In the second chapter of her book Imperial Leather, Anne McClintock offers a rebuttal to Freud’s theory of the Oedipus Complex, in which she convincingly disproves the universality of this theory and thus fuels the discussion of questioning the theory altogether.
Because his theories were highly influential, they, especially those concerning women, are today often subject to reconsideration and harsh critique by the whole scholarly spectrum. Although many scholars try to justify his thoughts as a product of his time and the prevailing ideas of family, gender roles and science, and I always consider the historical context of a scholar as very important also, I want to leave this discourse for a second and focus on the Sh!t Freud said about Women, in particular on his theory of Penis Envy, in order to get a better grip on what is going on in Freud’s theories.
As already stated in class, I am always very delighted to learn about Freud failing to analyze and theorize women, because, thanks to him, old narratives of female inferiority based on her body (see Aristotle) became a new scientific turn.
Central to his idea of the development of a human is the division of the childhood in five psychosexual stages. If every stage ends with successfully entering the next stage, the human will have a healthy personality. If not, if the human is stuck in one of the stages way beyond the appropriate time window for this stage, a fixation with the respective stage occurs and leads to a compensations connected to the stage. This leads me to the Phallic Stage, where girls develop their Penis Envy.
Between the age of 3 and 6 years, the child is focused on his or her genitals and thus recognizes the differences between the male and the female sex. This is when the Oedipus Complex hits the boy, and the girl is struck by Penis Envy, which, to Freud, is the female version of Castration Anxiety. After realizing her lack of the powerful genitals, the girl makes her mother responsible for this castration; she then distances herself from her mother and dedicates herself to the father desiring his penis. But in order to gain his attention trying to replace the mother, the girl mimics her. And this is how a little girl learns her role in society – yay!
The crucial point is that the boy just fears castration whereas the girl is already born castrated. Because of that, females never leave the phallic stage and this, according to his idea of fixation, leads to the woman always compensating her lack of penis with no possibility of developing a healthy personality.
It is fairly obvious that the Penis Envy theory is deeply embedded in a patriarchal and sexist understanding of power structures, gender roles and sexuality. Being totally convinced that men and women cannot be examined with the same measurements due to the woman’s bodily inferiority, Freud’s scientific manner to differentiate the male and female psyche only fueled the naturalization process of the patriarchal hierarchy. Let alone that his approach is already the problem, since – as we all know – no female essence exists, so that there is nothing to study here which universally applies to the female nature. However, his theory is still one of the most famous theories discussed. Fortunately, many scholars such as McClintock prove him wrong.
Only one thing left to mention. After spending much time supporting his misogynist views, he at least achieved closure at one point:
The great question that has never been answered, and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is ‘What does a woman want?
From Sigmund Freud: Life and Work by Ernest Jones
– franziska Krause