Feminist readings of Foucault

Katt has an interesting series of articles on Foucault and the feminine body (here and here).

How useful is Foucault in feminism? A short discussion below.
Foucault has historically been problematic for feminists. In Ladelle McWhorter’s tremendously exciting book (Bodies and Pleasures) she describes how, as a grad student in 1984 she was warned off using Foucault for her dissertation. Foucault, it was said, undermined any basis for identity politics and specifically he was menacing to minorities’ rights. Her identity as a feminist and as a lesbian would be repudiated.
In chapter 3 of her book “Why I shouldn’t like Foucault…So they say” she outlines three main lines of criticism: (1) Foucault leaves no criteria for preferring values, (2) he destabilizes human agency and freedom, and (3) his work destroys the basis for liking identity and thus for building communities based on common identities.

One could add here the common observation that Foucault hardly ever discusses women per se, and certainly not women in relation to power or powerful women. Amy Richlin makes this point in her essay in Rethinking Sexuality. Instead we get the study of the “hysterical woman.” (Foucault does discuss the family quite a lot though. One might see here, relatedly, The Policing of Families by Jacques Donzelot.)

How McWhorter deals with and makes peace with these criticisms (and I think she does) you can read in the book, which I highly recommend.

That was then. Katt’s paper is more concerned with how society “produces” a “docile” feminine body (one forever “binding , plucking, painting, and deodorizing” as she quotes Dworkin). The female body is “normalized” for example in terms of its weight and dietary practices.

In Part 2 this argument is extended to discuss how the correct feminine body is more susceptible to rape.

She argues that at this point feminist theory divided. On the one hand there was work that claimed that males were “biologically predisposed to rape.” She cites Ann Cahill and the idea that many women practice “self-policing.” This Foucauldian notion is close to government of the self (my gloss).

On the other hand there is a “feminine” side that explains rape as what males have learned from a patriarchal society. In this case too there is self-surveillance.

I didn’t like the ending or conclusions she finishes with though:

After decades of self-surveillance in organized dieting only to end up in anti-rape self-surveillance, it seems women would have realized at some point exactly the conundrum society puts us into. However, as women continue to diet to the point they must be more aware of the affect their desired body has upon the male population, the economy continues to improve. Until the women of our society are willing to assert their own power over society, the cycle will continue.

How does one do that exactly? Is this a rejection of diet? To redefine the terms of what is considered attractive in society? Or what? It would be nice to know.


4 Responses

  1. I’m glad you liked the blog. Unfortunately, I don’t know how we would go about asserting power over society. I think at one point NOW tried to do that, but then at the same time I think they are part of the problem. The same goes for a lot of the feminist anti-establishment groups. As I begin to rethink this conclusion (thanks for the criticism), I’m starting to wonder if it’s less about asserting power over society and more about simply teaching women to understand that they may not have the body society deems desirable but that is a lot less important than having a body they are comfortable with.

    It’s an interesting conundrum in my opinion (especially since I teach at a woman’s university) and I have a feeling that I’ll be contemplating this more and more as I continue to read Foucault!

  2. Hi,

    I don’t have answers either. One of my experiences this week was talking one on one to all the students in my grad seminar. One is interested in feminist applications of technology. Another woman exhibited a strong reaction against anything to do with feminism (it had come up in conversation). Could be wrong, but I got the impression she didn’t like the lefty political implications of it–the NOW issue you allude to.

    Body issues affect different kinds of people no doubt. The way race is marked on the body (or is it vice-versa?). Unathletic, short or heavy males also get judged (see Hurley on Lost, a good show and a great character but stereotypically has him off hiding food all the time).

  3. Jeremy,

    Do you happen to know off the top of your head whether Foucault himself uses the term “self-policing” or if this is something that scholars have come to use based on his writings? One of my blog readers is trying desperately to track down an answer to this question and I’m at a loss. I thought for sure it would be in the translation of D&P, but it’s not. Any ideas?

  4. […] 29th, 2007 by Jeremy Katt asks below if Foucault uses the term “self-policing” in his […]

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