A Gender Roles In 1950’s

Rear Window by Alfred Hitchcock, 1954, is the story of a photographic reporter, L.B Jefferies. James Stewart plays Jefferies in the cast. He begins to suspect that his neighbour has committed a murder while he watches from his window. Rear Window examines Jeff’s obsession with looking at other people and how this stops him from seeing himself.

In the 1950s during the Red Scare, the invasion of privacy and spying became common. This was due to the widespread belief that communists were active in American society. These actions were justified by the public as an act performed in the interest of America. In the 1950s, people were more likely to spy on their neighbors based on scepticism and assumptions than they were based on evidence. Hitchcock uses this concept to mirror the idea of a peeping Tom in Rear Window. Jeff stares out his window as he suspects Thorwald of murdering his wife. Stella, Jeff’s nurse, criticizes Jeff and society for becoming “a race” that does so. The Cold War made people more cautious of each other and invaded privacy was justified if the public safety was at stake. Jeff and Doyle’s discussion of Thorwald across the courtyard reflects this idea. Doyle, based on his lack of proof and Jeff’s intrusive behaviour, is not convinced that Thorwald has committed a crime. Doyle asks Jeff if he tells his landlord “everything”. Jeff cannot answer because he’s having Lisa over for the night. He continues to act voyeuristically, which makes the audience realise his hypocrisy. Hitchcock wants to create a situation where the audience is unable to accept Jeff’s behaviour or his conviction that Thorwald has committed the crime. The audience will continue to watch Jeff, and the neighbours. Stella, who is not impressed by Jeff’s invasive watching, says, “people should stand out in front of their house every now and then.” This reminds the audience that Jeff will never give up on his beliefs or behaviour. The suspense is prolonged from the start of Rear Window to the very end, when Jeff discovers that his suspicions were correct from the very beginning. Doyle says that Thorwald, who had thrown his wife’s dead body in the East River, is “ready” to show them around. Hitchcock used this justification to justify Jeff’s behavior, which was long overdue. The 1950s saw an increase in people confessing or being caught for involvement with the Soviet Union. Jeff’s obsession for spying on his neighbors is therefore justified in that it’s a vigilance act performed in the spirit of the Red Scare, which was prevalent in American society at the time.

It was common for men to hesitate to enter into such commitments in the 1950s because of the stigma attached to women who were seen as nagging wives. Jeff’s obsession with his neighbors is a good example of this. Lisa is trying to seduce Jeff, but Jeff is focused on Thorwald, who is acting suspiciously across the courtyard. Lisa finally gives in after Jeff tells her that “there is something terribly amiss” and realizing she has failed, Lisa replies, “Yes. I’m afraid, its with me.” The dominant 1950’s idea was marriage as the ultimate goal of women. This was not true for men. Hitchcock’s portrayal of Jeff and Lisa’s romance reflects the 1950’s ideology that marriage was a woman’s main goal, while men were not. Lisa is constantly trying to win Jeff’s affection and attention but he rejects it and becomes fixated with his obsession for Thorwald. Lisa’s return is a good example of this ideology. She grabs Jeff’s wheelchair and prevents him from turning around to face his neighbours. Jeff pleads, “Lisa please”, and Lisa assures that “theres nothing there to see”. This reinforces an idea that was prevalent during the 1950s that women could be “hysterical”, i.e., obsessed with marriage. They were also ‘desperate for marriage’. Hitchcock illustrates it by showing Lisa’s desperate attempts to keep attention on Lisa and away from the window. Jeff is often distracted by the neighbours from Lisa, but this fixation becomes a reason why Jeff views Lisa as a person he might marry. Lisa’s character gets more and more involved in dangerous situations as she tries to prove Thorwalds guilt. This includes the scene where Lisa climbs the fire-escape to enter Thorwald’s flat. Jeff now begins to believe, contrary to what he originally believed, that Lisa is someone who “willingly goes anywhere, does anything, and loves it”. Hitchcock has clearly used the dominant American 1950’s ideology regarding marriage and women to make the film. But he’s also used the dynamics and storyline of the movie to change Jeff’s perception and that of the audience.

In the 1950s, Western society was still firmly entrenched in gender roles. Males were seen as dominant and ‘in charge’ of relationships. Hitchcock directed Rear Window in order to challenge these stereotypes. Hitchcock depicts Lisa’s role as dominant in their relationship throughout the film. Jeff is immobilised by his leg cast and wheelchair, making it impossible for him to live freely or independently. Lisa and Stella, his nurse, are there to help. Hitchcock makes Jeff appear emasculated by putting him in a wheelchair. Jeff, who has an attitude that is similar to a “macho”, is unable show dominance because he’s confined. Hitchcock shows Lisa to be the dominant character by using lighting. Jeff, who is sleeping in his wheel chair, is covered in a shadow and when he wakes up, Lisa stands over him. This scene shows how the director used lighting and dark shadows to represent Lisa’s control over Jeff and their relationship. The breaking down of gender stereotypes in Rear Window is a sign of society’s progress as it begins to embrace new societal and political phenomena. Hollywood in particular portrayed the male gender as dominant during the 1950’s. Hitchcock, however, used this film to illustrate a change in gender stereotypes, after the Cold War began.


  • zakhart

    Zak Hart is an educational blogger and professor who has been writing about education for over 10 years. He has written for various publications, including The Huffington Post and Edutopia, and has been a guest lecturer at various universities. Zak is the founder and director of the Edutopia Academy, an online education program that provides teachers with resources and lessons to help them improve their teaching skills.

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