Recently attending lectures on gender and gendering the body and race and power has inspired me to look further into the mechanics of our society and question what makes society function in the way that it does. Do we own our bodies? What is the price of ownership? Is power inherited or produced? Will the concept of gender roles ever be discarded? Are men’s bodies considered to be a weapon of violence?
Looking at the way our society works currently, medicine it’s easy to assume that power is inherited or possessed; be that because of the colour of your skin colour (with Eurocentric beauty standards continuing to preside over our idea of ‘beauty’), clinic where you were born (i.e. the “West” and the “rest”) or the gender you identify as (with various attempts having been made to ostracise non-conformists). But it was Michel Foucault who suggested that “power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth”. Based on this proposal, perhaps it is better that we view power as something which evolves and influences who we are as humans – the way we behave, the interactions we have with others, our perceptions of the world.
If white people, for example, are aware of the systemic benefits that society offers them, ‘power’ all of a sudden infests mindsets and becomes a very real and dangerous weapon. We are able to exploit power through our behaviour, oppressing minorities (whether that be explicitly through things like racialised violence, or implicitly through things like workplace discrimination). Anyone who doesn’t fit into the ideals of those at the top of our social hierarchy are automatically vulnerable to being marginalised, and it is the power that those at the top (typically white, middle-class, gender-conforming males) hold that makes it so easy for this to happen. Not only this, but any marginalised person who then speaks out, anyone who rejects the notion of power dictating their behaviour, risks being silenced or even simply ignored – a kind of ‘testimonial injustice’ as such.
Following on from this point, is gender not then also a form of power? Our everyday lives, particularly in schools and other similar institutions, are gendered. In fact, the very first ultrasound scan taken of us dictates whether we’re assigned male or female at birth, and we’re pretty much expected to conform to the gender associated with that sex from the moment we leave the womb to the moment we die. Everything we do from birth onwards is gendered – the sports we play, the clothes we buy, the diets we are sold, even the gestures we make. It is the use of binary labelling here that allows power to manifest itself; if there are two or more different kinds of people, in a society obsessed with hierarchy, one must take precedence over the other. This might be the exact reason as to why women and transfeminine non-conformists are the “lesser” compared to men. Patriarchy tells us that femininity is weak and undesirable, that masculinity is strong and impressive, capable of ruling empires and waging wars. It is therefore no surprise that power has difficulty surfacing in the behaviour of the “feminine”; how can “ the feminine” impose powerful behaviours if they don’t even have the platform or expectation to be powerful in the first place?
It is particularly interesting to look at attitudes towards women’s bodies when we consider this. “Revenge porn” and “nude culture” have become the latest fads with the majority of images being of young women. People have weaponised our bodies and used them against the very people they supposedly belong to – us. This might be for monetary gain: “give me money or I’ll send these photos to everyone”, or for emotional blackmail to make an individual feel dominant: “If you don’t do this for me, everyone will see these photos and think you’re a slut”. Personally, I don’t think there is any better example of power being productive than this. If you lack power, someone else can exert powerful behaviour over you, oftentimes producing financial or emotional rewards.
It has become so evident that power, no matter how many attempts have been made to distribute it, is an epidemic. It infests society and it infests mindsets and it could quite possibly be the very reason as to why “-isms” still exist today. The only way to move past this is to understand and welcome the vulnerable, to elevate voices and experiences and to become more compassionate human beings. After all, it may be a minority that are the victims to power, but it is the majority that have the responsibility to fight it.
Written by Ella Nevill, 17