Friday Feminist – Sandra Lee Bartky (2)

But it is perhaps in their more restricted motility and comportment that the inferiorization of women’s bodies is most evident: Women’s typical body language, a language of relative tension and constriction, is understood to be a language of subordination when it is enacted by men in male status hierarchies. In groups of men, those with higher status typically assume looser and more relaxed postures: The boss lounges comfortably behind the desk while the applicant sits tense and rigid on the edge of his seat. Higher-status individuals may touch their subordinates more than they themselves get touched; they initiate more eye contact and are smiled at by their inferiors more than they are observed to smile in return. What is announced in the comportment of superiors is confidence and ease, especially ease of access to the Other. Female constraint in posture and movement is no doubt overdetermined: The fact that women tend to sit and stand with legs, feed, and knees close or touching may well be a coded declaration of sexual circumspection in a society that still maintains a double standard, or an effort, albeit unconscious, to guard the genital area. In the latter case, a woman’s tight and constricted posture must be seen as the expression of her need to ward off real or symbolic sexual attack. Whatever proportions must be assigned in the final display to fear or deference, one thing is clear: Woman’s body language speaks eloquently, though silently, of her subordinate status in a hierarchy of gender.

Sandra Lee Bartky, “Foucault, Femininity and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power,” in Irene Diamond and Lee Quimby (eds), Feminism and Foucault: Reflections on Resistance, 1988


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