Psychoanalytic Excavation

A Look at What Lies beneath the Surface of Human Behavior and Motivation

The Castrating Woman: Rising from the Unconscious at the Superbowl

Why the return of a regressive fantasy?

Yikes. The Superbowl hadn't even made it to half time yet. But the ads already told a strange story about the nation's collective psyche.

It's a cliché that sometimes the advertisements are the best part of the Superbowl broadcast. Depends on the game I guess. But the enormous investment of corporate America in advertising can be interpreted in a variety of ways-economically, what industries are thriving, or at least optimistic. Artistically, what's the latest in video technology and graphic design. And psychologically, what are our national pre-occupations, what says our national unconscious.

I was amazed that two of the ads in the first half of the broadcast featured one ancient theme-- man's problem with the castrating woman. In the first, an ad for a car, a man lists in a flat voice all the actions and concessions he is willing to make for the woman who presumably is ruling his life: he will sort the recycling, put the toilet seat down, and comply with about a dozen other rules obviously important to women and not men (hygiene, the environment, etc). But he will NOT give up his right to choose the car he wants-here his voice fills with drive and energy-and he picks the Dodge Charger (crescendo/climax)!! It doesn't hurt that the car has such a phallic name. He escapes the castrating woman (just in time) with his virility intact, thank to the bullet-like, driven, phallic vehicle.

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In a second ad, a man is not "allowed" to watch the Game, as his wife drags him to a lingerie department and he is made to carry a red bra over his shoulder - maybe a skirt is next. But he's rescued by a Flo TV-a tiny personal television that he can take with him everywhere (his woman drags him) and use to watch sports all the time, thus preserving a shred of his masculinity.

And while I'm at it, how can we understand the half time show-the undeniably great rockers of the Who, now in their 60's (I'm guessing), bouncing on stage singing about wasted teenagers. They sounded okay, but they really looked silly. It was hard not to think the message here is that mature masculinity is to be feared and disavowed.

So the Superbowl provided us with the hypertrophied virility of the actual competitors, the symbolic virility of the technical designers, team owners and advertising execs, the castrated fellows being offered a desperate way out of their subjugation to their feminizing women via a car or a tiny TV, and men in late life trying to pretend they are 20 years old.

I actually know a whole bunch of strong, interesting, masculine, comfortably sexual men, who don't need to pretend to be 4 decades younger than they are, or look for secret (fetishistic?)  escapes from the women in their lives.

So what's the source of these images, that seem revived from decades ago-the henpecked man, the juvenile old fool? Or more specifically, why would advertising executives offer up these particular images of men, and bank on these painful images selling products in February 2010?

I can only speculate. The economy is what comes to my mind. Perhaps so many men have suffered narcissistic injuries as a result of lost jobs, foreclosed houses, shuttered opportunities and expectations, that culturally we regress to the fantasy that it is women, or specifically the eternal Castrating Woman, who is taking away their power, causing them to feel small, young and afraid. Ironically, I think most of the characters responsible for the economic meltdown, and still collecting multi million dollar bonuses, are men. Virile in their fashion, if low on empathy and compassion. Hey, those are often thought of as female traits.

Prudence Gourguechon, M.D., served as President of the American Psychoanalytic Association from 2008-2010. She has a clinical and consulting practice in Chicago.

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