In light of the Christmas season, I have been listening to Christmas songs, but I was particularly disturbed this year when the song “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” came on. This song has become a cornerstone of the Christmas season, performed by artists such as Justin Bieber, The Jackson 5, Mariah Carey and even Bruce Springsteen. When I really listened to the lyrics, I began to think how the song operates as a form of panoptical surveillance for children.
Michel Foucault coined the term panoptical surveillance after Jeremy Bentham’s idea of a panoptic prison. In panoptical surveillance, subjects fear that they are constantly being watched so they police themselves. Panoptical surveillance creates docile bodies and this order is useful for efficiency in society.
The song’s lyrics go “You better watch out. You better not cry. You better not pout. I’m telling you why- Santa Claus is coming to town. He sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake. He knows when you’ve been bad or good so be good for goodness sake.” As a child, especially around Christmas time, I would act extra good, because I thought that Santa was watching my every move and if I was bad, I knew that I would get a lump of coal in my stocking. The idea of Santa Claus serves as a tool for creating docile bodies among children, by scaring them into policing themselves. Foucault said that forms of power were everywhere, constantly acting on our bodies. I just never thought that something as jolly and innocent as the idea of Santa Claus could be an example of panoptical surveillance.
1. Can you think of other forms of panoptical surveillance in society that work specifically on children?
2. How, if at all, are forms of panoptical surveillance different between children and adults?