About [Guido's] Vaunted Virility?":
Castration Anxiety in 8½'s Harem Scene
by Francine DuBois
Federico Fellini's 8½ benefits greatly from a psychoanalytical
reading due to the "psychological realism [which] takes the form
of a character's subjective view of events" typically present in
art cinema (Hayward 10). Since Guido (played by Marcello Mastroianni)
drives the film's action, any attempt to further understand his insecurities,
ambitions, and motives add to one's understanding of 8½.
Whether Fellini intended for a psychoanalytical reading to be applied
is not an issue:
Approaching the text with a conceptual framework--the theories
of Modes, Symbols, Myths, and Genres--the critic can interpret the
work not by pulling out what the poet was aware of putting in but
by extracting the elements of the various modes, genres, symbols,
and myths which may have been put in without the author's explicit
knowledge. (Culler 325)
Indeed, a psychoanalytical reading of 8½ is greater than
the scope of this paper: by focusing on castration anxiety in Guido's
harem fantasy, one can see how psychoanalytic theory applies to Guido's
Sigmund Freud suggests "that happy people never make fantasies,
only unsatisfied ones. Unsatisfied wishes are the driving power behind
fantasies; every separate fantasy contains the fulfillment of a wish,
and improves on unsatisfactory reality" ("Relation" 126).
After Luisa (Anouk Aimée) calls his mistress Carla (Sandra Milo)
a "whore" and a "cow," Guido imagines Luisa complimenting
Carla on her singing: they begin dancing together. The image then fades
to a roaring fire in his childhood home--the setting of his harem. He
enters from a blizzard, bringing gifts to his bevy of women, and asks
them to shut the door on the frigid air outside.
Freud suggests that "[o]ne may say that a fantasy at one and the
same moment hovers between three periods of time": one of those
times is the "memory from childhood in which this wish was fulfilled"
("Relation" 127). As revealed in Guido's flashback earlier
in 8½, bathing with his aunts and being called "the
sweetest boy in the world" are some of his happiest times. In his
harem, his aunts, bath time, and "the sweetest boy in the world"
all appear. What is key about both his flashback and fantasy is the
lack of male adults: there is no father (or paternal figure) with the
power to castrate him, so Guido can love his mother (and maternal substitutes)
without fear of punishment by castration.
Although Guido is not wearing a hat while fantasizing, he appears in
a black hat for the duration of the harem scene. Freud suggests that
has been adequately established as a symbol of the genital
organ, most frequently the male, through analyses of dreams. . . .
It may be that the symbolic meaning of the hat is derived from that
of the head, in so far as the hat can be considered a continuation
of the head, though detachable. ("Connection" 143-44)
Guido's hat is only removed when he relives specific acts from childhood:
his mother dries his hair and his aunts (with the help of other women)
carry him in a towel. He is willing to temporarily castrate himself
for maternal love and attention by removing a symbol of his sexuality.
He rests his hat on his groin while the women carry him: his sexuality
is not completely denied, merely suppressed and hidden. After Jacqueline
(Yvonne Casadei) screams that he has unfair rules, Guido puts his hat
back on and nonchalantly stares at his fingernails. By replacing his
hat, Guido is reasserting his sexuality and distancing himself from
Guido's potency is expressed through his whip: the whip gives him
the power to please women with his prowess and castrate challenging
women. The women, upset over his rule that women over thirty must be
sent upstairs, call attention to his inadequacies: "What makes
him think he's still young? He's a lousy lover! Talk and kisses . .
. that's his speed. Then he goes to sleep!" He immediately takes
on Saraghina (Eddra Gale), the heavy-set woman from his childhood who
delighted him with the rumba. The first woman the viewer sees hit by
his whip is Gloria (Barbara Steele); she squeals, smiles, and shrieks
"How delicious, how incredible!" after she is struck. Then
Guido confronts the Actress (Madeleine Lebeau), the most threatening
member of the harem: she calls Guido a "hypocrite" and denies
his status as a "real man." Guido attacks the two phallic
columns of hair sprouting from her head: he effectively castrates her
with his whip and forces her to be Other or a "real woman."
Guido strokes the rim of his hat in a self-congratulatory manner with
a smile of satisfaction. When he begins to assault Jacqueline (the viewer
only sees flying feathers from her costume), she hides behind Luisa--Luisa
is never touched by Guido's whip. Luisa smiles and tells Rossella, "My
husband can do exactly as he pleases. It's the house rule. . . . He
likes excitement. He does this almost every night." The viewer
then witnesses more girls squealing in ecstasy as Guido cracks his whip.
To rid himself of any lingering fears of castration, he fetishes women
so they are less threatening (Mulvey 843). The camera's gaze lingers
on certain aspects of a woman's appearance: breasts, shoulders, eyes,
and buttocks. When Carla is chased by a whip-cracking Guido, her ostrich-feather
trimmed robe falls open to reveal her cleavage. Most women (especially
Saraghina) wear tight-fitting clothes while Luisa wears a simple black
dress that hides her figure. One nameless woman ("My name doesn't
matter. I'm happy to be here, that's enough") wears a dress that
exposes her back down to her lumbar region. Gloria, The Actress, Carla,
and Saraghina appear in heavy eye make-up and false eyelashes. The gaze
falls on the "Negro girl" Luisa gives her husband for Christmas:
the camera zooms on her rear end as she runs across the room while Guido
cracks his whip. She is immediately rewarded with a string of pearls
Gloria proclaims, "[Guido is] a monster. We're all women created
from [his] imagination." Guido's imagination drives the action
8½: his flashbacks, fantasies, and dreams invite psychoanalytical
analysis. The limited scope of castration anxiety is only one psychoanalytical
tool: Lacanian theory and other Freudian theories (ego, Oedipus trajectory)
could also be applied successfully and provide a richer reading of 8½.
Culler, Jonathan. "Beyond Interpretation." Critical Theory Since 1965. Eds. Hazard Adams and Leroy Searle. Tallahassee: UP
of Florida, 1990. 324-27.
. Dir. Federico Fellini. Perf. Marcello Mastroianni,
Claudia Cardinale, Anouk Aimée, and Sandra Milo. Cineriz, 1963.
Freud, Sigmund. "A Connection Between a Symbol and a Symptom."
Delusion and Dream and Other Essays. Ed. Philip Rieff. Boston:
Beacon, 1956. 143-44.
- - - . "Relation of the Poet to Daydreaming." Delusion and Dream and Other Essays. Ed. Philip Rieff. Boston: Beacon, 1956.
Hayward, Susan. Key Concepts in Cinema Studies. London: Routledge,
Mulvey, Laura. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. 5th ed. Ed. Leo Braudy
and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, 1999. 833-44.