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Foucault and the Female Body

Power is a difficult concept to pin down and situate within society. Historically, power has been viewed as an instrument of coercion employed by dominant groups, or people, over their subordinates. This depicts power as a concentrated, static possession of the elite. In recent decades, there has been a theoretical shift which affords power a greater degree of fluidity. Power can now be seen as diffuse and discursive, something which is performed rather than possessed. Foucault, to whom this shift can largely be accredited, dedicates much of his discussion on power to the body - this is where he believes the forces of power are most heavily exerted (Foucault, 1980). However, his analyses have a tendency to neglect issues relating to gender. This essay seeks to show how, despite its apparent gender-neutrality, a Foucauldian conception of power could serve as a theoretical lens through which to explore the effects of power on the female body. To attempt to analyse Foucault's work on power in its entirety, especially given the constraints of this essay, would do no justice to the breadth and depth of his research. Accordingly, one theoretical strand will be taken as a point of focus - biopower. Biopower can be broken down into two subsections; disciplining of the body and regulation of population. Firstly, disciplining of the body will be explored in relation to Bartky's (1997) study on the modernisation of patriarchal power, where parallels with panopticism can be drawn. Second, Van Hollen's (2003) study of the modernisation of childbirth in India will provide an example of biopower in the shape of population regulation. However, as a necessary start point, a moment will be taken to outline Foucault's unique conceptualisation of discourse. For most, discourse is a linguistic concept where meaning and knowledge are produced through language. Foucault, on the other hand, sees all social practices, linguistic and nonlinguistic, as being discursive. Discourse dictates how we talk about a given topic. It defines that which can be said and that which is unacceptable. Further, it "influences how ideas are put into practice and used to regulate the conduct of others" (Hall, 1997, p. 44). It bears noting that discourses, and the meanings they produce, should only be understood within their specific historical and cultural contexts. For example, people who fit the modern criteria for being mentally ill have always existed; it is only once the concept of mental illness is constructed within medical and psychiatric discourse that the label "mentally ill" acquires any meaning. Knowledge can thus be deemed historically and culturally specific and becomes inextricably linked with power. This meeting of knowledge with power can, in certain discursive contexts, generate "regimes of truth"; the truth described here is not an objective truth, but rather a system of knowledge powerful enough to convince people of its veracity. As Hall (1997) puts forward, it may not be true in an absolute sense that single parenting invariably produces delinquent children, but if it is generally accepted to be so and single parents are punished as a result, then it "will become "true" in terms of its real effects" (p. 49). Regimes of truth perform a role of regulation in society and, for Foucault, the body is the main site of discipline. At the turn of the nineteenth century, Foucault identifies a shift in the disciplinary techniques employed on the body. Previously, torture was the normalised form of punishment. This was often carried out publically to instil fear in citizens by conveying the message that "if you behave like this person did, this will happen to you too." A transition away from this saw new technologies of power introduced which sought to internalise discipline within the subject. Power becomes located within the body and subjects become their own disciplinarians. Bentham's Panopticon captures this principle perfectly, its fundamental objective being "to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power" (Foucault, 1975, p. 201). Intrinsic to Foucault's portrayal of power is his emphasis on it as being not just a repressor but also a producer, more specifically a producer of "docile bodies". While Bartky (1997) applauds Foucault's Discipline & Punish (1975) branding it a "genuine tour de force" (Bartky, 1997, p. 131), she takes issue with his lack of gender-specific

analysis. She infers that in his research exists an assumption that the experiences of men and women in the production of docile bodies do not differ. Her contention is that women are subjected to a process of engendering, embedding within them a set of rules for being "feminine". Being a male or female is biological fact, but masculinity and femininity are social constructs. Bartky looks to unveil the disciplinary practices which produce "feminine bodies" through the regulation of "the body's size and contours, its appetite, posture, gestures, and general comportment in space and the appearance of each of its visible parts" (p. 148). In a similar fashion to the disciplinary shift mentioned earlier, women have experienced a modernisation of power. Ties between the female and the household have been somewhat severed, with many women now pursuing careers beyond the domestic domain. The increasing secularisation of society means the power granted to male figures (i.e. husbands and fathers) by the church has been diluted and women are no longer constrained by the notion of the traditional family. This is not to say that women are no longer subjected to disciplinary power, but rather that this power has evolved. It is diffuse and anonymous, ingrained in a discourse which outlines the rules for being feminine. The upshot of such a disguised discipline is that the lengths that women go to in order to achieve femininity appear voluntary or natural. There is nothing or no one to resist against because the rules have been inscribed in their own bodies. These rules act as tools of subordination by painting women as inferior and in need of modification. This is perhaps born out of the general inclination to pit males and females in opposition with one another, as reinforced by various binary associations such as nature/culture and body/mind (King, 2004). Because of women's association with their physiology, their bodies are subject to greater scrutiny than their male counterparts. Thus, discourses on what is desirable in the female body emerge and women feel pressured to meet these expectations. Bartky (1997) talks of the current style of the female figure which prescribes that an overly abundant female body is unattractive. Women are therefore encouraged, either by friends or magazines, to diet which means constantly monitoring what they eat. She alludes to the idea of "spot-reducing" which are exercises that target specific areas of the body. This creates unrealistic goals for women as they are, in essence, trying to overcome genetically predisposed patterns of fat deposition. Women are also encouraged to undertake ritualistic beauty routines by applying various cosmetics and make-up to their skin. While this may be seen as a practice of individualisation, what underlies it is the implication that an "unpainted" female face is defective. Meeting these prerequisites for feminine beauty may garner then some attention and possibly some admiration, but rarely will they receive respect or gain any power. What's more, women are often chastised for taking an interest in such "trivial" matters. So why do women strive to meet these expectations of femininity? Bartky (1997) posits that a "panoptical male connoisseur resides within the consciousness of most women: They stand perpetually before his gaze and under his judgement." And under such judgement it would appear that women are destined to fall short and feel shame for their shortcomings, further perpetuating their subordinate status. The body is closely linked with sexuality. Foucault (1976) takes a comprehensive look at the proliferation of discourses on sex from the eighteenth century onwards. He posits that theories of sexuality are no longer the sole concern of discourse surrounding sex. Sex is something which must be accounted for within a political and economic sphere, something which requires close, analytical inspection. At the heart of this is the relocation of governance from the sovereign to a political economy. Previously, power was a deductive force founded upon a "right to death". The death penalty was a vengeful act carried out on behalf of the sovereign. Power now invests itself in promoting life and bettering the lives of the entire population. The "population" becomes a political and economic issue to be dealt with; "population as wealth, population as manpower or labour capacity, population balanced between its own growth and the resources it commanded" (Foucault, 1976, p. 25). It is an object of statistical scrutiny which is to be regulated and manipulated. Birth rate is a statistic commonly associated with population given that the two directly correlate. Van Hollen's (2003) research on childbirth and modernity in Tamil Nadu

demonstrates how biopower is used to regulate birth rates. Prior to the 1960's, hospital births were virtually unheard of in this low caste area and so traditional, non-allopathic birthing procedures were the norm. However, when Van Hollen visited in 1995, she estimated that around half of the childbirths were taking place at the hospital which suggests that this region was in the midst of transition. What brought about this transition? Discourses of modernity. When asked why they opted for a hospitalised birth, the most common answer given by the mothers was that they wanted to be modern. To them, being modern carries with it connotations of being intelligent or educated, a sense of "coming to know". Van Hollen suggests that these ideas of modernity have been filtered down to the poorer population via international, national, state and nongovernment organisations to lull them into thinking that having a hospital delivery, or limiting the number of children they have, is their choice. This is captured by one of her informants, Muttama, who explained, "It was only once I took this health course that I came to know the world. Had I known what I know today, I would have stopped at 2 children and I would have gone to the hospital for my deliveries (Van Hollen, 2003). According to Van Hollen, the Indian government was under mounting pressure from leading international organisations such as the World Bank to "set up population control programs as a condition for economic development" (Van Hollen, 2003). To adhere to this neoMalthusian ideology that over population is to blame for poverty, they implemented policies which aimed to reduce birth rates using hospitals as their "apparatus of power". These policies encourage hospital workers to convince mothers to take family planning measures (IUD's) and incentives are laid out for meeting certain targets. This often means that mothers are coerced or blackmailed into accepting these measures, or worse still, the IUD's are inserted without their consent. The mother's body here becomes a site of government and power, and what was a natural process is transformed into one of population regulation. By no means has this essay attempted to undermine Foucault's theory of power, or more specifically biopower. The profound influence of his work within the realms of anthropology, amongst a host of other fields, is undeniable. His expansion of the term discourse beyond the boundaries of language allows us to see how things acquire meaning, as well as how knowledge and power help produce and reproduce one another. His notion of a modernised power which seeks to internalise discipline certainly rings true when observing the rules inscribed in the female body for achieving femininity. Bartky's (1997) allusion to the judgmental gaze of the "panoptical male" gives real heed to the Foucauldian presence in the constitution of patriarchal power. Echoes of Foucault can also be felt when looking at the regulation of birth rates. Van Hollen's (2003) study of childbirth in Tamil Nadu shows how western discourse on development influenced the Indian government's policy making, who, in turn, generated a discourse on modernity to encourage the poor population to opt for a hospitalised birth. This facilitated the hospitals, their "apparatus of power", in administering mothers with family planning measures, in essence, using the female body as a vessel through which to control birth rates. Why Foucault gave so little attention to gender, and whether or not this was a conscious decision, remains to be seen. What can be said, however, is that the female body typifies Foucault's claims about power.


Bartky, S., 1997. Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power. In: K. Conboy, N. Medina & S. Stanbury, eds. Writing on the Body: Female Embodiment and Feminist Theory. New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 129-155. Foucault, M., 1975. Panopticism. In: Discipline & Punish. New York: Vintage Books, pp. 195-228. Foucault, M., 1976. The History of Sexuality Volume 1: An Introduction. New York: Pantheon Books. Foucault, M., 1980. Body/Power. In: C. Gordon, ed. Power/Knowledge. New York: The Harvester Press Limited, pp. 55-63. Hall, S., 1997. The Work of Representation. In: S. Hall, ed. Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. London: Sage Publications, pp. 41-54. King, A., 2004. The Prisoner of Gender: Foucault and the Disciplining of the Female Body. Journal of International Women's Studies, 5(2), pp. 29-39. Van Hollen, C., 2003. Birth on the Threshold: Childbirth and Modernity in South India. Berkeley: University of California Press.