03 December 2012

Response to Bartky: Foucauldian Discipline and the Intersectionalities of Sexism, Gender Binarism and Cissexism, and Heterosexism

This is a brief response paper I wrote for my Introduction to Philosophy class. Not likely my best work, but it earned an A! Thought it might be of interest to you all lovely folks.


Bartky draws on the Foucauldian idea of docile bodies subjected by systems of power and discipline to self-regulation in order to understand the systemic and societal oppression of women by the patriarchy. The feminine subject, like the inmate in the Panopticon who becomes by virtue of the prison's structure his own jailer, polices herself according to standards of femininity (Bartky 79). Bartky's argument for the strict litany of standards of femininity in a woman’s physical appearance, body language and behavior, and conception of her self maintains that these standards and a woman’s rigid adherence to them are perpetuated by a system that enforces patriarchal power on the feminine subject. As Bartky argues, internalized oppression is the result of women believing that the norms demanded by patriarchy ought to be applied to themselves, and understanding themselves within the context of patriarchy (Bartky 77).

She briefly addresses the intersectionality between sexism and heterosexism in her observation that "[the categories of masculinity and femininity] may account to some degree for the otherwise puzzling phenomenon of homophobia," but does not present an adequate understanding of the nuanced complexities undergirding the relationships among sexism (as enforced by the patriarchy), heterosexism, and gender binarism (Bartky 77). Bartky grants that "persons currently can be only as male or female," but does not expand her argument of patriarchal power as a disciplinary power to any understanding of gender binarism and cissexism (Bartky 77). (The patriarchy-derived constructions of masculinity and femininity must by definition contribute to gender binarism, and thus cissexism, and to standards of heteronormativity, which provides the foundation for a profoundly heterosexist society. These three forms of oppression are inextricably interwoven, as the intersectionalities among them exist both among the oppressed groups of women, the non-cisgendered, and the queer, and among the analogously privileged groups of men, the cisgendered, and the heterosexual.) For its limited scope, however, Bartky’s argument of patriarchal power as applied solely within the gender binary provides an excellent example of the ways in which hierarchies of oppression are reinforced by systemically embedded praxes of disciplinary power.

Foucault argues that the "ideal point of penalty today would be an indefinite discipline...a procedure that would be at the same time the permanent measure of a gap in relation to an inaccessible norm and the asymptotic movement that strives to meet in infinity" (Panopticon). From Bartky's argument, we see that the indefinite discipline of the construction of femininity lies in the constant subjugation of women to societal messages that reinforce and uphold the ideals of the patriarchy that separate standards of appearance, behavior, and mannerism into those acceptable for the masculine and those required for the feminine, and in the internalization of these profoundly sexist ideals by women who strive to embed them into their own daily practices and behavior. Disciplinary power is one that seeks not to punish but to shape and structure (Panopticon). In the context of socially-embedded sexism, the power attributed to the patriarchy—the system that privileges and empowers men while simultaneously disempowering, disenfranchising, and oppressing women—is one that disciplines women into constricted constructions of femininity while conditioning those same women to self-discipline and enforce upon themselves the same sexist ideals.

As Bartky argues that constructions of masculinity and femininity go beyond “the construction of personal identities” to become “critical elements in our informal social ontology,” she advances the idea that construction of identity is a fundamental aspect of construction of society. Individual and social contributions to these constructions form the hierarchies of power and privilege that oppress and marginalize, subjecting members of society to external modes of disciplinary power that enforce a sense of normativity centered on the experiences and perceptions of privileged groups. It is impossible to challenge these norms and systemic oppressions without understanding the nature and function of their power to impose on those marginalized by them. Bartky’s argument for a Foucauldian understanding provides the basis for grasping the disciplinary power exerted by those who oppress on those whom they oppress in melding a society that fits a paradigm built around the identities and norms of those with such power and privilege. This disciplinary power is essential to maintaining the status quo, and while those who are oppressed participate as self-enforces of their own oppression, social structures like the patriarchy will remain in place.

Works Cited

Bartky, S. “Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power”

Foucault, M. “Panopticism”. Discipline and Punish. Available at http://foucault.info/documents/disciplineAndPunish/foucault.disciplineAndPunish.panOpticism.html


  1. Bravo! Very well written response!

  2. I'd give that an A for sure. :-)

  3. Hi. I'm not sure where your contact info is, so I'll leave a comment here. I've noticed that many things you write use "he or she" rather than gender-neutral pronouns. As a genderqueer Autistic, I'm frustrated when gendered pronouns are used when a simple "they" could suffice. I feel like I shouldn't have to make this comment, either, considering your extensive knowledge on exclusive language. I just thought I should point that out to you. Great posts, though.

    1. Sorry, I just remembered that this comment was here -- I am continually learning and trying to do better. A lot of the posts on this site, especially older ones, are evidence that how I think and understand myself and others, and the violence of our societies, has changed. Sometimes when I find specific posts that contain language that doesn't gel with me anymore, I edit it. Other times, I feel that maybe that would be intellectually dishonest, because at the time I wrote something problematic, I meant it the way it was written. That doesn't excuse past mistakes, but I don't want to try to alter the record either as if I didn't make them. On the other hand, if there are specific places where you think the language should definitely be changed (perhaps because it is unacceptable to leave it up?) please let me know. I'm open to doing that.

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


Hi! Thank you for sharing your thoughts with me. I manually approve comments, so sometimes it takes a few weeks, months, or even years to find and approve comments. This delay is normal. (Note that I also don't publish every comment, since this is my personal blog.) Unfortunately, anonymous commenting isn't available anymore since it resulted in over one million spam comments in a short period.