More thoughts on Peeping Tom: fathers, sons, and the maternal gaze

by Sara Gran

I’m not really interested in exploring gender differences too much–I haven’t found gender to be a useful indicator of anything important about a person, like their honesty, loyalty, integrity, bravery, sense of humor, or the desire to stop the car at yard sales and fruit stands. So I’m going to use as many qualifiers as I’m legally allowed to in the following sentince: I have observed that some men, in many cases, have very different psychological relationships with their parents than some women. Most women I know talk about their parents, especially their mothers, pretty much all the time. We talk and talk and talk about our parents and all the ways they screwed us up and everything they did wrong and everything they did right and how much we love them anyway. Or in some cases, don’t.  And then we get over it and do what we want to do. The men I know almost never talk about their parents, especially their fathers. And when they do, it’s usually in a fairly neutural tone. I can’t think of a time when a straight male friend ever said: “My mother’s scarcity issues have really affected my  ability to manifest,” or “my father praised me for my intelligence but their was always an edge to it,” or “my grandfather beat my mother and so she overcompensated by smothering me.”  There are of course exceptions, but most of my male friends, when they talk about their parents at all, say things like, “My father was a banker,” or “my mother did the best she could,” or “it wasn’t my father’s fault.” I’ve never heard a woman say that.

But these men seem far more haunted by their parents, especially their fathers, than my female friends. Many of my male friends seem to be stuck in a kind of living dialogue with their parents, even long after those parents are gone. It sometimes seems as if their choices in life are determined by a reaction to a specter of these parents, a kind of poltergeist created from the very repression of criticism I’m talking about that knocks around and tells them what to do. And I think this possible-maybe-trend (again, there’s no intent to make a sweeping generalization here) is reflected in Peeping Tom. Mark is haunted by his father’s presence–almost literally, as he lives in his father’s house, has his fathers’ books on the shelves, and watches his father on film. But his father is never quite there. In the filmstrips Mark has of him he’s out of focus (Michael Powell himself played the father, creepily enough) and his voice is given a bit of an echo-y, ghostly, quality.  Helen, Mark’s love interest, lives with her mother (or at least in the room across the hall–I was a little unclear on the specifics) in close quarters: her mother is with her nearly all the time and the two are obviously close. But Helen’s mother doesn’t seem to have much of an influence on her. Mark’s father is long gone, but his influence is, obviously, far more strongly felt. And of course, for either gender, dead parents seem to haunt us more than the living. Maybe it’s harder to talk back to the dead.

Interestingly, Helen’s mother is blind. I don’t think a women would have written it that way. There is a strange way a mother has of looking at a daughter sometimes that can cut to the bone. Many woman friends, in our endless conversations about our parents, have described this to me as a kind of judging stare. It’s when a woman is doing something normal and she looks up and her mother is looking at her with that look and suddenly what she’s doing doesn’t seem normal anymore; it seems like what she’s doing is clumsy and wrong and suddenly she is not real and not solid and empty inside. I’ve only ever seen this mentioned in one book, a strange little Jungian book called Descent to The Goddess, which I still haven’t finished. This is a thing between adult women and their mothers, not children. I’m not a mother and I don’t quite get what this look is all about. I’m not sure it’s as bad as it seems. Maybe it’s more of a projection of daughters than a gaze of mothers. But I don’t think a woman writer or filmmaker would have imagined a blind mother; I think she would have made Helen’s mother sighted, and watching, watching, always watching as Helen and Mark’s courtship progressed. And always, always judging, and never finding Helen just quite exactly right.

By the way, I only watched a few seconds of this TED conference video, but it seems to be a real-life Raising Cain/Peeping Tom. Hasn’t this guy ever watched a DePalma movie?!? (“It wasn’t a box!”)

5 Responses to “More thoughts on Peeping Tom: fathers, sons, and the maternal gaze”

  1. Wow I had a very emotional, kind of angry reaction to this post. Wrote a painfully long treatise on my folks and deleted that shit cos that’s not what we’re doing here (ok I didn’t delete it, I filed it for future use.) Suffice to say I’m a hetero dude and I talk about my mother, and HER mother, endlessly, to my wife, friends, and most boringly in therapy, jabber jabber jabber. It was my grandmother that led me to Megan’s work (cos my grandmother is the very embodiment of a Megan Abbott antihero) and therefore led me here.

    I know all about that look you mention. That’s not a gender thing. I suspect it’s in large part the child’s projection of insecurity or guilt as you suggest, but the look is real, and the look is most importantly initiated by mom or dad. The child, you’re engaged in whatever, doing your thing, and boom, you feel it in your stomach, you turn and there’s your mom or dad with the LOOK. It’s source is deep and unknowable. I hope to never give my son that look but I probably will.

    Maybe I’m a nebbishy hand-wringing NYer, hence the stale mom/ therapy stuff but I don’t think so. So here’s one straight guy who drones on and on about his folks (and their folks and the whole continuum) all the time, they inform everything I do and always will. In my gut I reckon anybody who claims otherwise is bullshitting themselves.

  2. That’s really interesting, especially about the LOOK being gender-neutural. I’ve never heard a man talk about that before so I assumed it was a mother/daughter thing. I actually realized after I posted this that I forgot to write the paragraph I’d had in mind about tying this all back in with Brian DePalma, but now I’m glad I didn’t because I am definitely readjusting my thoughts! Especially with overwhelming theme of voyeurism, film, photography, and looking in general in DePalma, Peeping Tom, and HItchcock–I hadn’t thought about how that relates to that parental LOOK because I’d thought that was a mother/daughter thing. But now I may have to re-evaluate my whole schtick!

    And Nathan, you’re now obligated (not really, of course, but I’m curious) to tell us all about your grandmother!

    • really though, you’ve never heard a male talk about the LOOK? Haven’t most of us humans been hit with the LOOK?

      I know u don’t want a gender rap but just to make a super obvious point, I’ll agree “guys” in general are less apt to spiel about their parents in any kind of meaningful way, prolly in the same way that lots of men are under the impression that they have to be stoic and are not accustomed to discussing “feelings” AMONGST THEMSELVES. This has (at least for me) been one of many reasons why I personally find straight male friendships really fucking difficult (with some major exceptions). Cause you’re not left with much really unless you’re engaged in an intense activity (playing music, sports) or watching an intense activity (sports)

      Oh Jesus, Sara, my grandma is an exhausting subject, maybe interesting to some but I don’t want to be boring/ self-indulgent plus it’s off-topic…back to th program!

  3. Speaking anecdotally, most men I know have grave parental issues too and I think it usually relates to two situations: men with remote fathers whom they couldn’t reach, or men with mothers who remain closely entangled in their lives and/or for whom they feel responsible. But I think this is true of most of the women I know too. I think what may occasionally be different, depending on the upbringing, is the way they talk about it (both in the way that Nathan is saying but also maybe in the language itself?).
    On the “look”—Lacan has that term: the Phallic Mother. Which, as I have chosen to remember it, is all about that look. Oh! and he relies, as always on Freud, for whom that mother’s gaze is especially powerful for boys!


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