Here is a little sheltered space from where you furtively can cast pleasurable but slightly shameful glances at something private and/or illicit. This is what a title like Peep Show promises; and indeed if much film theory is to be believed this is also what films in general have to offer (the term "peep show" in fact used to refer to a box containing moving pictures set up for entertainment at fairs or other such occasions). What we have, then, is thus a peep show within a peep show.
Without arguing that this necessarily points towards some sort of meta-film, one could say that this constellation produces a scene or set-up that at least has the potential of being a perfect shorthand for exposing various forms of disclosure filmic and/or in relation to sexual desire. And indeed, throughout the eight minutes that Peep Show lasts, these two levels coalesce into a commentary on spectatorship, a commentary which is largely based on reversal.
This is evident right from the beginning when it is revealed contrary to expectations that the visitor to the peep show is a young, well-dressed and "wife-ish"-looking woman: the traditional male gaze aimed at peep shows/film is here seemingly replaced by that of a young female spectator, who simultaneously is presented as a (the) consumer of much contemporary popular culture: throughout we witness her exchange of money even down to her "emergency money"/housekeeping money? for fantasies. Despite, or perhaps rather because of this, the gaze our gaze largely remains male (as I will return to below). That this is so is arguably revealed through the range of reversals that follows more or less directly from that of the gender of the spectator, which is the reversal that constitutes the main premise of the film.
First of all, at least in a literal sense, the undressing seems to happen on the wrong side of the window in the booth of the paying customer. Meanwhile, the "supply" side of the economic exchange remains fully dressed. However, viewed from within, this male space seems almost coated with nudity. As spectators to the filmic peep show, we have access to both of the internal peep show΄s adjoining rooms. Yet our access to the thoughts and feelings of the female protagonist is mainly through her bodily reactions to the spectacle that she is witnessing "I[/we] see you in your wildest dreams", as the initial song had promised us, and her internal life is thus only indirectly present. She does utter a few sentences, but these merely seem to augment what is already visible. For the men on the performing side, however, there is a marked discrepancy between outward appearance and internal life at least for some of the time.
As far as humour is concerned, the main premise is thus centred upon the unequal distribution of knowledge which is related to the stark contrast between the dimly lit, plush, stylised, velvety, burgundy and largely silent female side of the window, and the messy, raw, naked and "directly" verbal (or honest?) male side. And what allegedly evokes laughter is the film-spectator alliance created through the situational irony of our knowing the true nature of the created illusion while the female peep-show spectator is kept in the dark (or burgundy). Yet, she might also know the illusion why else pay for a fantasy, or why go to a peep show in the first place? On the other hand, like a male visitor to a peep show, she may entertain the notion that what she is witnessing is somehow the true nature or inner fantasies of the opposite sex. In any case, what she sees arouses her.
And here, dressing and undressing is not only relating to the literal level (which of course also could be argued in relation to a conventional peep show). The disclosures that we are offered glimpses of are thus not of the kind that we would expect. What we are offered is an indirect disclosure of the female spectator΄s "wildest dreams" as well as the "nudity" upon which these are constructed; and, by extension, we are offered a somewhat coarse, but humorous commentary on, first of all, gender-related differences in sexuality and/or arousal and, secondly, on gender-roles in general.
What one first notices about this process of arousal is the progressional scale of the offered fantasies: "beginner", "intermediate", "date fantasy", "tag team fantasy" and an unspecified fifty-dollar option. But why not just a range of different fantasies or (sexual) preferences? Why does she have to be initialised or indeed "socialised" (as I will return to below)? At the most obvious level, the progressional scale relates to the implied workings, mechanism or logic of female sexual arousal as a filmic device it functions both as a narrative structure working from beginning to climax, as well as a suspense-making guide that triggers our quest or desire to both know and see. It is through this progression that the contrast of gendered needs is set up: while the female side is characterised by a hierarchy of needs in which emotional well-being and appreciation must be obtained in order for sexual desire to be aroused, sexual arousal on the male side is much more instant and directly related to the body and its exposure. But what is the actual progression? What are we progressing towards?
Well, as one would expect, on the female side it is a progression towards desire and/or sexual fulfilment; on the male side, it is a progression through longer and longer and more and more "direct" verbal exposures of acceptance, intimacy and closeness. It is a progression from a male acknowledgement of failure and acceptance of a woman΄s abilities in a traditional male sphere that of reading a road map to proclamations of acceptance in relation to the female body ("you look even better without make-up" and "have you lost weight") and commitment "I΄m ready to commit". As the verbal exposures seem more and more elaborate and many-layered in relation to the "nudity" of the male sphere, and as the talk progresses from brain acceptance to that of body acceptance, actual clothing is beginning to peel off on the female side; or, as the male focus on nudity is progressively hidden, female nudity is apparently about to be exposed. Certainly the sound of sexual excitement is suggesting that.
Yet we are constantly aware of the double-ness, the male role-playing, window-dressing or construction. First of all, as spectators to this filmic peep show, we are peeping on the (fooled?) woman from within the peep-show apparatus, if such a term makes sense. I am here specifically thinking about the shots where we as accomplices look at her from within the money slot (to peep means to look through a narrow opening into a larger space). Apart from the economic connotations arising from this position, it is tempting to read this positioning as a projection of the traditional, male peep-show fantasy the woman as, or seen through, the slot back into this apparently reversed peep show.
As a continuation of this, it also needs stressing that the progressive acceptance is constantly being undermined by the internal male dialogue, which continuously juxtaposes "real" male (propagative) needs to the staged acceptance of the emotional needs of the female. Immediately after the staged acceptance of the female ability to find directions, one of the male protagonists comments: "my wife needs directions to find the fucking kitchen". To what extent that actually means back to the kitchen is not entirely clear; yet such a reading is entirely possible, and that leads me on to my second comment in relation to the (film΄s) progressional scale.
Apart from combining female arousal and narrative development, the progressional scale may also in keeping with my arguments above be seen as a comment on larger societal developments in relation to gender. Not only is the woman fed verbal window-dressing in exchange for money, she is also socialised into a position of accepting a seemingly un-ambiguous combination of very traditional gender roles combined with a somehow overdone gentleman-ness and willingness to cater to a range of female emotional needs.
The female protagonist is, in other words, pulled into what must be assumed to be a pleasurable position of felt empowerment. Part of this progressional movement is the "tag-team"-contest, where the males try to out-talk each as far as catering to her emotional needs is concerned, and the choice although illusive remains with her. And, perhaps, since these fantasies resemble utopian glimpses into a potential world, there has to be a progression: she has to be prepared, and kept longing for more. Yet her climax does seem to coalesce with that of the film. It could be argued, however, that what makes her come ultimately is a male acknowledgement of her having advanced along the road of progression towards a beauty standard largely defined by men. The final acknowledgement is thus not of her sexuality. Instead, what we witness also in actual filmic terms is the effects of male acknowledgement upon women within a wholly male-dominated apparatus. As much as anything else, it is the woman and her reactions that we are looking at. And this leads on to the question of the implied relations between the portrayed peep show and its social and cultural context.
Initially, one could argue that this peep show is also about attempts at defining behaviour and thus experiencing power. Yet the situation in Peep Show is seemingly reversed in the sense that in contrast to the traditional male peep shows, which largely could be seen as an extension of existing power-/gender-relations power here is located within the core of that which is being peeped at. Although the gaze of the woman might seem empowering, it is not so. What she is offered at this peep show is rather a glimpse of relations as they can be or could have been and/or a chance to momentarily feel affirmed that gender-relations are in fact changing. Yet it seems clear that they are not. The comment that one of the men makes about his wife certainly suggests that. In a sense, what initially looks like reversals are perhaps rather upholding the existing state of things.
The reversal at stake in Peep Show should thus be seen as an extension of and commentary upon post-sixties liberal attempts at levelling out gender-roles "I wish I could bear your child", says one of the male actors towards the end of the progressional scale. It is a pleasurable and seemingly ambiguity-free portrayal of relations as if certain liberal and/or cultural traits were a genuine part of actual social behaviour had it not been for the "true" nature of the male, and his position to deliver what might seem tailor-made fantasies.
Obviously, what is gazed at at a peep show is not a reflection of some authentic core of sexuality. What is presented is a projection of a fantasy that fulfils a culturally discredited or illicit need. But that which is presented to the woman at the peep show is hardly illicit or culturally discredited by any contemporary standards. In fact, what we see together with the female protagonist is actually public rather than private; this is yet another reversal. The spectacle is, as I have already suggested, an extended, elaborate, caricatured and ironic representation of a (semi-)official cultural discourse about equality in relation to gender.
Normally, the true nature of the people performing at peep shows remains hidden. But not so at this peep show. As spectators to this double peep show we are allowed a view "inside" the constructed performance. And it is allegedly here that the truly illicit or "private" of this peep show is located, and portrayed for us to peep at. As spectators to this film we are the real peep show audience, as I suggested at the outset of this essay. And what we see in the male room of the film΄s internal peep show set-up somehow seems to be the real, authentic inner core of relaxed masculinity, a condition whose "reversal" is worth paying to see.
Two interrelated interpretations follow from that: either that "true" masculinity still dominates the surrounding society and thus makes the more polished version a scarce commodity the thunder in the background in the opening scene certainly suggests a threatening and unpleasant external world. And, related to this interpretation, that beneath the cultural or liberal veneer of seemingly changed gender-relations, there is a fairly unchangeable, "real" or authentic, even "biological", core of masculinity that truly longs for more natural and traditional relations and space to unfold its desires and fulfil needs. That this cornered inner male "animal" is capable of rather desperate acts in order to secure his freedom is clearly evident in the sequence following the reference to "spooning", where one of the male protagonists replies that he would rather "gnaw his arm off" the lone and desperate fox caught in the trap of a feminised civilisation! But also the film΄s lighting and texture point towards some sort of authenticity underneath the liberal veneer: while the "real", inner core of the male side is very directly and openly lit, the fantasies constructed by the males are toned much more softly, as is indeed also the female side, which is characterised by a thoroughly "dreamy" texture.
Thus in the end, Peep Show seems to say more about what men think that women would like to hear, rather than what women may actually wish to hear and/or get! Indeed, what is exposed for us at this peep show is a nostalgic longing for a true masculinity, that with the appropriate coating may be integrated into the increasing demands of equality. The illicit that we as (male) spectators are offered a glimpse of is what some might think of as culturally repressed markers of the real male: the chance to look at posters of nude women, talk knowingly about pornographic films and sports, drink beer, smoke cigarettes and exchange techniques about how to play the instrument of female arousal. In that sense it is fairly celebratory, and we are invited to join in the celebration. The situational irony or point of view invites a (male) bonding through the alliance that the ironic communication offers, an alliance that "knows" the "falsity" of verbal/emotional female arousal but also knows somehow that this is an instrument that needs to be played.
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