Take a trip to the store to buy just about any product and you may notice a surprising fact; the products are gendered. Products from pens to diapers and of course clothes are designed to enforce the gender binary while also doing its oppressive work. (Bond) The gender binary is a lie perpetrated by cultural institutions like religion and the media; this lie says that all people are divided into one of two gender groups. One group is subordinated to the other, and power and resources flow from the subordinated group to the dominator group. In this way, the institution of gender fits the definition of a system of oppression and resembles the institutions of racism and classism. Gender itself is the problem. Gender is made up. Gender exists only to steal power and resources from people in the subordinated group and deliver them to people in the dominator group. Identifying as a man means choosing an identity which exists solely to allow its participants to benefit from the systemic theft of power and resources from people who do not identify as a man. Each of the groups in the gender binary are like jail cells in a panopticon; if we choose to accept the premise that everyone must pick one of two jail cells in the prison of gender, then we are choosing either to steal power and wealth on that basis, or to have it stolen from us on that basis. This is what gender panopticism means. Gender panopticism must be dismantled.
Researcher Casey Bond looked at common gendered products offered in supermarkets everywhere. The conclusion was that even when products are identical in every way except their assigned gender, the prices charged to people in the subordinated group are often double or triple the prices charged to people in the dominator group. This is a great, concise example of how power and resources are stolen from the subordinated group and delivered to the dominator group; people who identify as women pay more for the same things than do people who identify as men. When gender panopticism invades and corrupts products, it causes price discrimination which benefits the dominator group.
Capitalism is a vehicle for systems of oppression like gender panopticism, but gender panopticism exists on a pervasive basis throughout society. It’s easy to see it in products, but it’s not just about products. Everything from who holds the door open, to who gets promoted, to who stays home with the kids is also doing the simultaneous work of enforcing gender onto people and stealing power and resources from the subordinated group in order to benefit the dominator group. This is deeply unjust, and we have a duty to dismantle the systems that perpetrate this injustice.
Historically, we can see evidence of gender panopticism in things like the wage gap. In 1960 for example, people in the subordinated group made an average of just 60% of what people in the dominator group made. (National Committee on Pay Equity) Today, the number is about 80.5%. We have seen some small historical progress in income, and yet people in the subordinate class are paying double or triple the price for the same consumer goods today versus people in the dominator class. (Bond) Is that progress or regress?
The argument that there is an essence or true inner self which is reflected in gender identities is both racist and classist as Grillo explains in “Anti-Essentialism and Intersectionality,”
The perceived need to define what women’s experience is and what oppression ‘as women’ means has prompted some feminists to analyze the situation of woman by stripping away race and class… This approach, however, assumes the strands or identity are separate… but as the intersectionality critique has taught us, they are different and not just additively. Race and class can not just be subtracted because they are in ways inextricable from gender. The attempt to extract race and class elevates white, middle class experience into the norm, making it the prototypical experience.
There is no true essence of being a woman, nor any true essence of being a man. These are racist, classist, sexist ideas given to us by a culture obsessed with domination and subordination on the basis of any perceived distinction. A common attempt to rebut this fact will claim gender reflects nature and make illiterate reference to XX/XY chromosomes as the sources of the two genders. In reality, human sex chromosomes can combine it at least six ways. (WHO) Most plants have only one sex. Some plant species have two sexes, and others have three sexes. (Armoza) Throughout nature, sex characteristics are highly diverse and do not reflect the human-invented gender binary.
Queer theory offers most of what I’ve articulated up to this point. Foucault gave us the idea of cultural expectations as a panopticon or a prison of identity where we as prisoners enforce the rules on one another. Foucault also talked about the modern punishment being indefinite examination rather than drawing and quartering as was the case in ancient times. (Focuault) It’s not as though something bad will happen to us if we don’t choose to conform. What happens is the constant and indefinite scrutiny and examination of those who have not yet crossed over into rejecting gender as we have. This means that the cost of challenging gender panopticism is the same as challenging the false narrative of the gender binary itself. Foucault calls this “queering”
Judith Butler argues that gender is a performance. It’s a character we play, rather than something we actually are. At the same time, she argues for defending people whose performance is subordinated. For example, murdering women on the basis of their membership in the subordinated gender class is considered acceptable in many places throughout the world. We can work to stop the murder of women while also rejecting the idea of gender as some absolute fact about people. (Yancey)
These theories are part of a larger body of work called Queer Theory. They overlap with others to suggest a potential path forward called queering. Queering is the idea that we can identify and challenge the assumptions and ideas in society which underly and reinforce systems like gender panopticism. (Cohen 438) There is a strong case for queering as well as either allyship or amelioration. On the one hand, we can reject gender panopticism. We can for example, as I do, personally reject the use of pronouns both in my spoken language and in writing, reject the use of gendered products, and reject elements of the performance of gender in our own lives. But we can also work to improve conditions for those who are subordinated by gender. Traditionally, allyship means leveraging privilege to interrupt systems that oppress people. (Bell) But since this means accepting a privileged identity, we can instead practice amelioration as Kate Manne suggests in Down Girl (Manne 55). Therefore, we can dismantle gender panopticism by identifying and rejecting its discourses as well as ameliorating conditions for the people who it is subordinating.
Since gender panopticism is socioculturally pervasive, there are no examples where it has been dismantled, but we can look at examples where conditions are more ameliorated or where challenging the discourses lead to a lesser degree of scrutiny and examination. At Burning Man, for example, I would say a greater scrutiny is applied to people who conform to normal expectations versus people who challenge those expectations. Dressing as a normal-looking man or woman at Burning Man is likely to convey the impression that one is either an undercover cop or else making an ironic statement about gender panopticism by conforming to it.
So too in the underground queer scenes of cities like Berlin and San Francisco, we see the same reversal of the normal trend. Normies are shunned, while people are elevated for challenging or rejecting discourses around gender performance. In many cases though, these challenges are not to gender itself but merely to the person’s accepted gender identity. Someone may cross-dress or become a drag queen and perform the “opposite” of their normal role as a way of exploring inside other jail cells in the panopticon, rather than exiting the panopticon. Less commonly, we see people who identify as “genderqueer” or “nonbinary.” These people actively work to subvert gender discourses and disrupt assumptions about gender and especially about the idea of a gender binary. These people are at the bleeding edge of gender justice, doing the work of dismantling the gender panopticon.
Possibly the best example in popular culture is Janelle Monae, a queer, nonbinary, “highly melanated” artist who makes music, movies, and other art. (Monae 2) Monae’s music videos often contradict discourses around gender. One example is Monae seated on a throne in Django Jane with people of indeterminate gender seated both above and below the throne. (Monae 1) On the subject of gender, Monae has said, “I defy every label and I look at myself as someone who will always stand with my nonbinary people and I look at myself as someone who is constantly growing and does not see myself as someone who lives in a binary way.” (Monae 2) I think Monae’s example is about as ideal as we can get in terms of talking about how to do the work of being outside the binary and actively dismantling the gender panopticon by directly challenging the discourses that it relies on.
I think queer culture is ascendant within the LGBT communities, and that people are starting to see that many of our identities are built on false dichotomies which trap us into sets of discourses around what we are allowed to do and be and want. More and more, it seems like culture is getting more comfortable with stepping outside the jail cells of identity, if only to step into others. The coming wave is one of exiting the jail rather than tiptoeing between cells. Only together can we dismantle all the cells. Only together can we be truly liberated. Only together can we dismantle gender panopticism and all other forms of panopticism and oppression.
Armoza-Zvuloni, R., Kramarsky-Winter, E., Loya, Y., Schlesinger, A., & Rosenfeld, H. (2014). Trioecy, a Unique Breeding Strategy in the Sea Anemone Aiptasia diaphana and Its Association with Sex Steroids Biology of Reproduction, 90 (6), 122-122 DOI: 10.1095/biolreprod.113.114116
Bell, and Pat Griffin. Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice. New York: Routledge, 2007. Print.
Bond, Casey. “7 Weird Examples Of How Women Pay More Than Men For The Same Products.” The Huffington Post. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/pink-tax-examples_l_5d24da77e4b0583e482850f0
Cohen, Cathy J. Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens. The Radical Potential of Queer Politics. GLQ 1 May 1997; 3 (4): 437–465. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/10642684-3-4-437
Foucault, Michel, 1926-1984. Discipline And Punish: the Birth of the Prison. New York: Pantheon Books, 1977.
Manne, Kate. “Ameliorating Misogyny.” Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny. Oxford University Press. 2017. Pp 55.
Monae 1, Janelle. “Django Jane.” YouTube, uploaded by Janelle Monae, 2018-02-22, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mTjQq5rMlEY.
Monae 2, Janelle. “I defy every label.” YouTube, uploaded by Associated Press, 2020-01-15, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mGkoBwXMuAo
National Committee on Pay Equity. “The Wage Gap Over Time: In Real Dollars, Women See a Continuing Gap.” Pay-equity.org. Accessed 2020-03-21. https://www.pay-equity.org/info-time.html
Trina Grillo, Anti-Essentialism and Intersectionality: Tools to Dismantle the Master’s House, 10 Berkeley Women’s L.J. 16 (1995). Available at: http://scholarship.law.berkeley.edu/bglj/vol10/iss1/4
Yancey, George. “Judith Butler: When Killing Women Isn’t a Crime.” New York Times. 2019-07-10.
WHO. “Gender and Genetics.” World Health Organization. https://www.who.int/genomics/gender/en/index1.html