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How Does Hitchcock Use “Rear Window” to Define Gender Roles in Cinema of the Time?

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Hitchcock had a rather concrete opinion of how men and women fit into society in the 1950s, particularly as was represented in film. Without criticizing or supporting these roles, Rear Window puts every gender stereotype in play in one neat package and offers them for observation on a platter.

As summarized on the website The Museum of Film History, “Men are shown as damaged and needing help, while women are shown as care-givers. Men think women are interested in money or status or success, while women are only interested in love. And men are always reluctant to take action, until the desire of the women to solve the mystery presses them into confrontation.”

The evidence is in the neighborhood characters. Women are sex objects impossible to ignore, evidenced by Ms. Torso across the way, and by Grace Kelly’s, well, Grace Kelly-ness. Superficial beauty is important, and the film’s dialogue makes that known. As the previous source points out, superficiality is how Jeff (James Stewart) ultimately comes to the conclusion that Thorwald (Raymond Burr) killed his wife.

“Lisa Fremont says at one point, “A woman going anywhere but to the hospital would never leave home without her makeup.” Women’s obsession with beauty and possessions is pivotal to figuring out that Mr. Thorwald killed his wife. The “favorite handbag,” the jewelry, and make-up all lead the characters to believe that his wife never really left the house alive.”

Hitchcock also uses the trope of the “damaged man” throughout Rear Window, as the film’s protagonist is lame and unable to move. Women have to care for him constantly - they tend to his meals, keep his house, and eventually help him solve the murder. But their involvement in his life is also limited to how much he wants them around. They only get out of him what he intends to provide.

The over-analyzing man is another theme in Hitchcock’s films played by Stewart, as well as the fellow who is reluctant to get married. Both are classic male stereotypes.

Vanderbilt University’s Feminism and Film blog poses an interesting take on gender dynamics in Rear Window, arguing that the film outwardly offers images of generalized gender roles, but uses its two main characters to reverse the traditional “male/active, female/passive” paradigm.

“Instead, the film flips this. Jeff, though the audience surrogate (who spends the film sitting, in the dark, watching others yet remaining unseen by the objects he views until the film’s climax) and point of identification into the film, is certainly the more passive of the two, unable to walk, much less take care of himself. Lisa, conversely, is very active, springing around Jeff’s room, looming over him, and taking the initiative to investigate Thorwald’s apartment herself over Jeff’s objections.

Their sexual relationship also refutes this dynamic. Jeff seems distinctly disinterested in Lisa as a wife, and consequently, a sexual object. Again, it is Lisa who takes the active role. She brings Jeff dinner, and later she makes the first moves romantically, inviting herself over to dinner and later to spend the night. Jeff, rather than initiating these moments of romance, is instead acted upon by Lisa, subject to her sexual double entendres.

Jeff already appears to the audience as castrated at the film’s beginning. As Modelski writes [The Women Who Knew Too Much], Jeff’s cast is a phallic symbol—long, stiff, and jutting from the body. Yet the cast also signifies that something is broken, weak; it is a physical impotence, but also a sexual one. It is Lisa who restore to Jeff some of his sexual integrity—though both of his legs are broken at the end of the film, the pair’s relationship seems to be sexually revitalized following their ordeal. Thus the castration images as well as the gender dynamics are inversed for Lisa and Jeff.”