Compliance: The Uncomfortable Reality of Docile Bodies

“Normal men do not know that everything is possible” – David Rousset1

The movie Compliance2 is dis­turbing on many dif­ferent levels, and left me with a feeling of ex­treme dis­com­fort, and even dis­or­i­ent­a­tion, long after the credits rolled, no less be­cause it is based on true events, re­ferred to by the American media as the “strip search prank call scam”. As the story un­folds in the movie in the same se­quence as it did in reality, Sandra, the man­ager of an Ohio “Chickwich” fast-​food outlet, re­ceives a call from a man falsely claiming to be a po­lice de­tective. Referring to him­self as “Officer Daniels” or “Sir”, he ac­cuses a young fe­male cashier, Becky, of stealing money from a cus­tomer. He then en­lists Sandra’s as­sist­ance in phys­ic­ally de­taining Becky in the store room of the outlet and strip-​searching her. Sandra and two other em­ployees are caught up in events that be­come in­creas­ingly un­set­tling, es­calate throughout, and ul­ti­mately cul­minate in the de­grading sexual abuse and hu­mi­li­ation of Becky by Sandra’s boy­friend, Van.

Although many viewers in the US re­acted to the movie with vis­ceral dis­gust, the events are barely em­bel­lished and are por­trayed re­l­at­ively ac­cur­ately by Zobel, who also made every ef­fort to en­sure that the movie was not just an­other ex­ploit­ative voyeur­istic rep­res­ent­a­tion of women’s bodies. Furthermore, the real and nar­rativ­ised ver­sions of Compliance can be seen as re­flective of two famous psy­cho­lo­gical ex­per­i­ments: the ex­per­i­ments on obed­i­ence to au­thority fig­ures con­ducted by Yale University psy­cho­lo­gist Stanley Milgram, where par­ti­cipants obeyed in­struc­tions to apply elec­tric shock to ‘vic­tims’, even to the point of causing what had been de­scribed as ex­tremely painful and phys­ic­ally dan­gerous to the re­cip­ient;3 and the Stanford University prison study con­ducted by Philip G Zimbardo in 1971 where stu­dents were di­vided into groups com­prising of “pris­oners” and “guards” with hor­rific con­sequences as they played out their re­spective roles and ex­pect­a­tions of their as­sign­ments.4 Put simply, these ex­per­i­ments have been in­ter­preted as showing that or­dinary sub­jects can be easily in­flu­enced to apply lethal force to in­no­cent people when acting under pres­sure to comply with or­ders is­sued by those per­ceived to have the au­thority to do so. More im­port­antly, con­formity and obed­i­ence to au­thority are ac­cepted as vir­tues by a ma­jority of the sub­jects. Indeed, in terms of so­ci­etal norms, con­formity and com­pli­ance are key in­gredi­ents for suc­cess – and in­deed sur­vival — in the mil­itary, prisons, schools, sports teams, and in the work­place. Milgram has been quoted as saying that “… [o]rdinary people simply doing their jobs without any par­tic­ular hos­tility can be­come agents in a ter­rible de­structive pro­cess. Relatively few people have the re­sources needed to resist au­thority”. This is how Sandra is por­trayed in the movie: an or­dinary person trying to do what is ex­pected of her, to “do the right thing”.

The cine­matic de­pic­tion of events — in what can be called a “per­fect storm” of com­pli­ance –be­gins with Sandra ex­per­i­en­cing a stressful work day, with too many cus­tomers and too little bacon as a result of a broken re­fri­ger­ator. As she tries to re­solve the problem and manage the situ­ation as ef­fect­ively and ef­fi­ciently as pos­sible, a “po­lice of­ficer” calls, ac­cusing a “young blonde girl” of stealing money from a customer’s purse. Sandra auto­mat­ic­ally as­sumes that it is Becky, who vehe­mently denies it. Although ini­tially un­cer­tain, Sandra be­comes over­whelmed by her ma­na­gerial re­spons­ib­il­ities, and com­plies with the caller’s or­ders to de­tain Becky in an ef­fort to do the right thing and to please someone who she be­lieved has au­thority over the situ­ation des­pite there being no evid­ence that he was in­deed a po­lice de­tective. This de­cision to comply be­gins a night­mare that tra­gic­ally blurs the lines between ex­pedi­ence, leg­ality and reason in a way that il­lus­trates Michel Foucault’s dis­cip­linary society:

There are two im­ages, then, of dis­cip­line. At one ex­treme, the discipline-​blockade, the en­closed in­sti­tu­tion, es­tab­lished on the edges of so­ciety, turned in­wards to­wards neg­ative func­tions: ar­resting evil, breaking com­mu­nic­a­tions, sus­pending time. At the other ex­treme, with pan­op­ti­cism, is the discipline-​mechanism: a func­tional mech­anism that must im­prove the ex­er­cise of power by making it lighter, more rapid, more ef­fective, a design of subtle co­er­cion for a so­ciety to come. The move­ment from one pro­ject to the other, from a schema of ex­cep­tional dis­cip­line to one of a gen­er­al­ized sur­veil­lance, rests on a his­tor­ical trans­form­a­tion: the gradual ex­ten­sion of the mech­an­isms of dis­cip­line throughout the sev­en­teenth and eight­eenth cen­turies, their spread throughout the whole so­cial body, the form­a­tion of what might be called in gen­eral the dis­cip­linary so­ciety.5

The caller, who as­serts his au­thority on the phone from the outset, is stern with Sandra — and the other people who are later called upon to guard and search Becky — when a con­trolling in­flu­ence is needed, but also passes that au­thority on to Sandra and Van to ex­er­cise when ne­ces­sary. Sandra, Van and Becky re­spond to his per­ceived au­thority as a law-​enforcer in ways that are shaped and con­structed by their own re­spective po­s­i­tions in a so­cial hier­archies; their un­der­standing of leg­ality and the im­port­ance of obeying the law; as well as the fear of not con­forming and having to face the con­sequences of non-​compliance and ‘bel­li­ger­ence’. This in turn il­lus­trates the way in which Foucauldian dis­cip­lines (re)produce bodies and iden­tities in ways that op­erate as ef­fective mech­an­isms of so­cial con­trol and the nor­m­al­isa­tion of power:

… al­though the po­lice as an in­sti­tu­tion were cer­tainly or­gan­ized in the form of a state ap­par­atus, and al­though this was cer­tainly linked dir­ectly to the centre of polit­ical sov­er­eignty, the type of power that it ex­er­cises, the mech­an­isms it op­er­ates and the ele­ments to which it ap­plies them are spe­cific. It is an ap­par­atus that must be co­ex­tensive with the en­tire so­cial body and not only by the ex­treme limits that it em­braces, but by the minute­ness of the de­tails it is con­cerned with. Police power must bear “over everything”: it is not how­ever the to­tality of the state nor of the kingdom as vis­ible and in­vis­ible body of the mon­arch; it is the dust of events, ac­tions, be­ha­viour, opin­ions — “everything that hap­pens”; the po­lice are con­cerned with “those things of every mo­ment”, those “un­im­portant things”, of which Catherine II spoke in her Great Instruction (Supplement to the Instruction for the drawing up of a new code, 1769, art­icle 535) (ibid).

In a se­quence of what can only be de­scribed as un­be­liev­able events over a time period of ap­prox­im­ately three and a half hours, Sandra is told to take away Becky’s cell phone and search her purse for the stolen money. She is then ordered to in­struct Becky strip and to search her clothing for the money. She calls in an­other fe­male em­ployee, Marti, to be a wit­ness, but she leaves shortly after the strip search and gets back to work. These de­mands are all made on the phone, gradu­ally be­coming more even more bizarre. In order to ma­nip­u­late her into com­plying with his in­creas­ingly un­reas­on­able de­mands, the voyeur­istic caller both rep­rim­ands and praises Sandra, who is eager to please, and as­sures her that she is not re­spons­ible for what hap­pens to Becky as he claims to as­sume full re­spons­ib­ility for all ac­tions under his dir­ec­tion as the of­ficer “in charge”. In ad­di­tion to rep­rim­anding and praising Sandra and the other com­pliant par­ti­cipants, he uses fear and the need to con­form to push the bound­aries even fur­ther. For in­stance, he jus­ti­fies the strip search by claiming that the only al­tern­ative would be for Becky to be im­prisoned while her home is searched. When Becky is alone, the caller threatens that she will lose her job, be im­prisoned and that her brother could also face drug re­lated charges if she does not comply calmly with the strip search. After she has stripped, Becky is covered only by an apron.

In the next sur­real twist, Officer Daniels in­structs Sandra to put Becky’s clothes, un­der­wear and shoes into a bag and take it to her car for later in­spec­tion by the po­lice. He ini­tially claims that clothes can some­times have hidden pockets, but when Sandra is per­plexed by his order, he states that the larger in­vest­ig­a­tion in­volves pos­ses­sion of marijuana, and that the clothing may con­tain faint traces of it which would aid the case. In a mo­ment that seems to defy reason, she com­plies. In Compliance, Sandra, Becky and Van are re-​created as do­cile bodies, sub­jected and used, playing passive roles in the very system that harms them. Foucault’s con­cep­tion of “do­cile bodies” em­an­ates from his sem­inal work Discipline and Punish,6 in which he ar­gues that in­di­viduals are under con­stant sur­veil­lance and reg­u­la­tion (‘pan­op­ti­cism’) in ways that are often subtle and thereby seem­ingly in­vis­ible, leading to the ac­cept­ance and nor­m­al­isa­tion of such sys­tems. Foucault fo­cuses on the body spe­cific­ally as the sight of reg­u­la­tion, or more spe­cific­ally “as ob­ject and target of power”. The no­tion of ‘docility’ — the point at which the ana­lys­able body and the ma­nip­ulable body are joined — is em­ployed to il­lus­trate how in­di­viduals within their bodies are sub­jected to in­sti­tu­tional reg­u­la­tion, order and discipline.

As these hap­pen­ings un­fold, others are drawn into the web. Another young male em­ployee, Kevin, is re­cruited to “guard” Becky while Sandra tries to help out with the large num­bers of cus­tomers. When in­structed by the caller to re­move Becky’s apron and in­spect her naked body he re­fuses, and states that the situ­ation is “fucked up”. However, des­pite clearly dis­agreeing with what is hap­pening in the store-​room, he goes back to simply “doing his job” in the front of the store.

As the store is busy, and she is be­coming in­creas­ingly stressed, Sandra calls her boy­friend (who she refers to as her fiancé) Van to come in and help “guard” Becky upon the in­struc­tions of the caller. Van, who is slightly drunk when he ar­rives at the res­taurant, proves easy to ma­nip­u­late. Soon Officer Daniels has him re­moving the apron; de­scribing her breasts and va­gina to him over the phone; for­cing her to jog and do jumping jacks naked; spanking her re­peatedly for ten minutes for being ‘dis­obedient’; con­ducting a pat­ently il­legal “cavity search” for the missing money; and fi­nally com­pels her to per­form oral sex on him. When Sandra comes in at some stages during this orgy of cruelty, Van covers the si­lent Becky with the apron, but the sexual abuse con­tinues when they are alone. When Van even­tu­ally be­comes too nervous, Officer Daniels sug­gests that he leaves.

Sandra then re­quests the main­ten­ance man, Harold, who is called in to fix the broken re­fri­ger­ator, to watch Becky until the po­lice ar­rive. Harold, thank­fully, is al­most in­stantly out­raged by the caller’s de­mands and is the first person to dis­obey his in­struc­tions. When he is told by Officer Daniels that strip-​searching Becky “isn’t your choice,” he re­sponds “like hell it isn’t”, and re­fuses to co­operate. After Harold tells Sandra about the caller’s in­ten­tions, she phones the re­gional man­ager and for the first time in hours real­ises that the call is a scam. The po­lice ar­rive at the scene five minutes after being called.

The above events, cap­tured on CCTV footage, took place at a McDonalds fast food res­taurant in Mount Washington, Kentucky on 9 April 2004.7 In the pro­cess of in­vest­ig­ating the case it was dis­covered that 69 sim­ilar calls were made to various other fast food out­lets, res­taur­ants and gro­cery stores over a period of 12 years, al­though the MacDonalds in­cident went much fur­ther than any of the others. An ar­rest was made in 2004, al­though the ac­cused was even­tu­ally ac­quitted in 2006 for lack of direct evid­ence that he was the per­pet­rator in this case.8 The 18 year old victim, whose real name is Louise Ogborn, in­sti­tuted ac­tion against MacDonalds for not put­ting in place ad­equate meas­ured to pre­vent the in­cident from hap­pening. The jury in the Bullitt Circuit Court civil trial, con­cluded in November 2007, 9 awarded the victim $5 mil­lion in pun­itive dam­ages and $1.1 mil­lion in com­pens­atory dam­ages and ex­penses. Donna Summers, her com­pliant su­per­visor (as­sistant man­ager at the store), was awarded $1 mil­lion in pun­itive dam­ages and $100,000 in com­pens­atory dam­ages as she in­sisted that she thought she was doing the “right thing” and was found to be ig­norant of the fact that Ogborn was being as­saulted by her fiancé. The jury de­cided that McDonald’s and the un­named caller were equally at fault for the abuse to which the victim was sub­jected. In 2009 the Community of Kentucky Court of Appeals af­firmed the civil court de­cision ex­cept for the pun­itive dam­ages awarded to Summers, which were re­duced to the “con­sti­tu­tion­ally ac­cept­able” amount of $400,000.10 43 year old Walter Nix (the fiancé re­ferred to as “Van” in the movie) pleaded guilty to sexual abuse and other crimes in February 2006. Because he was the prin­cipal per­pet­rator of the sexual abuse and en­gaged in a sex act, he re­ceived a five-​year prison sen­tence. 11 Summers entered a plea of guilty to a crim­inal charge of un­lawful im­pris­on­ment, and re­ceived one year of pro­ba­tion. She was not charged with any sex-​related crimes. Footage from the CCTV cam­eras has been leaked onto the in­ternet, with por­no­graphy sites showing clips of the va­ginal “in­spec­tion” and naked jumping jacks.

Some re­viewers in the US have dis­missed the claim that the movie is based on true events as “a mere gen­eric and aes­thetic strategy that may as well be the modus op­erandi for horror films over the last decade”, pre­cisely be­cause it is such an un­be­liev­able set of events. Zobel is ac­cused of “ques­tion­able rep­res­ent­a­tions of class re­la­tions that get over­looked in the con­sid­er­a­tion of its more sa­la­cious ma­terial”.12 The cine­matic por­trayal is dis­missed as an at­tempt at sen­sa­tion­al­ising the abuse of the fe­male body and “at­tempts at af­fecting cer­tain emo­tions in its audi­ence”. The movie is de­scribed as “the rep­res­ent­a­tion of a grim, un­canny nar­rative about the in­flu­ence of bur­eau­cracy and a re-​examination of Michel Foucault’s writ­ings in a con­tem­porary con­text”, with ac­cus­a­tions of aca­demic exploration/​ex­ploit­a­tion of a dis­turbing theme crafted for the “art house crowd”: Compliance is de­scribed as a cor­nu­copia of aca­demic ideas en­sconced in the “gritty realism” of fast food res­taur­ants. Furthermore “[a] nag­ging smug­ness per­meates the film, making the ma­terial into an angst-​ridden rant against con­formity rather than a po­ten­tially polit­ic­ally powerful film that pro­vokes us to re­con­sider our re­la­tion­ship to the screen as well as sys­tems we be­long to”. The latter state­ment is ironic, in the sense that the aes­thetic nature of the nar­rative is not central to it. The main com­plaint is that Zobel provides a class-​ist por­trayal of events and fails dis­mally at providing an ex­plan­a­tion for Sandra mo­tiv­a­tions for her in­ac­tion, as if that is pos­sible at all.

This kind of de­fensive and ig­norant ana­lysis is al­most as dis­turbing as the story it­self, il­lus­trating an in­ab­ility to re­flect on and en­gage with the events, or to open up to the kind of doubt, un­cer­tainty and in­tro­spec­tion that does not allow the viewer/​voyeur to dis­tance him or her­self from the abuse that plays it­self out on the screen. It is far safer to re­ject the truth of the story, as this does not re­quire viewers to ask dif­fi­cult ques­tions of them­selves and the sys­tems that con­struct their iden­tities and em­body their truths. Admittedly, how­ever, my own at­tempts at un­der­standing the dy­namics can also be seen as no more than a form of aca­demic voyeurism.

There are no easy an­swers as to why the par­ti­cipants in this pro­longed hu­mi­li­ation of an 18 year old cashier acted as they did, or in­deed why she sub­mitted to the ex­tent that she did, but it could be seen as an il­lus­tra­tion of how know­ledge, power and dis­cip­line have sub­jected and sub­jug­ated the human body, and es­pe­cially the fe­male body, to the ex­tent that there is very little room for res­ist­ance, a fact that clearly frus­trates, and even es­capes, many com­ment­ators who simply find the movie of­fensive, and who, per­petu­ating the very system that they seek to resist, do not see beyond the cine­matic im­agery, which merely serves as a re­flec­tion of the “erotic” cruelty in­flicted on real but also ar­ti­fi­cially con­structed bodies.

Narnia Bohler-​Muller is Deputy Executive Director, Democracy and Governance, Human Sciences Research Council and Adjunct Professor, Nelson Mandela School of Law, University of Fort Hare, South Africa.

Show 12 foot­notes

  1. As quoted in Hannah Arendt The Origins of Totalitarianism 1951.
  2. Directed by Craig Zobel, Magnolia Pictures (2012). For a trailer and sum­mary of the plot see http://​www​.mag​pic​tures​.com/​c​o​m​p​l​i​a​n​ce/.
  3. Stanley Milgram Obedience to au­thority: an ex­per­i­mental view 1974.
  4. Philip G Zimbardo The Lucifer ef­fect: How good people turn evil 2008. See also an in­ter­view with Zimbardo on YouTube http://​www​.you​tube​.com/​w​a​t​c​h​?​v​=​s​Z​w​f​N​s​1​p​qG0.
  5. Michel Foucault Discipline and punish: The Birth of the prison “Panopticism” 1995 (my em­phasis).
  6. Supra.
  7. For cen­sored CCTV footage of the events and in­ter­views with Ogborn and Summers see http://​www​.you​tube​.com/​w​a​t​c​h​?​v​=​U​F​X​e​X​K​3​s​zOk.
  8. The ac­cused, David Stewart, was ac­quitted by a jury in 2006. See http://​www​.star​news​on​line​.com/​a​r​t​i​c​l​e​/​2​0​0​6​1​1​0​1​/​N​E​W​S​/​6​1​1​0​1​0​373).
  9. Action No. 04-​CI-​00769.
  10. See the ap­peal judg­ment at
  11. ABC news re­port: “Man Gets 5 Years for Role in Fast-​Food Strip Search Ploy”, 15 March 2006 at http://​ab​cnews​.go​.com/​P​r​i​m​e​t​i​m​e​/​s​t​o​r​y​?​i​d​=​1​7​2​8​8​3​9​&​a​m​p​;​p​a​g​e=1.
  12. See in par­tic­ular http://​www​.bloody​good​horror​.com/​b​g​h​/​r​e​v​i​e​w​s​/​1​0​/​1​5​/​2​0​1​2​/​c​o​m​p​l​i​a​nce.