The following is a short piece I wrote in response to (philosopher) Michel Foucault’s theory of biopower and biopolitics as a form of control and discipline in modern states (for one of my English seminars). I thought it would be interesting to share it here too.
In “Society Must Be Defended”, Michel Foucault offers two examples where bio-politics and discipline intersect. One such intersection of mechanisms of power to discipline and regulate bodies is through codes of conduct in schools. In this piece, I will discuss how these mechanisms act within the framework of systemic sexism towards girls by exercising control over their bodies in order to regulate and discipline/control them.
Firstly, regulatory mechanisms are implemented explicitly through the “dos and don’ts” of uniform. While, on the surface, these rules are said to ensure discipline among learners, in the case of girls they play a much bigger and more complex role. The regulation of dresses and skirts in order to keep them at an acceptable length, the prescribed hair and nail lengths, the prohibition of see-though shirts and revealing of shoulders etc. are all rules which are often tied to a broader goal to retain and enforce a particular idea of “respectability”. In the school context, what is deemed appropriate is often closely tied to a perception of what makes one respectable, and by extension what is viewed as professional even in the work-place. These rules are masked as efforts to de-sexualise the bodies of girls – by limiting the likelihood that male staff and learners will be distracted by their bodies as a result of a skirt too short, lips too glossy, or hair too stylish.
Although the belief is that by de-sexualising girls’ bodies, sexual thoughts or urges will be suppressed (which is a mechanism of biopower through controlling people’s sexuality and urges), an inverse effect is also induced. Not only does this contribute to the perpetuation of the primitive anecdote of men as uncontrollable, sexual beings and womxn as the asexual, docile counterparts whose responsibility it is to provide as little temptation for men as possible, this creates a taboo of female sexuality and its expression.
These practices contribute to an obsession with policing girls’ and womxn’s bodies which begins at a young age, whereby society continuously scrutinises the respectability of womxn, often tying clothing to morality or lack thereof. This makes society a kind of panopticon-like body which through constant surveillance and womxn’s consequent awareness of this gaze, ensures that womxn conform to the expected dress codes and behaviour as prescribed by the norms.
On the other hand, the general taboo of sexual health/sexuality education is one of the most prominent manifestations of biopower – the exercise of control over individuals and populations through strict regulatory mechanisms of the biological (controlling birth, the quality of life, death, sexuality and reproduction). A common example of this kind of control in history could be political regimes which placed restrictions on the number of children one could have and how the womxn of those families were depicted in a particular light depending on what that political regime sought to achieve.
For example the Nazi regime depicted the (Aryan) womxn who bore many children as saintly because of the objective of creating the Aryan race, whereas womxn who had more than one child under China’s one-child policy were depicted in a completely different light because of the different political aims of the regime. In schools, however, the obsession continues to be the desexualising of adolescents and the fixated on monitoring how they use their bodies. The obvious result then follows – a fixation on sexual exploration and rebellion is then bred which is often done irresponsibly due to the lack of sufficient knowledge about sex.
Many school rules aim to suppress any expression of individuality by establishing a homogenous identity for learners and this also a means to assimilate them into a single body which is much easier to control than a collective of individuals. Adolescents are typically undergoing a stage of self-discovery and personal expression through one’s identity is a way in which one can express rebellion or conformity. Be it through signature jewellery, tattoos, unnatural hair colours, painted nails or unusual hairdos these are all ways in which young people can express their psychological and emotional state-of-mind and make statements to those around them. Uniform which sets such strict regulations, limits and represses identity which could indicate a deviation from the generally accepted norms and values prescribed by the authority.