Laura Mulvey, in her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” while discussing psychoanalytic theory and the pleasures associated with the male-dominated fascination with viewing, makes brief mention of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. While I agree with Mulvey on the point that it is when Lisa crosses over into the opposite block that Jeffries desire for her is reborn, I disagree with her conclusion that this rebirth is the result of Jeffries seeing her as “a guilty intruder exposed by a dangerous man threatening her with punishment.” It is Mulvey’s prior analysis of the differences between male and females and her castration theory that provide a better explanation of Lisa’s role. By examining first, Jeffries handicapped state as a kind of impotence, and then seeing how Lisa fulfills the lack that Jeffries feels, we will see that it is not because she becomes a means of saving Jeffries from his castration anxiety, which as Mulvey points out, is an accurate description Lisa’s encounter with the murderer, Thorwald; but instead it is because Lisa makes up for Jeffries lack that both he and the male viewer are fulfilled.
Like changing channels on a television, James Stewart’s character, Jeffries, watches outside his window at the events that occur on the other side of the block. As a diversion to his realities, Jeffries becomes enamored with the neighbors and their affairs, most notably the scantily clad sunbathers and the limber Miss Torso. The position that we as viewer are placed in is that of the male dominated point of view of Jeffries, where the females are objectified by Jeffries’ names for his neighbors: Miss Lonelyhearts and Miss Torso. While such nomenclature does not rob the characters of their individuality, it does place Jeffries perception of them as their definition. We as viewers are forced to go along because we only see what Jeffries sees.
Because of his broken leg, Jeffries is impotent, unable to scratch an itch without outside help, a feeling that he describes through discussions with his editor, Gunnison, and his nurse, Stella. This handicap places the lack of a phallus onto Jeffries. He is castrated, unable to achieve what his male curiosity desires. Lisa cannot replace the lack that he feels as she first appears in the film, perhaps because her lack of a penis reminds Jeffries of his own inabilities. This idea becomes even more likely when she offers to find Jeffries quiet, peaceful work photographing portraits and models. While it would seem to suit the voyeuristic nature of Jeffries, the lack of danger associated with such work would serve as a continuation of his temporary castration.
The lack that Jeffries feels is momentarily replaced by his viewing of his neighbors across the block. The connection between Jeffries and the viewer of the film is established first by the cuts from Jeffries’ face to the shots of what transpires outside his window, and then completed by Jeffries as he watches the man in the helicopter watching the women that Jeffries himself was just watching but is now unable to see! While Douchet sees the film as a metaphor for the cinema, it is actually television that the film most identifies with. Jeffries viewing, and ours because the point of view is most often that of Jeffries, is more like channel surfing than watching a film. Each window across the courtyard offers a different channel. The framing of the shot, by showing the outside walls, adds to the two-dimensional look of what we and Jeffries sees. In his phone conversation with Gunnison, the events Jeffries sees outside his window become his perception of the world as he describes to Gunnison his thoughts on marriage based on what he perceives of his neighbors. Like the names he assigns to his neighbors, that which he sees is a product of his own mind and his previous experiences that he transposes onto them. We can assume what the newlyweds are doing, or what the Thorwalds are arguing about, but we cannot be sure because we are not allowed to come close enough to observe the details necessary to make an accurate interpretation. This connection and dominance over his neighbors temporarily substitutes the lack that Jeffries feels because of his broken leg.
As previously stated, it is when Lisa becomes Jeffries phallus, and then causes the fear of castration to resurface in him, that his desire for her is kindled. Mulvey states that one method of escaping the castration anxiety is to save the female whose role is only as an icon for viewing. But Lisa is not merely there for viewing; she is the tool by which the actions that Jeffries cannot complete for himself are fulfilled. Were she merely for viewing, Lisa’s sophisticated style would be replaced by a less refined method of presenting herself. Also, the lack of interest that Jeffries has for her, and his obvious interest in the females, and even the males, outside his window, combined with the connection we as viewers have with Jeffries, keeps her from the iconic role of woman as simply a vehicle of pleasure.
By becoming Jeffries penis, his method for physically inserting himself into the action that occurs on the other side of the block, Lisa makes up for her own lack as well as Jeffries. When the salesmen find her out, she is not a guilty figure, unless Jeffries sees himself as guilty; and since the position of guilt has already been placed on the salesman, the role does not fit for Lisa. In fact, in the diametric encounter between Lisa and the salesman, places her as a detective. Even though she breaks into Thorwald’s apartment and steals the wedding ring, Lisa’s actions are seen as law enforcement and not larceny. The male instinct of protecting the female, and his own penis, then becomes the driving force behind Jeffries salvation. But at the end of the film, with two broken legs instead of one, he is more impotent than when the film begins!
What Hitchcock presents, and Mulvey fails to discuss in her essay, is that Lisa is not assigned the typical role of fulfilling the protagonist’s and the viewer’s demand for visual pleasure and the solution to man’s castration complex. Lisa is more intricate a character than Mulvey gives her credit for, and although Hitchcock’s habit for casting blonde leading ladies does amount for a significant amount of visual pleasure for male viewers, the power given to Lisa when she becomes Jeffries’ penis, affords her much more credit than merely that of a damsel in distress.