In “Femininity and Domination,” Sandra Lee Bartky examines the underlying causes and effects of women’s subjugation in contemporary society. Though women are generally understood to have equal rights, oppression, she argues, does not have to involve “physical deprivation, legal inequality, nor economic exploitation” in order to have a systemic and devastating impact on one’s freedom (Bartky, 1990, p. 22). Instead, following Frantz Fanon’s theory of psychological oppression, Bartky elaborates the ways in which women are subjected to an insidious form of control. Bartky utilizes Michel Foucault’s theory of the panopticon to demonstrate how, similar to prisoners surveilled by onlooking guards, women are subjected to exhaustive policing — not only through the male gaze, but perhaps more perniciously, through their own (gaze) as well. This essay will briefly outline Bartky’s use of the panopticon through a feminist lense, then draw on larger questions and implications of the text. 

Designed by Jeremy Bentham, the panopticon is a prison with “a circular structure; at the center, a tower with wide windows that opens onto the inner side of the ring” (Bartky, 1990, p. 64). In this format, prisoners are also cut off from one another in small side-by-side cells. They are always within the view of the guard tower, and the design is such that no matter what hour, or where they are in their cell, they can be seen, so they get the feeling of always being watched.

Eventually, they begin to internalize this surveillance. Michel Foucault used this “model prison” in his book Discipline and Punish to illustrate how modern structures such as schools and hospitals function to produce docile bodies, bodies which, through systematic observation and discipline, can be easily “subjected, used, transformed and improved” (Foucault, 1977, p. 129). While Foucault never differentiates between the male and female body (or experience), Bartky considers the manifestations and implications of such modes of discipline for women in Western capitalist societies. Just as a schoolchild might internalize the gaze of her teacher or principal, therefore monitoring her own behavior, so might a woman who has learned since childhood that she is “subject to the evaluating eye of the male connoisseur” (Bartky, 1990, p. 28).

To understand why the panopticon works, one must first consider the impact of psychological oppression. Bartky references the works of Frantz Fanon, who elaborated the idea of psychological oppression in a racist society, stating that those who are psychologically oppressed are negatively impacted through “intimations of inferiority” — with “a harsh dominion exercised over [their] self-esteem” (Bartky, 1990, p. 22). Though men and women are considered equals in the eyes of US law, a woman need only to compare the number male and female senators, CEOs, or canon novelists to understand that there is a gross imbalance of power. Why would a large percentage of a population be denied authority, unless they somehow believed to be inherently inferior? In fact, the sex-role stereotypes to which women are subjected are identical to those imposed upon racial-ethnic minorities: considered to be “childlike, happiest when they are occupying their ‘place’; more intuitive than rational…closer to nature, and less capable of substantial cultural accomplishment” (Bartky, 1990, p. 23). Bartky identifies two major consequences of these stereotypes. First, they dehumanize women, making it difficult for those in power to adequately consider their individual rights or needs. Second, one who is psychologically oppressed may “find it difficult to achieve an authentic choice of self….[or] a state of self-actualization” (Bartky, 1990, p. 24). Already at a disadvantage, women are left to advocate for their needs–if they can even access them–in a society that may not acknowledge their validity, while also battling subconscious messages of inferiority.

Subjugation, however, does not have include two parties: the oppressor and the oppressed can be the same person. From an early age, women are fed narratives filled with tropes of female passivity, bitchiness, and ideals of beauty: Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, all coy, irresistible characters who eventually overcome their senile, witchy antagonists. Women evaluate themselves against such characters, and of course, strive for those “images of perfect female beauty” (Bartky, 1990, p. 28). They must be flexible, as well, as those ideals change with popular culture. While the early 90’s bombarded Bartky’s peers with heroin-chic models, today woman are held to the standard of the eroticized ethnic (but not too ethnic) bombshell: a Kardashian-molded barbie doll with eyes that do not line, faces that scarcely move, wide hips, and a delicate waist. Like the prisoner who monitors his behavior for infractions, women must diligently avoid carbs, religiously attend Soulcycle, and meticulously apply anti-aging donkey’s milk to her face, ad nauseum. This behavior is not necessarily adopted for health, but represents the striving for the “virtual transcendence of nature” that modern beauty standards demand (Bartky, 1990, p. 72). When, inevitably, a woman fails to meet such standards, “a measure of shame is added to [her] sense that the body she inhabits is deficient” (Bartky, 1990, p. 81). Thus, she internalizes a feeling of inferiority, and perhaps the belief that she would achieve her goals if only she were “more disciplined.”

One cannot ignore the implications of women’s self-policing. How many hours are wasted in front of the mirror, instead of investing time in one’s mind or health? How many hours have I wasted applying and reapplying liquid eyeliner that could’ve been spent reading a book? Are these questions and doubts–including the belief that productivity is paramount–also a product of living in a patriarchal society? It may be difficult to separate intrinsic motivations from external influence, but I do believe that having enough awareness to question our motivations is progress. Acknowledging that certain beliefs are not in my self-interest gives me the opportunity–and more importantly, the choice–to respond  differently.

Bartky’s discussion of the panopticon, then, hints at the much larger issue of agency. Decisions about education, sexual and physical health are all affected by one’s confidence in the validity of their needs and the reality of their competencies. In a society that continuously reinforces their inferiority, how likely are women to act in their own best-interest? Furthermore–how do they even understand what that is? To dismantle an oppressive patriarchal construct, and our complicity with it, I believe we must begin by asking these very questions. Doing so might offer an opportunity to topple the “guard tower.” As Bartky quoted Fanon, “those who recognize themselves in it will have made a step forward” (Fanon, 1967, p. 12 as cited in Bartky, 1990, p.22).

 Aly Tadros is a Riggio Honors Writing Scholar at The New School. She is the nonfiction editor at the 12th Street Journal and a freelance musician. Follow her on twitter @alytadros