Surveillance as Paradox

A Review of Feminist Surveillance Studies

Lindsay Weinberg

Michel Foucault (1978) begins The History of Sexuality with a critique of the repressive hypothesis, the theory that Victorian era sexuality was repressed, confined, and silenced. Ultimately, we learn from Foucault that censorship works paradoxically; in order to understand the history of sexuality one needs to search instead for:

instances of discursive production (which also administer silences, to be sure), of the production of power (which sometimes have the function of prohibiting), of the propagation of knowledge (which often cases mistaken beliefs or systematic misconceptions to circulate). (12)

For Foucault, to understand the history of sexuality is to understand that repression, silencing, and prohibition are coproduced with discursive production, institutional and social forces, and techniques of knowledge-making. In the field of surveillance studies, what surveillance “produces” has been largely privileged: how the surveillant gaze produces a subject that can be objectified, commodified, and controlled using processes of dehumanization and reification, what is made visible and how this visibility is predicated on the production of knowledges that make the subject legible to the surveillance apparatus. Perhaps though, the less discussed corollary here is what surveillance makes invisible, what it silences and represses.

In much of the scholarship in surveillance studies as well as visions of surveillance in popular culture, there is a sense that the totalizing gaze of surveillance is inescapable. Perhaps then what is so striking about Feminist Surveillance Studies, a collection edited by Rachel E. Dubrofsky and Shoshana Amielle Magnet, is the way it understands surveillance as a paradoxical technique for making visible the objects of its gaze using racialized, gendered, and ableist logics of control while simultaneously obscuring its own violence, the larger context within which it is embedded, and thus opportunities for resistance.

Feminist Surveillance Studies thus provides a needed corrective to the field of surveillance studies. Particularly, it is the work of these feminist scholars of surveillance that helps challenge accepted historical, technological, analytical frameworks for unpacking surveillance. This collection  expands the scope of what “counts” as surveillance, from ultrasound images to birth certificates and social media practices, calling attention to sites in which information, power, and knowledge intersect to produce and differentially regulate racialized, gendered, classed, and differently abled subjects. As the editors explain, a feminist approach to surveillance studies necessitates an awareness of the interlocking oppressions that condition the experience of exploitation, criminalization, discipline, and control that subjects differentially experience (Magnet and Dubrofsky 2015, 3). While the intensification of the surveillance state post-9/11 has preoccupied many scholars within surveillance studies, and while the public awareness of surveillance was certainly raised after the Snowden revelations, the essays in Feminist Surveillance Studies help emphasize that techniques of observation, discipline, and control are deeply rooted in the very formation of the state. For feminist scholars of surveillance, surveillance is always already bound up with questions of race, class, gender, sexuality, and nationhood, with “gendered and sexualized ways of seeing,” (Dubrofsky and Magnet 2015, 9), given that the state relies on policing—of borders, bodies, sexualities, and racial and gender binaries—in order to help render subjects legible, and thus governable, to the surveillance apparatus.

For Andrea Smith (2015) in her essay “Not-Seeing: State Surveillance, Settler Colonialism, and Gender Violence,” surveillance studies has not adequately addressed the gendered colonial history of surveillance that resulted in the violent treatment of indigenous peoples, their forced participation in heteronormative ideas of family and sexuality, and in colonialist ideas of labor and private property (26). By constructing the indigenous subject as sexuality perverse, infantile, and barbaric, colonialists justified the use of surveillance to monitor, regulate, and police indigenous peoples. Smith is critical of the tendency in both liberal-democratic discourse and surveillance studies to take the state “for granted,” to be concerned that the state “not overstep its proper boundaries” rather than acknowledge the ways the state is fundamentally predicated on genocide (2015, 38). Thus, for Smith, the way to conceptualize the oppressive power of surveillance isn’t as excess or an abuse of power, but rather as endemic to the state’s very structure and logics.

A constant thread throughout Feminist Surveillance Studies, beginning with Smith’s essay, is the utility of conceptualizing surveillance paradoxically, as a technique of both seeing and not seeing. For Smith, the colonial gaze constructs indigenous communities as “dysfunctional” and thus in need of monitoring and administration (2015, 25). What surveillance conceals, in Smith’s account, is the violence of the state apparatus itself and of the forms of indigenous culture, self-governance, and life that pose a threat to the state’s legitimacy (2015, 26). This logic of surveillance as both seeing and not-seeing translates to the ways gender violence under settler colonialism is understood, wherein gender violence is “seen” but the state is imagined as the only possibility for resistance as opposed to directly implicated in creating the conditions that give rise to gender violence (Smith 2015, 31). When the state is posited as being responsible for protecting women against gender violence, despite the fact that it perpetrates this violence, what disappears from view are alternative solutions to the state (Smith 2015, 36).

In “Surveillance and the Work of Antitrafficking: From Compulsory Examination to International Coordination,” Laura Hyun Yi Kang (2015) is similarly concerned with the ways resistance can reinforce state control, particularly the antitrafficking work of feminist activists and social reformers. For Kang, anti-prostitution movements of the late 19th and 20th century, framed within the rhetoric of women’s rights, surveilled women’s cross-border movements, and this surveillance relied upon racialized understandings of disease, racial purity, and perceived affective “willingness” to participate in prostitution. Kang’s work illustrates the surveillance regime’s dependence on multiple and intersecting modes of knowledge production between the state, the medical community, and local informants (2015, 53). And in keeping with Smith’s idea of surveillance as a logic of seeing and not-seeing, the internationalist rhetoric surrounding the antitrafficking movement, evidenced by the move to replace the term “white slave traffic” with “traffic in women,” helped discursively obscure the racist origins of antitrafficking during imperialism (Kang 2015, 53).

In Lisa Jean Moore and Paisley Currah’s (2015) discussion of the relationship between birth certificates as a technology of surveillance for managing populations and the gendered and sexed body, emphasis is also placed on the mutually reinforcing discourses of medical authorities and government officials, particularly the ways transgendered subjects had to negotiate medical and legal frameworks in order to modify their birth certificates. Moore and Currah explain that the birth certificate “is an attempt to ground with certainty the material embodiment of the baby’s flesh as a gendered legal entity” (Moore and Currah 2015, 63). Thus, surveillance is an attempt to produce coherency, to make a subject’s gender legible according to its own logic, which relies on gender binarism and notions of the “threat” of passing for both the effectiveness of state bureaucracy and the “protection” of individuals from deception (Moore and Currah 2015, 65-66). Surveillance, in this essay, is also revealed to be a site of struggle, both through and against the state, given that transgender advocates and activists worked to make claims on the state that would result in “pragmatic policy reform” (Moore and Currah 2015, 69). What the surveillance apparatus of birth certificates works to make invisible is the very “mutability of sex and gender” (Moore and Currah 2015, 75) and the idea that gender is about one’s self-conception rather than biologically pre-determined.

The relation between seeing and not-seeing also informs Yasmin Jiwana’s “Violating In/visibilities: Honor Killings and Interlocking Surveillance(s),” where the heightened visibility of the Shafia case as an “honor killing”—a case in which four women were killed by members of their family—was used to justify surveillance for “protecting” Muslim women from the “barbarism” and “ultapatriarchal proclivities” of Muslim men (2015, 80). The corollary of this heightened visibility is the simultaneous invisibility of the violence against women that pervades all communities and of the “unmarked body, which is the body in dominance,” helping to establish norms by which the marked, visible body is compared (Jiwana 2015, 90). The media apparatus demarcates fields of visibility and helps reinforce narratives that mark certain subjects as threatening and certain instances of violence as attention-worthy while not-seeing routine violations of human rights, inequality, and suffering (Jiwani 2015, 83).

Of course, hypervisibility can also be applied to subjects who enjoy a relative status of class privilege, or whose engagement with the very technologies that heighten their visibility is framed agentively. In Rachel E. Dubrofksy and Meghan M. Wood’s “Gender, Race, and Authenticity: Celebrating Women Tweeting for the Gaze,” the authors demonstrate how certain celebrity news websites and tabloids frame female celebrities as agentive when inviting the male gaze on Twitter (2015, 98). However, this agentive framing of hypersexualized femininity is differentially applied to female celebrities based on a racialized lens: the white female celebrity, exemplified by Miley Cyrus, is lauded for the work she puts in to self-fashioning her body through exercise, while Kim Kardashian’s body is framed as though it has “a will of its own…as instinctive and beyond her control” (Dubrofsky and Wood 2015, 103).

The question of agency is central to Dubrofksy and Wood’s analysis but seems to be de-centered in Kelli D. Moore’s (2015) analysis of the photograph of Rihanna Fenty’s violent encounter with Chris Brown. Moore writes,

Rihanna makes her fortune through timely, highly manicured, and choreographed rebrandings of her stage persona, of which this interview [with Diane Sawyer] is one part. The police photograph of Rihanna’s battered face also contributes to this branding, even if the creation and circulation of this image is not under her (or her PR team’s) control. (2015, 120)

The image of Rihanna’s injuries taken by the L.A. Police Department is reproduced on page 112 of Feminist Surveillance Societies. Moore argues that, “The image of Rihanna’s abuse writes her black female body into the ‘regime of domestic violence governmentality’ through visual codes of whiteness” (2015, 113). For Moore, visual codes of whiteness and femininity were used to help integrate Rihanna’s case within legal discourse and ideas of universal justice (2015, 108). While looking at the image, there are aspects of Moore’s argument that are persuasive–certainly Rihanna’s face is illuminated, although whether this speaks to visual codes of whiteness or the objectifying gaze of the police camera is contestable—one wonders whether the image is being overly decontextualized. For instance, part of Rihanna’s branding is very much tied to her identity as a Caribbean woman, a narrative that is explicitly reinforced in the interview with Diane Sawyer. It is also the case that the taking of these photographs is standard police procedure in domestic violence cases, and yet, for many women of color, this does not result in a successful incorporation into ideas of universal justice. Currently, the ACLU is suing a Missouri city for a “nuisance law” that characterizes more than two domestic violence related calls as a nuisance, resulting in the displacement of victims of domestic abuse from their homes (Park 2017).

The ACLU case provides a much different portrait of domestic violence than Moore’s account, in which “State policies produce particular forms of gendered subjectivities where male batterers are typically disciplined and punished for abusive behavior, and female victims are overwhelmingly protected by state orders which designate geographical and physical spaces of safety and security” (Moore 2015, 109). One thus wonders whether Rihanna’s incorporation into “the domain of universal justice” through the police photograph’s lighting and her “soft, white, feminine elegance” (Moore 2015, 112) in the interview with Diane Sawyer needs to be considered in relation to class, as well. It is also the case that if we return to the question of agency, the fact that Rihanna did not have control over the circulation of the image of her battered face, and that the circulation of her image is not seen as an invasion of privacy, should remind us of Eden Osucha’s brilliant analysis of the relationship between the origins of privacy rights discourse and white femininity, wherein “the cultural anxieties that held unwanted media publicity to be an experience of proprietary dispossession reflect the understanding that to be subject of media publicity is to be, in effect, racialized” (Osucha 2009, 73). Thus, a re-centering of the question of agency might complicate Moore’s argument concerning the degree to which the photograph and Rihanna’s interview with Sawyer works to incorporate Rihanna into visual codes of whiteness.

While Moore emphasizes illumination—the camera flash of the police photograph of Rihanna’s image, which illuminates her skin so that she may be rendered legible and thus brought into the purview of universal justice—Rachel Hall (2015) describes how the idea of opacity, meaning the quality of not being entirely visually accessible, is used to mark certain bodies as “stubbornly opaque,” which is used to justify state sanctioned violence (128). In contrast, those who can perform voluntary transparency are those who adequately prepare the body to be gazed upon, who are able-bodied and thus able to perform the required transparency without needing assistance, accommodations, etc., and who fit within the cultural narratives that frame the invasiveness of, and corresponding cultural anxieties around, airport surveillance technologies along the lines of “yet another opportunity to succeed or fail at attractively imagining one’s body for the male gaze and according to Euro-American standards of health, beauty, and fitness” (Hall 2015, 148). The sexualization of these technologies in popular culture, for Hall, obscures how racial norms coproduced with ideas of opacity have facilitated the “rollout of preemptive laws in the war on terror and made the domestic culture of terrorism prevention palatable to citizens of governments who feel besieged by the threat of terrorism” (2015, 148). Thus, we see the logic of seeing and not-seeing within the application of surveillance, where the sexualization of the surveillance apparatus simultaneously invisibilizes the relationship between surveillance and its underpinning racist, ableist ideas of transparency.

This paradoxical logic of surveillance also informs Sayantani Dasgupta and Shamita Das Dasgupta’s (2015) analysis of blogs and message boards pertaining to Indian surrogacy. Their chapter, “The Public Fetus and the Veiled Woman: Transnational Surrogacy Blogs as Surveillant Assemblages,” details how transnational IP (Intended Parent) blogs create globalized networks of surveillance. Infertile couples in the Global North are linked within the surveillance assemblage to women from the Global South, providing intersecting sources of information and documentation. These blogs abound with colonial narratives of ownership and concerns over the ability to successfully monitor and compensate for “her [the surrogate’s] poverty, her foreignness, her racial otherness” (Dasgupta and Das Dasgupta 2015, 164). While the surrogate’s interior body is made visible through the use of ultrasound technology and other screening tests, these technologies simultaneously render the surrogate’s exteriority invisible. In photographs circulated on these blogs, the surrogate’s face is often absented through veiling or through the framing of the picture so as to remove the head from view. Following Gayatri Spivak, the authors write that, “We do not ‘speak for’ but ‘speak with’ her, listening hard for her reply” (Dasgupta and Das Dasgupta 2015, 166). Their analysis would thus be complemented by the inclusion of more interviews with surrogates themselves to assist with countering the invisibility of surrogate voices on IP blogs and discussion sites, or perhaps this is a path for future researchers.

There is a degree of methodological self-reflexivity in Dorothy E. Robert’s “Race, Gender, and Genetic Technologies: A New Reproductive Dystopia” that seems especially useful, given scholarship is a practice of knowledge production and thus not completely separable from the logics that underpin surveillance, despite our best efforts as scholars to bring visibility to that which is made invisible by various power relations and epistemes. For this reason, Roberts’ explicitness about her reconsideration of her earlier scholarship on the relationship between white women and women of color in the “reproductive hierarchy” (2015, 17), and her shift to tying these women together “in relation to the neoliberal trend towards privatization and punitive governance” (2015, 171), helps to make visible the ways reproductive technologies impact all women by responsibilizing women and individualizing what are social problems, as opposed to strictly using an oppositional framework of analysis. However, while Roberts notes a neoliberal shift that impacts all women, she is also careful to attend to how this impact plays out differentially on white women and women of color, all the while perpetuating the marginalization and extermination of the differently abled. There is also a logic of seeing and not-seeing at work here, where these technologies assist in constructing “disability” as a problem that needs to be visualized, tested for, and eradicated, while simultaneously making imperceptible the problem of the marginalization and reduction of social-welfare programs for the differently abled.

For Ummni Khan (2015), the paradoxical logic of surveillance, embedded in the social-science methods used by Prostitution Research and Education (PRE), is used to construct clients who purchase sex as fundamentally dangerous, deviant criminals. PRE relies on criminal prohibition as a tactic to eliminate the sex industry using feminist rhetorics of fighting violence against women, promoting monitoring, incarceration, fines, public-shaming, DNA collection, and registration on sex-offender lists for clients (Khan 2015, 189). PRE thus works to expand the carceral state, which disproportionately targets racialized and working-class men. What the hypervisibility of the “deviant, violent” client obscures is widespread, systematic, and pervasive violence against women within normative relationships—long-term partnerships, marriages, etc.—contributing to the invisibility of the violence women face in private, socially accepted settings (Khan 2015, 206).

Khan’s work, in calling attention to the ways social-science research techniques can participate in the project of surveillance, provides important pause for the reader when encountering Kevin Walby and Seantel Anais’ “Research Methods, Institutional Ethnography, and Feminist Surveillance Studies.” For Walby and Anais (2015), institutional enthnolography (IE) is a privileged methodology for a feminist approach to surveillance studies in the social sciences. IE provides an empirical approach to reading institutional texts and conducting interviews for understanding how systems of classification become gendered and reproduced by individuals (217). Walby and Anais believe that IE provides a needed corrective to the “research-methods gap in surveillance studies” (2015, 218) and helps illustrate how “ruling relations are enabled by the texts and classifications that make up surveillance (2015, 220).

While IE certainly seems like a strong methodological framework for really grounding analysis in the practices, ideologies, and discourses that inform how subjects carry out regimes of surveillance, the push to identify and fill a “gap” in surveillance studies should also not come at the expensive of transdiciplinarity in feminist surveillance studies. We should be mindful when seeking to carve out a distinct discipline using particular methods or narrowed conceptual frameworks that there is always the danger of domesticating knowledge. I find myself less concerned than Walby and Anais that surveillance studies suffers from a lack of core conceptual refinement or requires a limited set of methodological positions and strategies that are “unique to surveillance studies if it is to be a distinct subfield” (Walby and Anais 2015, 210). Indeed, part of what makes surveillance studies so particularly generative is the way it incorporates the methods of historians and literary critics, the analytical techniques of visual studies, cultural studies, and media studies, and the social sciences, to develop a robust understanding of the relationship between the surviellant gaze and knowledge production.

Part of what differentiates feminist surveillance studies methodologically is its self-consciousness about its own methods, or, following Donna Haraway (1988), the necessity to think of knowledge as a situated practice; to be mindful of the ways our vision only provides partial perspectives, to be held accountable for our practices and to be self-aware about their limitations, to be conscious of our position in relation to the objects of our vision and analysis, and to be aware of the agency of what we study. A situated practice and self-reflexivity about methods, rather than a particular methodological framework, seems to be a way to develop a feminist surveillance studies praxis that remains transdisciplinary, conscious of the logics of surveillance embedded in the production of knowledge, and, in the words of Haraway, “perhaps of the violence implicit in our visualizing practices” (1988, 585).


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