Gaze and the Culturally Determined Body Michel Essay

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Gaze and the Culturally Determined Body

Michel Foucault first developed his theory of the panopticon as a means of describing the ways in which a society may dominate the thought processes and behavior of the individual by "convincing" that individual to implicitly engage in their own surveillance, in the same way that a literal, brick-and-mortar panopticon relies on the self-regulation of prisoner behavior due to the fear of possible surveillance and punishment. In formulating this theory, Foucault uncovered important details regarding the way in the body is created, regulated, and sometimes even decimated by societal standards, something which Susan Bordo expands upon in her essay "Beauty (re)Discovers the Male Body." Bordo analyzes the way in which bodies (and in this case, male bodies) and the meanings gained from them are culturally determined, to the extent that the human body as it is commonly considered has almost nothing to do with biology, but rather is rather a culturally created object. By discussing Foucault's "Panopticism" alongside "Beauty (re)Discovers the Male Body," one may begin to see how the cultural standards which mediate people's conceptions of the body ultimately serve to reinforce the dominant power structure by controlling the physical by means of the cultural.

Before discussing the culturally determined body in particular, it will be beneficial to briefly examine Foucault's theories regarding panopticism as a means of contextualizing the subsequent analysis of Bordo's work. According to Foucault, the panopticon works precisely by empowering the gaze of the captor, enclosing the captured but also ensuring that they may not hide in the darkness of a traditional cell, but rather must be constantly observed, and thus controlled. Put another way, "full lighting and the eye of a supervisor capture better than darkness, which ultimately protected. Visibility is a trap." (Foucault 200). Of course, the supervisor need not actually look at every cell for the panopticon to be effective, but rather only needs to convince the inmate that he or she remains under the supervisors gaze, such that "the major effect of the Panopticon [is] to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power" (201).

The key word here is "automatic," because the true power of the panoptic gaze is the way in which it can multiply and mechanize authority; the actual person of the supervisor is largely irrelevant, because it is the supervisor in the inmate's mind which precipitates obedience and subservience. Thus, "the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary," and "the inmates [are] caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers" (201). While Foucault focuses mainly on the formalized methods of discipline and the reinforcement of authority, such as religious groups or the police, his analysis of the panopticon is perhaps most incisive when applied to society as a whole, because it reveals the way in which every individual is ultimately responsible for the authoritarian cultural domination of every other, just as every individual is simultaneously the victim of the societal gaze under which he or she finds his or her self.

In every interaction both parties (so long as both parties are mere citizens, and not explicit representatives of authority, such as the police) must simultaneously wither under the supposed judgmental gaze of the other while participating in that very same exercise of authority. Every individual becomes an enforcer, whether they want to or not, those in power protect themselves by creating the illusion of a self-regulating society, in which the inmates believe the societal standards they reinforce are simply "common sense," rather than the dictates of (relatively) concealed power elite (to the point that some, such as religious leaders, may be long dead even as their ridiculous behavioral standards become ingrained into ostensibly secular society).

In a way, one may read Susan Bordo's work as an extension of Foucault's theory which seeks to examine how the body, like any other aspect of human life under the purview of the panoptic gaze, is culturally constructed and controlled. Although Bordo has a laughably inaccurate view of the history of representations of the female body, arguing that (aside from classical art) "the naked and near-naked female body became an object of mainstream consumption first in Playboy and its imitators," she does at least make some reasonable observations regarding the development of male body as a culturally constructed and sexualized object, although once again, her view of history seems entirely limited to the latter half of the twentieth century, and she ignores certain visual features of media in order to make her argument appear more clean-cut than it really is. Nonetheless, examining Bordo's work will aid in understanding how the gaze reinforces culturally produced standards and helps to create the culturally determined body, if only because her critical failures, in their omissions, point to the truly crucial truths about the cultural control of the body.

In particular, Bordo focuses on the way in which the male body, at least in contemporary American culture, has long been conditioned to avoid the gaze of another, either by a simple lack of appearances in media, or more commonly, by returning the gaze of the viewer "as do so many models in […] ads for male underwear, facing off like a street tough passing a member of the rival gang on the street. ("Yeah, this is an underwear ad and I'm half naked. But I'm still in charge here. Who's gonna look away first?")" (Bordo 171). Bordo focuses on the development of the male form as an object of sexualized viewing in contrast to the relatively common sight of nude or nearly-nude female bodies and determines that only relatively recently has the male form been given the same kind of visual treatment.

The distinction Bordo makes here is between images of men returning the gaze of the viewer in a seemingly confrontational manner and, like the Calvin Klein underwear she cites as her first experience "of what it's like to inhabit this visual culture as a man," those in which the man "doesn't stare at the viewer challengingly, belligerently" (Bordo 168, 171). Bordo's analysis of the functioning of the gaze and interaction between viewer and object is useful for understanding the culturally constructed body, but it also suffers from a major flaw, or at least a major omission, which renders her otherwise useful commentary somewhat incomplete.

In short, although Bordo claims to have experienced "what it's like to inhabit this visual culture as a man," she has seemingly decided to completely ignore the specific visual language utilized in advertisements ostensibly geared towards men. The averted look of the male, which Bordo sees as the feature which allows him to become the object of the viewer's gaze, is simultaneously used precisely in order to remove the man from the viewer's gaze in the case of advertisements "designed with [men's] sexual responses (or, at least, what those sexual responses are imagined to be) in mind" (Bordo 170). In those images featuring both a man and a woman in which the woman is clearly intended to be rendered as a sexualized object, the woman is almost always peering back at the viewer while the man's eyes are averted. The most obvious reason for this (or at least the reason most commonly cited by advertisers and/or media critics) is that the averted gaze of the man, coupled with the supposedly "inviting" gaze of the woman, allows the heterosexual male viewer to imagine himself in the place of the anonymous male figure in the image.

Thus, it is precisely the returned gaze which serves to objectify the women, and the averted gaze which serves to essentially remove the male figure from the equation. That in this case the woman's returned gaze is intended to…[continue]

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