Santa Claus a Form of Panoptical Surveillance

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?

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6 thoughts on “Santa Claus a Form of Panoptical Surveillance

  1. Very interesting, I had never thought of that song like that before. I think you’re analysis is spot on though. By using types of panoptical surveillance early in the lives of children, we establish certain etiquettes for behavior and expectations. As we all know, many of our lifelong beliefs and ways of acting are determined in childhood so this is an important period for our society to shape and mold us into the form they want us to be. In answer to your questions, I believe fabricated stories and ideas are instrumental for getting children to behave in certain ways. Sayings ridiculous things like, “Would Scooby Doo want you to act that way” or “You can’t go to heaven if you do that”, can have a profound impact on kids, depending on who their early role models are. For adults, they know this stuff is not true anymore, so I believe the surveillance has to be much more serious and carry the penalty of serious punishment if laws are broken. This is one of the reasons why placing cameras everywhere is a good way of controlling the public. Good post though, thank you.

  2. This is a really good example of panoptical surveillance! I think that it is extremely accurate as a way to make children self police, and I think it definitely has a lasting effect on the way children, teens, and even adults act. Despite the knowledge that Santa isn’t real, I find that people continue to act on their best behavior during the holiday season. This could be a result of the strong consumerism that has enveloped the holidays, during which people are trained to behave well in order to receive the best gifts. Altogether, I think this insight is wonderful!

  3. I love how you applied the panoptical theory to popular culture. I think the only difference in forms of panoptical surveillance between children and adults is that when you are a child you do not think about questioning the legitimacy of the authority, however when you are an adult you question if the camera really works for example. When you are older, you start to notice that different forms of panoptical surveillance are located literally everywhere you go as seen by previous post.

    An example of a way I policed myself when i was younger was when my parents would leave the room and say, “We got eyes on the back of our heads. We will find out” I was therefore a very obedient child because I thought my parents were watching my every move. This is an effective method on children because my mom still uses this saying on her 2nd grade students and they are very docile children, for the most part.

  4. 1) How creepy are these lyrics?! “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.” Stalker, much?

    2) I’ve had this song stuck in my head ever since reading this. This song will never be the same now!

    3) THIS is the lovely “curse of sociology”–do you see how you see things so differently now?

  5. Wow i never payed attention to the song but now that i think about it, it is a great example of panoptical surveillance for little children as they are told that everything they do is being seen by someone. Those, “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” are directly telling children not to do anything that they aren’t suppose to do. I had never thought of these lyrics before but now I see how these lyrics are meant to make children police themselves when their parents are not around them.

  6. Great analysis! I agree but think there is even more to it. At the first level, the myth of Santa serves to reinforce social expectations as you say, but there is another level. At a certain point we expect children to realize Santa is a myth, and if they never do then something is wrong with them. In other words, at the second level the myth of santa serves to distinguish those whose rational faculties have developed to a certain point of critical thinking from those who have not. I dare say this is precisely the modus operandi of the Bible as well.

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