Disabled by Desire: Body Doubles in "Rear Window" (1942), Rear Window (1954), and Rear Window (1998)

By Steffen-Fluhr, Nancy | Post Script, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Disabled by Desire: Body Doubles in "Rear Window" (1942), Rear Window (1954), and Rear Window (1998)


Steffen-Fluhr, Nancy, Post Script


In the coded world of the classical Hollywood cinema, the figure of the "disabled" body is always a double body. Especially the disabled male body. Haunted by its uncanny partner, the "normal" body, it is chained forever to its own doppelganger. Indeed, it is the very spectacle of the disabled body that creates the spectral "normal body" in the first place, as negative space creates form. The latter cannot exist without the former.

The disabled body (as an abelist fantasy figure) is constructed by an act of semiotic dismemberment. It is marked as an assembly of parts, each of which is vulnerable to failure or amputation--an assembly being held together by fetish magic. This marking and fetishizing creates a fictional un-marked able body which passes as a seamless whole. In this manner, the figure of the disabled body gives local habitation and a name to a site of existential bondage. My belief in the existence of such a site is necessary to my belief that I live elsewhere, that I am unbound. It enables my fantasy that there is a category of Other People--a category to which I do not belong--who are chained to dying animals, whereas I float free. It enables the fantasy that there is a posthuman escape from "the meat world," as William Gibson has phrased it. (1) In short, if there were no disabled people, Hollywood would have to invent them (as, indeed, it has).

Most of the pioneering work on disability in the cinema has focused on the creation of stigmatizing stereotypes and the negative relation of these stereotypes to the actual life experiences of people who are especially challenged by disabilities. (All of us have disabilities, but there is a difference in degree that is a difference in kind, socio-politically.) For example, Martin Norden in his 1994 book, The Cinema of Isolation, distinguishes ten specific disabled character types that have evolved over the years in Hollywood films, from the Comic Misadventurer to the High-Tech Guru. (2) He demonstrates how these stereotypes "pander ... to the needs of the able-bodied majority" by embodying otherwise formless fears (1,12).

In this essay, I am not primarily concerned with the way in which the reified disabled body embodies formless fears, but rather, how it can be made to embody formless desires. What I am after, however, is something rather different from what Leslie Fiedler meant when he noted that "all Freaks are perceived to one degree or another as erotic" (Fiedler 137). No authentic disabled bodies, erotic or otherwise, inhabit this essay, nor do they inhabit the Hollywood cinema, I would argue. There are only social/psychological constructs that feed upon themselves. In those constructs, "the loss of control [is] often represented as inherent in the experience of disability," as Paul Longmore has observed (35). For Longmore, this means that disability is inevitably associated with sexual danger. The flip side of fear is desire, however; and the very Otherness invested in the figure of the disabled body makes it an especially convenient repository for disowned states of yearning. In his seminal 1988 essay "Vas," Paul Smith, building on the work of Klaus Theweleit, argues that for many men, the most important of these disowned feelings is "the hysterical desire for somatic loss, the death of the body in an efflux of bodily substance" (1025).

In the pages that follow, I propose to analyze how this fear-as-desire has been built into the disabled bodies of three male protagonists: "Hal Jeffries" in Cornell Woolrich's 1942 short story, "Rear Window"; (3) "L.B. Jefferies" in Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 film Rear Window, based on the Woolrich story; and "Jason Kemp" in the 1998 ABC-TV remake of Rear Window starring actor Christopher Reeve. Each of these bifurcated bodies is doubled by other bodies (many of them female) within their respective texts. Taken together, they suggest another kind of disabled typology: the Liminal Man whose protective, spliced-together wholeness marks the fragile boundary where "normal" and "not-normal" come together. …

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