Panopti-claus: Foucaultian social control for the kiddies

He sees you when you’re sleeping; he knows when you’re awake.
He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.

-From the popular children’s song, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”

The tension. Stress. Anxiety! It was the night before Christmas and I couldn’t sleep. I knew he was watching. I was about six years old. My bedroom was right next to the living room, where the tree and the presents awaited morning light. I could hear the slightest noise that emitted from the room where our frenetically decorated electric masterpiece awaited its midnight visitor. I was sweating. I knew the rules. He was due to arrive at any moment. I knew that I was supposed to be asleep, and that I was running the risk of forfeiting all of my materialistic goodies if I failed to fall in line. It was hell. I just wanted to find a way to pass out so that I could sleep my way into the glory of Christmas morning.

Of course, the entire scenario was all in my mind; a cruel joke that my parents had played on me in order to control my behavior. It’s a little ridiculous, and a little insidious, this widespread cultural phenomenon known as “Santa Claus.” It’s ridiculous because year in and year out parents around the country tell stories about a white-bearded individual who flies through the air on a magical sleigh, pulled by flying reindeer, no less, delivering free stuff to kids around the world. The most unbelievable part? The magic sleigh? No. The flying reindeer? Nope. It’s the fact that this dude does all of this work without any expectation of getting paid. That, especially these days when money seems to rule above all else, is about as incredible as it gets.

But then we get to the insidious part. The whole idea of Santa Claus is twisted, if not a little cruel, because it is used as a form of social control. Kids are taught about the wondrous generosity of the old man who breaks into houses to leave free stuff…but then the carpet is pulled out from under them when they learn the catch.  If you’re bad, you don’t get anything.  The worst part of this is the fact that this form of social control is directed at our youngest members of society—those innocent, starry-eyed little angels that make up the lower ranks of our social order.  All year, they are subjected to the watchful eye old a jolly old man who sees their every move.  Santa Claus is the epitome of Foucault’s panopticon, embodied in a cheap red suit and a long white beard.

For those of you who somehow managed to miss out, Foucault’s discussions of “panopticism” refer to the prison designed by 19th century Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham. The prime focus of the panopticon’s structure was surveillance: a guard in a centralized tower could theoretically see every inmate of the prison — but the prisoners could not see the guards. The prisoners, who know that they might be under surveillance at any time, but cannot tell when, modify their behaviors and effectively discipline themselves. As Foucault wrote, “the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers.”

The true power of panopticsim, as Foucault notes, is that the authority figure or guard almost becomes irrelevant; inmates simply believe in the situation, and therefore police themselves. Power, he writes, has to be both visible and unverifiable.

It is debatable how much little kids believe in the stories they are told about Santa Claus, and how much they adjust their behaviors due to those beliefs. But parents do teach young children, who might be somewhere between the ages of roughly two and twelve, that Santa Claus is every bit as real as any other figure. He is visible, especially during the buildup of the holiday season. And there is extra incentive for kids to pay close attention to stories about Santa Claus, since they receive large payoffs once a year that supposedly come from his coffers. But he is also unverifiable, because it’s never exactly clear where he is, and when he might be watching. He is everywhere, and nowhere.

Successful discipline is achieved, according to Foucault, by three main tactics: hierarchical observation, normalizing judgment, and the examination. Good old Saint Nick most definitely fits the bill as a hierarchical observer: he is omniscient, god-like, and undoubtedly superhuman in many senses. He can fly. He can see you year round, no matter where you are or what you are doing. He is able to traverse the entire planet in a single night and deliver goodies to each “deserving” child in every household.

Santa’s judgments normalize the actions and behaviors of children. Foucault explains: “The perpetual penalty that traverses all points and supervises every instant in the disciplinary institutions compares, differentiates, hierarchizes, homogenizes, excludes. In short, it normalizes” (Foucault 1977). Santa’s judgments are based upon socially and culturally accepted boundaries of behavior; Santa Claus serves as the all-seeing arbiter. Children who misbehave are subject to the worst punishment of all: alienation and abandonment from their favorite toy-delivering superhero. Bad little boys and girls: no dice. Children’s behaviors are compared by Santa in order to determine where each one ranks, which leads to a hierarchical tier of materialistic payoffs.

It’s clear that Mr. Claus satisfies two out of three of Foucault’s necessities for successful discipline, but what about the examination? Does Santa actually test children? Examinations, in Foucault’s words, “combine the techniques of an observing hierarchy and those of a normalizing judgment” (Foucault 1977). They are also highly ritualized. Arguably, at least some children are subjected to a yearly examination at the hands of any number of “Santas” that preside in malls just for the occasion (for a fee, of course). It doesn’t really matter who wears the suit, it only matters that children fall for the guise and believe that they are witnessing the real deal. The physical incarnation of this superhuman disciplinarian is accessible once a year: kids get to sit on his lap and tell him what they want; those with enough money can even get a souvenir photo with him — in the local mall, of all places.

The examination is short and sweet, and performed ritually: after waiting in the long, tedious line, each child sits upon Santa’s lap whereupon he finally asks them whether or not they have been good all year. Of course, every child answers yes — if they aren’t crying or terrified. It’s kind of an annual review for kids, in which their yearly performance is evaluated, and their year-end bonus, or lack thereof, is adjusted accordingly.

Foucault argues that examinations are imperative aspects of discipline, since they result in “the subjection of those who are perceived as objects and the objectification of those who are subjected” (Foucault 1977). The hierarchical relationship that exists between the bearded saint and children is reinforced by the ritual visit/examination that occurs amidst the indoor madness of holiday shopping malls. Children are reminded, in physical form, that they have been objects of scrutiny all year long.

Of course, not every child goes to the mall and sits upon the lap of a temporarily-employed Santa Claus impersonator for this annual interrogation. There are other ways in which children undergo examinations throughout the year. They are subject to scrutiny by both peers and parents; tests that are constant, repetitive, and unpredictable. Such tests are not written, or even physically verifiable, but they may be very influential. The constant social “tests” may come in the form of punishment, admonishment, praise, or reward. Santa Claus may be invoked at any time of the year as the reason to adjust or correct any misbehavior, but his powers of discipline increase as Christmas approaches. And if anyone questions how the jovial old man keeps every child straight in his aging mind, don’t forget that he’s making a list, and has probably checked it at least twice.

Documentation, says Foucault, is an integral part of the disciplinary process. It is a means by which individuals can be compared, categorized, classified, and normalized. Documentation allows for statistical calculation, the prerequisite for determining what is “normal,” based upon averages. According to the popular folklore and the commercial constructions of Santa Claus, he spends his entire year not only managing his extremely productive toy workshop, but he is also engaged in a massive documentary project. Everything children do throughout the year is recorded, categorized, and ultimately, judged. Just like the prisoners of Bentham’s Panopticon who couldn’t see their observers, children have no possible way to tell when and if they are being watched. Such a power is at once terrifying and stunningly effective all at the same time.

It’s easy to dismiss the belief in Santa Claus as something that is trivial, childish, and meaningless. But tell that to some five year old kid. Kids are told that he is a real being, someone who exerts control over their lives. Once a year they even get to see him in person, which is more proof than they get for most supernatural beings (as far as I know). The fact that Santa Claus’s persona is inextricably linked to toys and other material payoffs only increases his overall impact.

But there is a kink in Santa’s omnipresent armor, and it is revealed layer by layer, ever so slowly. Once it starts, it spreads rapidly through children’s networks and associations via rumors, stories, and whispered playground secrets. At some point children learn that there isn’t necessarily a direct correlation between their behaviors and the material payoff that they receive at the end of the year. Some kids might do all they can to be good, and still not get what they asked for. Others might get into fights all year, ditch school, or kick puppies and still get a large holiday payload. That’s when the radar goes up, and kids start wising up.

For all of his focus upon tools of control, punishment, and discipline, Foucault was also interested in revealing the discontinuities in power relationships. The incompleteness of power. The story of Santa Claus’s omniscient abilities to see and therefore judge children is told over and over, but there is never a mention of the possibility that children might be well aware the limitations of this scheme. In fact, I would argue that many children recognize aspects of what is going on far earlier than many parents want to believe, and those kids soon begin to manipulate the process to suit their wishes. They also tell all of their buddies. This is an example, to speak in Foucaultian terms, of an inversion of power.

I admit that I once believed in Santa Claus. It’s true. My parents went to some extreme ends in order to dupe me into that belief, and I fell for it. I have heard the story, over and over, about the time when I was three years old and my mother and father tricked me by making noises on the roof, putting deer-like footprints in the lawn, and leaving half-eaten carrots strewn about the front yard. Apparently, I was completely awe-struck. I was an empiricist even then, and that was plenty of proof to convince me this dude was real. I mean, come on — deer prints and half-eaten carrots? I bought it.

Undoubtedly, the watchful eye of Santa Claus had an impact upon my daily behaviors for the following few years to come. I’m sure that all my mother had to do was bring up Santa Claus to get me to clean my room or eat one or another green, disgusting vegetable. I won’t make the claim that I was an amazingly cunning childhood sleuth who uncovered the secret plot all on my own; far from it. I was clued in when I was about seven years old thanks to my grade school friends whose parents had let the secrets of the universe out of the bag. The way I remember it, the unveiling of Santa Claus’s non-existence lead to my questioning of other omniscient and supernatural beings that I had been told so many stories about. The Easter Bunny was eliminated from my belief system almost immediately. Soon, however, there was another curiously white-bearded individual that I started to question at a fairly young age, but that’s a story for another time.

*Note: This is a revised version of an essay I wrote back when I was an undergrad at UC Santa Cruz, which was more than nine years ago.  I have finally had the chance to start reading Unwrapping Christmas (edited by Daniel Miller) after several years of telling myself “Hey I should read that book soon.”  Well, I did read it, and it inspired me to go digging around for this old essay, which I finally found on an old hard drive.  ‘Tis the season, after all, to dissect our own cultural behaviors even when we’re supposed to be on vacation.


Foucault, Michel. 1977. Discipline and Punish. New York: Random House.


Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

9 thoughts on “Panopti-claus: Foucaultian social control for the kiddies

  1. You know about the “Elf on the Shelf,” right? There’s also a Jewish version now, “Mensch on a Bench.” Talk about Foucaultian.

  2. The Atlantic has an essay similarly themed:

    But you forgot a part of the Santa-surveillance aspect, which is that we love in a scary sort of way this trait of Santa. This is why we go to horror films, especially ones devoted to the Holiday Season. It undermines the cutesiness associated with a child’s POV for the adult’s “realism”. One reason I love the Dr. Who Christmas specials.

    By the by, I found the first part of your essay so funny. It was hilarious, a perfect note for the Season. Now I have to sign off, because the elf-on-the-shelf is watching me.

  3. I get the description of control and discipline, but what about it is cruel or insidious? I suspect those judgements are based on no less fantastical disciplinary conventions.

  4. Thanks for the comments everyone. I’d never heard of this “elf on the shelf” thing before this. That’s a perfect example of just how far this surveillance business is going. Thanks JaneW for the video link. It amazes me that parents think this is a good idea.

  5. This isn’t a universal problem, however. Some kids do just fine keeping the deity and abandoning Santa Claus.

  6. I wonder if world leaders read Foucault to see if their ideas work? Yes, we can see Foucault’s theory of panopticism play out within the idea of Santa Clause, but maybe part of the idea of Santa Clause was developed explicitly for this type of control.

  7. Ryan, a little anecdote. A few days ago we were having Xmas dinner with friends, some of whom are nurses. They described the new hospital stations and patients’ rooms, and I thought this sounds like Bentham’s panopticon. It’s interesting how this level of watchful security manifests itself in health services.

    As another side thought, surveys indicate people are becoming less and less alarmed with the control internet service companies have over “private” information. I think this would break down a great deal of the effect of the panopticon. If the effects of a virtual panopticon does not discipline people, then what? Does it really matter then if Santa is watching us. Just friend him on your page.

Comments are closed.