Weedon claims that French feminists have taken one of two approaches when attempting to make psychoanalytic theory the key to understanding the acquisition of gendered subjectivity. They have either accepted the terms of Freudian discourse, or advocated ‘psychoanalytic theory as a way of understanding the structures of masculinity and femininity, under patriarchy, together with the social and cultural forms to which these structures give rise’ (Weedon 1987:43). Weedon considers the significance of psychoanalysis for feminism, maintaining that psychoanalysis offers ‘a universal theory of the psychic construction of gender identity based on repression’ (ibid.). Such analysis gives answers to the question of what constitutes subjectivity and how we acquire gendered subjectivity. Weedon considers Lacan’s ‘appropriation of Freud’, pointing out that Lacan ‘stresses the linguistic structure of the unconscious as a site of repressed meanings and the “imaginary” structure of subjectivity acquired.. .at the point of entry of the individual as speaking subject into the symbolic order of language, laws and social processes and institutions’ (Weedon 1987:51). The symbolic order in Lacanian theory is the social and cultural order which frames gender identity.

In Lacanian theory, as in Saussurean theory, the symbolic order is made up of ‘signifiers’, but in the Lacanian model signifiers are not linked to fixed signifieds or concepts. Weedon (1987:52-53) points out that Lacan’s theory of language has much ‘in common with Jacques Derrida’s radical critique of rationalist theories of language, consciousness and the logocentric tradition of metaphysics, which presuppose that the meaning of concepts is fixed prior to their articulation in language’. She shows that meaning for Lacan, as for Derrida, can only occur in specific textual locations. In Lacanian psychoanalysis, it is the mechanisms of desire, rather than the principle of difference, that prevent the final fixing of meaning.

Weedon highlights a significant difference in the writings of Derrida and Lacan. For Lacan, meaning and the symbolic order as a whole is fixed in relation to a primary, transcendental signifier, which Lacan calls the ‘phallus’, the signifier of sexual difference, which guarantees the patriarchal structure of the symbolic order (Weedon 1987:53). She argues that the phallus signifies power and control in the symbolic order through control of the satisfaction of desire, the primary source of power within psychoanalytic theory. In Lacanian theory the position of the father as ‘Other’ is primarily symbolic.

The fact that values are illusory, or that men, like women, are produced by and subject to the symbolic order and never in control, does not detract from the social implications of these illusions. As Weedon (1987:54) maintains, ‘men by virtue of their penis can aspire to a position of power and control within the symbolic order’. She goes on to note that women have no position in the symbolic order except in relation to men, ‘as mothers, and even the process of mothering is given patriarchal meaning, reduced in Freud, to an effect of penis envy’ (ibid.).

A number of feminist theorists have considered the significance of psychoanalytic theory for feminism. Jacqueline Rose argues that psychoanalytic theory provided feminist theory with ‘a way to identify and fix gender difference through a metanarrative of shared infantile development; it also helped feminists show how the very notion of the “subject” is a masculine prerogative within the terms of culture’ (cited in Butler 1990c:326). Rose’s work is based on

Lacanian psychoanalytical theory. Butler points out that ‘the paternal law which Lacanian psychoanalysis takes to be the basis of all kinship and cultural relations, establishes “male subjects” through a denial of the feminine’. Rose argues psychoanalytic theory gives an account ‘of patriarchal culture as a trans-historical and crosscultural force’ (ibid.). French feminist psychoanalytic theorists have reworked Lacanian theory, the work of Luce Irigaray being seminal in this context.