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The Panopticon of the Patriarchy

by Amelia Clare Wright 5 years ago in gender roles
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According to Michel Foucault and John Berger

The patriarchal society lived in today is commonplace. Women find themselves constantly shorted in conditions ranging from violent rapists found innocent to girls told to cover their shoulders in school so as not to distract the boys in the room. These circumstances are a direct result of a panoptic mechanism abducting the idea of masculine power as dominant over femininity and fixing it into society so subtly that people rarely notice or have the ability to protest it. Foucault presents the central idea of Panopticism in Discipline and Punish: power is “visible and unverifiable,” (555). The sexist society in the United States exhibits these symptoms. For example, as Berger shows the reader in Ways of Seeing, men are visibly seen as favorable in art. However, it is essentially unverifiable because there is no sure way of knowing the inspiration, the intent, or the impetus behind the artist’s painting — consciously or subconsciously. Foucault’s presentation of the Panopticon directly represents and results in the relationship between male and female in today’s society as shown in Berger’s work, Ways of Seeing. As Berger puts it, “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at” (47).

Berger shows that the patriarchy is exhibited as being panoptic first through the action of men objectifying women. Panopticism as a theory was established to enforce and characterize disciplinary rules. By broadening this slightly to say that Panopticism creates hierarchical rules, concepts of flattery, superiority, and objectification come flooding in. As Foucault states, “The Panopticon is a machine for disassociating the see/being seen dyad: in the peripheric ring, one is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen,” (555). Berger mirrors this quotation in his own work when he says that the presence of men is reliant on “a power which he exercises on others… [whereas] to be born a woman has been to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men,” (46). Men are the center of the system — the group that is entitled to watch — while women are placed along the outer edges of the system in the group that is forced into subjection.

Foucault’s excerpt opens with his assessment of the physical body: “The body becomes a useful force only if it is both a productive body and a subjected body. This subjection is not only obtained by the instruments of violence or ideology… it may be subtle, make use neither of weapons nor of terror and yet remain of a physical order,” (549). Breaking down this quote, the patriarchy can be found confined in Foucault’s frame of usefulness of a body. For one, the physical female body, particularly the nude female body, is a useful force in society as it provides pleasure for men (productive) often at the expense of the woman (subjected). Though it would be obvious to point to cases of male on female violence (rape, domestic abuse, etc.), the societal Panopticon is perpetuated by more subtle forces that allow those acts of violence to occur in the first place: degrading comments slipped casually into conversation or depiction of women in art, literature, and so on. Berger spends plenty of time in his work discussing the objectified female body in art ranging from classic oil paintings to commercials of the twenty-first century. “[The] picture is made to appeal to his sexuality. It has nothing to do with her sexuality… Women are there to feed an appetite, not to have any of their own” (Berger, 55). The woman’s sexuality is muffled, strangled, and deemed ultimately unimportant compared to that of the man’s. This sentiment spreads and infects other aspects of life: a woman’s ideas, actions, and desires are also perceived to be less important than those of a man.

Berger also demonstrates how women are not only being used as images to be fantasized about, but they are also not ever pictured to have the reciprocal benefit of using men as models for pleasure. Foucault asserts, speaking of each person in the periphery of the Panopticon, “He is seen, but he does not see; he is the object of information never a subject in communication” (554). In Ways of Seeing, Berger includes a picture of Von Aachen’s Bacchus, Ceres, and Cupid (pictured above) and includes commentary that proves the artistic feminine depiction to be part of the prisoners of the Panopticon. Berger says that within the few nude paintings that include a male figure, “the woman’s attention is very rarely directed towards him. Often she looks away from him or she looks out of the picture towards the one who considers himself her true lover — the spectator owner,” (56). If one were to view the image contained in this frame from the painted male’s perspective, they would see the naked female’s body. However, when the perspective shifts to that of the female figure, the gaze does not fall on the male’s naked body, as might seem reasonably comparable, but rather out towards the audience, towards more bodies, this time advantaged by their clothing, staring and objectifying. The male has the privilege of seeing the female’s nude body while the female must remain blind to the nudity of the male, instead forced to watch others watch her. She becomes an object of gaze rather than an active participant in the painted scene.

Foucault’s Panopticon is further appropriately applied to patriarchal society when Berger makes it clear how women have unknowingly absorbed this cruelty so that they now objectify themselves. “The perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they themselves are the bearer,” (Foucault, 555). Foucault concludes that one of the most important parts of the Panopticon is that it becomes so engrained in society that the prisoners become their own jail keepers. Berger claims that this is exactly what happens to women within the patriarchy: “A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself… From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually,” (46). Women coat their eyelashes in mascara and paint their cheeks with shimmering pink primarily so that they can look at themselves in the mirror and be content with the image they’re presenting to the world. Though it may have stemmed from ancient traditions, women wear makeup to be deemed acceptable by the outside perspective, whereas men have no need (nor any business) applying lipstick. “Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another,” (Berger, 47). Panopticism has surely succeeded in creating a strong patriarchy in which women are subject nor only to men, but also to themselves.

Both Berger and Foucault agree that the dominance of masculinity does not actually have anything to do with individualized power of a man over a woman, but rather has to do with the social relation between the spectator and the subject. Foucault talks about the distribution of power within the Panopticon saying:

Power has its principles not so much in a person as in a certain concerted distribution of bodies, surfaces, lights, gazes; in an arrangement whose internal mechanisms produce the relation in which individuals are caught up… There is a machinery that assures dissymmetry, disequilibrium, and difference. Consequently, it does not matter who exercises power. Any individual, taken almost at random, can operate the machine. (555)

The idea is that whether the person in the center is a farmhand or a CEO, he has the same power over those in the outside circle because of the established power relation in the Panopticon. This is mirrored in the relationship between men and women: “Women are depicted in a quite different way from men — not because the feminine is different from the masculine — but because the ‘ideal’ spectator is always assumed to be male and the image of the woman is designed to flatter him,” (Berger, 64). The power of one individual man is not more than the power of one individual woman. Instead, the masculine is assumed to be superior to the feminine, and through that initial foundation, women are used in all forms of life as objects rather than partners.

The patriarchy has been weaved into our society by means of Panopticism. The male figure is the subjector, the gazer, the center of the Panopticon. The female figure is the subjected, the gazed at, the periphery of the Panopticon. Foucault could not have said it better when he articulated that Panopticism is “an event in the ‘history of the human mind’… through it a whole type of society emerges” (561). Without panopticism, the male gaze would not be so firmly dominant over the female spirit. There is no essential need for violence, or terrorism over women; it is seen through subtle forces such as art and literature biases. It is seen both when the male subjects the women and when the woman subjects herself. It is so engrained into the internal mechanism of society that women now review themselves as if a part of them were in the central column of the Panopticon. The Panoptic view lends itself perfectly to the patriarchy we live under.

gender roles

About the author

Amelia Clare Wright

Amelia is a recent graduate from Emerson College majoring in Communications Studies. She finds passion in language, photography, and learning, and hopes to pursue a life full of all three.

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