The Master's Race: Phallic Whiteness in "The Young Savages"

Graham Cassano


This essay examines two parallel, historically contemporaneous, depictions of the Freudian master-slave dialectic. John Frankenheimer’s first film, The Young Savages (1961), reconstructs Hank Bell’s (Burt Lancaster) repressed transformation from Italian racial other into a white ethnic. In doing so, the film approaches the possibility that race itself may be a kind of social construction. To get at this notion, the film explores the meaning of race in an overtly psychoanalytic language. In fact, The Young Savages echoes the argument of Jacques Lacan’s nearly contemporaneous essay, “The subversion of the subject and the dialectic of desire in the Freudian unconscious.” Lacan’s paper, first delivered in 1960, and Frankhenheimer’s film, argue that the normatively socialized subject must sacrifice an essential part of themselves in order to achieve social recognition. In Lacan’s language, every subject is castrated, and because of that mutilation, every subject desires completion through the symbolic phallus. To accept castration, and to desire the phallus, is to live under the dominion of the name-of-the-father. Hank Bell enters into this dialectic of desire, discovers his own lack (the history of his repressed racial identity), as well as his desire for the phallus (whiteness). In short, the film allows for an understanding of Lacan’s dialectic as the unfolding of normative white supremacy, and Lacan allows for an understanding of the film as a dialectic of desire. At the same time, both Lacan’s essay, and The Young Savages, share the same fundamental aporia. For Lacan, the phallus is not a penis, but a structural position; nonetheless, rather than renaming the phallus as male domination, Lacan leaves the phallic language in place, unquestioned. Even as Lacan opens a path to the interrogation of masculine domination, he essentializes patriarchal language, and paradoxically takes refuge in a developmental argument to ground the significance of the phallus as symbol. In the same manner, The Young Savages questions the concept of whiteness, recognizes race as a social construction, but pulls back from that recognition, and ultimately leaves the normative racial order intact.


Capitalism, Psychoanalysis, Phallic Whiteness, Critical Theory, Film Theory

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ISSN: 1930-014X