When was the last time you said or heard someone say “Peeping Tom”? Chances are, it has been a while. Same with me. Yet, I know the term, as I’m sure you do, and I have heard it A LOT in my lifetime, and I’m pretty sure I’ve said it plenty. In jest, you know.
But I have no idea who Tom was, and who he was peeping on and, ew, should the term be retired because that Tom sounds like a stalker, and possibly a sex offender. Well, honestly, the truth is a bit less sinister than that. Ok so I said earlier that the origin of the term “peeping tom” is actually not as creepy as we think. But that hasn’t stopped Hollywood from running with that trope and using it over the decades. From Taxi Driver to Girl on a Train, Animal House to The Virgin Suicides, and, of course, Blue Velvet. It’s box office gold.
So let’s look at the words. Firstly we have Peep. Etymology online tells us that it means: “to glance, look from a state of concealment” (especially through a small or narrow opening), from the mid 15th century, pepen, perhaps a form of Middle English piken, which comes from peek, which means to look quickly and slyly although it’s of unknown origin.
The Merriam-webster definition of Peeping Tom is: : a pruriently prying person – and that means an indecently prying person or, a voyeur. It doesn’t sound very scandalous though, does it. Even the use of the word Voyeur, being French, automatically makes it sound tasteful.
What’s interesting is that the modern online dictionary, dictionary,com has defined Peeping Tom with a very contemporary lens that, you might agree, has a rather more sinister vibe. And that is: a Peeping Tom is a person who obtains sexual gratification by observing others surreptitiously, especially a man who looks through windows at night.”
Not so tasteful now, hey.
Before we get into its history, let’s have a look at how the Peeping Tom has been represented in the media, in entertainment and even in the behaviour of everyday real people.
Alfred Hitchcock paved the way for the peeping tom as an genial, community minded individual LB Jeffries in the 1954 cult film Rear Window. Based on the 1942 novel, “It Had to Be Murder” by Cornell Woolrich, Rear Window features James Stewart, a photographer who is house bound with a broken leg, so his entire world becomes whatever he can see out his window. So he spies on his neighbour. Sounds reasonable, I mean, the man didn’t have Facebook.
And let’s not forget the 1959 novel, Psycho by Robert Bloch, made into the classic movie that features a rather disturbed Norman Bates who spies on his motel guests through holes in the wall.
Then there’s a movie from 1960 called, wait for it, Peeping Tom. In this thriller, Carl Boehm plays the Peeping Tom with a camera, and we’re asked to fear him, and pity him. His victims include a neighbour, an ingenue, who falls for his charms, and a bling woman, who senses his danger. He invades the innocence of innocent people, warns the voiceover in the trailer, til the piercing eyes of his camera meet the terrified eyes of his victims. The movie’s protagonist is also an amateur snuff film maker so… well I’m sure you know how they end.
And David Lynch would have to be the modern Hitchcock when it comes to the Peeping tom trope. From Lost Highway to Blue Velvet – there’s someone watching everywhere. But that’s not an everyday Peeping Tom, is it? I mean, a peeping Tom isn’t evil, right?
Not according to the slew of tasteless 80s films like Porky’s, which features a yet to be famous Kim Cattrall. The Toms in this movie spy on the girl’s showers and hilarity ensues. The boys think it’s funny, girls think it’s funny. The gym teacher doesn’t. You know where this heads. I’m sure.
But in real life, Peeping Toms are predators. Let’s have a look at a few. Take Aaron Foote from Utah, who took peeping tom well and truly into the new millennium by employing a drone to look into people’s homes. He was arrested for voyeurism (obviously a real crime). But, actually, Aaron Foote had a history of peeping and his first arrest came in 2008 when he was caught spying on women in a tanning salon.
And what about fitting rooms in stores? Well I have bad news, there are some serial Toms who have figured out ways to spy on, mostly, women, in change rooms. Like Heriberto Polanco from the Bronx, who pleaded guilty to three felony counts of unlawful surveillance. In August 2019, a customer was trying on clothes at Forever 21 when she found a mobile phone resting on a sneaker outside her room with the camera lens aimed at her. Polanco avoided jail by admitted to recording others while working at Forever 21 without their permission and was registered as a sex offender. Forensics found 23 videos of women on Polanco’s phone taken at Forever 21 from March to September 2019.
The documentary “The Voyeur” features Gerald Foos, from Aurora Colorado, the former owner of the Manor House Motel. Foos spent around 20 years spying on his guests through special ventilation screens in the ceiling, watching them having sex, and getting off on it. Ick. I hope he washed his hands.
And in Australia, we had Luke Tregloan in Adelaide who just recently was spared jail for what amounts to voyeurism. The court heard that Tregloan would go for a jog at night and if he saw a light on, he would film his victims through their bedroom and bathroom windows.
In a case of Peeping Tom gone very wrong, and a bit of cosmic karma, in June 2018, a Wisconsin man installed a camera in his shoe to take upskirt photos of his victims. When he went to test out his instrument, the battery in the camera exploded and burned his foot. And I could go on…
And while some may claim “nobody got hurt”, just remember that many of the world’s infamous serial killers started their life of crime as Peeping Toms as teens, Like Ted Bundy. It’s said that peeping on neighbours is like a gateway between the largely innocuous to the murderous.
But not all peeping toms are registered sex offenders. Take for example, the very first one.
The first known use of Peeping Tom is from 1769, and it came from the village of Coventry and it’s all about Lady Godiva. Yes, that lady Godiva of the long blonde hair who rode a horse naked through the streets In public. And Godiva is also a delicious brand of chocolate. But the Lady in question was so much more. Firstly, I’m going to completely ignore the salactious rumours that the myth never happened. The legend of the nude ride is first recorded in the 13th century, around 200 years after Godiva’s death. But what is life if we can’t believe in the mythmakers of the world? So yes. I’m acknowledging and moving on.
The story of Peeping Tom is actually two separate and equally important legends, starting with Lady Godiva. Lady Godiva died around a thousand years ago, between 1066 and 1086. So you know how, so often, the wives of very important people like presidents have lived in their husband’s shadows publicly? Well this was an instance of one first lady who has surpassed her husband.
Does anyone remember Leofric, Earl of Mercia? NO?
How about his wife, the pious enchantress with the long blonde locks, Lady Godiva? YEP!
According to Old English, Godiva, or Godgifu meant “gift of God” and Godiva became the common Latin form. When Godiva and Leofric married, they became benefactors to countless religious houses such as monasteries, and it is suggested that Godiva was behind it all. She bequeathed sculptures and jewellery to the City of Coventry. She even gave the City of London’s St Paul’s Cathedral a gold-fringed chasuble – that’s the smock a priest wears in church. Lady Godiva survived her husband by, it’s said, anywhere from 10 to 30 years, she is one of the few Anglo-Saxons to have remain a major landowner after the Norman conquest and the only woman to do so.
And most interesting of all for this nerd is that in her will, Godiva asked that a circlet of precious stones be threaded on a cord and placed near a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary so she could count them one by one to count her prayers. And this, my friends, is the oldest known written reference to what we know today as the Rosary, one of the most important symbols in the Catholic church.
So Godiva is linked to two linguistic tales – the rosary and the Peeping Tom. Let’s get back on track. The legend of nude Godiva happened when she made an agreement with her husband, Leofric. Always looking out for the people of Coventry, Lady Godiva took pity on them and asked Leofric to reduce the barbaric taxes he had introduced to his tenants, the townsfolk, and he replied, sure, he said he would do it if his wife agreed to ride through the streets of Coventry on a horse, and in the nude, thinking there was no way that his virtuous missus would agree.
But she did, that’s how much she cared for her people. And she made a treaty with them. She would do this for them but in return, they would stay home, close their windows and doors and avert their eyes as she passed by. They agreed. Although they had no choice with a fear of punishment, which was death. On the day, Godiva hopped on her stead, naked, and draped her long blonde hair strategically so she was not truly revealed even if someone did see her.
But one person, a taylor, didn’t care for her threats and he became forever known as Peeping Tom, the first documented instance of a voyeur. But that poor idiot is said to have been blinded by God or a vigilante group in the village blinded him. I hope she was worth it, Tom.
You know though, I wonder what happened to Tom from the Godiva story. He was blinded, sure, but there is nothing more about him, just the Lady’s sacrifice. Although a sculpture of Peeping Tom’s head and shoulders is currently located in Coventry’s Hertford Street over the entrance to a covered walkway. In fact, there are a number of Peeping Tom statues around Coventry, some where destroyed during the Blitz, and some remained. And the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry maintains a permanent exhibition about the ride of Lady Godiva.
With everything we know about this history, wouldn’t you say that paparazzi are nothing more than of Peeping Toms? In 2012, the French magazine, Closer, published topless photos of Kate Middleton. The British press labelled the magazine “grinning perverts” and the photographer a “peeping tom”.
Some have said the royals should have been more careful, but the photos were taken by photographers more than 1 kilometer away using long spy lenses. And before you say – wait this is a double standard, what about prince harry. This is very different from when Harry ran around nude in a pool in Las Vegas, a public pool.
And, really, isn’t there a Peeping Tom in all of us? Did you watch MTV’s Real World? Or its predecessor Big Brother? Maybe you’re above all that and you prefer the Real Housewives or the Bachelor franchises. Well, I’m here to tell you that all of those are just TV sanctioned Peeping Tomism.
PS. You know what a female Peeping Tom is called? Peeping Jane. And honestly I couldn’t find any examples.
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