Watching people’s stories on screen can be fascinating and exhilarating, but the act of looking can also feel uncomfortable, invasive, even violating. And underpinning these uncomfortable moments we often find alarming messages about the role of consent.
• Intrusions by Melissa Febos
• Girlhood (2021) by Melissa Febos
• Ways of Seeing with John Berger, Episode 2 (1972)
• Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema by Laura Mulvey (pdf)
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It’s often said that cinema, by its very nature, is voyeuristic because film offers the audience a window into the hidden lives of others. Watching people’s stories on the big and small screen can indeed be fascinating and exhilarating, but the act of looking can also feel uncomfortable, invasive, even violating. Underpinning these uncomfortable moments we can find some alarming messages about the role of consent. To explain, let’s start here, in the “normal” bedroom of a “normal” boy doing “normal” boy stuff — “normal” stuff like surreptitiously spying on the girl next door?!
Popular culture is filled with scenes like this one. Scenes in which one character, usually a man, spies on another character, usually a woman, without that person’s knowledge or consent. To be clear, we’re talking about secret surveillance of a person while they’re alone, in various states of undress, or engaged in sexual activity. This is invasive looking that violates a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy. In a staggering number of movies and TV shows this type of spying isn’t done by the villain, it is instead perpetrated by “nice guy” characters. These are straight men who are otherwise presented as decent or at the very least mostly harmless. The media pattern is so pervasive, I thought it needed a name, I call it The “Harmless” Peeping Tom.
All of the boys on That 70s Show, for instance, casually participate in spying behavior but the character of Fez is a quintessential example of a “harmless” peeping tom. There’s a years-long running gag about how he’s always spying on women, often hiding in their bedroom closets. And yet this pattern of intrusive behavior is just considered a minor nuisance on the show. Fez even ends up in a romantic relationship with one of the women he spied on over 8 seasons of primetime television.
Scenes in which boys secretly spy on girls were a staple of so-called teen-sex-comedies in the late 1970’s and early 80s. But the media pattern didn’t begin or end with Animal House, Porky’s, or Revenge of the Nerds. Alfred Hitchcock was famously obsessed with voyeurism and included peeping scenes in several of his most notable films. Since then we’ve seen the “harmless” peeping tom pop up in practically every genre; from Action movies to horror films, from romantic dramas, to science fiction adventures. And it’s not uncommon for video games to present players with interactive peeping opportunities.
The trope has also been a mainstay on TV sitcoms, usually as a one-off gag in a handful of episodes. While we may typically think of peeping toms as a stranger hiding in the bushes, spying can take many different forms. Occasionally spying is presented as part of a man’s job, like a cop on a stakeout, but in many of those scenarios the trope still applies. In espionage themed media, the guy might have access to high-tech spying gadgets. In superhero stories or supernatural plot lines, the guy’s powers may be used as the means to gain access to a woman’s body. Superman, for example, is often held up as a paragon of good decent manhood, and yet even he steals a quick peek from time to time.
Harmless peeping toms aren’t always a hero, but they’re not a villain either. Even when the protagonist has, let’s say “questionable morals” or is involved in other criminal activities, the spying itself isn’t framed as a strike against his character. And critically the audience is still meant to identify with him as he’s peeping. It’s not unusual for invasions of privacy to be framed as endearing, or just the innocuous behavior of a guy with a crush. Even when peeping is called out as pathetic, annoying, or a little creepy, his actions are, more often than not, quickly forgiven or forgotten.
A good way to illustrate the deeper problem here can be found in the “no peeking” plot cliché. The setup is a familiar one: A woman needs to change clothes for some reason but her guy friend is standing right there, so naturally she asks him to turn around or close his eyes while she undresses. Does our protagonist respect her wishes? Of course not. Most of the time, he peeks anyway. And there are rarely any consequences for violating her trust. In fact his transgression is likely to be rewarded.
Sometimes the women characters will explicitly ask not to be looked at, while in other examples it’s just implied that the guy shouldn’t be staring. It’s incredibly rare to see a man who, given the opportunity, doesn’t peek. If it’s a romantic story, the transgression is often presented as a sign that he’s attracted to her. In reality though, if a man demonstrates a deliberate disregard for consent or women’s boundaries, that should be a major major red flag.
Even though Invasive spying is often considered just a nuisance crime by law enforcement, being spied-on isn’t a minor inconvenience for the victims, it can cause real lasting emotional harm.
Sometimes peeping scenes are filmed in a family-friendly way, while in other media it can be much more explicit. In fact throughout this video essay I’ve had to use a lot of creative editing techniques and strategic blurring just to make the footage appropriate for YouTube. Despite what some conservative groups would have you believe, the problem here is not the depiction of sex or nudity on-screen. Depending on how it’s framed, sex and nudity can be represented in all kinds of ways. The real issues with the “Harmless” Peeping Tom trope stems from the lack of consent between the characters in the story and how those violations are framed as “no big deal.”
There’s a common misconception that voyeurism is, by definition, looking without permission. But that is not true. Voyeurism can, and I’d argue should, be a consensual act. It is, of course, possible to film scenes, even voyeuristic ones, where characters look at each other in consensual ways. But cinematic depictions of consensual gazing are not anywhere near as prevalent as scenes where permission has not been granted.
Up until this point, we’ve been discussing the perspective of characters on-scene but there’s another critical perspective we haven’t yet considered. And that is the perspective of the camera.
Let’s return for a moment to that “normal” boys bedroom from earlier. Although, it’s not a “normal” bedroom, is it? It’s really a movie set. And that’s not really a “normal” boy either, that’s an actor working from a script. In fact, everything we see here is a deliberate choice by the filmmakers. The woman is being put on display by the director who is careful to position her body so the protagonist can get a good look. But the shots are also designed so the audience gets to peek along with him. This then makes the viewer complicit. We are made to vicariously participate in the act of non-consensual looking. This is true, incidentally, even when the character doing the peeping is clearly meant to be a creep.
There’s another important conversation to be had about what film theorist Laura Mulvey called “the male gaze,” especially as it relates to how the camera moves and frames women’s bodies in a sexualized way independent of the protagonist’s point of view. But for our purposes here, we’re mostly focusing on the characters in the story.
The audience for movies is, of course, made up of people of all genders, but the male character’s perspective is the one we are sharing and therefore it’s his lurid excitement we are meant to identify with. Just to reiterate, narratively speaking, these women don’t know they’re being watched and therefore haven’t given consent. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the reason these scenes are supposed to be titillating to the viewer is precisely because the looking is being done without permission. All the actors involved in these productions have, presumably, agreed to be represented in the ways we see on-screen, but fictional representations can still help normalize non-consensual behavior.
It’s worth quickly noting the particular type of actress that filmmakers like to cast as the object of men’s voyeuristic attention. Usually she’s young, thin, white, and conventionally attractive. It’s such a well established pattern in Hollywood that whenever the victim differs from that very specific expectation, the scene is used as a gross-out punchline or a transphobic joke.
Scenes where boys surreptitiously spy on girls or women are especially common in coming-of-age stories. In these type of narratives spying is often presented as a rite-of-passage, as just an inevitable part of young men’s sexual awakening. The boys may be initially presented as shy, awkward, or cowardly where women are concerned. And it’s through their peeping behavior that they’re able to gain self-confidence. According to the visual language of cinema, spying on girls is a formative experience for boys, so much so that it takes on an almost spiritual significance. In this way the transition from boyhood into manhood is built on a violation of women’s bodies. Sometimes the boys are presented as melancholy loners, but in other scenarios peeping is framed as a social activity. The act of objectifying women then becomes a bonding experience for young men. An experience that also reinforces their shared sense of male dominance.
Now, don’t get me wrong, sexual curiosity is completely normal, however non-consensual behavior should never be confused for healthy sexual exploration. The default should always be an expectation of privacy.
In John Berger’s 1972 TV series “Ways of Seeing” he observes that the act of looking isn’t passive. It’s active. [CLIP: “Men dream of women, women dream of themselves being dreamt of. Men look at women, women watch themselves being looked at…I don’t want to deny the crucial part that seeing plays in sexuality, but there’s a great difference in being seen, as oneself naked, or being seen by another in that way, and a body being put on display.”] Berger was talking about society as reflected in European oil paintings, but the observation could just as easily be applied to cinema.
The male characters are active and fully dressed, while the women are passive and exposed, unprepared to be seen, and therefore framed as vulnerable. This sets up an automatic power dynamic wherein the man has the upper-hand. The message these scenarios send to women and girls is that being spied on should be taken as a compliment, because men’s sexual attention is always supposed to be flattering, regardless of whether or not those feelings are reciprocated.
In her essay “Intrusions,” author Melissa Febos explains that “Just as these productions encourage men to believe that stalking and peeping are acceptable forms of courtship, likely to resolve in a love match, so do they prescribe to women a desire to be the object of such behavior.”
In the movies and tv shows we’ve been discussing, it’s not uncommon for the woman who is being sped on to indicate to the audience that she secretly enjoys this violation. The underlying implication is clear, to be desired by men is what gives women value. That dangerous message is compounded by another idea baked into these scenes: that when it comes to sexual desire, men and boys “just can’t control themselves.” As if men are compelled by some invisible force of nature to infringe upon women’s bodies. The myth is not true, of course. Men and boys can in fact control their urges.
Still, media reinforces the myth that “men aren’t responsible for their own actions,” occasionally by transforming the peeping tom into a hapless victim of the woman’s seductive trap. Here’s Melissa Febos again from her essay “Intrusions” – “It is also a narrative that exonerates men. The more plausible it seems that women are always performing, the less indictable the watching.” It should be ludicrous on its face to blame women for men’s illicit spying but movies consistently leave us with the impression that it’s the woman’s fault for allowing herself to be seen, even when undressing in the privacy of her own home.
Everything we’ve been discussing in this video is part of a larger culture of male entitlement. Too many men in our society have been taught that women’s bodies should always be available to them. Available to be evaluated, to be judged, to be compared, and to be used as fuel in their personal fantasies. By this twisted logic, any woman who chooses not to put herself on display is then taking away men’s “right to look.”
At the end of the day, the “Harmless” Peeping Tom trope is anything but harmless, because it works to reinforce that sense of entitlement by telling us again and again that “nice guys” deserve access to women’s bodies. And that therefore permission isn’t strictly necessary.
In recent years we have seen a rise in gender-flipped variations of the trope. While these spying moments do invert the expected subject/object dynamics, simply switching-up the genders where non-consensual behavior is concerned, does not magically fix the problem. Because it still reinforces that worldview where respecting someone’s wishes in regards to their own body isn’t important. As the old saying goes, two wrongs do not make a right.
Learning about consent as it relates to looking, and not just touching, is essential, especially given the reality of social media and the growing problem of intimate images shared without persimmon. In today’s digital world, the private photos or videos of women can be a social currency among boys and men. A currency that can grant a guy status among his peers by providing evidence of a woman’s submission to his sexual desire. Again we see how the act of exposing women’s bodies, without permission, becomes a way for men to bond with each other over their shared sense of male entertainment.
TV shows like Euphoria, Sex Education, and Stargirl have all attempted to address the issue of unauthorized image sharing. Unfortunately some TV writers just can’t resist adding a big plot twist wherein it turns out the culprit is a “mean girl,” rather than the far more common situation in real-life where the culprit is a current or ex-romantic partner.
The series Normal People includes a scene of a guy showing off a naked picture of his girlfriend. Rather than being impressed, the protagonist responds by saying it’s not okay. The moment is brief but it is notable for two reasons: first it’s a rare example of a man calling out another guy for non-consensual behavior, and second because the producers chose not to show that image to the audience. Even in media about how it’s wrong to share private images, media makers will often ensure that the audience gets a clear view of the photos or video in question. The inclusion of these shots are unnecessary and again make the viewers complicit in non-consensual looking. Just as peeping is never the fault of the person who’s being spied on, it’s also never the fault of the people whose intimate images are distributed without their permission. The blame should rest entirely with those sharing or looking without consent.
It’s still very rare to see male characters in media who honor women’s privacy. It’s even more rare to see men or boys intervening to prevent their peers from non-consensual looking, but those are the types of representations that we need. If we are to build a culture of affirmative and enthusiastic consent, it’s critical to understanding the ethics of looking.