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From ‘Rear Window’ to Social Media: A Propensity for Voyeurism

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One of my closest friends introduced me to films by the legendary filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock. However, it was only with time that I could appreciate the beauty of his masterpieces. One of Hitchcock’s finest works in the thriller genre is the 1954 classic film ‘Rear Window. The beauty of watching it, especially from a cinematographer’s perspective, is that the film does not employ different settings and locations; there is only one window from whose lenses the entirety of the actions is caught on the screen.

‘Rear Window’ stars James Stewart as L.B. Jeff, a professional photographer trapped in his wheelchair with a broken leg. One inference here is that we, as viewers, are trapped inside his mind too- and so view the world as he sees and interprets it. The other inference, and a more personal one too, is that most of us, in a way, are caught in the monotonous drill of humming life.

Having nothing better to do, Jeff observes his neighbors from his apartment’s rear window. It becomes an obsession, as he secretly maintains a watch on them. This is, in no way, a fleeting obsession and falls unquestionably over the side of ‘voyeurism. Here, the term is not regarded with a sexual connotation, but in a general sense, loosely meaning- observing others without their consent. For instance, his desperation to peep into the apartment with the newlyweds who wouldn’t open their windows says a lot about his mindset and the general mindset of the film.

It is wrong as it is dangerous to spy on people, yet people like Jeff find themselves unable to keep doing it. His girlfriend (played by Grace Kelly) is worried about him, but more than that, she is perhaps frustrated at Jeff’s  to give it up. She feels he’ll get caught in the act, thus presenting the rational side of our psyche, which distinguishes us, humans, from animals.

Jeff would rather look at the lives of others- observing their daily schedules- than live inside his skin. On seeing him thus, his nurse (played by Thelma Ritter) resignedly comments that “We’ve become a race of peeping toms... What people ought to do is get outside their house and look in for a change.”

Watching him watch people every day, the nurse cannot help but feel worried about him. Her concern is much too evident in her dialogues: “I can sense trouble right here in this apartment. First, you smash your leg, then you get to looking out the window, seeing things you shouldn’t see.”

By ‘things you shouldn’t see, she is referring to seeing what Jeff believes to be murder. Driven by his voyeuristic impulses, he becomes unnecessarily involved in the life of one of his neighbors, Lars Thorwald, whom he believes is hiding a secret. The more he watches Lars and his manners, the more he starts to suspect that he has killed his wife.

His belief grows stronger daily as he still cannot find Lars’ wife anywhere. “I’ve seen it through that window,” he says. “I’ve seen bickering and family quarrels and mysterious trips at night, knives and saws and ropes [which is not something he should be ‘seeing’] and now, since last evening, not a sign of the wife.”

At first, he can convince neither his girlfriend, his nurse nor his detective friend (Wendell Corey) to believe the story; all they think is that he has concocted a plot in his head, which is not valid. Gradually, he gets the girl on his side, and from thereon is built an even more suspenseful and scary tension.

Both he and his girlfriend become attached to Lars’ life to an unhealthy level. But while the former does not see it as wrong (at least, he does not seem guilty of his actions), the latter cannot remain unaware of the absurdity of the act, and yet she is just as intrigued by the trail of finding the truth. She, however, is not as sure as Jeff about the show they’ve accused Lars of and is, at some points, worried that it would all go in vain.

What both of them get into is not just a question of morals and ethics but also a question of our time. Should it be wasted in such pursuits, immoral as they are?

Once, Jeffrey falls asleep in his wheelchair at night and the next day wakes up with bloodshot eyes. He, as is evident here, takes the ‘observation’ to an unhealthy level. His nurse also comments about its physical impact and says that he “must have been watching through that window for hours!”

The time that can be spent on ourselves- our growth, betterment, and polishing of skills- is spent pondering about the lives of others, as Jeff spent it.

People should be minding their business, yet there is a deep-rooted need, and a professional necessity nowadays, to be connected through social media. Social networking sites such as Instagram and Facebook have created avenues through which personal information can be easily accessed by other people, thereby making the invasion of our privacy easier. Of course, the data is rightly used by some people, but there may be voyeurs, too, lurking on social media, observing our actions through our posts and pictures. But aren’t we blurring the private/social distinction ourselves, by exposing our private life on social media and thus risking a violation? Do we not have a choice in what content we are putting out there?

While it may be just a simple matter of choice for some people, it is not always feasible for some others to not share some details of their lives- the influencers, for instance. However, for both types of people, it is essential to realize the implications of technological advancements. The bottom line is not that you shouldn’t expose your life at all; the only question we need an answer to is – where to draw the line.




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Tags: #socialmedia #privacy #jamesstewart #rearwindow #hitchcock


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