Introducing The Next Generation Of Leaders And Thinkers

Lets’ Deconstruct Panopticism

In late 18th century, social theorist Jeremy Bentham created the perfect prison: a main tower that is surrounded by prison cells with a bright light on top of it so that every single cell is open to observation at all times. Bentham’s panopticon creates a transition between systems of power, external and internal, coming from the guards and the prisoners. Since they could be watched at all times, prisoners are inclined to self-surveillance, to control themselves so that they are not caught, given that they can be watched from any angle and at all times. But is there always someone watching?

Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish names the social theory of panopticism after the ideal prison that is always (maybe never) being watched. Panopticism rises as a representation of disciplinary and societal surveillance.

If you are always being watched, every move being surveilled, it is to your best interest to do some surveillance yourself. No one wants to be caught outside of the norms and so we do the watching ourselves.

While Foucault writes in the 1970s, the concept of panopticism can much be applied today, mostly to that isty bitsy piece of our contemporary society that we love to hate so much: the media.

By now, you have probably heard someone accusing the media of being manipulative or someone else for being ignorant for their reliance on media. First of all, it is important that we define what media truly is. Yes, the internet is media, but so is television, newspaper, books, even the songs you love to listen to as background noise while you write an article, we could argue. And if there’s media, there’s a discourse. Foucault also had his two cents to add to the discussion on discourse. He defines it as the ways we construct knowledge, a group of statements from a particular history that produces knowledge.

But… what does all of this theory and definitions regurgitated form an Intro to Media class have to do with women and Women’s Day? To be very blunt, everything. Let’s start to draw some parallels here. Media is everything and everything can be media.

Whether we like it or not, we internalize media, both form and content, in ways we do not yet understand. New, digital media works both ways; it is about producing as well as receiving media – intentionally, and unintentionally.

And since media is everything and everything can be media, storage, compression, transmission of media means that media production can happen anywhere at anytime. But again, why bring this up on Women’s Day?

It is true, the concept of panopticism, discourse, and the workings of media is important to everyone at all times, but since today we are celebrating women, let’s put ourselves on the spotlight for a little bit. By now you are probably tired of reading about “societal beauty standards” and might have a laugh at the memes that circulate the internet on the topic, but it’s very real and very important. Women know that we are always under bright light, always pressured to be beautiful and to fit within a predisposed pattern of beauty. Again, I’m not saying this happens only to us, but today’s our day so… back to women.

Susan Sontag, a women’s rights and anti-war activist and a journalist from New York, wrote “Women’s Beauty: Put-Down or Power Source” during the rise of second-wave feminism in the late 1960s, early 1970s. In her writing, she comments that women respond to this idea that females are the beautiful sex by caring for their appearances and working towards fitting within societal standards. And what does that lead to? Vanity. Women are labeled as vain for caring, but looked down upon if they don’t. Double standards much?

Wait… isn’t that what panopticism means? Indeed, it is. As women, we know we will be judged by our height, tan, weight, the way we dress, how we wear our hair. We know all that, so what do we do? We judge it ourselves. Media spreads these concepts of beauty and we take it all in as factual, rules, and we police ourselves. We know we are being watched, we know we are being judged, we know we are being surveilled. But are we? There’s no way of really knowing if we are actually being judged. We internalize what the media portrays, but is that man on the other side of the street truly bothered by the way my dress falls on my hips just because I put on a few pounds last month? I don’t know, but I think so, so I judge it myself.

And so I ask, for Women’s Day, let’s step back and try not to just share inspiring pictures and write celebratory posts, let’s do something for our mothers, sisters, aunts, best friends, and for ourselves.

Let’s consider what has been fed to us through the media that we consume and reflect upon what that does to our inevitable self-surveillance.

This is most important and powerful when coming from us, women. Let’s rethink what we think about ourselves. Do I really hate the way these pants look on me or do I just think that way because it doesn’t look the same way it does on my taller, skinnier roommate so therefore it looks ugly on me because I think it looks so great on her? Sounds tiring, writing it out, reading it outloud, doesn’t it? Then why do we do it? I wish I had the answers to these questions or the solution to our problems, but I don’t, I’m still thinking them through myself. But, for now, let’s deconstruct panopticism. That just might be the next stop to loving ourselves.

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