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Camera Obscura 16.2 (2001) 177-228

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Jealous Schoolgirls, Single White Females, and Other Bad Examples: Rethinking Gender and Envy

Sianne Ngai


As in matters of the heart in general females are more susceptible to the passion than men.

--G. Stanley Hall, Adolescence (1904)

Jealousy is, on several counts, more inexcusable in a woman than in a man.

--E. B. Duffy, What Every Woman Should Know (1873)

Envy is concealed admiration. An admirer who senses that devotion cannot make him happy will choose to become envious of that which he admires. He will speak a different language, and in this language he will now declare that that which he really admires is a thing of no consequence, something foolish, illusory, perverse and high-flown. Admiration is happy self-abandon, envy, unhappy self-assertion.

--Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death in Salmede Vaerker (1843) [End Page 177]

Why don't you look in the mirror . . . huh? Look. You're in a different league--I know that. You have this great personality, you've got this great style, you run your own business. You're always going to find somebody. You've got to be stupid to think that you won't.

--Hedra Carlson to Allison Jones, Single White Female (dir. Barbet Schroeder, US, 1992)

Though previously at the center of much feminist debate, today the notion of penis envy seems more deserving of obsolescence than sustained analysis and critique. Yet this concept, formulated by Freud in 1914 as a structuring principle of gender differentiation and well assimilated by popular culture today, remains something of a shibboleth to be reckoned with by feminist readers of psychoanalytic theory. Most objections to penis envy within feminism have been made from the standpoint that the concept entails a "characterization of feminine sexuality as deficiency." 1 While accurate in singling out a stereotypical view of femininity subtending the concept of penis envy, this critical tendency points to an equally commonplace approach to "envy" itself: one treating it as a term describing a subjectwho lacks, rather than the subject's affective responseto a perceived imbalance or inequality. In other words, the traditional feminist critique of penis envy regards envy as saying something about the subject's internal state of affairs ("deficiency"), as opposed to a statement by or from the subject concerning a relation in the external world. Rey Chow's comment on Gayatri Spivak's invocation of the affect provides a useful example of this traditional approach. Responding to Spivak's own criticism of Julia Kristeva's "ethnocentric sense of 'alienation' at the sight of some Chinese women in Huxian Square" (a moment Kristeva describes in Chinese Women), Chow writes,

While I agree with [Spivak's following] observation, I find [her] formulation of these other women's identity troubling: "Who is speaking here? An effort to answer that question might have revealed more about the mute women of Huxian Square, looking with qualified envy at the 'incursion of the West'." Doesn't the word "envy" here remind us of that condition ascribed to women by Freud, against which feminists revolt [End Page 178] --namely "penis envy"? "Envy" is the other side of the "violence" of which Fanon speaks as the fundamental part of the native's formation. But both affects--the one of wanting to have what the other has; the other, of destroying the other so that one can be in his place--are affects produced by a patriarchal ideology that assumes that the other at the low side of the hierarchy of self/other is "lacking" (in the pejorative, undesirable sense). . . . The fate of the native is then like that of Freud's woman: Even though she will never have a penis, she will for the rest of her life be trapped within the longing for it and its substitutes.2

Chow's discomfort with Spivak's use of "envy" assumes that the term is being used in the same way it has been traditionally used in patriarchal culture: as a static sign of lack and deficiency...


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