’s eye. Not only is she willing to expose herself to Jeff, but also put herself in danger to solve the Thorwald crime to appeal to him. Toles considers her overnight stay along with her fortitude in crime solving: “The goal of both of these emblems is to hold Jefferies’ gaze in thrall . . .”(232). Perhaps Lisa took the role of the hero to impress Jeff. She certainly won him over by taking risks that she normally would not have taken. She even dares to take fashion risks. The last scene of the film shows Lisa in her new wardrobe. She has ditched the ball gown and replaced it with more masculine, but nevertheless fashionable, attire. One scholar comments on her wardrobe change: “This tableau suggests that Jeff’s priorities have trumped hers, and that the negotiation of their relationship has proceeded on his terms” (Howe 32). Lisa’s submission causes her to compromise her character. Even though Jefferies is confined to a chair, he still manages to attain dominance over Lisa. Lisa shows a continuous struggle to impress him despite the expense.
The characters in Rear Window establish a negative position on marriage along with an outlook that women are the lesser competent sex by repeatedly making them appear less intelligent and submissive, however maintaining erotic appeal. Hitchcock portrays marriage as dreadful because of the nagging wife. The sunbathers and Miss Torso suggest women as objects of lesser intellect that are pleasing to the eye. Lisa Freemont, the artistic neighbor woman, and Miss Lonely-hearts seem empty without male companionship. The women of the film also desperately pursue male approval. In conclusion, women are underestimated in various ways in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. Perhaps Jeff’s espionage opened a door, or window, to the way women are portrayed in the viewers perspective.
Fawell, John. “Torturing Women and Mocking Men: Hitchcock’s Rear Window.” Midwest Quarterly: A Journal of Contemporary Thought 44.1 (2002): 88- 104. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 7 Apr. 2014.
Gordon, Paul. Dial “m” for Mother: A Freudian Hitchcock. Madison, N.J: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2008. Print.
Howe, Lawrence. “Through the Looking Glass: Reflexivity, Reciprocality, and Defenestration in Hitchcock’s Rear Window.” College Literature 35.1 (2008): 16-37. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 27 Mar. 2014.
Perlmutter, Ruth. “Rear Window: A Construction-Story.” Journal of Film and Video 37.2 (1985): 53-65. Web. 27 Mar. 2014.
Rear Window. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Paramount, 1954. Film.
Toles, George E. “Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window as Critical Allegory.” Boundary 2: An International Journal of Literature and Culture 16.2-3 (1989): 225-245. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 27 Mar. 2014.