Myth, legend, and the Bible all warn of the dangers of looking where we ought not. Those who turn their gaze in the wrong direction are cursed, blinded, turned to stone or salt, transformed into deer, and hunted down by their own hounds. Freud, the great modern mythologist, redirected retribution inward. The child witnesses (or believes he witnesses) the “primal scene” of parental intercourse, resulting in a trauma from which neurotic suffering emerges. The vision must be made conscious again for the sufferer to find relief.
At the mid-twentieth-century peak of Freud’s influence, new versions of the ancient cautionary tales of voyeuristic transgression gained cultural prominence, most notably in the medium of film. That cinema would take up this theme is not surprising. As a medium, film places its viewers in the position of the voyeur. It offers the pleasure of gazing in on private worlds, spying on intimate scenes. Anxieties about the violation of taboo incited by the medium of film found classic expression within it, in voyeuristic thrillers such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966), and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974).
In the past few years, a spate of voyeuristic thrillers has found currency among the newer generations of cinematic spectators, who consume their entertainment through digital streaming platforms. Whereas the older dramas typically centered on male loners, the new ones tend to feature female protagonists whose voyeuristic pursuits arise from domestic impasses.
Names have been proposed for this new subgenre, including women’s psychological suspense, female psychological thrillers, domestic thrillers, and domestic noir. Perhaps a more precise designation is “femcel noir”—from the mashup of “female” and “involuntarily celibate” commonly used online. What femcel noir protagonists all share, and what propels their scopophilic obsessions, is a deprivation of sexual and marital companionship. In this regard, they are the opposite of most of their midcentury male prototypes, typically dedicated bachelors fending off the twin temptations of domestication and seduction by the femme fatale.
The earlier voyeur-heroes embodied the internal tensions of the postwar industrial boom period, with its male-dominated workforce and demands for discipline, sublimation, and the separation of the personal and the professional. In the older films, male autonomy and self-sufficiency faced down threats from the erotic excess of femininity and the de-eroticizing trap of domesticity.
The new protagonist faces a quite different dilemma. She finds herself trapped with her contradictory desires in an emptied-out domestic sphere. Sometimes colonized by the demands of work, other times marked by its absence, her solitary home life is a shameful sign of the protagonist’s compounded failings. Amid the contradictory pressures of always-on, work-from-home digital capitalism—to embrace single life, to lean in, but also to “have it all”—the femcel heroine arrives at the abject inverse of this last aspiration: She has ended up with nothing. Just as the male leads of the earlier period exposed the shadow sides of the Fordist family-wage era, her predicament brings into the open the barely articulate terrors of the feminized information economy.
Femcel noir is a new genre, but it is already so conventionalized that it boasts a parodic send-up in the form of a series on Netflix, The Woman in the House Across the Street from the Girl in the Window (2022). The main films the series seems to be lampooning are Tate Taylor’s The Girl on the Train (2016) and Joe Wright’s The Woman in the Window (2021). Two strikingly similar recent films also merit inclusion in the growing canon: Michael Mohan’s The Voyeurs (2021) and Steven Soderbergh’s Kimi (2022).
These narratives invariably feature a childless female protagonist with an estranged or deceased husband or love interest. In all but one (The Voyeurs) the woman suffers from one or more conditions that keep her housebound and socially isolated: agoraphobia, alcoholism, or both. In The Voyeurs, in a slight variation, it is her boyfriend’s apparent impotence that occasions the protagonist’s discontent. In Kimi, the only entry in the emerging canon explicitly set in the Covid era, the protagonist’s agoraphobia has been exacerbated by the social-distancing mandates of the pandemic—which surely must also be a factor in the recent vogue for dramas about shut-ins.
The voyeuristic femcel covets a rival family unit in which the woman seems to possess what she does not: a satisfying sexual relationship, a present husband, a child. She then witnesses, or believes she witnesses, the sexual betrayal and murder of the rival woman. Here, like the Freudian analysand who cannot separate fantasy from reality, the protagonist and the viewer descend into uncertainty. The heroine’s addled or intoxicated state renders her testimony unreliable, and she elicits skepticism from those she attempts to inform of the murder. For good reason, perhaps: The scene she has witnessed is also a projection of her deepest traumas and fantasies. It is at once a repetition of her own betrayals, a proxy punishment of her transgressions, and a wish-fulfillment freeing up the kind of man she desires.
But ultimately she is vindicated, and her vindication allows her to overcome her paralysis in a process reminiscent of classic Freudian treatment. In the initial phase of the narrative, a debilitating symptom manifests a blockage of her desires: Her agoraphobia, alcoholism, and discontent stem from her incapacity to satisfy a man sexually or conceive his child. In the fantasy externalized onto the object of her voyeurism, the desires she has repressed out of self-preservation resurface. Her voyeurism is dangerous not just because it violates a social proscription, but because it brings her face to face with her own desires. The successful navigation of this hazardous encounter enables her to move beyond her previous impasse. Health is restored.
Recent voyeuristic dramas could settle into this formula so quickly because it had already been set by precursors—especially Rear Window, heavily alluded to in all the films enumerated above. The bachelor lead in Hitchcock’s thriller, Jimmy Stewart’s Jeff, is immobilized by a broken leg incurred as part of his jet-setting life as a photojournalist. In contrast to the female protagonists of the new films, Jeff does not lack for romantic prospects. He fears precisely that his too-perfect love interest, Lisa, an elegant society woman played by Grace Kelly, will domesticate him and deprive him of his independence.
Gazing illicitly across the courtyard behind his apartment building, Jeff beholds a distorted mirror-image of his own coupling in the Thorwald household, where a murder soon takes place. Mrs. Thorwald, like Jeff, is a homebound invalid; Mr. Thorwald enacts the violent rage at his female companion that Jeff has thus far successfully repressed. In the fantasy screen of the window across the way, which Hitchcock scholars have long identified with the cinema itself, Jeff confronts his fear of domestic stasis as well as his violent urges. Finally, by enlisting Lisa’s help to exorcize his murderous doppelgänger, Jeff overcomes their romantic deadlock.
The positive resolution modeled by Rear Window, in which a successful apprehension of the murderer allows the protagonist to overcome the blockages that have hampered his love life, is repeated in different forms by several femcel noirs. In The Woman in the House and Kimi, the protagonist’s lost relationship is restored; in The Girl on the Train and The Woman in the Window, it is not, but her symptoms are nonetheless resolved by the final proof that she witnessed a murder and by a cathartic confrontation with the murderer.
The Voyeurs is again the outlier, with a far more convoluted conclusion. Instead of being vindicated, Sydney Sweeney’s Pippa realizes that her voyeuristic escapade—which briefly reawakened her moribund sexual relationship with Thomas, only to lead to his shocking death—was a trap all along. Her neighbors, far from oblivious objects of her fascination, had deliberately attracted her attention and returned it, covertly, at every point, comprehensively documenting her fascination and turning it into a public art project about the technologically induced decline of privacy. In the shocking finale, Pippa reverses this morality play by blinding her tormentors—a reenactment of the mythical punishment inflicted on the illicit gaze.
The paranoid reversal enacted in The Voyeurs derives from the older canon of voyeuristic thrillers, principally Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), in which Stewart returns as Scottie, a police detective forced into retirement from the force by his fear of heights. Hired to observe his friend’s wife, Madeleine, Scottie witnesses her suicide. Only later does he realize that he had been tricked into misconstruing Madeleine’s murder at the hands of her husband as a suicide—enlisted unwittingly in the coverup.
Similar plotlines, in which the voyeur-hero proves to be a pawn in someone else’s game, drive several other classic thrillers, including Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) and Brian De Palma’s Body Double (1984). Such narratives implicate the film’s audience not only as voyeurs but as co-conspirators and victims. In our complicity with the cinematic construction of reality, we are participants in the plot against the protagonist. At the same time, our voyeurism, like his, is the means of our manipulation by a behind-the-scenes puppetmaster (the filmmaker).
In addition to manifesting the troubled conscience of the cinematic medium, these earlier movies exhibited the broader anxieties of an era of expanding photographic, auditory, and televisual documentation. The Conversation, in which Gene Hackman plays a surveillance professional—that is, a paid voyeur—whose skills have been co-opted in the execution of a murder, makes this concern most explicit. But in Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) and De Palma’s 1981 Blow Out, too, the hero is a skilled technician of visual or auditory capture.
Again, in all of these films the protagonist is a solitary bachelor, and his investigation of the murder he believes he has witnessed entangles him with women of questionable trustworthiness. In the process, his mastery of reality, enabled by advanced technology, comes into doubt—much as, for Freud, the encounter with the primal scene renders reality and fantasy indistinguishable. Moreover, the recovery of the truth invariably places him in mortal danger.
Among femcel noirs, The Voyeurs and Kimi are the most explicit in their revival of this theme. The couple at the center of The Voyeurs are an optician and a sound engineer. Kimi’s protagonist is a work-from-home employee of an Amazon-like company whose job involves listening to interactions between customers and the Alexa-like personal assistant whose name gives the film its title, affirming our paranoia about machines listening to us.
But in a broader sense, the technological backdrop of these storylines makes them look dated. The visual and auditory surveillance that furnishes their basic material is a holdover from the analogue era. The technologies deployed by the voyeur-heroes of Rear Window, Blow-Up, The Conversation, and Blow Out were the same analogue technologies used to make the films. Today, ubiquitous algorithmic surveillance bypasses the human senses altogether: Machines capture and parse sight and sound without seeing or hearing. All that is solid melts into bits, and the new dramas of voyeurism, themselves produced and distributed as part of undifferentiated digital information streams, are in this sense nostalgic throwbacks.
A certain throwback quality also shapes femcel noir’s cultural commentary. The male protagonists of earlier noirs were culturally transgressive in their rapacious voyeurism and their insistence on nomadic bachelorhood, both of which violated the boundaries of that era’s celebrated social unit: the familial household. Today the household is fractured, held in suspicion, traversed by digital networks, and invaded by professional and commercial pressures. To conjure up anxiety about transgression of its boundaries is to express nostalgia for a time when the older norms persisted. When the femcel heroine is punished, it is perhaps less for her transgression than for her retrograde belief in transgression. Thus, in The Voyeurs, what Pippa and Thomas thought was a transgressive game was in fact an illusion that lured them into their neighbors’ sophisticated ruse.
Conversely, when the femcel heroine gains some reward at the film’s conclusion, it is either through a fantasy of triumph over the male antagonist, often in solidarity with a former female rival (as in The Girl on the Train), or an overtly improbable reconciliation (The Woman in the House). In both instances, the dilemmas around the protagonist’s desire for the man are simply set aside. If femcel noir reveals that our permissive and panoptic world has rendered the Freudian drama of transgression quaint, it nevertheless vindicates the Viennese doctor in an important respect: The famous question “What do women want?” remains unanswerable.
Midcentury capitalism, which bequeathed us the classic dramas of male voyeurism, was the golden age of Hollywood. Cinema, increasingly a relic in the digital capitalist dispensation of nonstop streaming, seldom delivers works of comparable artistic achievement today, and as with the examples enumerated here, the interesting material it produces is derivative of the earlier canon. That said, femcel noir, like its predecessor genre, offers a revealing window, so to speak, into our collective fantasies and fears—which often turn out to be the same thing.
Geoff Shullenberger is managing editor of Compact.