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Some notes of my reading on Freud’s “Femininity”

February 18, 2010

Freud, Sigmund. “Femininity.” Freud on Women: A Reader. Ed. Young-Bruehl, Elisabeth. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990. 342-62.

This is the fifth of the seven introductory lectures that Freud composed in 1932. This lecture delivers Freud’s views on femininity and how it is perceived when juxtaposed against masculinity. As femininity is at issue here, Freud concentrates mainly on the woman question, and thus on the girl-child as subject, referring to men and the boy-child mainly as points of contrasts. He brings in the pre-Oedipal and Oedipal complexes to talk about the differences in development of the girl-child and boy-child as well as difficulties of attaining femininity for the girl-child. In all, this lecture is composed of his observations as well as speculations on how gender is as much a psychological as well as a physical construction, how it is played out in a child’s infantile sexuality, its relationships with its parents and its maturation. One of Freud’s more radical suggestions is that femininity is selected out of a bisexual origin through social constructivism.

Major Premises
1. The masculine figure is active whereas the feminine is passive.
2. Passivity is an actively constructed ideal for achieving femininity rather than being a default state.
3. The different manner by which the boy-child and the girl-child undergoes the phallic phase (both the pre-Oedipal and Oedipal stages) and the differential outcome of each, with variations.
4. The three levels of development that a girl-child arrives at upon maturation: sexual inhibition and neuroses, the normative path of femalehood and excessive masculinity in behavior.
5. The functions of sexual life for a woman.
6. Narcissism as stemming from a woman’s object-cathexes modeled through the experience of her relationship with her parents, primarily the father at the Oedipal phase.
7. Libido serves both the male and female sexes.
8. Freud also attributes the woman’s desire for the penis as a desire to overcome the lack as well as enviousness of the male’s mental life.

Critical Inquiry
The dichotomy between the masculine and the feminine (pp 344 – 346).
-The male sex-cell searches actively for the female ovum that waits passively to be found. Freud links this to the conduct of sexual individuals during intercourse, when the male purportedly pursues the female, seizes hold of her and penetrates her for the purpose of intercourse.
– However, Freud also cautions against reducing masculinity to the factor of aggressiveness. The females of some animals are stronger and more aggressive, with the male active only in the single act of sexual union, e.g. the spiders. Rearing and caring for the young are not exclusive to the female of the species.
– Freud cautions against imposing narrow gendered-roles on the sexes because neither can be strictly categorized as intrinsic qualities of one sex since men and women are psychologically bi-sexual. Freud’s contention of a woman developing out of a child of bisexual tendencies posits that the masculine and feminine features are socially-constructed rather than naturally endowed.
-Masochism is considered a feminine trait, regardless of whether it is manifested in men or women. The meaning of femininity cannot be known until we can understand the origins of sexual differences.

Difficulties in achieving femininity (pp 346 – 348)
-The girl-child and boy-child enter the phallic phase in the same manner, in that their first sexual experiences are through masturbatory activities; the penis for the boy and clitoris for the girl. Freud surmises that vaginal stimulation is not as frequent or as important as clitoral stimulation.
-However, as the girl-child develops into femininity, she is socialized to cede part of this form of excitement to vaginal stimulation while the boy-child maintains his initial sexual excitatory practices.
– The first object of love for both the boy-child and the girl-child is that of the mother. The mother is the object-cathexes for both. However, as the girl grows, she moves into an Oedipal relationship with her father where the latter becomes her love-object in the place of her mother. In the ‘normal’ course of development, she will then substitute this paternal object with the final object (presumably another marriageable man).
-The question is how the girl passes from attachment to her mother to attachment to her father. Freud cautions against assuming too easily that the children follow the sexual preferences of their parents (presumably heterosexual). Freud argues that the woman’s relationship with her father is pre-determined by her earlier attachments to her mother.

Libidinal relationship between the mother and girl-child (pp 349-354)
-The libidinal relationship between the child and her mother undergoes three phases: oral, sadistic-anal and phallic, each representing active and passive impulses. Beyond these three phases, the relationship is characterized by ambivalence, which can be either hostile or affectionate in nature.
– The girl-child is seen as wanting to be her mother’s partner, to “get the mother with child” during the pre-Oedipal stage, and fears being upstaged or murdered. Freud also alludes to an episode in his practice when he had met with female patients who claimed sexual abuse by their fathers which he later tied to a form of Oedipal obsession. He claims that such memories of seduction were transplanted from the child’s pre-Oedipal interaction with the mother, where “the mother by her activities over the child’s bodily hygiene led to the child’s genital stimulation”. The mother is the actual seducer.
– Freud also defends himself against critics who felt he went overboard in tying the girl-child’s sexuality to her relationship with the mother. He felt that symptoms of the girl’s sexual anomalies, while invariably unseen in the girl-child of ‘normal’ condition, are made visible when the “residues and consequences of this emotional world” are heightened by pathological behavior brought about by isolation and exaggeration of conditions otherwise remained hidden in the normal state.
– The relationship with the mother, as the child’s first love object, and the object of the child’s passionate love, is doomed by the high level of ambivalence of that love. Freud dismisses the erotic element of the relationship but instead points to the disciplinary measures and restrictions the mother must impose on the child as the cause of the dissolution of this passionate bond.
-Freud does not quite understand the rationale behind the girl’s breaking of her attachment to her mother and the forming of a new attachment with the father. He does not think that such breaking and forming of attachments could easily be explained by way of the child’s perception of the mother’s lack of love, which he links to the possible withdrawal of breast milk and the birth of a new sibling.
– Freud ventures that the signs of instinctual, unusual and pathological drives (such as sexual perversion) have their origins in childhood fixation. Later experiences then enhance the existing fixation. In the case of penis envy, Freud points to early infantile fixation as the driving force for psychological developments stemming from penis envy.

Three lines of development upon discovery of one’s castrated self (pp 354-358)
Freud points to three possible lines of development stemming from the girl-child’s discovery of her lack (he castrated condition). They are:
1) Sexual inhibitions or neuroses, stemming from the girl-child’s inability to deal with the “imperfections” of her “penis.” This takes place at the same time as repudiation of her mother, renunciation of masturbatory satisfaction as derived from the clitoris and renouncement of all forms of sexual enjoyment. The repudiation of the mother takes place at a gradual pace. The etiology of such neuroses, stemming from the “faulty development” from infantile sexuality (which the patients have no memory of), through puberty, to adulthood, is linked to how masturbatory activities are dealt with from infancy.
2) Development into a normal female. Renouncement of clitoridal masturbations comes around the same period when the girl-child turns towards the father and passivity has the upperhand. However, if not too much of the sexuality is lost in repression, the girl-child may turn out normal. In other words, she now replaces her symbolic wish for the penis with a desire for a baby. Freud differentiates between the infantile desire for the baby and the later desire of an adult woman to have a baby; the first related to a desire to play her mother, to actively take on her mother’s role. The latter instance stems from the desire of bearing the child of her father. Freud attributes the mother’s desire for the penis to a desire for a boy-child that will fulfill the longing for the penis. Freud argues that the fear of castration is dealt with more easily dealt with in a boy-child than the ‘lack’ as perceived by the girl-child. The formation of the super-ego suffers when there is no way of overcoming the lack, in opposition to the possible extreme from which the male superego is formed.
3) The girl-child refusing to acknowledge her lack but intensifies her masculine identification and clitoridal activity. She participates in a greater amount of activity that is characteristic of a male. She may have undergone a phase of Oedipal complex but due to her disappointment with her father, she is driven to regress into her earlier masculinity complex. Even the girl destined to be feminine may not be spared this disappointment, except that the effect is different on her. This does not automatically mean that the girl-child is destined to be homosexual. However, Freud notes that the two developments in female homosexuality are purportedly well-mirrored in the practice of homosexuals; taking on the role of mother and baby as often as husband and wife.

The price of femininity (359 – 362)
– The development of femininity can be ‘interfered’ with through the development of the residual phenomena of the early masculine period. Regressions to fixation of the ‘pre-Oedipal’ phase occur very frequently and are ascribed to female bisexuality.
– Sexual life (libido) is dominated by the polar conjunction between the feminine and the masculine. Libido serves both and cannot be attributed to belonging solely to either sex.
Freud also suggests that sexual frigidity in women have a psychogenic as well as an anatomical reason.
– Narcissism in a woman is linked to the woman’s choice of object, where their need to be loved is stronger than their need to love. When this choice is made freely (unconstraint by social conditions), it is made in accordance to the narcissistic ideal of the man in which the woman wants to become.
– With the birth of her child, the woman re-identifies with her mother, a process which she might have resisted up to that point. This revived identification leads to the reproduction of her parents’ unhappy marriage. The woman finds the most satisfaction the birth of the son because she is said to be able to transfer her unlived desires and remnants of a masculine complex to him. However, her marriage is deemed successful only after she has also turned her husband into her son.
– Freud also divides women from men in terms of the former’s incapacity for justice, considered the turf of the latter, and the predominance of envy, from which justice is considered to have been modified. Freud comments that a female patient of 30 is more rigid and inflexible compared to the male patient of the same age because of the difficulty which the former underwent in achieving femininity.

In Conclusion
Both the pre-Oedipal and Oedipal strata are never completely surmounted in the course of development. However, what can be leftover from that development is an affectionate pre-Oedipal attachment that is definitive of a woman’s future. This attachment is what is attractive to a man whose Oedipal attachment to the mother is then kindled into a passion for that woman. However, Freud is inconclusive as to how femininity can be achieved without compromising the wellbeing of the woman, or whether femininity is obviously the best route to go.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 14, 2011 11:29 pm

    Interesting read

  2. October 4, 2011 11:06 pm

    I’m currently writing my undergrad thesis and your post really helped my understanding of Freud. 🙂

    • Clarissa Ai Ling Lee permalink*
      October 12, 2011 7:54 pm

      you are welcomed 🙂

  3. August 25, 2012 1:57 am

    Reblogged this on The Jai of Earth and commented:
    This is great! A wonderful reading. Thank-you.

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