Screw the Panopticon, Try Being a Woman

Screw the Panopticon, Try Being a Woman July 9, 2017

The philosophical idea of the panopticon, or a prison in which there’s constant surveillance, seems an excellent metaphor for being a woman in this society.

Photo by Ashim D'Silva from Unsplash. In public domain.
Photo by Ashim D’Silva from Unsplash. In public domain.

A panopticon is a prison in which there’s a central tower that has a line of vision to all the cells, which surround it in a circle. The prisoners may or may not be being watched 24/7, but they don’t know that, and have to model their behavior accordingly. Borrowing the notion of the panopticon from Bentham, “Foucault refers to a culture in which the panoptic model of surveillance has been diffused as a principle of social organization” (citation).

Thanks to how widely Foucault is read, the idea of the panopticon has been diffused throughout the social sciences. I find it useful for describing how social norms and power function, among other things.

But you know what? I think it fails to be a hypothetical philosophical term to be when put alongside the experience of being a woman in public in contemporary American culture. Because walking as a woman in this culture means always have your body available for surveillance, comment, harassment, and worse.

And it gets grating. As stated in this Slate article, Trump No Longer Seems Able to Hide His Raw Misogyny, Michelle Goldberg writes:

I’m not sure that even well-intentioned men understand how relentlessly degrading this presidency is for many women. Having a man who does not recognize the humanity of more than half the population in a position of such power is a daily insult; it never really goes away.

When merely setting foot in public reminds you that your body is always under scrutiny, always taken to exist for the pleasure of (cisgender heterosexual) men viewers… it sucks. It really, really sucks. Just a few days ago I was unloading groceries from my car and someone yelled at me, “Goddamn, dat booty!” Which I’m sure was meant as a compliment, but I took it as a reminder that plenty of people perceive my body when it’s in public to be subject to their gaze.

So, forgive me if I find the concept of the panopticon less than compelling these days as a philosophical construct, because I’m already freaking living it. And I don’t think it’s coincidental that the notion was invented to describe the ideal prison.


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