To Watch or be Watched by Lisa Wright

As a child, I was something of a voyeur. It’s natural, of course, for children to both see and consume the world while also trying to understand it, often while fading into the background–the proverbial “be seen and not heard.” Adults often make the mistake of carrying on with their lives as though children are not there, absorbing everything they say and do like little curious sponges.

My voyeurism, however, had less to do with what adults were saying and doing in my immediate surroundings (though I was always interested in catching them in the act of making remarks that subsequently caused embarrassment or discomfort). My voyeurism was more distant, and it was based mainly on good old curiosity and a desire to know and understand others.

To explain: as a child, I found the notion that there were billions of people in the world whom I would never know to be somewhat depressing. Coupled with the overwhelming realization that I would most likely not be able to see most of the world either was highly upsetting (and realistic, though I didn’t see it that way at the time). Granted, this was also at a time when computers were still somewhat of a luxury and Mark Zuckerburg was still in grammar school (like me). Sure, we had books, and they were (and still are), some of the best ways to know other people and the world around us–but we certainly couldn’t “connect” with others halfway across the planet with relative ease at the click of a button, and we certainly couldn’t explore continents, cities, and famous landmarks via drones. 

My intent here is not to lament my childhood–it is simply to offer context into my overwhelming sadness as a child that came as, what I now believe, was my first realization that the world was a much larger place than my family and friends; my hometown; my state; and especially my country. And, of course, the accompanying need to somehow find a way to know others–even for a fleeting moment.

In hindsight, it’s easy to distort one’s childhood through the lens of one’s adulthood and to have the tendency to twist, distort, or even outright eliminate memories and experiences. However, what I rather ineptly refer to as my “voyeurism” is not one of these things.

It all began when I realized, to my surprise and delight, that being a backseat passenger in the car was neither a nuisance nor a burden–it was an opportunity. An opportunity to watch, observe, and sometimes even create imaginary lives for people. In that brief instant of looking into someone else’s car; that moment where you glimpse someone through the window watching TV, talking, dancing; in that second where you see a person through the blur of the car window going about the mundane business of life–you can create a whole world of meaning, albeit of your own making. Where are they going? What are they doing? How are they feeling? These questions and more would keep me occupied, sometimes for hours.

Being in the car at night was definitely the best time to people watch, as you often had the chance to see into their homes, if only for a second. In those briefest of moments, you see people in their element, unaware of being watched, and unconstrained by the bounds of social etiquette. You also form a one-way connection–a response that is a curious mix of empathy and overwhelming curiosity–as you see people doing familiar and (mostly) banal things in the privacy of their own homes.

Who among us has not had the inclination to look into someone’s lighted, open window as we drive by at night?

One could argue that the voyeuristic tendencies of humans stem merely from our innate natural curiosity, or our desire to make sense of the world around us through observation. While these things are definitely true, I also believe it is borne of a desire to connect–albeit on our own terms. Separately, single-mindedly, and most importantly, privately. People-watching does not require us to enter into any type of social contract, outside of the basic etiquette that comes with not making others upset, or uncomfortable; and of course the moral (and lawful) implications of invading the privacy of others.

I’m currently reading a fascinating exploration of the enigmatic director Alfred Hitchcock by Edward White, “The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock,” which is, in short, a breakdown of various sides of Hitchcock’s personality in relation to his body of work. In a chapter entitled “The Voyeur,” White explores Hitchcock’s voyeurism as an extension of his work as a director; but also as a reflection of how he himself saw the world. Of the 1954 classic Rear Window he writes:

A film about the nature of films, a festival of watching, and projecting, it is the closest we will ever get to experiencing the world as Hitchcock saw it. Hitchcock was aware of the ethical murkiness of watching, but he never let that diminish the joy it gave him.

Arguably, Rear Window is voyeurism at its finest–as the audience we are captivated by what we see through the binoculars of Jeff (James Stewart) as he is essentially trapped in his apartment, hindered by a broken leg. What begins as a simple relief from boredom becomes almost an obsession as Jeff lives vicariously through his neighbors, but also bears witness to little, intimate bits of their daily lives.

Hitchcock on the set of Rear Window
(courtesy of the website Dangerous Minds)

It’s no surprise that Hitchcock, as a director, would be enamored with the idea of watching. However, it is in Rear Window that we become somehow the watcher and the watched as our fascination with what Jeff sees through his binoculars couples with our discomfort in the moral ambiguity of observing our unwitting neighbors.

White also makes another interesting point in this chapter as he places Rear Window in a more contemporary context, via likening Jeff’s voyeurism to our 21st-century fascination with social media:

As we observe Jeff gazing across his courtyard, we could replace the glass pane of his window with the black mirror of an iPhone, his sleep-deprived eyes peering into each one of his neighbors’ lives through the aperture of social media.

It’s true–we have become a world of voyeurs as we have access to the lives of others at the click of a button; and as “connecting” has become defined by our interactions on social media. This type of voyeurism, however, is mostly of our own making as we decide what to share, and what to show others. As a result, we enter into another social contract that is dictated by our willingness to lay ourselves bare to the world (or at least those who are our friends or followers). Most people would not consider this a form of voyeurism, but simply an everyday means of navigating our increasingly troubled world. After all, how many of us click without thinking, and view without thought, posts and pictures of others that are often personal insights into their everyday lives? We see each other’s pets; we see each other’s homes; and, often, we see each other’s bodies. All through “the aperture of social media.”

Yet social media experiences are usually not spontaneous, they are often curated, edited, filtered. As something is sent into the social media ether, it is also often distorted and given a life of its own. The watcher becomes the watched and vice versa. 

This type of watching is certainly different than the type of watching I did as a child through the backseat of my parents’ car. The immediacy of social media has the tendency to make us inured to it; it’s sometimes hard to be engaged with or amused by what we are seeing. By contrast, the pure joy tinged with sadness that I felt as I looked into the worlds of others has not abated over the years. The longing; the curiosity; the connection to a world outside your own that belonged to you and you alone. While I have come to terms with the sad reality of all the people I will never meet, and all the places I will never see, I can still experience happiness when I catch a glimpse of someone’s life through a car window. And that I will never grow out of.

Lisa is a freelance blogger/SEO content writer who is looking for a full-time gig. A proverbial late bloomer, she has only recently begun her foray into writing professionally. In her spare time, she likes reading, cooking, baking, and British crime dramas and panel shows. Though she generally avoids social media, you can sometimes find her on Twitter @dolphy_jane.

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