“The Female Eunuch” and Constructing Masculinity

by jdavidcharles

I’ve recently been reading Germaine Greer’s feminist classic The Female Eunuch. Although spanning a diverse assortment of ideas and thoughts, the premise of the text is male-domination projects a sexless role onto women, causing girls at a young age to reject their own sexuality, and thus socializing all women as “eunuchs.” In case you’re wondering, yes, this book is steeped in 1970s American Freudian analysis.

Greer makes the assumption, as Freud seems to have, that castration is in any form essentially a shameful act—both on a literal and metaphoric level. This reading of Freud presumes that the phallus is a positive good, that power is inherent, essential, energetic, and that “healthy” men act upon it. Of course Greer argues that men don’t always use it positively in a moral sense, but that having power and “phallic” confidence is nevertheless a psychologically and morally healthy thing.

The problem with this is two-fold. One, it presupposes that anyone with a penis who has it removed is “shameful.” Here Greer lumps in eunuchs (who have a complicated history), castrati, sterile men, and I-shit-you-not trans women and homosexual men (so eloquently referred to as “f*ggots”). Conflating all these very different experiences as one and the same is so obviously offensive, historically errant, and so riddled with homophobia and transphobia I don’t even know where to begin. It further conflates all these diverse phenomena with the socially constructed “feminine ideal,” which is yet again another very separate issue.

Yes, Greer’s critique about phallogocentric psychoanalytic thinking shirking the vagina to a metaphysical absence and clitoral stimulation as adolescent are well made. But one gets the impression that Greer is arguing for two separate nodes of power—the phallus and “cunt” [sic]—rather than confronting the power abuses women have suffered under patriarchal thinking and practice. In other words, rather than critiquing male privilege and how it affects both women and men negatively, she merely projects a vision of a positive female sexuality like men have. And herein lies the contradictory nature of her work. Greer attempts an American masculinity without castrating it, and proposes a phallic-power-positive sexuality for women without patriarchy.

And the second problem I see here is a mirror reflection: she presupposes anyone with power who wants it removed is likewise “shameful.” Greer seems to assume that people have and use power rather than that people are had and used by power-structures. Perhaps Lacan can be of help here. Lacan’s reading of castration was that the moment of castration, rather than removing power or worth or value, reveals an absence that was there all along—the castrated person in question was in fact a “eunuch” already. To translate Lacan into Greer-talk—everyone is already a “eunuch,” sexless, weak, and it is our relationship and social-structures that implicate us with a gender and power. This is perhaps why Greer is so hostile towards trans women throughout the text—because trans issues reveal countless ways in which gender and power are not inherent biologically but inherited socially. Greer cannot seem to imagine someone revoking power, privilege, or a phallus for that matter.

Greer really then is arguing, in my opinion, the wrong thing. Masculinity is an implication, an inference, an accusation given how power relations are and have been mapped out historically. It’s an ideological machine that is created by and in order to fuel the status quo of patriarchal power-relations. Likewise femininity is such an ideological machine too. Neither of these are inherent or biologically essential as Greer herself works out throughout her text. But neither is power inherent. We are all weak and powerless and “sexless” but it is our situation—historically, socially, et al—that implicates us with a gender and power-relations.

If men have seemed to exude more “confidence,” “surety,” “ability,” and “energy” than women it is not neutral, but equally wrapped up in men’s history of dominating, demeaning, abusing, and raping women. As Susan Brownmiller notoriously said, male rapists are the “shock troopers” for all men, creating the power and privilege all men share, whether they want it or not. Perhaps a more positive masculinity would be one with more doubt, one that doesn’t have such “confidence.” After all, it is this “confidence” which has led men to declare the superiority of his race, nation, and religion, over others—and his body over that of women—and his privilege and power have given him ample opportunity to.

Deconstructing patriarchy is not just about a new womanhood, but a new manhood: one that is less sure, less phallic, and just maybe “sexless.” The premise that the “feminine ideal”—lumping in trans women, gay men, and sterile men along the way—is a metaphysical absence and therefore bad is nothing more than shaming and scapegoating victims of patriarchal oppression. Victim-blaming and calling people castrates like it’s the dirtiest word on the playground seems like a poor solution to overcoming gender-violence. I’m inclined rather to think the solution lies in embracing castration—grabbing patriarchy by the balls, and cutting the phallus of oppression right off.

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