Freuds Essay On Femininity

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Coverage: 1972-1999 (Vol. 1, No. 1 - Vol. 26, No. 3)

Moving Wall: 11/01/1999 year (What is the moving wall?)

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ISSN: 01903659

EISSN: 15272141

Subjects: Language & Literature, Humanities

Collections: Arts & Sciences III Collection, JSTOR Essential Collection, Language & Literature Collection


Freud begins Lecture 33 by noting some basic assumptions about male and female gender and anatomy. These include that the first thing we notice is a person's gender, that the two sexes have different sexual organs that perform distinct functions, and that there is an essential biological difference between sperm and eggs.

Nevertheless, anatomical biology cannot full explain the differences between masculinity and femininity, which also seem to entail mental aspects. For instance, we often describe a person's behavior as masculine or feminine, regardless of his/her gender. Freud provides the general separation as such: we associate masculinity with active traits, and femininity with passive ones.

Even these designations present contradictions, however - as example, Freud indicates how a woman taking care of her child exhibits notably active traits. Even when a woman suppresses her aggression, which can lead to masochistic tendencies, they are not notably different from men who also display masochistic behavior. Overall, then, Freud believes that psychology cannot fully define the masculine and the feminine.

Psychoanalysis, however, is different in its approach to these questions. It does not attempt to tell us what a woman is, but instead aims to understand and account for the process by which she comes into being as a woman, one who develops from being a child with a “bisexual disposition” (144). In other words, psychoanalysis is concerned with the process of becoming, rather than a strict definition of a final state.

Freud then discusses the process of a woman's sexual development. The process is similar to a man's process, in that it is an intense struggle in which the “decisive turning-points” occur before puberty (145). However, a woman's process is both more complicated and more difficult. Some general differences include the basic anatomical distinctions, as well as a more pronounced intellectual adventurousness and a lower level of aggression than males confront.

However, Freud believes these differences are inessential to the core question of how a woman develops. He argues that boys and girls progress similarly through their psychosexual stages: these include the oral, the anal/sadistic, and finally the phallic stages. Clinical evidence has shown that young girls are essentially the same as boys during these stages - “the little girl is a little man” (146).

However, after the phallic stage, two key differences emerge: girls must relocate the erogenous energy from their clitoris to their vagina, and relocate their initial object-cathexes from their mothers to their fathers. In terms of the former, they had focused their libidinal energies on the clitoris during the phallic stage. In terms of the latter, they are forming an Oedipus complex, and hence must Freud explain how girls have a pre-Oedipal attachment to their mothers.

A young girl’s early libidinal attachments to her mother are both affectionate and hostile, and express themselves according to the first three sexual stages – oral, anal-sadistic, and phallic. Freud claims that many of his female patients with hysterical symptoms had admitted instances of sexual abuse by their fathers. However, Freud believes these were actually fantasies, traced back to early desires from the Oedipus complex, during which time they dreamed of being seduced by their fathers. These desires were in turn based on earlier fantasies of being seduced by the mother during a pre-Oedipal stage, most likely inspired by a mother's inevitable contact with the genitals of her daughter while ensuring hygiene.

After acknowledging these many levels of attachment from a young girl to her mother, Freud notes that the real question is how a girl actually detaches herself from the mother to relocate her object-cathexes to her father. Such a shift of attention can only be explained through an energetic aggressiveness and hostility toward the mother. Freud considers the sources of such a hostile affect, and provides the following possibilities: the child’s frustration at losing access to the mother's breast milk; the birth of a new child and the mother’s sudden division of attention; and the many desires associated with the mother’s body during the early sexual stages. However, none of these experiences are unique to girls; instead, boys also confront these experiences, and yet never shift their object-cathexes from the maternal image.

Freud's best answer to explain this hostility, then, is the castration complex, whereby a female child harbors resentment over the lack of a penis - in his words, the “anatomical distinction must express itself in psychic consequences” (154). Freud believes young girls blame their mothers for this deficit, and never forgive them for the psychic burden associated with it.

Freud believes that both boys and girls experience a castration complex, albeit it in different ways. When boys first realize that girls lack a penis, they suddenly confront a fear of losing the organ. Meanwhile, when girls first realize that boys have a penis, they are consumed by envy. Freud then associates penis envy with strong jealous urges that women confront throughout their lives. He considers the formation of the castration complex as the formative turning-point in a girl's life, as it results in one of three lines of development: sexual inhibition or neurosis, a shift of the girl’s character into a masculinity complex, or a mode of “normal femininity” (156).

Girls who develop along the first line (by forming a neurosis) experience a loss in self-love and a lack of pleasure from sexual sensation. Upon realizing that boys have “superior equipment,” the girl ceases to gain satisfaction through such masturbation, and eventually associates her own displeasure with other girls and women, including her mother (158). In place of her original phallic connection to her mother, the girl now feels hostility. In turning from the mother, she turns towards the father, and thereby transitions into the more “passive instinctual impulses” that lay the groundwork for what is considered conventional femininity (159). Ultimately, this girl will transform her penis envy into baby envy, as she imagines carrying her father's child, and this new desire will prove a central component of her instincts.

At this moment, a young girl enters the Oedipus complex, which only heightens her aggression toward her mother, whom she now perceives as the rival for her father’s affections. Here too, Freud remarks upon a major difference between boys and girls with respect to the Oedipus complex. Boys leave the Oedipus complex behind under the perceived threat of castration by the father, as punishment for their illicit desires. The complex is then replaced by a “severe super-ego” (160). Girls, on the other hand, are led into the Oedipus complex by the castration complex, and remain there longer because they lack the fears that lead boys from it. The end result, therefore, is that girls form a weaker super-ego than boys do.

Freud then briefly considers the second possible development after the castration complex, in which girls remain bound to a powerful masculinity complex. In such cases, girls never transfer their affections to the father. Instead, they retain their object-cathexes for a female, and display a “manifest homosexuality” (162).

In the lecture's final section, Freud moves from the "prehistory of women" to speculate how femininity develops between the stages of puberty and maturity (162). He believes that a girl's formative experiences continue to manifest through life, helping to explain certain behaviors, such as: bi-sexuality; female shame, which he considers an extension of penis envy; and women whose marriages sour later in life, which he suspects is based on the wild fluctuations between love and hatred that the girl felt for her own mother. Neither of these stages - love or hatred for the mother - are ever quite surmounted, though the former stage is more significant since during that time, a girl develops the character dispositions that prepare her to become a spouse. She learns, in effect, to incite passion in men through their latent Oedipal attachments to the mother.

Freud then mentions that women often seem less disposed to a sense of justice, which he connects to the powerful role envy plays in their psychic formation. He also notes that his analytic experience has suggested that older women (in their 30's) are more set in a libidinal structure than men, and are hence less able to change their personalities at that point than men are.


As he often does in these lectures, Freud first identifies here a common phenomenon – in this case, “femininity and masculinity” – and then illustrates a few ways in which popular thinking about the matter is either confused or inadequately complex. He admits an important and dynamic relationship between gender and anatomical biology, but also suggests that behaviors are more complex than biology explains. In short, Freud is suggesting that biology is a limited science in terms of explaining gender and sexuality.

Freud’s claim that women develop out of a “bisexual disposition” deserves some clarification. He means that, early in their psychic development, young girls are essentially the same as boys with respect to their sexual identities. At this point, members of both genders devote their affections to the mother. For girls, this is a pre-Oedipal period, since their object-cathexes will shift to the father; for boys, their affections will never shift.

The Oedipus complex is one of Freud's signature theories. As noted in previous sections, it takes its name from the classic Greek drama Oedipus the King, which recounts the myth in which King Oedipus unknowingly murdered his father and wed his mother. Freud uses the archetype to suggest that all people have a tendency towards resentment against the father based in a latent, unconscious attraction to the mother.

Though the Oedipus complex is usually associated with males, this essay takes great pains to suggest that a female's development has a significant equivalent to it. Even more interestingly, Freud argues that both boys and girls suffer from a fear of castration. On the surface, it's an absurd claim, since girls are in one respect already "castrated" - they lack a penis. However, all this means is that girls experience the fear in an inverse fashion. For boys, it is simple enough to understand. Once a boy realizes the impropriety of his attraction to his mother, he unconsciously fears that his father will rid him of his valuable asset (his penis) in retaliation. For girls, on the other hand, the fear is rooted in envy. Once girls realize they do not have this valuable asset, they blame the mother, and turn to the father for affection, thereby marking their entry into the Oedipus complex.

Despite all of the complexity involved with explaining this phenomenon, Freud's overarching point is clear: biology itself cannot explain the development of the human, nor the distinctions between genders. Instead, biology must rely on psychoanalysis to even approach a comprehensive understanding of these issues.

Despite Freud's somewhat progressive approach to the topic, many feminists and psychoanalytic theorists have since criticized Freud’s ideas, claiming they depict female sexuality, homosexuality, and feminine identity in problematic ways. Certainly, he is unafraid to confront certain controversial topics regarding women with great candor. This issue of "penis envy" is the most blatant issue that has drawn scorn. Because it is presupposes an inherent preference for the penis, the theory can easily be accused of being patriarchal. Many of his theories are based in the assumption that women want to be men.

Another element of his work that has troubled later feminists and psychoanalysts is his examination of female hysteria. When discussing it, he dismisses the many claims of sexual abuse that his female patients claim to have suffered at the hands of their fathers, insisting these claims merely reflect latent, repressed, childhood fantasies. The challenge to his approach asks whether Freud has conveniently dismissed startling claims in order to align his findings with his theory. As extension, one can see in his approach an assumption that a female's memories of sexuality are tainted by an inherent inferiority as a result of gender. Again, this arguably reflects a biased patriarchal attitude.

Similarly, Freud will later argue that female homosexuality results from a regression to the pre-Oedipal stage of attraction to the mother. Again, this claim presupposes that female identity is largely defined by "penis envy." Though the theories lay important groundwork for the study of sexuality and psychic development, they also again express a patriarchal bent that has been contested by later psychoanalysts, feminists, and queer theorists (Moi).

Overall, this lecture contains some of Freud's most controversial ideas. It is therefore noteworthy and perhaps ironic that, in the lecture's final section, Freud tips his hat to three female colleagues and psychoanalysts – Dr. Ruth Mack Brunswick, Dr. Jeanne Lampl-de Groot, and Dr. Helene Deutsch – for having made “valuable contributions to this investigation.”


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