Identifying as a feminist, it seems, is really quite different from having a working familiarity with feminist film theory! I found myself fascinated by all the new analysis I encountered in Tania Modeleski’s excerpt “The Master’s Dollhouse: Rear Window” (Google books link) from The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory (Amazon).
Rear Window shows us the story of a murder, as viewed from the apartment of a photojournalist temporarily using a wheelchair. L.B. Jeffries, injured getting photographs of a car race, passes his convalescence spying on his neighbours with binoculars and powerful camera lenses, with occasional company from Stella, his insurance company masseuse; Doyle, a detective friend; and, most importantly, Lisa, his girlfriend.
Modeleski says the following of Rear Window:
Because of Hitchcock’s relentless insistence on the male gaze, even critics like Robin Wood, who are anxious to save the film for feminism, restrict themselves to discussing the film’s critique of the position of the hero and, by extension, of the male spectator whose “phantasy position the hero occupies.” But what happens, in the words of a recent relevant article by Linda Williams, “when the woman looks”? I shall argue, against the grain of critical consensus, that the film actually has something to say about this question. (Film Theory & Criticism, p. 723)
Modeleski’s argument completely convinced me. Although L.B. Jeffries is (usually) the one holding the camera or binoculars, “…it is Lisa’s interpretation, arrived at through identification, that is ultimately validated” (p. 731). It is important, first, because her interpretations are validated. This is true of her small comments and her key assertions. A popular neighbour isn’t “a queen bee with her pick of the drone’s,” she’s ” doing a woman’s hardest job– juggling wolves”; one of the men, who fails in his attempt to restrain her after a brief visit to the balcony, later assaults another neighbour. If a woman’s handbag is usually hung on her bedpost, it is her favourite handbag, and she would never leave it behind on a trip, nor would she leave her jewelry, and least of all her wedding ring; indeed, the woman has been murdered.
However, to me, it is even more important because these interpretations are “arrived at through identification.” The male gaze can see what is happening, but it takes a female gaze to see why. Because nearly all the crucial evidence in the case hinges upon Lisa’s knowledge of what a woman would or would not do, the viewer must identify with a woman in order to continue in the narrative, making the “gaze” of the movie as a whole far less straightforwardly “male”.
However, this is all just considering Rear Window; what happens when the majority of the film is centered around the “female look”? Earlier in the class, we also watched Hitchcock’s Suspicion, which unfolds entirely from the perspective of Lina McLaidlaw.
Lina is a Hollywood Homely young woman who falls for a charming man named Johnnie, and defies her parents to marry him. As soon as they are married, however, she begins to suspect that his charming exterior is hiding something; she returns from their honeymoon to discover that he is entirely bankrupt and unemployed. As the film progresses, she discovers lie after lie– he sold her antique chairs to gamble, he lost his job, he didn’t spend his whole out-of-town trip in London– and she is plagued by suspicion, and eventually fear that he plans to kill her. In the final scene, she attempts to leave him, and he convinces her that he was only researching poison in order to kill himself, not to harm her, as well as explaining away several other lies; the film ends with a typical “clinch” and they drive off into the sunset.
Throughout the film, our intense suspicion stems from the fact that we are only allowed to see what Lina sees. Johnnie’s reports on his off-screen action are increasingly proved to be unreliable, and we are constantly in doubt of his intentions. Our fear, as it mounts, is Lina’s fear, and it is also a typically female fear; domestic violence remains primarily an issue of men harming their wives, in 2005, 1,181 women were murdered by intimates, versus 329 men, even though far more men are victims of murder than women are; the threat to women comes disproportionately from the men they are supposed to trust.
Lina’s gaze, as the only guarantee that what seems true won’t be revealed later as false, becomes the authoritative gaze, and through it, we identify with Lina not just as a protagonist, but also was a woman bound by very specific societal restrictions and roles. (When it is revealed that Johnnie has no money, and doesn’t want to get a job, it’s never even suggested that Lina might work.)
Near the end of Suspiscion, Lina wakes in bed after an illness, where her author friend reveals that she has told Lina’s husband the recipe for an untraceable poison easy to find in every home; Lina asks if it is painless, and upon being reassured that it is, closes her eyes, as if resigned. That night, her husband brings her a glass of milk. As she watches it on the nightstand, we look at it with her look– wondering if it is poisoned, wondering if she should drink it anyway to end the endless fear, or ignore it, or perhaps empty it to pretend it has been drunk, or throw it against the wall…
Lina’s moment of greatest weakness reminds me of the moment in Rear Window, when Lisa, by putting on a murdered woman’s wedding ring in order to smuggle it out of an apartment as evidence, symbolically “marries” a wife-murderer. Modeleski says of the following of the incident:
A female spectator of Rear Window may…use her special knowledge of women and their position in patriarchy to see another kind of significance in the ring; to the woman identifying, like Lisa herself, with the female protagonist of the story [i.e., the murdered wife], the episode [in which Lisa wears the dead wife’s ring to smuggle it out of the apartment as evidence] may be read as pointing up the victimization of women by men. … But it is not only the female spectator who is bound to identify with Lisa… Jeff himself–and, by extension, the male film viewer–is forced to identify with the woman and to become aware of his own passivity and helplessness in relation to the events unfolding before his eyes. (p. 732)
Similarly, male and female spectators alike are bound to identify with Lina and her helplessness to determine the truth of how her husband behaves when he is invisible to hr gaze. We don’t know what Johnnie is thinking, but we know what Lina is thinking, because we are thinking it too. An earlier draft of the movie had Lina drink the milk intentionally to die; the version released has her ignore it and live. Both versions, to different degrees, ultimately validate the idea that anything not seen by Lina cannot be trusted.
I could never argue that the male gaze does not exist, or even that it is not often privileged; even if it is reduced in Suspicion, it is of great importance in Rear Window, and of course in untold thousands of other movies. However, I found it fascinating and noteworthy that, perhaps sometimes unnoticed, there is also a strong female gaze in both of these Hitchcock films, and once you begin to see what it sees, a great deal more is revealed.