The Feminine Panopticon


Jeremy Bentham was the founder of Utilitarianism, but he is also known for designing a prison called the Panopticon. In the Panopticon, there was no privacy; every prisoner could be completely observed by the guard placed in the center. Postmodernist philosopher Michel Foucault noted how this lack of privacy, this constant visibility, was critical to social control more broadly. George Orwell’s 1984 picked up on the horrors of the Panopticon before Foucault; telescreens destroyed the privacy of members of the Outer Party and merely the possibility of being under surveillance was enough to regulate behavior.

The overall principle being highlighted here is that freedom and privacy are inseparable; behavior which is observed by others is behavior that can be policed, controlled, regulated and punished. As the libertarian philosopher Ayn Rand once said, “civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage’s whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe.” If someone is to have power over another, that person must have the ability to regulate the other’s behavior, which in turn requires the ability to observe that behavior. A necessary precondition for A to have power over B is that B must be visible to A.

So what does this have to do with gender?

I am going to make a simple argument; traditional gender roles create the Feminine Panopticon. The Feminine Panopticon is an attitude, found mostly subconsciously in gender-traditional women (including many who like to claim to be against gender-traditionalism but in reality aren’t). This attitude explains, amongst other things, the hostility amongst many women (including but not limited to feminists) to male spaces, to boyfriends having hobbies and wanting ‘guys night outs,’ to ‘man caves,’ to male queerness, and to non-woman-centered discussions of men and masculinity.

Before I begin I should state the things which should go without saying; of course not all women are like this (again, this should go without saying). Of course this isn’t a conscious conspiracy that women collectively make against men. This is simply a culturally-encouraged tendency – a form of Toxic Femininity – which exists to varying degrees in many but certainly not all women.

The Systemic Root
The basic gender role in our society is that men are innately expendable subjects, whilst women are innately precious objects. Men are a generic norm and each man needs to differentiate himself and provide value, whereas women are special Because Womb and are presumed inherently valuable irrespective of action. This means that the gender roles ignore or deny agency in women, or at the very least do not expect them to exercise or cultivate it. Women are indeed objectified under gender traditionalism; they aren’t conceptualized as actors but rather as that which is acted upon.

But agency is a necessity; human life can only be sustained through agency because the survival needs of the human organism require action in order to secure/produce. Women need agency in order to survive, and whilst the gender roles ignore/deny/marginalize their own potential agency, said roles provide an alternative; women are granted the ability to enlist the agency of men in their service, and men are socially expected to provide that agency due to women’s innate value.

In short, whilst masculine power is conceptualized as the ability to do really cool things, feminine power is conceptualized as the ability to have men do really cool things on your behalf. Men are granted agency, women are granted agency by proxy.

To the extent that any woman internalizes the traditional gender system, she will be more prone to viewing power in terms of her ability to enlist the agency of men in her service.

The Panopticon Takes Shape
From the gender-traditional woman’s perspective, she is entitled to be the beneficiary of male agency. The more agency in her service, the more powerful she feels. Since her “supply” is provided by particular individual providers who may dissociate from her entirely, her sense of power comes not merely from having them give her agency but them placing their entire ability to provide agency at her disposal. In short, her goal is to monopolize the agency of particular agents as much as possible; this ensures a reliable longer-term supply (and also explains the fetishization of commitment that many women engage in).

And this is where visibility comes in; in order to monopolize a man’s agency one must be able to see what he is doing, i.e. what he is spending his agency on. Every alternative use of agency functions as a competitive threat to the woman or, as a gender-traditional woman would see it, a loss of agency that could’ve been spent on her. As such, her gender role’s conception of power encourages her to keep close watch on men, to be around them, to not let them get away from her; alternative uses of a man’s agency constitute threats to her power, after all.

Let us look at things which take men out of the line of sight of women; male spaces and subcultures are a big one, and its no surprise that some women attempt to enter said spaces and thus to put men back under female surveillance (often claiming to be doing such in the name of women’s well-being, too). Even in personal, one-on-one relationships we get the phenomenon of wives and girlfriends being hostile towards a husband or boyfriend having his own space; after all if he’s spending too much time in his ‘man cave’ he’s seen as not spending enough time on “us” (a polite euphemism some women use for “me”). Hobbies that take him away from her? The same treatment, and often these hobbies get mocked as “boy’s toys” for “man children.”

This dynamic emerges at both the collective level and the individual level; male-centric (whether intentional or not) spaces and subcultures become prone to the entry of women who perceive these spaces/subcultures as inherently hostile to women. It may be that gender-traditional women perceive each other as having common interests in securing male agency (studies have documented women as possessing in-group-bias). On an individual level it can be presumed that women would see each other as competing for the same man, but on a group level that would not be an immediate concern.

Even gay male culture – perhaps the ultimate example of a culture which is centered around men and has little need or desire to expend agency on women – is suceptible to this. Radical Feminists such as Carol Hanisch criticized male homosexuality as the height of misogyny, and as gay men’s liberation gained steam feminists began attempting to enlist gay men as auxiliaries of the women’s movement by arguing that gay men were socially treated as women and thus homophobia was really just an epiphenomena of misogyny. Of course the idea that gay men are socially treated as women is ridiculous – “never hit a woman” doesn’t stop gay-bashing, and if misogyny were the real target of homophobia then one would expect feminine lesbians to be the most oppressed gay demographic (in reality they receive the least cruel treatment). Then there is the phenomenon of “fag hagging” as well as the phenomenon of straight women going to gay bars; why?

We can even see this pattern with respect to feminist campaigns about pornography and sex robots; one of the most useful methods of enlisting the agency of men in a woman’s service is a woman’s potential as a source of sexual gratification. Pornography and sex robots, alongside male queerness, threaten women’s position as the monopoly suppliers of sexual gratification for men (and indeed, we can see slut-shaming as a way by which women act in a cartel fashion to keep a tight leash on said supply; after all, most slut-shaming is done by women against each other).

Every time a space, subculture, hobby, pasttime, form of media or even kind of social company draws men away from women’s orbit – out of women’s sight – many women seem to immediately perceive these spaces/subcultures/hobbies/pasttimes/forms of media/kinds of social company as a threat to women’s well-being. From the 1674 Women’s Petition Against Coffee (in which several women demanded coffee be banned because men being in coffeehouses somehow posed a danger to women’s welfare) onwards the pattern has repeated itself more than once.

Obviously, this isn’t a conscious plot enacted by women collectively; merely by teaching women a set of roles which encourage them to see their power as a function of their ability to have men do things for them, women will consequently be inclined towards trying to monopolize men’s agency and thus see alternative uses of that agency as threats to their power. This pattern is systemic and has repeated itself on several occasions. To the extent a woman accepts traditional gender norms she will see men-outside-women’s-sight as inherently threatening; she will be motivated to enter (thus abolish) male spaces (or spaces perceived as such) in order to place men back under women’s supervision and thus regulation.

This is a clear case of Toxic Femininity. It encourages self-destructive behavior in women (specifically, refusal to cultivate individual agency) and also encourages women to disregard the moral right of men to self-determination. It encourages women to violate men’s privacy, to deny men personal space and personal time, to police his socializing, to not let him have his own life. Frankly, it makes relationships with women potentially very painful and alienating and isolating; men do not like situations where they have to give up their hobbies and other friends in the name of “us” (i.e. “her”).

Anyone who truly opposes traditional gender roles and truly wishes to see women embrace agency should oppose the Feminine Panopticon. Anyone who wants to see men freed from the traditional expectations placed upon them should oppose the Feminine Panopticon. Anyone who believes that individuals should be able to live their own lives on their own terms, so long as they respect the right of others to do the same, should oppose the Feminine Panopticon.

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<span class="dsq-postid" data-dsqidentifier="157076">2 comments</span>

  • You see this in the rabid response to Men’s Centers at universities, especially in Canada, specifically in the rationale articulated to justify this response, that Men’s Centers foster misogyny simply by existing as men’s spaces.

  • Fantastic post.

    To add, feminist women certainly act as if they live in such a panopticon – confident that they know the real motivation behind every single instance of homophobia, any act of violence against a woman, anywhere in the world, regardless of context, to be because that man hated women.

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