Castration anxiety may hep to explain the images featuring a dominatrix or simply a large woman and a small man. Seaside postcards of the so-called humorous variety often feature this sort of image. Find two or three images of this or some other genre that might be explained in part at least by Freud and by annotation show how.

I probably didn’t really focus enough in the last section on the issue of castration anxiety itself when looking at how Munch’s early years might have affected his adult life, and in particular what he expressed in his work. Perhaps I am struggling to connect to that specific aspect of Freud’s theories. I am, however, certain there are some if not many young children who were threatened either openly or implicitly, and unconscious projection will have been passed down through generations at a time when people were prone to more damning forms of religiosity in our own society. I am also aware that today, even in families who claim to exist beyond that sort of religion and hold ‘liberal’ views , there are some surprisingly awkward attitudes to do with sexuality in children. I have witnessed very young boys being chastised for speaking about or touching their genitals. I’m not, I should add, suggesting we should encourage our children to wander round masturbating in public, but I am sure there are more helpful ways of telling them that there are public behaviours and private behaviours, and about what is acceptable and what isn’t without shaming them. However, I am very aware such a view may come from a modern sensibility, and even seen as simply wrong by some, and that invoking shame might well have been seen (and still is) as an ideal way to socialise, mould and shape children. To me the paper we were asked to look at explores an infants feelings of shame, and that the fear of castration is one metaphor for that. Regardless of what one thinks of the merits of shaming children, in Anthropology and Child Development, a reader that looks at a variety of child rearing practice cross culturally, the editors say that following the 60s it became clear that infants’ social experience was not ‘reducible’ to Freud’s model of social development, wherever a child might have been born, and more complex models and understandings have emerged and continue to do so.

So, I find it hard to link fear of castration to cartoons of small men and large-breasted women on the coast of England in so-called humourous postcards. I also find it hard to link fear of castration to dominatrix images or any other genre showing the same sort of thing. I’m sure for some men castration anxiety is a very real worry on many levels, as the area is obviously reasonably vulnerable. And I’m sure there are a variety of ways such anxiety might manifest itself. What I see when I look at the sort of images we’ve been asked to research, all sorts of things spring to mind, from the desire to relinquish power for a moment, to the fact that patriarchy struggles with itself, that there is suspicion and mistrust of women generally in patriarchal societies, that women are often held responsible for violence against them and this somehow translates into fantasies relating to power in both sexes. Discomfort and alarm at the thought of open sexuality seems to play a big part in those seaside cartoons, and was perhaps accurately expressed in the play/film, “No Sex Please, We’re British”. Men and women are often mortified at best, and traumatised at worst by open signs of lust, desire and bodily need, as explored in Passage to India. And men in particular can be reduced to behaving like silly little boys who are overawed or frightened by mammary glands due to a long history of breast fetishisation in our culture, and some women simply cannot distance their breasts from their sexual roles and might find breastfeeding extremely uncomfortable.

Perhaps Freud would put much of this down to the fact that men are terrified that women might come along and castrate them at any time – he certainly says it’s the women who make the threats. I agree that this is reductionist and I know Carl Jung and many after him onwards resisted Freud’s obsession that everything was linked to the libido and sex. Perhaps Freud’s theories are themselves indicative of an immense sense of sexual repression. If Malinowski was to be believed not all children grow up being made to feel that their basic urges are wrong, bad, undesirable, and that they would be castrated because of them. However, it might be that wherever there is genital mutilation in either sex, there is understandable anxiety and the effects of trauma surrounding it stemming from its practise. Perhaps this is in part where Freud’s theory stems from.

Image 1

Plate from Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations of Aristophanes’ play Lysistrata, 1896. The illustration shows angry lustful men who have been excluded from sex by the women in the play, led by Lysistrata, in a bid to encourage the men to end the Peloponnesian War, originally performed 411BC (Wiki)


  • ….”modern adaptations of Lysistrata are often feminist and/or pacifist in their aim. The original play was neither feminist nor unreservedly pacifist. Even when they seemed to demonstrate empathy with the female condition, dramatic poets in classical Athens still reinforced sexual stereotyping of women as irrational creatures in need of protection from themselves and from others.[42] In fact the play might not even be a plea for an end to the war so much as an imaginative vision of an honorable end to the war at a time when no such ending was possible.[43] According to Sarah Ruden, Lysistrata (Hackett Classics, 2003), the play “nowhere suggests that warfare in itself is intolerable, let alone immoral”(87)(sic, 67).” (Murray, 1986; 215)(Sommerstein, 1973;17) (Anonymous) (Wiki)
  • With the above in mind I think it is interesting and bears relevance that the play looks at male/female relations but the date of the illustration is most relevant here as it pertains to the same period that Freud was working and developing his ideas. Freud is exploring European attitudes from that time and Beardsley is expressing and responding to them in his art
  • Beardsley was part of the Aesthetic Movement which included Oscar Wilde that actively set out to challenge the dominant attitudes of the time, perhaps even responding here to any threats of castration – conscious or otherwise
  • The threat if it exists is about power and this picture carries different aspects of power, not only the size of the genitals but the positioning and gestures of the men, and in response to the women
  • Beardsley was committed to the grotesque and that can seen here where the genitals are larger than life, and in the case of the small man extremely and most ludicrously large.
  • In Freudian terms, in relation to castration fears, this image shows a defiance and rage at the status quo, where lust, sex and desire should be hidden or ignored altogether
  • This picture seems like a very obvious example supportive of Freud’s idea, but it is of his time and so makes more sense in terms of Victorian, early 20th century attitudes to sexuality
  • The smallest man’s face is particularly angry and menacing, and looks out at the viewer making eye contact with an audience, it’s like he’s saying, you see this, it’s out and it’s not going anywhere regardless of what you (the viewer) might say, think or do
  • He hugs his penis to his face and it looks like he is smelling it too – again, total defiance in the face of any repressive attitudes
  • He wears no shoes and that together with his height and attitude renders him almost childlike
  • The tallest man has a very open gesture, there is little fear or need to protect himself or his penis. In fact, he seems to be offering a protective circle with his arms to the other two, which further enhances the point above and the sense of power

Image 2

Jake and Dinos Chapman Five Easy Pissers 1995

Installation Fibreglass, resin, paint, wigs, trainers.

Click here for image:

  • One of several fibreglass installations where mannequins that look like children and young people are shown with genitals missing from the crotch region and placed instead on their faces
  • Surreal, taps into dream like state
  • Chapman brothers influenced by Beardsley in some lithographs and posters
  • Defiantly aiming to shock in the same vein as Beardsley
  • Dressed the same in the way boy bands and girl bands, popular at the time, were
  • In trainers, highly desirable fetishised object in the 90s
  • Linking to commercialised way in which youthful sexuality was branded and sold to public, commodified
  • Highlights the hypocrisy of the way in which we repress children’s sexuality whilst at the same time commodifying it
  • Using the idea of castration anxiety, which potentially exists and making it an actuality/creating it in the real world
  • All looking straight at viewers
  • The hole where the mouth should be suggestive of creatures waiting to have the thing that exists on their noses inserted into them, but at the same time possess the equipment to do the same back to anyone who buys into whatever it is they are selling
  • Unlike ‘comical’ picture postcards where the anxiety and any other suppressed sexual is expressed via awkward Carry On like humour, it is all confronted head on here instead
  • This art work explores suppression and fetishisation and the way in which sexuality is commodified, how human beings, even young children are too, and rendered not much more than objects of desire used to fulfil biological urges in place of a more honest relationship with human sexuality
  • Our structural systems skew our relationship with sex
  • We are in effect castrated and warped by commodification and so the anxiety becomes self-fulfilling
  • We are repressed and the Chapman brothers play with our horror, discomfort and terror surrounding that




LeVine, R. and New, R. (2008). Anthropology and child development. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub.

Life and Society in Classical Greece Oswyn Murray in The Oxford History of the Classical World, ed. J. Boardman, J. Griffin, and O. Murray (Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 215

A. Sommerstein, Aristophanes:Lysistrata, The Acharnians, The Clouds (Penguin Classics, 1973), p. 17

Anonymous translator, prose


4 thoughts on “Project 4 Part 1 (ii) Castration anxiety

  1. Gotta love Beardsley, I haven’t seen that print since I was at school. Looking now I think the shorter chap might be angry because he cannot see where he is going? I did wonder about the blot above the same man about it looking like a Rorschach blot, perhaps of semen. I agree about the various stagings of Lysistrata, but I wonder about his connection with Wilde’s Salome and whether that has any echoes of a 9formal) castration?


    1. Blinded by his own member…shame. I did want to play Salome once… ah well. Perhaps you’re right in the last sentence, but isn’t it just that if you live in a world where bits of you could very well be chopped off, be it head or genitals, then you’re bound to find yourself being anxious?


  2. Oh my goodness me – what an illustration! A good analysis Sarah-Jane and I can see your effort to provide an objective viewpoint.
    I agree with you regarding Freud and his attitude towards sex and think it’s more about a man’s fear than a woman’s fear. I’m also thinking about ‘class’ viewpoints because it does seem to be very much a middle-class approach towards sex (or it was). I couldn’t believe that the treatment of ‘hysteria’ in women could include being brought manually to orgasm by a doctor until the vibrator was invented and used instead.


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