Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power

“In the regime of institutionalized heterosexuality, woman must make herself “object and prey” for the man: it is for him that these eyes are limpid pools, this cheek body-smooth [Note 30; see bottom]. In contemporary patriarchal culture, a panoptical male connoisseur resides within the consciousness of most women: they stand perpetually before his gaze and under his judgment. Woman lives her body as seen by another, by an anonymous patriarchal Other. We are often told that “women dress for other women.” There is some truth in this: who but someone engaged in a project similar to my own can appreciate the panache with which I bring it off? But women know for whom this game is played: they know that a pretty young woman is likelier to become a flight attendant than a plain one, and that a well-preserved older woman has a better chance of holding onto her husband than one who has “let herself go.”

Image result for marilyn monroe the seven year itch

Here it might be objected that performance for another in no way signals the inferiority of the performer to the one for whom the performance is intended: the actor, for example, depends on his audience but is in no way inferior to it; he is not demeaned by his dependency. While femininity is surely something enacted, the analogy to theater breaks down in a number of ways. First, as I argued earlier, the self-determination we think of as requisite to an artistic career is lacking here: femininity as spectacle is something in which virtually every woman is required to participate. Second, the precise nature of the criteria by which women are judged, not only the inescapability of judgment itself, reflects gross imbalances in the social power of the sexes that do not mark the relationship of artists and their audiences. An aesthetic of femininity, for example, that mandates fragility and a lack of muscular strength produces female bodies that can offer little resistance to physical abuse, and the physical abuse of women by men, as we know, is widespread. It is true that the current fitness movement has permitted women to develop more muscular strength and endurance than was heretofore allowed; indeed, images of women have begun to appear in the mass media that seem to eroticize this new muscularity. But a woman may by no means develop more muscular strength than her partner; the bride who would tenderly carry her groom across the threshold is a figure of comedy, not romance.[Note 31; see below]

Pp. 100-101 in Bartky, Sandra Lee. 1997. “Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power.” Pp. 93-111 in Feminist Social Thought: A Reader, edited by D. T. Meyers. New York: Routledge. [Pp. 33-35 in .pdf. Italics in original. Endnotes reproduced below as they appear in the text.]

Note 30: “It is required of women that in order to realize her femininity she must make herself object and prey, which is to say that she must renounce her claims as sovereign subject.” Simone De Beauvoir, The Second Sex (New York: Bantam Books, 1968), p. 642.

Note 31: The film Pumping Iron II portrays very clearly the tension of female bodybuilders (a tension that enters into formal judging in the sport) between muscular development and a properly feminine appearance.

2 thoughts on “Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power

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  1. We talked about Georg Simmel & George Herbert Mead in class tonight, so the imagery of the “Patriarchal Other” is all too real & made me want to vomit. I love that women like Alicia Keys have taken to going without makeup. I’ve done it nearly my whole life because I don’t understand why I should have to paint my face when men don’t. And nearly my whole life other women have looked at me like I was insane because of it. I don’t live my life as a spectacle & it would be lovely if other women wouldn’t perpetuate this notion that it is a requirement.

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