Lacan and the plight of the Daughter and Masque of the Feminine

Femininity as Masquerade
Lacan developed the notion of masquerade from Joan Riviere’s paper, ‘Womanliness as Masquerade’ (1986 [1929]). This was a response to an earlier paper by Ernest Jones entitled ‘Early Development of Female Sexuality’ (1927). Jones had distinguished between two types of female sexual development: so-called ‘normal’ heterosexual development and homosexual development, that is, women who sought male recognition for their masculinity. Riviere was concerned to introduce a new type of woman into psychoanalytic considerations of femininity – a particular character type that was much more resonant with contemporary woman than anything Freud or Jones had previously considered, that is, the ‘intellectual woman’. For Riviere, this new type of woman raises the difficult issue of how to address the anxiety that they raise in men. Women who aspire to ‘masculine’ or intellectual pursuits arouse fear and anxiety in the very men they wish to be colleagues and collaborators with. Therefore, ‘women who wish for masculinity may put on a mask of womanliness to avert anxiety and the retribution feared from men’ (Riviere 1986 [1929]: 35). Riviere’s suggestion that womanliness is worn as a mask appears to have much wider significance, however, than just in the case of intellectual women. She writes that womanliness ‘could be assumed and worn as a mask, both to hide the possession of masculinity and to avert the reprisals expected if she was found to possess it’ (1986 [1929]: 38), but if we are to ask what distinguishes genuine womanliness and womanliness as masquerade they appear to be the same thing. What is radical in Riviere’s position, write Appignanesi and Forrester, ‘is that for her mask and essence are one where womanliness is concerned’ (1993:363).

Riviere saw the notion of masquerade as an important contribution to the theory of female sexual development, identifying it at work in the female Oedipus complex. She argues that both the mother and the father are the little girl’s rivals and objects of her sadistic fury:

In this appalling predicament the girl’s only safety lies in placating the mother and atoning for her crime [destroying the woman’s body]. She must retire from rivalry with the mother and, if she can, endeavour to restore to her what she has stolen. As we know, she identifies herself with her father; and then uses the masculinity she thus obtains by putting it at the service of the mother. She becomes the father and takes his place; so she can ‘restore’ him to the mother. (1986 [1929]: 41)

The father, however, must be placated and appeased too and this can only be achieved by masquerading in a feminine guise for him, that is showing him her ‘love’ and guiltlessness towards him. According to Riviere, the little girl is caught in a double bind between appeasing her mother and appeasing her father, but this is by no means a symmetrical relationship: ‘the task of guarding herself against the woman’s retribution is harder than with the man; her efforts to placate and make reparation by restoring and using the penis in the mother’s service were never enough’ (1986 [1929]: 42). In terms of women’s identity and sexual development, then, she must first identify with the father and only then with the mother. The problem for women, therefore, is not whether they put on the mask of femininity or not but how well it fits. In short, femininity is masquerade.

Riviere’s notion of masquerade raises important and difficult questions in relation to feminine sexuality. The assumption of the mask implies that there is something hidden behind it. In other words, behind the artifice of the masquerade lies the genuine, authentic, woman. For Riviere, however, the appearance and the essence of feminine sexuality are one and the same. It is this dilemma, the conflation of genuine womanliness and masquerade, that Lacan elaborates. Lacan sees in the notion of masquerade ‘the feminine sexual attitude’ par excellence, that is to say, it is the mask or veil that ‘is constitutive of the feminine libidinal structure’ (Heath 1986:52). In other words, ‘masquerade is a representation of femininity but then femininity is representation, the representation of the woman’ (Heath 198 6:53). What the notion of masquerade foregrounds is not the essential identity of women but rather the constructed nature of that identity: ‘The masquerade says that the woman exists at the same time that, as masquerade, it says she does not’ (Heath 1986:54).