Trump, Freud, and the Puzzle of Femininity
Our fear of the feminine might be the great riddle of democracy
Of late we’ve been hearing the word “repudiate” a lot. It’s ever on the lips of those who deplore President Trump’s tactics, rhetoric, fiats, tweets, and lies. After Charlottesville, we heard it from military leaders, corporate chieftains, and quondam Trump loyalists. Lindy West in a recent Times essay called upon Republican lawmakers to repudiate not just Trump’s platform, but finally Trump himself. Duty To Warn, a group of mental health professionals organized in response to a perceived rise in Trump’s volatility, have declared Trump dangerous to the public and have advocated for using the 25th Amendment to repudiate him. Meanwhile, more than a million people have signed the petition at ImpeachDonaldTrumpNow.org calling upon Congress to remove the president, citing multiple violations and abrogations of the Constitution to which he pledged fidelity.
But our president is the Greatest Repudiator. Not only has he sought to repudiate the Paris Climate Accord, UNESCO, women’s reproductive rights, and Obamacare; he has also demonstrated that he is obsessed with repudiating everything Obama. He practically revels in ignoring if not dismissing democratic values we take for granted: truth, equality, a free press, the rule of law. In their place he promotes a cult of authoritarian hyper-masculinity, perhaps best evidenced by his preference for the company of antidemocratic strongmen. He seems genuinely happy only when pumping up mainly white, largely male, and thoroughly alienated crowds at testosterone-soaked rallies. Armed with crude insults and hollow threats, he cynically exploits their humiliations, their fractured hopes and dreams. In turn, he humiliates and emasculates his rivals. “Liddle Corker” is only the most recent. (Remember “Li’l Marco” Rubio? “Low energy” Jeb?) He brags about the size of his buildings and his fortune, about his unbounded access to women, pussies included.
Therein lies a repudiation that fuels the others. As the dust of crumbling statues and demolished values settles, we begin to see what they’ve been obscuring: hidden truths, silenced voices, and enslaved bodies. We discern what the public conversation continues to neglect: the feminine. We only discern the feminine, it seems, through its erasure. Reproductive rights are assailed, protections for Mother Earth gutted. Women are silenced while Trump only amplifies his boasts of sexual predation. The Women’s March is practically ancient history, like Hillary’s capturing the popular vote. Their size didn’t matter. #ShePersisted for a time. What about #MeToo?
For Sigmund Freud, the repudiation of femininity was the mother of all repudiations. In one of his last and most influential essays, “Analysis Terminable and Interminable,” written in the dark year of 1937, he identifies this repudiation as “psychological bedrock” (for both sexes) based on the “biological fact” of sexual difference. Men reflexively shrink from the feminine, defined for Freud by passivity and subjugation, as an expression of castration anxiety. Women, on the other hand, perversely reject femininity because it is a mark of their shame — the shame of lacking a penis. Women, Freud ruled, must overcome their penis envy both as the literal desire to have what men have, and as a desire for masculine power and privilege. Phallic power is not for girls. And psychological health requires girls to be girls.
Freud’s thesis has ever since been interrogated, mocked, discredited or simply disregarded by psychoanalysts of every stripe. Not only does it rely on a frankly contorted premise; it smacks bitterly of what some academics call “heteropatriarchy.” By misrecognizing femininity as passivity, Freud injected into it a phallocentric fallacy.
And yet Freud’s perverse notions turn out to be urgently apropos of our current psycho-political times. Though he got much wrong, he intuitively grasped the signal power of the feminine. His identifying masculine flight from femininity as an impediment to growth and as an obstacle to healing is relevant not only to individual analyses, but to our collective conflict. It is hard not to see this “fact,” biological or not, behind the appeal to so many white men of a movement dedicated not just to their political legitimacy but further to their masculine supremacy, even as they feel increasingly disenfranchised and culturally marginalized. The resurgence of white patriarchy is clearly a reaction to something especially feared and threatening to crack the surface, the contours of which remain “below,” obscured. Feminine space, in particular, the receptive, reverberant space symbolized by the vagina, is more easily repudiated and repressed than recognized.
The problem is not per se repudiation of femininity, problematic as that is. The problem is rather that in our rush to repudiate it, we foreclose the spatial and lawful foundations of a robust free speech practice and for a thriving, inclusive democracy. And thus we throw the masculine out with the feminine. Whatever prowess we may claim cannot survive in a flattened world of phallic domination and us/them thinking. In this world, almost too perfectly represented by Trump and his fiercest loyalists, masculinity devolves into mere caricature, the mirage of potency.
It’s no coincidence that the rise of the Islamic State, like that of Western alt-right and neo-Nazi groups, has been linked to masculine vulnerability and shame. As Lawrence Wright and James Gilligan among others have shown, the seeds of radicalism thrive on shame and humiliation, which make fertile soil for violence. Sociologists from Arlie Hochschild to Michael Kimmel, analyzing Trump’s ability to exploit masculine insecurity, come to similar conclusions. As working-class white men lose jobs and wages, their concurrent loss of (perceived) privilege leaves them vulnerable to Trump’s promises to save their future. But among all these wise analyses we seem to keep missing the link to the feminine. When hope is lost and pride injured, an intolerable shame is displaced onto the feminine and onto feminized “others” (Muslims, blacks, immigrants, etc.).
Trump recognized these wounds as his competitors didn’t. But he converted this insight into what David Brooks called a “parody of manliness” that disdains the reality of hurt and shame, of felt degradation, of humility. Trump degraded and ultimately misrecognized the longed for but deeply feared need — a need that actually transcends gender — for a feminine space, for the foundation upon which a phallic pride might be restored. He missed the need for a feminine ethic, an ethical foundation upon which inclusivity, new symbols, and new democratic possibility might be erected.
Freud made a similar error in disavowing shame and inferiority and projecting them onto the feminine. Nonetheless, he recognized that the feminine is prone to erasure, to silence, and cultivated his ear to hear her voice. Unlike the penis, the female genital anatomy is obscured, making its capacious contours harder to decipher and to name. Naming is required for knowledge, for grappling with reality. When we name the vagina, we expose what lies hidden, covered. When we name the vulva (from the Latin root volvere, “to turn around”) we gain a metaphor for getting our mind around what eludes. Is it no surprise, then, that Freud founded his psychoanalysis, a practice of freely speaking the body’s symptoms, in his attempt to convert (turn over) silence to speech, to heal the suffering in his practice, mainly women’s suffering hysteria and conversion disorder? From volvere, Julia Kristeva adds, we also gain “return” (of history) and “revolt” — words that are essential to our current sociopolitical moment.
Freud claimed that the “analytic relationship is based on a love of truth — that is, on a recognition of reality — and that it precludes any kind of sham or deceit.” He suggested close ties between the feminine and the real. He also recognized that the feminine signifies what resists knowing, what is repressed, what inhabits the domain of trauma. But in the end, he was unable to piece the puzzle together.
Learning how to assemble this puzzle is vital to our democratic project. We may — must — continue to repudiate Trump, but we cannot afford to repudiate his base. When we do, we lose the voices of another sort of alienated and marginalized “other.” And so, ironically, we conspire in repudiating what is camouflaged by the hyper-masculine façade: the feminine. We not only degrade women, we also essentially emasculate masculinity. We deny everyone the possibility of inclusion and equal partnership in symbolic life.
Contra Freud, we have no fundamental need to repudiate the feminine. But claiming the feminine is so threatening that some, perhaps most, would prefer to lock up rather than unleash its vast power and democratizing possibility. We must all reckon with the same impulse, for our fear of the feminine might be the great riddle of democracy.
Jill Gentile, PhD, a psychoanalyst and clinical psychologist, is a faculty member at the NYU Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis, and the author of Feminine Law: Freud, Free Speech, and the Voice of Desire, with M. Macrone (Karnac Books, 2016). She is in independent practice in New York.
This was originally published by the Philosophical Salon on November 13th.