How does a woman formulate to herself the problem of femininity? For the man, she is loved as lacking, but he can only experience jouissance through her via the fetish ‘phallus-girls’ that hide this lack by causing his desire. The woman thus presents herself to the man only through a phantasy-screen and in an entirely phallic dimension. It is only by proxy that, in a display of virility, he experiences jouissance through her, since the phallus is awarded to him as a kind of title, received with other emblems from the paternal line. In a nutshell, fantasy and phallus hide a man’s relation to a woman (and to her femininity).
In this phallic order it is very difficult to define femininity, because, even if a woman enters it laterally, she essentially escapes from it. As a woman she is outside the law of the phallus. Lacan even goes as far as to speak of a rejection of femininity, a term that implies something irreversible, which he translates as ‘foreclosure’ (and, in the 1970s, would formulate as ‘the woman as a universal does not exist’). The being of a woman, then, escapes her. In its place, Lacan says, she substitutes a ‘seeming’ (appearance, semblance) wherein she identifies with the phallus in order to be desired. It is certainly this phallic masquerade that makes women enter (as one man!) the universe of fashion, as a monk enters the mysteries, in order to become the fetishes of men’s desire.
Here we have a propitious meeting point: men are looking for fetish-women and women, at the cost of increased alienation, want to oblige in order to be desired by men. There is no reason to think that this will ever end. Granted, there’s a certain amount feminine game-playing going on here, but at the same time there is a subjective ‘forcing’. Indeed, the more women adhere to phallic identification, the more they reject their sex; this only drives them to search more frantically for it, with the consequence that, wandering from pillar to post, they sometimes appear lost.
Could this, then, be ‘normal’ feminine fetishism, a mass feminine fetishism? Freud, as early as 1909, took an interest in women’s clothing fetishism, and indeed he considered it normal: ‘Daily experience shows us that half of humanity fall into the category of clothing fetishists’. In a letter to Karl Abraham, Freud added: ‘Clothing fetishism, normal in women, is related to the passive scopic drive, the drive to bare one’s body. Again it’s about repressing the drive, this time in its passive form of ‘to be seen’, a drive that is repressed thanks to clothes. That is why clothes become fetishes.’ And thus woman’s exhibitionism corresponds to man’s voyeurism, partially repressed through clothes that will be idealized and fetishized (we know that fetishism is always accompanied by strong idealization and sometimes by sublimation). This, then, is the source of the sometimes immoderate feminine passion for clothes and, as they say in the fashion boutiques, ‘accessories’. Freud’s idea, then, is of a passivized scopic drive that takes the middle road: to make oneself be seen.
Women, then, put themselves on display. Why, exactly? In 1909, Freud answered the question thus: ‘We understand now why even the most intelligent women find themselves defenseless in the face of fashion’s demands. It is because for them clothes take the place of parts of the body, and wearing the same clothes as other women only means that they too are able to show what other women can show, meaning that one can find in them all that one can find in women in general, a guarantee that a woman can give only in this form.’
There is, in this passage, an entirely different idea from the preceding one about the repression of feminine exhibitionism through fetishized clothes. For Freud, clothes, in their dimension of uniform, aim to define and even guarantee femininity, taking a detour around other women who the subject supposes to be more feminine than she is or, simply, already defined and guaranteed as women. Freud suggests that fashion serves to produce this guarantee, and even that the guarantee could only take this particular form: a fashionable woman proves that she belongs to a well-formed group, namely the group of women guaranteed as women.
Lacan, in contrast, for whom the woman is ‘not-all there in reference to the phallic signifier’ and who thinks such a group of women does not exist, would rather highlight the vanity of such a quest. Indeed, what is targeted is a foreclosed signifier, and the more a woman seeks it in the fetishization of the body by the male gaze, the more she ‘displays herself’ as phallic, the more she will in fact lose the singularity of what she is as a woman and, as a result, increase the distance between herself and the femininity that is the object of her search.
‘Normal’ or ‘mass’ feminine fetishism, we see, has led us to paradoxical results! Femininity is always singular and, as an essence, outside the law or the phallic norm. It therefore resists inclusion in any mass approach, however ‘feminizing’ it may seem, even if, despite all that, there is no reason to reject the shiny semblances of fashion and the evident narcissistic satisfactions they procure. So, where is femininity to be found? It is found contingently, and not necessarily where it goes in search of itself, namely, often, in hysteria, via the fascination exerted by another woman supposed by the subject to be desired by the father, as in the case of Dora, attracted by the ‘ravishing whiteness’ of Mrs. K.’s body.
Could femininity simply be the hysterical identification evoked by Freud with his reference to the clothes of other women that supposedly guarantee femininity? Probably not, since hysterical identification is an identification with the lack of an object that cannot guarantee a woman she has found femininity in the fashionable clothes worn by other women. And what about the mother? Is she one of these other defining women? From her, indeed, Lacan suggests that the girl expects much more than the phallus, namely that the mother passes on to her something substantial about femininity. The extent of her disappointment can go as far as ‘ravage’, he says, a term which he contrasts with the less infinitely devastating one of ‘symptom’.
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By Richard Jonathan | © Mara Marietta Culture Blog, 2021| All rights reserved