Writing, Identity, & Queer Studies

In & Out, Either/Or, and Everything In Between

Queerness and the Panopticon in Cereus Blooms at Night

“His eyes roamed my face. I felt as though he was looking for an angularity to my jawline and cheekbone, inspecting my moustache and other facial hair to help confirm a notion. The muscles of my cheeks became devilishly ticklish. I was afraid my eyes would begin to flicker on their own, as they were given to doing whenever I became shy” (Mootoo, 69).

In this scene from Cereus Blooms at Night, Tyler is speaking with Mr. Hector, the gardener at the hospital. Tyler, the narrator, is pausing during their conversation to note his thoughts to the reader. I believe that Shani Mootoo is using this moment in the text to hint towards Tyler’s queerness and his awareness of self around other people.

Tyler claims that he “felt as though” Mr. Hector was inspecting his facial bones and facial hair to “confirm a notion”. This notion, with what we know so far in the novel, is likely whether Tyler is a man. However, in any other context, this would simply look as if Mr. Hector was looking at Tyler during their conversation. I do not necessarily believe Mr. Hector was actually trying to confirm Tyler’s sex, but Tyler’s self-consciousness enabled this fear to blossom because of simply a look. As Tyler picks up on this fear, he becomes shy and suddenly overly aware of how he looks.

Tyler feels particularly visible, and thus vulnerable, during this moment. Mr. Hector has been nothing but kind to Tyler so far in the novel and there is no obvious reason he should feel so shy. However, because of Tyler’s otherness, any attention or gaze is construed as negative for Tyler. This moment reminds me of Foucault’s theory of the panopticon. Although not discussed in the section of The History of Sexuality we read for this class, the panopticon applies to sexuality as much as it applies to almost anything else in society. Foucault argues that we all carry a false perception that we are being constantly watched and observed by society around us, and thus police our bodies to be more normalized. At this moment, Tyler’s fear that he is being observed so closely by Mr. Hector results in his own policing as he fears his “eyes would begin to flicker on their own” and his “cheeks became devilishly ticklish”.

This is so important because it speaks to how queer people feel the need to police themselves because of a fear that they are being monitored into normalcy. Anything that hints at this supervision by outsiders alerts queer people immediately. Although some outsiders are truly policing and watching queer people, I do not believe that Mr. Hector was in this case. However, Tyler’s fear that he was being watched is nonetheless very real and extremely difficult to break out of when society has conditioned him to police himself into normalcy his whole life.

Tyler’s constant self-awareness around others is exhausting, time-consuming, and completely unfair, but can only be changed with time and revolutionary acts of accepting queerness as normal. One example of this is when Mala gives Tyler the dress and does not react with any big response, neither positive or negative, because “the outfit was not something to congratulate or scorn-it simply was” (Mootoo, 77).

2 Comments

  1. I think that you bring up a really great point about how queer people often police themselves to fit the norms of society. Thinking about Tyler, and his own lack of personal comfort pertaining to his gender identity, I wonder how self-confidence plays a role within policing oneself. I would assume that the more self-confident that someone is, the less they would try to police themselves to fit in with the “norms” of society. At the same time, I think about people who are very self-confident who still police themselves depending on who they are in the presence of. This makes me think that larger than self confidence, everyone polices themselves when they feel like a lesser to someone else. From this, I believe it is fair to argue that everyone is queer at some point when there is a power imbalance or potential for vulnerability in a potentially non-supportive setting.

  2. This is incidentally something that I’ve been thinking about a LOT lately, not so much in reference to the book as to myself, but as a queer person, your comments about the panopticon defintely speak to me on a really personal level. As much as we would like to believe that non-threatening individuals like Mr. Hector are really not trying to investigate and get to the bottom of the innermost secrets of our own identities, a lot of queer people carry a fear of being “found out” with them that Tyler certainly seems to also feel, which is where their concern about Mr. Hector comes from.

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