Freud's account of sexual difference is based on the view that there are certain psychical characteristics that can be called 'masculine' and others that can be called 'feminine', and that these differ from each other significantly. However, Freud constantly refuses to give any definition of the terms 'masculine' and 'feminine', arguing that they are foundational concepts which can be used but not elucidated by psychoanalytic theory.
One feature of this opposition is that the two terms do not function in an exactly symmetrical way. Masculinity is taken by Freud as the paradigm; he asserts that there is only one libido, which is masculine, and that the psychical development of the girl is at first identical to that of the boy, only diverging at a later moment. Femininity is thus that which diverges from the masculine paradigm, and Freud regards it as a mysterious, unexplored region, a 'dark continent.' The 'riddle of the nature of femininity' comes to preoccupy Freud in his later writings, and drives him to ask the famous question, 'What does woman want?' Masculinity is a self-evident given, femininity is a zone of mystery:
Psychoanalysis does not try to describe what a woman is - that would be a task it could scarcely perform - but sets about enquiring how she comes into being, how a woman develops out of a child with a bisexual disposition.
Apart from a few remarks on the function of the mother in the family complexes, Lacan's pre-war writings do not engage with the debate on femininity. The occasional statements on the subject which occur in Lacan's work in the early 1950s are couched in terms derived from Claude LÈvi-Strauss; women are seen as objects of exchange which circulate like signs between kinship groups. 'Women in the real order serve . . . as objects for the exchanges required by the elementary structures of kinship.' Lacan argues that it is precisely the fact that woman is pushed into the position of an exchange object that constitutes the difficulty of the feminine position:
For her, there's something insurmountable, let us say unacceptable, in the fact of being placed in the position of an object in the symbolic order, to which, on the other hand, she is entirely subjected no less than the man.
Lacan's analysis of the Dora case makes the same point: what is unacceptable for Dora is her position as object of exchange between her father and Herr K. Being in this position of exchange object means that woman 'has a relation of the second degree to this symbolic order.'
In 1956, Lacan takes up the traditional association of hysteria with femininity, arguing that hysteria is in fact nothing other than the question of femininity itself, the question which may be phrased 'What is a woman?'.
This is true for both male and female hysterics. The term 'woman' here refers not to some biological essence but to a position in the symbolic order; it is synonymous with the term 'feminine position'. Lacan also argues that 'there is no symbolisation of woman's sex as such', since there is no feminine equivalent to the 'highly prevalent symbol' provided by the phallus. This symbolic dissymmetry forces the woman to take the same route through the Oedipus complex as the boy, i.e. to identify with the father. However, this is more complex for the woman, since she is required to take the image of a member of the other sex as the basis for her identification.
Lacan returns to the question of femininity in 1958, in a paper entitled 'Guiding remarks for a congress on feminine sexuality'. In this paper he notes the impasses which have beset psychoanalytic discussions of feminine sexuality, and argues that woman is the Other for both men and women; 'Man here acts as the relay whereby the woman becomes this Other for herself as she is this Other for him'.
Lacan's most important contributions to the debate on femininity come, like Freud's, late in his work. In the seminar of 1972-3, Lacan advances the concept of a specifically feminine jouissance Which goes 'beyond the phallus'; this jouissance is 'of the order of the infinite', like mystical ecstasy. Women may experience this jouissance, but they knoW nothing about it (S20, 71). It is also in this seminar that Lacan takes up his controversial formula, first advanced in the seminar of 1970-1, 'Woman does not exist' (la femme n'existe pas), which he here rephrases as 'there is no such thing as Woman' (il n'y a pas La femme). As is clear in the original French, what Lacan puts into question is not the noun 'woman', but the definite article which precedes it. In French the definite article indicates universality, and this is precisely the characteristic that women lack; women 'do not lend themselves to generalisation, even to phallocentric generalisation'. Hence Lacan strikes through the definite article whenever it precedes the term femme in much the same way as he strikes through the A to produce the symbol for the barred Other, for like woman, the Other does not exist (see bar). To press home the point, Lacan speaks of woman as 'not-all'; unlike masculinity, which is a universal function founded upon the phallic exception (castration), woman is a non-universal which admits of no exception. Woman is compared to truth, since both partake of the logic of the not-all (there is no such thing as all women; it is impossible to say 'the whole truth'.
Lacan goes on in 1975 to state that 'a woman is a symptom.' More precisely, a woman is a symptom of a man, in the sense that a woman can only ever enter the psychic economy of men as a fantasy object (a), the cause of their desire.
Lacan's remarks on woman and on feminine sexuality have become the focus of controversy and debate in feminist theory. Feminists have divided over whether to see Lacan as an ally or an enemy of the feminist cause. Some have seen his theories as providing an incisive description of patriarchy and as a way of challenging fixed concepts of sexual identity. Others have argued that his concept of the symbolic order reinstates patriarchy as a transhistorical given, and that his privileging of the phallus simply repeats the alleged misogynies of Freud himself.
.... the female sex, the sex certainly more predisposed to neurosis .... It is precisely in the female that object loss seems to remain the most effective situation of danger .... Since it is certainly true that hysteria has a greater affinity with femininity, just as compulsion neurosis has with masculinity, the idea suggests itself that, as a determinant of anxiety, loss of love plays a role in hysteria similar to that of the threat of castration in the phobias and of dread of the superego in compulsion neurosis.
We attribute to women a greater amount of narcissism (and this influences their object-choice) so that for them to be loved is a stronger need than to love. Their vanity is partly a further effect of penis-envy, for they are driven to rate their physical charms more highly as a belated compensation for their original sexual inferiority. Modesty, which is regarded as a feminine characteristic par excellence, but is far more a matter of convention than one would think, was, in our opinion, originally designed to hide the deficiency in her genitals.
Kid A In Alphabet Land Wallops Another Wayward Wench - The Wanton Woman!
Wouldn't I Like To Whack You - But Isn't That What You Want! You Fill Out The Lack In Man! You Are The Ideal Partner With Whom The Sexual Relationship Is Finally Realized - Not! Hmph! The Woman Doesn't Exist!
- Freud, 1920a: SE XVIII, 171
- Freud, 1926e: SE XX, 212
- Freud, 1933a: SE XXII, l 13
- see Jones, 1953-7: vol. 2, 468
- Freud, 1933a: SE XXII, 116
- Lacan, 1938
- see LÈvi-Strauss, 1949b
- E, 207
- S2, 262
- see Lacan, 1951a
- S2, 262; see S4, 95-6
- S3, 178
- S3, 176
- S3, 176
- Lacan, 1958d
- Ec, 732
- S20, 69
- S20, 44
- Lacan, 1973a: 60
- S20, 68
- Lacan, 1975b
- pas-toute; S20, 13
- Lacan, 1973a: 64
- Lacan, 1974-5: seminar of 21 January 1975
- e.g. Mitchell and Rose, 1982
- e.g. Gallop, 1982; Grosz, 1990
- Template:PoA Ch. 8
- Template:NILP Ch. 5