Contemporary Interpretation of the Panopticon Through the Omnipresent “Male Gaze”

Implications of the “male gaze” exemplified by “molka”, a controversial Korean phenomenon

In the last month, Jung Jun Young, a Korean pop star was investigated for filming and sharing videos, showing him having sex with several women. During the investigation, group chats were found, containing conversations about drugging and raping numerous women. They clearly knew that these actions were actionable, but they continued to make light of the situation. This is not the first time illegal filming was brought to attention in South Korea. Last year, a photo of a male model, secretly taken during a drawing class at Hongik University, was posted to an online community. In a couple of hours, the police were able to locate the student responsible for the photo and prosecute her. This enraged women all over the country, because there were countless women who have come for help with the same issues, but the authorities claimed that they were not able to help them. These instances do not include women who did not come forward due to the fear of being ostracized. Both of these scandals highlight how common illegal filming is in Korea. In public bathrooms, fitting rooms, swimming pools all over Seoul, tiny hidden cameras are being discovered and many women are avoiding these public places in fear of being filmed.

To describe this type of video, the term 몰카(mol-ka) has manifested, which is a combination of words 몰래(mol-lae, “secret”) and 카메라(kamera, “camera”). This term, originally derived from the name of a popular 1990s television show that featured hidden camera pranks, is now used as a category of pornography. The demand and supply for these videos are large enough to create an entire category of porn. Some blame Korea’s illegalization of pornography for this phenomenon. They argue that if Korea had proper production of porn, mol-ka would not be as popular. Some argue that more severe punishment needs to be enforced to stop enabling the constant occurrence. On the other side, deeper discussions on the voyeuristic nature of mol-ka phenomenon continues. Many are questioning if the mol-ka phenomenon was established due to the long-term built up unhealthy superiority of men in Korea. As the issue of mol-ka becomes more controversial, the wedge between women and men is exacerbated.

Patriarchal societies exist all over the world, however, the particularly extreme case of mol-ka exemplifies the ultimate result of a long term cultural complicity to the “male gaze”. The “gaze” entails the hierarchical power structure of the gazer and the subject of the gaze, which can be demonstrated through Michel Foucault’s interpretation of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon. Developing from Foucault’s “gaze”, Laura Mulvey introduces the “male gaze”, which is a notion reinforced constantly through entertainment, media and other public platforms that make each individual more complicit towards it. These references, distinctly categorized as Western texts and ideals, can be quite far from Korean culture or entertainment customs. However, the common thread of gendered gaze and the oppression that follows is a universal affair that transcends cultural barriers. In most cases all over the globe, the identity within individuals form from the restricted binary standard of the “male gaze”. This voyeuristic nature of contemporary digital communication aggravates the fear of being ostracized forcing individuals to conform to the norm.

Figure 1: The Data Panopticon and Surveillance Capitalism by Sklah (2017)

Panopticon: “The Gaze”

In Chapter 3 of his book, Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault argues that a prison architecture designed by Jeremy Bentham represents the power structure of our society. He titles this chapter Panopticism after the name of Bentham’s prison design, Panopticon. The layout of prison is a circular grid of cells, all exposed to the center of the building, where a separate tower for the guards exists (Figure 1). The tower is built with glass shutters surrounding it that makes the guards invisible to the prisoners. The outside viewers cannot see the inside of the tower but the insider viewers can see outside. Because the prisoners do not have any visibility, the occupation of the tower is unverifiable. Therefore, an allusion of constant surveillance is created, forcing the inmates into self-restraint. Foucault asserts that this structure is so effective that the guards do not need to be present for the prison to maintain its function. Due to the fear of punishment, the prisoners are disciplined to put themselves under surveillance. The idea of authority is essential in maintaining the self-surveillance system, not the authority figure itself.

This omnipresent self-surveillance system is intricately embedded in our social structure. The power to control the individual within a society comes from the institutional laws. Whether it be from the government, cooperation or even from family households, every institution holds some type of rules and/or guidelines to follow. These institutions decide what is right and what is wrong and the individuals who live within the structure of these institution has to oblige to the rules. As individuals grow up within the institutional structure, ideas of an authoritative agency, such as Santa Claus, Police officers, or even monsters in the closets, are installed to stimulate the sense of fear and voyeurism. Foucault describes this sense of voyeurism — “the meticulousness of the regulations, the fussiness of the inspections, the supervision of the smallest fragment of life… [such as] schools, barracks, hospital [is to] control and use men…” (Foucault, 1977: p. 140–1). Later in his text, he labels this sense of surveillance with a purpose of discipline, as the “normalizing gaze”, which is where the term “gaze” came from.

Although the level of visibility is not the same as the Bentham’s Panopticon, Foucault’s allusion of the “gaze” is very present in contemporary societies. By understanding that the power the “gaze” transcends one authority figure or agency, it can be seen that the power can fall on anyone with the ability to gaze and discipline. Every individual or components of the society, has the ability to “gaze”, hence, partakes in disciplining one another. Therefore, every member exists both in the tower, as the “gazer”, and in the cell, as the subject of the “gaze”. Anyone who violates a rule or a norm is effectively spotted by one of many “gazers” and will be held accountable to a form of disciplinary sanction, whether it be legal or financial consequences or social branding as a deviant. This analysis of the panoptic social construct demonstrates how the “gaze” subtly imposes normative behavior on individuals.

“Male Gaze”

Figure 2: Susanna and the Elders by Tintoretto (1556)

Stipulating the previously defined hierarchy of the “gaze”, the dominance of the “male gaze” is to be clarified through the context of John Berger’s The Way of Seeing. He begins his argument by saying, “Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves.” (Berger, p.47) On the text of Adam and Eve in Genesis, Berger comments that this religious story places the blame onto Eve, or to an extension, women, by “being made subservient to the man. In relation to the woman, the man becomes the agent of God” (Berger, p. 48). To reveal how deeply rooted the “male gaze” in women’s psyche, Berger continues to interpret several examples of female presence in traditional oil paintings, such as Susanna and the Elders by Tintoretto (Figure 2). The painting depicts Susanna, gazing at herself in a mirror — symbol of vanity, and joining the male spectators. This exemplifies how women identify themselves through the gaze of men. “The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object — and most particularly an object of vision” (Berger, p.47). She sees herself being watched by men, envisioning herself through the eyes of men’s desire. Both examples that Berger provides highlight the disciplinary power the “male gaze” has, reinforcing the responsibility of the “male gaze” for constructing and enabling a biased hierarchical power structure.

Figure 3: Disclosure by Levinson (1994)

Jumping up the timeline from Berger’s examinations of traditional oil paintings, Laura Mulvey respectively examines the cinema through her book, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Emanating from Berger’s examples, it is established that the repercussion of repetitive “male gaze” has is that women lose their identities as an individual, but only as as the subject of the gaze. Consequently, women are drawn to men because their sense of worth is defined by men’s gaze. This gives the hierarchical power to men, making women comparatively passive. Mulvey categorizes “men/active” and “women/passive” as she describes the role of women as the exhibitionist, meaning their purpose is to be visually entertaining. This aspect is amplified in the entertainment industry, where the core market demand stems from the “male gaze”, or “phantasy on to the female form… for strong visual and erotic impact” (Mulvey, p.62). Stella Bruzzi’s analysis of the idea of “femme fatale” in Undressing Cinema can be used as a more detailed template of Mulvey’s argument. Bruzzi says, “the justification for this sacrificial offering of the desirable, feminine woman has been sought in… seductive clothing and make-up, and the use of this look to manipulate men”. Bruzzi points out Demi Moore’s character Meredith in Disclosure and describes her as “a commodity with no intrinsic value, reduced to an over-identification with the ephemeral superficialities of appearance” (Bruzzi, p.120). As the subtitle denotes in Figure 3, the plot is about a female character sexually manipulating the male character into her advantage, which is a similar plot in other Michael Douglas’s movies, such as Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct. Aside from Douglas’s questionable choice of roles, Bruzzi’s example clarifies that many female roles are diminished to characteristics that do not have deeper story development other than their appearance. There is no shortage of examples of over-emphasizing the female body in a cinematic narrative, considering these are the products of a male-dominated industry.

Figure 4: The Data Panopticon and Surveillance Capitalism by Sklah (2017)

The effects of the “male gaze” within films exude past the entertainment industry to the public audience. Every narrative told through the “male gaze”, it reinforces women to gaze themselves in the context of those female characters. Berger and Bruzzi’s analyses of Eve, Susanna and Meredith display the history of the “male gaze” through different time periods in religious, artistic, and cinematic realms, which indicates generational self-oppression, illustrated in Figure 4. This oppression is reflected in how one moves oneself, which can be observed through Iris M. Young’s essay Throwing Like a Girl, as she dissects the difference of physical engagement between men and women. “Male gaze” is “not the only threat of objectification which the woman lives. She also lives the threat of invasion of her body space” (Young, p.148) The fear of obtrusion of their immediate bodily field can be seen in Young’s description of softball or volleyball players, “men more often move out toward a ball in flight and confront it … women tend to wait for and then react to its approach” (Young, p.143) Young describes feminine mobility to be timid, uncertain and hesitant because she experiences the lack of trust in herself as she is fixed in space. Young’s observation can generalize feminine spatiality, however, it does exemplify a common tendency for women to form a fragile and immobile demeanor towards their own bodily inhibition. Young’s analysis shows the effects of the “male gaze” on the feminine comportment, which reflects directly from the visual language shown in paintings, films and other contemporary entertainment platforms.

Conclusion

Through the texts of Foucault, Berger, Mulvey, Bruzzi, and Young, the self-voyeuristic effect of the “male gaze” was thoroughly discussed. By changing the gaze in entertainment platforms, male-self-gazing or male-self-identifying in a biased way can be changed as well. To bring these changes, awareness of these errors needs to be brought within women. Young’s description of feminine passivity can be broken by consciously self-gazing in an internal manner and disseminating the permeating forms of “male gaze”. Small advances are taking place, even in Korea. As Figure 5 shows, in response to the recent mol-ka controversy, women’s march is taking place with unprecedented numbers of participation. The plat-cards read, “my daily life is not your porn”, “same crime, same punishment” and “strength for change”. Even in these marches, most are covering their faces with masks, hats, and sunglasses in fear of being seen by the cameras or press, or being recognized by relatives, co-workers, or acquaintances. However, they are there, taking a stance, voicing their rights.

Figure 5: ‘A part of daily life’: South Korea confronts its voyeurism epidemic by McCurry

This is one of my first dissertations written last year. I would love to know the world’s input on my thoughts, as scary as that sounds!

Text References

Berger, J. (1972). Ways of Seeing. London, BBC Enterprises.

Bruzzi, S. (1997). Undressing Cinema: clothing and identity in the movies. London, Routledge.

Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and Punish. New York, Pantheon Books.

Mulvey, L. (1975). Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. [Screen]. pp.57–68.

Young, I. (1949). On Female Body Experience: “Throwing like a girl” and other essays. New York, Oxford University Press

Illustration References

Levinson, B. (1994). Disclosure. [Online]. [29 May 2019] Available from: http://www.impawards.com/1994/disclosure_ver2.html

Skrah, D. (2017). The Data Panopticon and Surveillance Capitalism. 30th May. Medium. [Online]. [27 May 2019]. Available from: https://medium.com/@dylanskrah/the-data-panopticon-and-surveillance-capitalism-dee5cd1789d7

Tintoretto, J. (1556). Susanna and the Elders. [Online]. [29 May 2019] Available from: http://www.mheu.org/en/timeline/susanna-tintoret-02.htm

McCurry, J. (2018). This article is more than 10 months old ‘A part of daily life’: South Korea confronts its voyeurism epidemic. 3rd July. [Online]. [29 May 2019]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jul/03/a-part-of-daily-life-south-korea-confronts-its-voyeurism-epidemic-sexual-harassment

Social Innovator & Creative Changemaker