When Jeremy Bentham created the Panopticon, his prison of constant surveillance, in the late 18th century, he envisioned his design to be a building: circular in shape, layered like an especially unsavory cake, a structure that ensured that, at any moment, inmates could be observed—and could be, as well, observers. Bentham named his design after Panoptes, the Greek giant who had 100 eyes.
He might as well, though, it seems clear in retrospect, have named the thing after Twitter. Or Facebook. Or, for that matter, Keeping Up With the Kardashians. Americans, at least, in this omni-mediated age, have achieved the kind of self-surveillance that Bentham could only have imagined. With the help of our communications technologies, we are constantly aware of each other, and, as a perhaps inevitable result, constantly policing each other: the words we use. The tone we adopt when using them. The clothes we wear. And then, also, the decisions we make about our careers, about the way we spend our leisure time, about our diets, about our children. “She did what?” “She’s really let herself go.” “She works too hard.” “She doesn’t even work.” “I saw her feed that poor kid a Cheeto.”
She because, often, it’s women who bear the brunt of all this policing—women who are most readily judged for their decisions, or belittled for their appearances, or interrupted when they try to make a point. Feminism has come to a somewhat awkward place, in a culture that claims to celebrate women but often, politically and culturally, puts them in a bind: We denizens of the early 21st century are living, as Anne Helen Petersen puts it in her new book Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman, in “a climate that publicly embraces equality but does little to effect change.”