Frye “Oppression” and Bartky “Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power” 


(1)   Frye: Knows that men and women alike are subject to social constraint and gender regulations. For example, she KNOWS that men are not permitted to express emotional vulnerability in the way that women are. However, she does not think that a person’s being subject to social constraint and gender regulation is sufficient for their being oppressed.

(2)   We can put this in terms of “the game.” While it is true that everybody is subject to the rules of the game (and will suffer social consequences for failing to abide by them), the rules are “fixed” so that some people do better in the game and some people do worse.

(3)   One of the hallmarks of oppression, for Frye, is the “double-bind” (damned if you, damned if you don’t). So, if we want to know whether there is oppression going on, argues, Frye, we should look for the double binds. For example, while “virginity” may subject a man to negative assessment, being sexually experienced will NOT subject him to negative assessment – indeed, sexual experience can be a source of pride. By contrast, a woman may be subject to negative assessment either way: Either she is frigid or else she is a whore.

(4)   Frye thinks that in order to understand a social constraint, it needs to be placed within a much larger context. We need to analyze its role in the game. For example, the social ritual of men opening doors for women may seem like a nice idea until it is analyzed in a larger context. Frye argues that it is not really a gesture of genuine help – rather it merely symbolizes women’s helplessness.

(5)   What seems like a constraint (when focused on in isolation) may turn out to be a constraint that keeps somebody out of a prison or a cage. Even though that person is not allowed to go into the cage, it is ultimately for their benefit  - and they are in a privileged position (in contrast to the person who is stuck in the cage). So, while a man may not be allowed to express emotional vulnerability in the same way that a woman is, this constraint may be like a constraint that prevents somebody from entering a cage. (NOTE the double bind for women. A woman who does not express emotion is “cold” and “bitchy” while a woman who does express it is “a typical, overly emotional woman”).


Bartky: Wants to “update” our notions of power and oppression. So she draws on the very influential work of French philosopher, Michel Foucault.


(1)   The King Model: In the “king model” a monarch rules from on high. He issues laws and decrees (pay your taxes, keep off my property). And people are expected to follow them (on pain of getting tossed in the dungeon). In the model, the sovereign is the central figure – he is the power “with a face” and he rules over the faceless, anonymous masses. While he is powerful, he does not have the power to “micro-manage.” While he might make somebody pay taxes, he can’t make them walk and talk a particular way. He’s too busy!

(2)   The Modern Model: In this model, power is “de-centralized.” It is not located in a ruling sovereign with a “face.” Rather, power is spread out all over – it is “bureaucratic” and faceless. (Think of the power that CSULA bureaucracy has had over your life. Yet there is no identifiable king. Rather, you dance to the tune of many anonymous bureaucrats). In this model, power is “micro.” It gets into your body – your very posture, movements are controlled. This type of micro-managing power requires constant surveillance: EVERYBODY is a potential enforcer of the power. (RE: The random man who comes up to me and tells me to smile). But we also become our own sergeant: Under constant surveillance we learn to monitor ourselves. We keep ourselves under surveillance.  Consider this idea of the “Panopticon” – a circular building with glass on both sides; in the center of this building a tower. Here the guards in the tower can constantly surveil those in the cells. And those in the cells learn to surveil themselves! In this model, it is precisely those who are subject who have a face.

(3)   Bartky argues that women are subject to this modern power in ways that place them at a particular disadvantage. She discusses three main areas: (1) The body (control through diet and exercise – think of the way women are expect to be  thin, take up little space); (2) Bodily gesture/movement (women are not supposed to take up a lot of space); (3) “Surface Ornamentation” (e.g. cosmetics).

(4)   Bartky argues that women are “disciplined” (that’s a term from Foucault) into certain types of bodies that look and move in particular ways. They are, because of this, placed in a subordinate role. Cosmetics, exercise, etc. seem like voluntary ways of “expressing oneself.” However, there is actually POWER involved. Consider cosmetics: A woman who does not do up her face in a certain way will be subject to social consequences (criticism, loss of opportunities). Moreover, there are very strict constraints on how cosmetics are supposed to look (imagine putting lipstick on your forehead!). So, while it seems that this is a case of self-expression, it is really the kind of “disciplining” that characterizing Foucault’s notion of modern power.

(5)   One of the reasons that this “discipline” seems more like self-expression, argues Bartky, is that there is even more “de-centralization” in this case. There is no chief bureaucrat – no jail warden or teacher who calls the shots. In this case, power is spread out even more – anybody can end up being an enforcer – and everybody is engaged in “surveilling” each other.