Janine Mileaf on Freud's "Fetishism"

A fetish is a substitute for the penis that a male child imagines his mother to have lost. Freud explains fetishism in no more complicated or obscure terms. He further explains that in formulating a fetish, the child maintains two contradictory beliefs. He believes that his mother has lost her penis, and therefore fears the loss of his own, at the same time that he assuages this fear by psychically replacing her penis with a fetishistic object of desire. In the child's mind, the mother simultaneously does and does not have a penis. For Freud, fetishism is one of the possible results of the castration complex. He sees the two as so completely and transparently linked that fetishism can be used to RproveS the existence of this fear in the male child. He offers no explanation for fetishism in women and even seems to deny its possibility.

If this explanation sounds as incomplete as I think it does, why have so many theorists taken Freud so seriously? Why have feminists, in particular, been willing to accept the phallocentrism of psychoanalysis even as they work to dismantle the discourses that it supports? One appeal of Freudian theory may be that in its masculinist assumptions, psychoanalysis takes the perceived secondary status of women as an object of study. If the ego is produced through the recognition of sexual difference, as Freud claims, then women can begin to launch critiques that disrupt the connotations of that recognition.

For Laura Mulvey, psychoanalysis offers just such a tool. She uses the differential relationship of the genders to the symbolic order of language and representation in order to explain the hegemony of the male viewing position in cinema. Her goals are overtly political and feminist and yet she takes as her starting point the shaky ground of Freud's castration complex and Lacan's mirror stage. By analyzing the production of pleasure through the enactment of sexual difference, Mulvey hopes to destroy the specular pleasures of scopophilia and voyeurism.

While it is true that once recognized, the masculine gaze becomes more problematic, Mulvey's pronouncement has not interfered with both male and female enjoyment of the spectacle of the female body as fetish. She argues for the production of alternative cinema that refuses the narrative format, but this seems a narrow site for her larger agenda. Her wish to find cinema that asserts the viewing positions of camera and audience recalls Barthes' structuralist activity and in this way seems to rely on an avant-garde aesthetic vocabulary. Furthermore, neither Freud nor Mulvey want to take seriously women's own fetishism, scopophilia, and voyeurism. It seems myopic to argue that women's only position in relation to visual pleasure is that of identifying with the starlet's exhibitionism. From where do these varied positions of women's visual pleasure derive? To me, this is a crucial question that needs further consideration.

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