Filming the Phallus

Filming the Phallus


The following essay offers a Lacanian analysis of David Cronenberg’s M. Butterfly (1993) and Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (1976). Set in 1960s Beijing, M. Butterfly traces the illicit affair between a French diplomat and a spy disguised as a female Peking Opera singer. Unaware of his lover’s ties to the People’s Republic of China, René Gallimard (Jeremy Irons) allows his infatuation with Song Liling (John Lone) to consume him. In the Realm of the Senses depicts the sexually perverse relationship of Abe Sada (Eiko Matsuda) and Ishida Kichizō’s (Tatsuya Fuji). Characterized by mutual obsession and sado-masochistic urges, the marriage culminates in Sada killing and castrating her husband.


M. Butterfly complicates Jacques Lacan’s notion of disavowal by offering the vagina as the primary signifier of both sexual difference and meaning. The veiled phallus and its power—as initially represented in the film by Song Liling—ultimately inverts Lacan’s formulation of disavowal: the knowledge that René Gallimard must acquire and refuse is the presence of a penis as opposed to the absence of a penis. The overdetermined and sometimes tedious relationship between Song and Gallimard ends with a dropping of the veil and an inevitable, lure-shattering encounter with the Real. In order to properly examine the film’s relationship to and complication of the phallus as signifier, it is necessary to first summarize the basic Lacanian framework through his 1958 text “The Signification of the Phallus” as well as Jacqueline Rose’s commentary on the subject, in her introduction to Feminine Sexuality, a volume of Lacan’s writings Rose co-edited and translated.

In approaching the symbolic phallus by way of the castration complex, Lacan repeatedly reminds his reader that the symbolic phallus is not the penis. The symbolic phallus is a signifier for meaning itself. It belongs to language and the symbolic order. What is lost in the process of castration—a process that both boys and girls undergo—is the imaginary phallus, or a phallus that is represented by the penis, but is distinguished from the material organ. On the subject of castration and the emergence of the symbolic phallus, Rose writes:

The duality of the relation between mother and child must be broken [. . .] In Lacan’s account, the phallus stands for that moment of rupture. It refers mother and child to the dimension of the symbolic which is figured by the father’s place. The mother is taken to desire the phallus not because she contains it, but precisely because she does not. [. . .] Castration means first of all this––that the child’s desire for the mother does not refer to her but beyond her, to an object, the phallus, whose status is first imaginary (the object presumed to satisfy her desire) and then symbolic (recognition that desire cannot be satisfied).1


Because Lacan imagines the phallus as something “beyond” material or anatomical sexual difference, Rose maintains that “the phallus stands at its own expense and any male privilege erected upon it is an imposture.”2 In her view, the Lacanian phallus helps to align psychoanalysis with feminist discourse. As “the signifier intended to designate meaning effects as a whole,” the symbolic phallus has little to do with what is male.3 Rather, “it repudiates any account of sexuality which assumes the pre-given nature of sexual difference.”4 Although this seemingly dissonant aspect of Lacan’s theory is frequently contested, the notion of the phallus as nonbiological rests on the hypothesis that sexual difference belongs to the Real. As such, sexual difference can only be represented within and known by the symbolic order. In other words, attempts at knowing something that is Real (such as sexual difference) through signification can only result in contradictions.  

As a spy, Song is not veiling her castration. She is veiling her lack of castration. She takes up neither masculine parade (a disavowal of lack) nor feminine masquerade (an avowal of lack). She asks Gallimard to disavow the fact of her penis by refusing its thinly veiled presence. It seems that Gallimard knows that Song has a penis, and it is this knowledge that he must simultaneously possess and refuse. In other words, Gallimard must disavow the unavowable figure of the uncastrated woman. He must see a vagina where there is not one as opposed to seeing a penis where there is not one. In this way, the vagina becomes the signifier for difference. Because Lacan claims that only the phallus can do this work, it seems that Gallimard (and the viewer alongside him) must somehow reconfigure the one signifier that signifies meaning itself. In other words, we are confronted with an impossibility: the symbolic phallus articulated as the symbolic vagina. In the context of the film, the thing one lacks (i.e. the symbolic phallus) is lacking itself (i.e. the symbolic vagina). 

Prior to disrobing in the back of the police van, Song expresses a demand: “What do you want from me?”5 This question is itself a signifier. Consequently, its primary goal is recognition. Like the child crying for its mother, Song gestures at need, but ultimately seeks love. In Lacan’s “Signification,” the desire that forms in the crossfire of the other’s demands and needs is signified by the phallus. The scene of Song’s unveiling is a scene that captures the perpetual failure of the enunciated demand. Both Song and Gallimard desire something beyond what can be said––something beyond the available signifiers. Because both Song and Gallimard can only articulate what they desire in signifiers, neither character’s desires will be fulfilled.   

Like the phallus, the designation of “Butterfly” is both a signifier for desire as well as desire itself. Although the phallus ‘as desire itself’ is a concept that Lacan ultimately abandons in exchange for that of object a, it seems that Gallimard’s fixation with identifying and possessing “Butterfly” is comparable to the other’s fixation with locating and possessing the phallus.6 Gallimard’s demand, which is signified by the question, “Are you my Butterfly?”7 will never capture or solicit his true desire. One could argue that there is no distinction between the object that Gallimard desires and the object that causes Gallimard’s desire. That is, “Butterfly” is both what is desired and what causes desire. The importance of this lack of distinction is not made clear until Gallimard’s suicide scene, in which he dresses himself as Butterfly before committing the act. In becoming his own “Butterfly,” Gallimard signifies what is and what causes his desire. That is, through his transformation into “Butterfly,” Gallimard becomes like the symbolic phallus in that he comes to signify everything and nothing. In her essay “The Dream of a Butterfly,” postcolonial theorist Rey Chow arrives at a similar conclusion in regard to this scene: 

In seducing Gallimard, Song in fact led him temporarily away from his own truth—the truth of a fantasy that is not a fantasy of the other but rather of himself as the suicidal “oriental woman. In desiring Song, Gallimard was desiring not exactly to have her but to be her, to be the “Butterfly” that she was playing.8


Chow’s analysis—particularly her reading of the film’s final scenes—untethers sexual difference from the roles of the “oriental woman,” the “unworthy man,” and “Butterfly.” Structurally, these roles can be mapped onto Lacan’s notions of the other (the mother), the subject (the child), and signifier (the symbolic phallus). Again, “Butterfly” comes to signify the phallus (the signifier of the signifieds). Although Chow initially identifies the phallus with Song and “the oriental woman,” she pivots to accommodate the scenes that follow Song’s material unveiling:

Because Gallimard’s desire hinges on neither a female nor a male body, but rather on the phallus, the veiled thing that is the “oriental woman,” Song’s candid disclosure of his physical body can only be lethal. [. . .] Song’s gesture of undressing serves not to arouse but extinguish desire. The naked body destroys the lure once and for all by demonstrating that what lies under the veil all these years is nothing, no thing for fantasy. With the veil lifted, the phallus shows itself shamefully as merely a man, a penis, a pathetic body in all its banal vulnerability, which Gallimard rejects in abhorrence.9


Because this encounter with the Real unveils the phallus, it marks the beginning of the Frenchman’s recalibration of the symbolic phallus. That is, Gallimard moves to identify the phallus as “Butterfly” because he is confronted with Song’s body and the realization that the other does not possess the phallus. This is what allows Gallimard to later “paint” himself as “Butterfly” in his performance of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.10 This visual transformation into Butterfly ultimately undoes Gallimard’s ontological being. In this way, Gallimard’s death-by-mirror appears sacrificial. But to what is Gallimard sacrificing himself? Perhaps to the symbolic phallus.

To return to the subject of disavowal, it seems that Gallimard has known and refused the fact he is “no-thing more than a French penis dreaming of (being) an oriental butterfly.”11 Gallimard’s disavowal of Song’s penis is transfigured into Gallimard’s disavowal of his own penis. Still, the lacked thing is lacking itself. Consequently, the signifier of castration—which the subject has surrendered—rests on a presence rather than an absence. Within the film, the primary signifier that is the Lacanian phallus contradicts the fact of castration. The trouble is not what has been lost. Rather, it is what cannot be lost.

By contrast, Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses conflates the symbolic phallus with the material penis. For Abe Sada, the symbolic phallus is her partner’s member. Ishida Kichizō’s penis signifies what causes and what is Sada’s desire. What are the implications of this fusing? Is it possible for the signifier of meaning to locate itself in the material? The film, which is mostly comprised of graphic, unflattering sex scenes, places emphasis on the Real. All is perpetually captured in a state of unveiling if not stark nudity. However beautiful the film’s kimonos are, what is revealed by them is always unerotic flesh. The bodies of geishas and masters never stay veiled for long. The constant unveiling of Kichi’s penis does not disrupt Sada’s desire for it as a signifier of power. Kichi offers himself to Sada as her object a. He permits the other (Sada) to do whatever she pleases to him. Therefore, it is Sada’s desire that drives the relationship, and by extension, the film. This feminine desire, although active, is rooted in lack. 

Kichi’s penis is visually unremarkable. It is not particularly large. It is not particularly pleasing to the eye. It is the inexhaustible function of Kichi’s organ that makes it special to Sada. Kichi’s penis is easily excitable. Subsequently, there is initially little conflict between Sada’s desire and its object. Sada can sexually possess Kichi as often as she would like. But having sex with a penis is not the same as having a penis. This is where Sada’s sense of lack arises. Although neither sex possesses the symbolic phallus in the Lacanian sense, as soon as the symbolic phallus is mapped onto the material, it becomes difficult and perhaps futile to differentiate the phallus from the penis. Within the film, the privileged phallus does not lose its power by being unveiled. This is a direct contradiction of Lacan’s central thesis. Suddenly, the symbolic phallus is made shamelessly Real. 

Kichi’s castration is not symbolic. It does not annihilate the power of the phallus so much as mobilize it. Once detached, Kichi’s penis and all that it signifies belongs to the couple—to the perverse relationship that resulted in its removal. Like the symbolic phallus, the cleaved penis exists as an autonomous third party—something separate from the other and the subject. However, the impossibility of possessing the phallus is maintained. As soon as Sada severs Kichi’s organ from his body, it can no longer serve its function. It’s power becomes purely symbolic. Sada can possess the penis, but the symbolic phallus continues to evade her. Sada can carry the material penis, but she cannot have access to the desire that it signifies. Such a loss supports Lacan’s definition of castration as articulated by Rose:  

The subject has to recognize that there is desire, or lack in the place of the Other, that there is no ultimate certainty or truth, and that the status of the phallus is a fraud [. . .] [The phallus] signals to the subject that ‘having’ only functions at the price of a loss and ‘being’ as an effect of division.12


If we accept Rose’s argument that the Lacanian phallus does not privilege what is male, then Sada is not condemned to lack as a result of her biological sex, but rather as a result of the inherent imposture of the phallus itself. In other words, Sada’s lacking has nothing to do with her biological sex. For Rose, the symbolic phallus remains privileged, but this privilege cannot be mapped onto the male sex organ. 

It could be argued that Kichi’s penis serves as a veil for the symbolic phallus. Perhaps the symbolic phallus is not conflated with the material penis so much as it is concealed by it. The masculine parade that disavows lack is carried out by Kichi’s penis. Once Sada lifts the veil that is the material penis, she is confronted not with shame, but with jouissance and what Julia Kristeva calls the abject:

As in jouissance where the object of desire, known as object a, bursts with the shattered mirror where the ego gives up its image in order to contemplate itself in the Other, there is nothing either objective or objectal to the abject. It is simply a frontier, a repulsive gift that the Other drops. [. . .] Hence a jouissance in which the subject is swallowed up but in which the Other, in return, keeps the subject from foundering by making it repugnant. One thus understands why so many victims of the abject are its fascinated victims––if not its submissive and willing ones.13


Through Kichi’s castration, Sada momentarily escapes the symbolic order and is drawn by Kichi’s corrupted flesh to the abject—to “the place where meaning collapses.”14 This is perhaps why Sada smiles at her own arrest. In acquiring the material penis, Sada has effectively stripped the phallus of its meaning. That is, Sada has brought about the eruption of the Real. 

When applied to transgressive films, the Lacanian framework offers a vantage point in which the most contested aspects of Lacan’s theories prove more productive than restrictive. That is, the boundaries and ambiguities within Lacan’s “The Signification of the Phallus” make room for new critical readings that challenge and therefore enrich Lacan’s phallocentric model. By treating the films of Cronenberg and Oshima as texts, an opportunity for broader psychoanalytic critique presents itself.

  1. Jacqueline Rose, “Introduction II,” in Feminine Sexuality by Jacques Lacan (New York: W. W. Norton, 1985), 38.
  2. Rose, “Introduction II,” 44.
  3. Jacques Lacan, “”The Signification of the Phallus,”” 1958, in Écrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (London: Routledge, 2012), [316], ProQuest Ebook Central.
  4. Rose, “Introduction II,” 45.
  5. M. Butterfly, directed by David Cronenberg, screenplay by David Henry Hwang, performances by John Lone and Jeremy Irons (Geffen Pictures, 1993).
  6. Rose, “Introduction II,” 48.
  7. M. Butterfly, 1993.
  8. Rey Chow, “The Dream of a Butterfly,” in Ethics after Idealism: Theory-Culture-Ethnicity-Reading (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), 92.
  9. Chow, “The Dream of a Butterfly,” 88.
  10. Chow, “The Dream of a Butterfly,” 94.
  11. Chow, “The Dream of a Butterfly,” 97.
  12. Rose, “Introduction II,” 40.
  13. Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, translated by Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), 9.
  14. Kristeva, Powers of Horror, 2.
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