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Visibility and the 'Audience That Matters'

In a piece looking at the making of the Mexican nation, Deborah Cohen makes an excellent point that ‘in advocating for women’s inclusion, we mistakenly assumed that all men were equally visible as citizen-subjects and that exclusion from the nation was based only on gender’ (2014: 119). When considered against the backdrop of the prison, the truth of this statement becomes even more apparent. Throughout this book, we have seen how men’s access to time, spaces, people, and physical signi- fiers of legitimate masculinity are generally denied to them (or at least restricted) when in the prison. This in turn relegates incarcerated men to the realm of the feminine: men are not always able to undertake masculine work, but must work in the domestic sphere instead; men are restricted in the spaces that they can go relative to staff members, who grant status to the certain lucky few who can enter spaces of power, and so on. When it comes to spaces in particular, but also arguably applicable to other tropes, femininity in reality means invisibility. The notion of visibility is central to the hegemonic construct of masculinity—there cannot be aspirations to hegemony without someone being clearly visible to align or compare oneself with. We know of men that we ascribe masculine power to because we see them. They are visible in their masculinities. Those in society who tend to be invisible—the mentally ill, the poor, the homeless—are conspicuous in their absence both from view and from power and masculine capital.

Men who commit crime may become visible yet invisible: they may have a reputation for their criminality, but are highly invisible to the criminal justice system for the majority of the time (the Kray twins and Al Capone being excellent cases in point). Those men in prison who have been caught are in a remarkable position of becoming visible to some, but being rendered invisible through their positioning within an institution that itself is highly restricted in visibility since the demise in the spectacle of punishment as theorised by Foucault (1975). In this sense, we can see that the internalisation of punishment, and the move away from corporal punishment has had much wider implications for the gendered identities of the men subject to this punishment: when punishment was a spectacle, visibility was high, and therefore so was masculine status of the punished (and the punishers).

Within the prison, however, there is still masculine status, even though the individual becomes invisible to the outside world. The notions of visibility still apply within the prison; the difference is that the audience that matters for the masculine performance has shifted for most of the time from those the individual valued on the outside, such as peers or family, to those who see him on the inside: other prisoners and prison staff. The changes in the audience that matters to the individual are central to the changes in behaviour that accompany imprisonment, and the potential changes in self that prison aspires to impose on men: that is, moving away from crime.

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