So some dudes were complaining lately, “Women are telling guys to stop telling them how to dress, but not all guys are total misogynists! Women do it to each other too!”
So. People. Let me tell you a thing.
This is a picture of a panopticon. It’s a kind of prison. See, it’s a giant circle, with all the cells around the rim. The tower in the middle is where the guards are. The guards can see into all the prisoners’ cells, but the prisoners cannot see each other, and they have difficulty seeing the guards. Each prisoner knows that at any time, they are being watched, and if the guards see them behaving incorrectly, they will come with truncheons and beat the prisoner up. They learn to feel that gaze on them, all the time; every movement makes them think, “What if this breaks the rules, and they see, and they come and punish me?” Soon, prisoners don’t need guards standing over them all the time to follow the rules; they do it themselves, because that gaze is omnipresent. Even when the guard house is empty, they still think, “What if someone is watching me?” (This is all from Michel Foucault. You want more on this, go read Discipline and Punish, enjoy the descriptions of medieval torture.)
The panopticon is a metaphor. In our society, we are constantly watched, tracked, disciplined, and punished, from childhood. The school says you skipped class today. The babysitter says you wouldn’t follow the rules. The police saw you at the park with your friends. We are held to valid rules, and to bullshit rules; some of them are necessary to make our society safe, and some of them just make us easier to exploit.
You are held to rules. I am held to rules. They vary. As a woman, I am held to rules that say be small be pretty defer to someone else and I’m punished in different ways if I don’t obey. My brother is held to different rules, that say be strong don’t feel dominate the situation. We end up policing each other; we meet and he says, “Looking good,” and I remember: people are watching how I dress and how I look. If I disobey, they will notice, and I could be punished. I meet him after his job and ask, “Do you think you’ll be promoted soon?” and he remembers: people pay attention to whether or not I’m in charge, and if I’m not dominant, I could be punished.
Sometimes the guardhouse is empty. Sometimes nobody is paying close attention to what I’m wearing. Sometimes the guards don’t come to punish me, so whether or not I am pretty or attractive does not affect whether I get to own property. (It used to: whether or not my ancestresses were married affected their legal and economic statuses hugely)
Feminism is about the work of dismantling the prison when it comes to bullshit rules. It’s about saying that we shouldn’t be held to stupid rules based on gender. So it’s about the work of getting rid of the cells and the watchtower, and getting rid of the guards with truncheons. We can stop telling each other these stories about all the rules we’re held to, and we can stop punishing each other for breaking them. My brother stops telling me, “You’ll never get a date if you dress like that.” I stop telling him, “You need to be strong and work hard so you come out on top.”
So no, feminists don’t believe that all men everywhere are 100% misogynistic. It’s just that a lot of women are conditioned to think that 100% of the time, there is a risk that someone is watching us, and we will be punished if the break the rules. It is really hard work to break the social structures and the internal attitudes that imprison us.
And yes, women can enforce the panopticon. Hell, I’ll even tell you a womanly secret: I cannot count the number of times I’ve received cruelty at the hands of fellow girls for the way I looked or dressed. My entire middle school experience was basically that and algebra. We’re working on fixing that! Please, do not doubt that we’ve been working on that among ourselves as a gender. Women have spent a lot of blood, sweat, and tears trying to change how we treat each other. Now we’re asking you to pitch in.