Voyeurism in CSI

Las Vegas

by Eva Roa White

9 May 2011


Double Voyeurism

But that is not all we are allowed to watch. There is a double vision, a double voyeurism, that is present from the very beginning in CSI: Las Vegas. The question posed by its theme song, “Who Are You?” is double in meaning in that it can be read both as referring to the criminals that the CSIs are after, and to the scientists themselves. The viewers can’t help extending the question to the scientists on whom they depend for enlightenment and information. The fact that these scientists have their own secrets that the viewer wants to dis-cover only emphasizes their omnipotence and makes them objects of desire: both for what they are able to reveal to us and that which they conceal. This is another aspect of the double voyeurism of CSI.

In CSI: Las Vegas, we begin with the scientist and work our way to the crime and killer. Thus our experience is also indirect because here too we have a guide that tells us where, when and how to look. Hence our vision, our voyeurism, is still very much controlled and constructed. We can only go where the forensic experts take us. We follow them through their doubts, hunches, mistakes, frustrations, and victories. In the process, however, we also get a look at more than they want to show us. Because once they take us along, we are in: their eyes become our eyes, their minds become our minds and their whole persona is therefore exposed, laid out in front of us. In the process we learn quite a bit about the scientists’ private lives.

Furthermore, CSI’s double voyeurism also allows its viewers to visit otherwise inaccessible worlds through the eyes of its forensic team. By virtue of the fact that crime occurs in all settings, we are taken into walks of life we might never come across in our real, waking life. The CSI scientists also have us travel in time, sometimes as far back as fifteen years. This ability to revisit and reanalyze an old crime is due to the advent of newer and better technology such as DNA identification, which permits us to revisit a murder case and hopefully feel good that the man or woman on death row is actually guilty and deserves to die.

Reality TV is also a good example of how to read CSI and its double voyeurism. Much like reality TV shows, CSI: Las Vegas offers us a constructed vision of truth and reality. It does so not through the portrayal of real people as Reality TV does, but through the demonstration of how “real” science works. The methods of these Reality TV shows are similar in that they offer a vision of truth constructed by technology. In Reality TV, we are shown real people with real lives set in a constructed setting, reported upon indirectly through the eyes and thus minds of the producers, the camera men etc. As a result the “truth” that it offers is pre-digested. We see this first hand in the episode “I Like to Watch,” where a reality TV crew follows the CSI team around. As viewers of CSI: Las Vegas, we are fed, much like birds in their nests, our share of reality “bites” in the form of scientific facts. These are also predigested in that they are distorted through simplification, time compression, and editing. In this episode, we experience yet another level of voyeurism as we see the CSI experts struggle to get away from the camera’s prying eyes. They are now the objects of scrutiny and wriggle uncomfortably under the lens of someone else’s microscope. The title, “I Like to Watch,” announces its theme: voyeurism. It is apparent from the very beginning that this is a self-referential episode, as it follows many of the techniques the CSI show uses and questions the advisability of a forensic show on television.

CSI: Las Vegas has been dis-covering for us, not just the secrets of the killers and the scientists investigating the murders, but the mystery of death itself. This series has been showing us the logical sequence of events from the time the victim encounters a deadly substance or weapon, marking all the steps in the deterioration of the organs and body until the actual moment of death and beyond. The CSI experts give us a glimpse of what happens after violent death in the form of autopsy of the bodies of course, but also through the investigation itself and the lives of those who conduct it.

How much is the look at death that CSI: Las Vegas offers us going to affect our view of the world? McLuhan would probably say quite a lot because it allows us to reposition ourselves from passive receivers of images, to all-seeing, all-knowing beings. Watching CSI: Las Vegas allows the viewers to feel, for the space of an hour, that they are omniscient and powerful. With their extended technological gaze, they preside as supreme double voyeurs over the human comedy as revisited by this television series. Not only that: this series also permits its viewers to become more comfortable with death, or at least to face it in comfort through the reassuring belief that even if they die violently, the CSIs will find their killer.

Eva Roa White is currently Associate Professor of English at Indiana University Kokomo. Her teaching and research interests include Immigration Studies, Irish Studies, Galician Studies, British Literature and Cultural Studies. She was born in Spain, raised in Switzerland and has lived in several countries, including Saudi Arabia. She is writing a memoir, The Immigrants’ Daughter: Back to Galicia.

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//Mixed media