Masculine & Feminine Jouissance in Lacan’s Thought

In Jacques Lacan’s work, the masculine domain is characterised by a universal category which is sustained by one founding exception.

Think of a factory where dozens of line workers (the ‘universal’) are supervised by one foreman (the ‘exception’) who stands out from everyone else. Or a charismatic political leader (the ‘exception’) who is revered by the masses (the ‘universal’). Another fascinating example could be the popular Smurf cartoon, where every smurf is blue with the exception of their unique progenitor, Papa Smurf who leads them and who alone is red.

In all these ‘masculine’ cases, there is a form of totalitarianism at play in which an exceptionally defined subject lords it over many others who share a similar trait. Indeed, the leader leads because he is exceptional; he also founds the group because without him there would be no ‘factory’. Embodying a difference from those he leads, he is also therefore the symptom of the entire group. This is to say that his presence and role renders the totality of subjects out of joint, spurring very political questions of inequality, discrimination, norms, and so on.

On the other hand, the Lacanian category of Woman is characterised by non-exception; there is no totalisation within this modality and every member of this (feminine) group is somewhat mysterious and cannot be hemmed in (Vighi & Feldner 2007, pp. 190–202; Žižek 2003, pp. 67–70; Parker 2004, pp. 65–66). The feminine characterizes a world in which all members are different from every other member, in which there is no one which stands out precisely because everybody ‘stands out’ in their own unique exceptional way.

Imagine a quasi-organization in which nobody leads anybody else and everyone is different from everyone else and thus perfectly equal to each other with no superiority; such a condition (in which everyone is essentially unique and that no labels adequately stick to any two subjects) would render it impossible to even delineate the ‘organization’ at all.

In other words, ‘Woman’ cannot capture all women, whereas ‘Man’ categorically includes all men bar one, the founding or leading father.

Put simply, Man names those who are all the same with one exception, but Woman have no exceptions but all are exceptional: Woman is ‘not-all’.

The ‘not-all’ is a mode of existence which entails an absence of totalization and therefore is without a constitutive exception; far from meaning that Woman is beyond, or stands apart from, the Symbolic Order (or everyday reality as we know it) this really means that Woman is more immersed in the order than Man (Žižek 2003, pp. 67–69; Vighi & Feldner 2007, p.198).

Vighi and Felder (2007) explain further that:

The advantage of the feminine position over the masculine one is that she can reach a jouissance ‘beyond the phallus[see Note 1]’…While man is locked in compulsive symbolic identification via its relationship with the excluded and fantasised about objet a,[see Note 2] woman has a chance to disengage from this masculine compulsion to symbolise and, crucially, ‘enjoy’ the Real inconsistency of the symbolic field (p. 195).

Or, in Ian Parker’s (2011) candid words:

The woman does not ‘exist’ because there is no signifier that will entirely capture and define what she is, while man’s subjection to the symbolic gives benefits aplenty in compensation for this subjection even though he is haunted by the idea that while there is a way out it is for one other lucky bastard, not for him (p. 140).

In other words, the feminine is that domain in which, again, all are exceptional and each member constitutes a singularity in herself and thus cannot be categorised or hemmed in. The feminine thus decries the notion of exclusivity which excludes others and elevates a selected few (or even an individual), a notion which defines the masculine.


[1] Put simply, beyond the need for a constitutive exception. The phallus implies masculine symbolic totalisation borne of exception (Vighi & Feldner 2007, p. 195). Phallic symbolism, for all the prejudicial mockery of psycho-analysis, is basically a matter of the signification of power; Richard Boothby (2005) explores the continuing relevance of this Freudian concept in both traditional and modern icons such as neckties, swords, rods and scepters (pp. 3–17)

[2] Or that object which represents that which cannot be symbolized; this is an item which symbolizes the loss is foregone so a subject can partake in the Symbolic Order.


Boothby, R., 2005. Sex on the Couch: What Freud Still has to Teach us about Sex and Gender, New York: Routledge.

Parker, I., 2004. Slavoj Žižek: A Critical Introduction, London: Pluto Press.

Parker, I., 2011. Lacanian Psychoanalysis: Revolutions in Subjectivity, New York: Routledge.

Vighi, H. & Feldner, F., 2007. Žižek : Beyond Foucault, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Žižek, S., 2003. The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

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Edu-trainer, Žižek studies, amateur theologian, columnist.

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