The human subject
He, she or me? (or, the
case of the missing penis)

by Julia Lesage

from Jump Cut, no. 4, 1974, pp. 26-27
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1974, 2004

Screen, Vol. 15, no. 2 (summer, 1974), Special Number: Brecht and a Revolutionary Cinema. 163 pp. Single copy: $3.50; four issue U.S. sub: $8.50. SEFT, 63 Old Compton St. London WIV 5 PN

For film students who do not read French, Screen has been the only text to make available Continental Marxist-oriented studies on narrative structure, ideology, and psychoanalytic interpretations of film. In so doing, it has been an extremely valuable resource. However, in the recent Brecht issue, Stephen Heath and Colin McCabe use certain premises from orthodox Freudianism as the basis for their political arguments about narrative form. These premises, first introduced in the previous issue’s editorial, are not only false but overtly sexist and as such demand political refutation.

I am referring to the Screen writers’ accepting as an unquestioned given the Freudian concepts of penis envy, the child’s definition of the female as the castrated person lacking a phallus, and fetishism. Such concepts are stated by McCabe, for example, as follows:

“The fetish is that object which places the subject in a position of security outside of that terrifying area of difference opened up by the perception of the mother’s non-possession of the phallus.” (p. 22)

I have been told by several British friends that a serious study of Freud has just begun in English academic circles, especially in the humanities. This is strange to me as an American, since the U.S. gave Freud his greatest acceptance both in clinical and intellectual fields and in the Vulgar Freudianism that flowered in the 20s and 30s here. As a child of the 50s in the United States, I lived in a milieu where I interpreted all personal relations and most literature I read in Freudian terms, where psychoanalysis promised the middle class solutions to their identity problems and angst, and where vulgarized Freudian concepts were part of daily life in the childrearing advice of Spock and Gessell, the advice columns of Dear Abby, and the sentimental filmic melodramas of Douglas Sirk. Of course, as every U.S. undergraduate knows, psychology since Freud has been a field of massive corrections and astonishing counter schools. In this light, it is most peculiar to find British intellectuals holding to orthodox psychoanalysis, particularly when throughout the 60s the Scottish clinician R.D. Laing attacked such basic Freudian concepts as studying the isolated, reified individual.

In the 60s, one of the first victories of the women’s movement in the United States was to liberate ourselves both academically and personally from the Freud-trap. On the personal level, we stopped seeing ourselves as sick people who needed to be cured of masochism or of not having vaginal orgasms. We saw that the definition of and arrival at womanhood could not come through orthodox psychotherapy but rather through an understanding of the mechanisms of socialization, which are inherently oppressive to women. Many of us in my middle-class academic milieu had been fucked over by psychoanalysts telling us something was wrong with our female selves, when it was our social position as women that was making our lives unbearable. And when I see intellectuals such as McCabe and Heath, who would not think of basing arguments on racist theories of Herrenstein and Shockley, ground their ideas in an oppressive orthodox Freudianism that takes the male as the basis for defining the female, my first reaction is one of political and intellectual rage.

However, I also wonder what psychological theory besides Freud people are reading in England. Much feminist scholarship has been done on the subject.(1) One could direct McCabe and Heath, for example, to neofreudian Karen Horney, who, as far back as 1926, pointed out that Freud’s psychoanalytic ideas of feminine development, far from being universal concepts, were rather typical ideas she found that boys had of girls. She drew up a table comparing boys’ ideas to current ideas in psychoanalysis about sexual, especially feminine, development:(2)

“The Boys’ Ideas [compared to] Our Psychoanalytic Ideas of Feminine Development” [This was run in parallel columns of text in the original.]

“The Boys’ Ideas:
•Naive assumption that girls as well as boys possess a penis. •Realization of the absence of the penis.
•Idea that the girl is a castrated, mutilated boy.
•Belief that the girl has suffered punishment that also threatens him.
•The girl is regarded as inferior.
•The boy is unable to imagine how the girl can ever get over this loss or envy.
•The boy dreads her envy.”

“Our Psychoanalytic Ideas of Feminine Development:
• For both sexes it is only the male genital which plays any part.
• Sad discovery of the absence of the penis.
•Belief of the girl that she once possessed a penis and lost it by castration.
•Castration is conceived of as the infliction of punishment.
•The girl regards herself as inferior.
•Penis envy.
•The girl never gets over this loss, sense of deficiency, and inferiority and has constantly to master afresh her desire to be a man.
•The girl desires throughout life to avenge herself on the man for possessing something she lacks.”

Although McCabe and Heath do not refer to feminine psychological development (more’s the pity), their use of the orthodox Freudian assumption in which the male is the standard by which all psychological development is judged, implies the above view of female development. More specifically, in terms of articles in Screen, this emphasis on “symbolic castration” first led Colin McCabe and Ben Brewster in the editorial of the spring, 1974, issue to a serious misreading of Roland Barthes’ S/Z. It now brings Heath and McCabe to a strictly Freudian interpretation of Barthes’ use of the term “fetishism” in an article in the summer, 1974, issue. And it finally undermines Heath’s whole political argument in his reading of Brecht.

To elaborate. In the spring, 1974, editorial, Ben Brewster and Colin McCabe praise Barthes’ S/Z because Barthes does not just pursue semiology as a pure science. Barthes does not see the results of semiology as valuable in and of themselves. On the contrary, he always maintains criteria of value, in a political sense, in his study of literature and culture. In S/Z, Barthes dissects a short story by Balzac, “Sarrasine,” in order to open up the text to multiple readings. In particular, he shows how the social world and symbolic structures intrude on the narrative and are used by it. The story “Sarrasine” is about a castrati who is admired by a young artist and courted as a woman. Obviously themes of castration and sexual transgression are part of the very content of the work. McCabe and Brewster, however, make the castration theme, rather than the theory and method of literary analysis, Barthes’ major concern. Barthes traces out five fields or levels of approach to the classical narrative: semic or adjectival connotations, or the traits defining persons; the range of human actions; established institutionalized knowledge or common sense; symbolic coding; and narrative enigmas—their placement, retardation, and final solution. McCabe and Brewster insist that Barthes’ major interest lies in the area of symbolic coding, for which S/Z gives no evidence, and they reduce Barthes’ own very deliberately “plural” text to the following interpretation:

“In S/Z, Barthes approaches Balzac’s story through a number of codes, the most important of which is this ’symbolic code’ (or rather ’symbolic field,’ since it is constituted by a transgression of the symbolic) the area of the text which articulates a set of substitutes inaugurated by the acceptance of a symbolic castration.” (spring, 1974, p. 8)

What does all this have to do with film? The major theoretical point made in the Brecht issue of Screen is that representational art—either a fictional narrative where there is an omniscient point of view or a feature film where we are given a superior viewpoint from which to judge the characters—makes us into “subjects.” We consume the knowledge offered by the narrative, and as spectators, we get a sense of ourselves as unified, not as living in contradiction. McCabe says that this experience of traditional narrative cinema “petrifies the spectator in a position of pseudo-dominance,” and the

“metalanguage [of omniscient narrative discourse], resolving as it does all contradictions, places the spectator outside the realm of contradiction and of action outside of production.”(p.24)

The alternative proposed by Stephen Heath and others in this Brecht issue is a Brechtian cinema, the most oft-quoted example of which is Godard and Gorin’s TOUT VA BIEN. Such a cinema would produce contradictions, give different forms of discourse and different social situations which are not flattened out by the narrative structures as a whole. The spectator not only criticizes, but the spectator’s very position is no longer one of pseudo-dominance. Rather, it is given as critical and contradictory. When we watch a Brechtian performance, we are pulled out of our very fixity. (p. 112—Heath)

According to French Marxist Louis Althusser, the individual constituted as subject is the mechanism whereby our social institutions and relations reconstitute themselves. In other words, the family, the church, schools, factories, advertisements, all call upon us as subjects and make demands upon us, shape us. Language, literature, and our psychological formation reinforce the notion of ourselves as subjects. In an essay in the summer Screen “Diderot, Brecht, and Eisenstein,” Barthes introduces the notion of fetishism to describe certain limitations, which have political consequences, placed on the “subject” or the person viewing representational art. He says that a representation is like a tableau which cuts out segments merely in order to depict them from a unified point of view.

“In theatre, in the cinema, in traditional literature, things are always seen from somewhere. Here we have the geometrical foundation of representation: a fetishist subject is required to cut out the tableau. This point of meaning is always the Law: law of society, law of struggle, law of meaning.” (p. 38)

What Barthes meant by the fetishist subject is elaborated then in an article by Heath, “Lessons from Brecht.”

“The structure of representation is a structure of fetishism. The subject is produced in a position of separation from which he [sic] is confirmed in an imaginary coherence (the representation is the guarantee of his self-coherence) the condition of which is the ignorance of the structure of production, of his setting in position.” (p. 106)

So far, the examination of a Brechtian narrative and its opposite, closed representational narrative from a psychoanalytic perspective, has profound political implications. But Heath undermines those implications—as do McCabe and Brewster—by precisely positing in their essays the subject of their discourse as a monolith without contradictions: that is, as male. Fetishism is described solely in phallic terms. And Heath goes so far as to analyze film via a strict comparison with one of Freud’s case studies of a fetish—that of an English-speaking German male’s fetish for a woman’s shiny nose (substitute penis). Heath extends a pun that was crucial in this case—glance/ Glanz (or shine, brilliance)—into an analysis of the adverse ideological effects of heightened, brilliant photography at which we glance.

“The fetish is a token of triumph over the threat of castration and a protection against it.” (p. 107)

Do women, too, endow representations with penises they fear to lose (or fear they have lost)? Heath falls into the political trap he admires Brecht for avoiding. For Heath, spectators are all the same—all male. Heath refers to humans in general, as do most writers in Screen, as male, as he.

If, indeed, the authors writing for Screen are interested in critiquing the oppressive ideology inherent in traditional representative forms and linguistic structures, the publication itself could institute an editorial policy expunging sexism from its critical language. Yet, as McCabe and Heath should be the first to recognize, it is not merely a question of vocabulary, of substituting “people” for “he.” We not only have to recognize differences of class but entirely different social experiences based on the fact of sex, the fact of the oppression of on sex. In the authors’ own terms, postulating individuals as non-contradictory, unified, and reduced subjects acts to blind us all and limit our potential for action, for production, and for transforming society. Let Screen’s authors stop reducing the human norm to the male and stop elevating the male to the norm.


1. Some critics of the Freudian view of women work from the inside of a psychoanalytic perspective, reinterpreting the Oedipal experience in terms that no longer make the male the norm. These critics refer to the fact that infants of both sexes relate first to the mother as their primary identification and become her “loveable object” to insure her constant attention. She is the source of the child’s ego identification, and the child regards her not only with love but with frustration and rage. In the suppression that takes place with sex role identification, these critics understand that the male child’s development does not so much entail the boy child’s seeing the woman as castrated and thus inferior (in that case, he would not fear her) as it entails his “putting down” the womanly qualities in himself. All the powerful and ambiguous attitudes towards the mother and his own primary identification with her become transferred into a fear and loathing of the “womanly.”

It is also obvious that when girls are asked to renounce this active primary attachment to the mother, someone like themselves, this affects their identity of themselves as women. If Freud clearly describes the ruthless repression that occurs when the girl turns her libido toward the man (who can give her a baby), feminists see this as an early distortion of the girl child’s identity as a woman that takes place within a socialization pattern that must be changed. For a neofreudian critique of Freud on woman, including a critique of Juliet Mitchell’s Psychoanalysis and Feminism, see the following: Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex (Wm. Morrow, 1970); Nancy Chodorow, “Family Structure and Feminine Personality,” in Women, Culture, and Society, eds. Rosaldo and Lamphere (Stanford U. Press, 1974); Gregory Zilborg, “Masculine and Feminine: Some Biological and Cultural Aspects,” Psychiatry, Vol. 7, 1944; Viola Klein, The Feminine Character: History of an Ideology (Univ. of Ill. Press, 1946, 1971); Elizabeth Long, review of J. Mitchell’s Psychoanalysis and Feminism, Telos ,No. 20 (summer, 1974).

Feminist activists have particularly attacked that aspect of Freudian psychology which refuses to define women’s sexual pleasure in women’s terms, something many women in consciousness-raising groups have discussed with other women and are defining for themselves. Freud refers to sexual activity, the libido, and even the clitoris (only women, in fact, have an organ solely for sexual pleasure) in masculine terms. In definitive physiological studies that reverse Freudian premises about the sexual “nature” of women, Masters and Johnson have shown that the apex of physical pleasure is reserved for women who have the physical capacity for unlimited orgasms, stimulated by manual or mechanical manipulation and not intercourse. Sadly, Freudian-based interpretations of women’s sexuality have kept women down, socializing them not even to enjoy their own biology.

Freud distinguishes between vaginal and clitoral orgasms and sets up corresponding “stages” in women’s maturity. (He calls the clitoris a pseudo-penis. The baby is the substitute penis that a man can restore to a woman once she has gotten to the vaginal stage.) For refutation and angry responses to this essentially oppressive psychological construct, see the following: Kate Millett, Sexual Politics (Doubleday, 1970); Ann Koedt, “The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm,” Notes from the Second Year: Women’s Liberation 1970; Alix Kates Shulman, “Organs and Orgasms,” Women in Sexist Society: Studies in Power and Powerlessness, eds. Vivian Gornick and Barbara Moran (New American Library, 1971). These draw on Masters and Johnson, Human Sexual Response (Little Brown, 1966).

The feminist attack on Freud takes place within the larger context of restructuring academic disciplines in which the premises and the very language used takes the male experience as the norm (e.g., Lévi-Strauss’ accepting and uncritical generalization that in every culture the “exchange” of women is one of the three primary bases of exchange). The most significant critiques of Freud attack the very bases of his theory. The following authors demonstrate that all the traits attributed by Freud to the influence of anatomy on character traits can be explained by the influence of cultural pressures, sex role socialization, and the impact of a specific social and historical situation on character structures. See Clara Thompson, “The Role of Women in This Culture,” “Cultural Pressures in the Psychology of Women,” and “'Penis Envy’ in Women,” in Psychiatry, Vols. 4, 5, 6 in 1941, 42, 43 successively; Ann Oakley, Sex Gender and Society (Harper and Row); Lea Shaeffer, Women and Sex (Praeger); Mary Jane Sherfey, The Nature and Evolution of Female Sexuality; Naomi Weisstein, “Psychology Constructs the Female,” in Woman in Sexist Society.

2. Originally in “The Flight from Womanhood: The Masculinity in Women as Viewed by Men and Women,” International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, vol. 12, 1926. Table reprinted in “Patient and Patriarch” by Phyllis Chesler, ed., in Woman in Sexist Society, op. cit., p. 377.

3. In spite of their desire to avoid reductionism, Screen authors refer to TOUT VA BIEN and LETTER TO JANE as Godard’s films (Spring, 1974, p. 5; Summer, 1974, pp. 104-105, 120-121), thus erasing all the contradictions Godard and Gorin faced over a period of at least five years when they decided to work collectively. In particular, they ignore Gorin’s specifically Brechtian contributions to the partnership of the films from l969 to 1972; the most “Brechtian” are the ones in which Gorin had major influence: WIND FROM THE EAST, STRUGGLES IN ITALY, TOUT VA BIEN, and LETTER TO JANE.