While many theories of subjectivity pay little attention to the productive role of gender in the formation of the subject, psychoanalysis, for all its limitations, has always been interested in gender as primary in the production of subjects. Freud articulated the Oedipus complex to understand the process of becoming a subject, of taking up gendered subjectivity, or, put more simply, the road to becoming a woman or a man. For Freud, this complex is a useful story to explain how an infant comes to deal with its incestuous desires – both erotic and destructive – for its parents. The Oedipus complex plays a fundamental part in the structuring of the personality, and in the orientation of human desire.
Freud imagined the libido (human desire) as a great reservoir of psychic and sexual energies which were channelled through particular drives (sometimes called ‘impulses’ or ‘pulsions’). Like many writers of his day, he used modernist metaphors of industrial production in his theories; Freud’s libido resembles a hydraulic power plant which sends out and receives great flowing gushes of libido. These metaphors of hydraulics outline how the flow of sexual energy is regulated through apparatuses, production processes and mechanisms (Ferrell 1996). Through a process called ‘cathexis’ we channel our libidinal energy to one object or another; we choose the object of our affections and direct the flow of our desire to it, him or her. This process of object choice is crucial to Freudian theory, as it is one of the mechanisms that seems to explain the operation of compulsory heterosexuality at an individual and unconscious level.
Freud argued that infant sexuality is unchannelled and ‘polymorphously perverse’. Its ‘libidinal economy’ is unstructured. That is, the infant loves everything and everyone: grabs all fingers; enjoys farting; believes that breasts are part of the giving universe; plays with him/herself; thinks peeing is fun; and, generally, is not quite sure where his or her own body leaves off and others begin. Breasts, fingers, toes – these are all part of the extension of the infant’s body. In other words, many (‘poly’) forms (‘morph’) of pleasure (perverse) appeal to the infant. How then to turn this squeezing, farting, peeing good-time baby into a proper girl or boy and, subsequently, a heterosexual, ‘well-adjusted’ adult?
The Oedipus complex describes the psychic operation of a complex of attraction, desire, love, hatred, rivalry and guilt that the child feels towards his or her parents. It takes place around the age of three to five years and explains how the child comes to identify with the same-sex parent.
In classical Freudian theory, the Oedipus complex comes in two flavours, one for boys, one for girls (Freud 1925, 1931). Both are outlined below.
In the pre-Oedipal phase children of both sexes are one with their mother. In this state of ‘polymorphous perversion’ there is no formation yet of sexual desire; the child experiences primarily oral and anal drives (impulses, forces of desire, needs and wants). When the child separates from its mother and breaks out of this close unity with her, the path for each gender differs.
The little boy takes the road through the positive Oedipus complex, where he desires his mother and identifies with his father. (At the end of a positive Oedipus complex the love object is the opposite sex; the negative Oedipus complex produces a same-sex object of desire. The normative beliefs of his society operate in the names Freud gave his complexes.) Freud speculates that when the boy child becomes aware of sexual difference, he is concerned with the mother’s lack of a penis and assumes that she has been castrated by the father (the castration complex). According to Freud, because of its visibility, the penis is the most important reference in the organisation of sexuality; in contrast, the female genitalia lie hidden, which is the cause of male castration anxiety: ‘the fear of nothing to see’. The young boy goes through a twofold motion: he discovers the absence of the penis and consequently fears that the father will punish him for his forbidden love for his mother by taking away his penis, too. He gives up his love for the mother, and his rivalry with the father, and identifies with his father, thereby taking on a masculine identification. By repressing his desire for his mother, he forms a strong and strict superego. His drives change from oral and anal to phallic or genital drives. Freud posited this story as a way of explaining how the boy child grew psychically and consolidated the functions of the ego and superego.
The little girl takes a different route after the pre-Oedipal stage; she too enters the genital/phallic stage in which she loves her mother actively. In this stage her drives are focused on the clitoris, which is considered by Freud to be an inferior sort of penis. When the young girl makes the dramatic discovery that she has no penis, she develops a castration complex, which involves self-hate and resentment towards the mother. The castration complex results in penis envy, which forces the girl to enter the positive Oedipus complex. According to Freud, the girl substitutes a yearning for a baby for this penis envy. For the girl, the Oedipus complex involves giving up the fiercely desired penis and replacing it with the desire for a baby; to do this, she redirects her desire towards her father. Freud adds that only by bearing a (male) child does a woman achieve full access to mature femininity.
Freud argues that the route to femininity is more tortuous; the little girl is initially a little man but becomes passive when she discovers that she is castrated. Feeling wounded and resentful at her lack of a penis, she turns away from the mother as a love object and towards the father with the desire to bear a child of her own to compensate for her lack of a penis. In the Oedipal stage, then, the young girl has to make two libidinal shifts: she replaces the erotogenic zone of the (‘phallic’) clitoris with the (‘female’) vagina, and she shifts the object of her love from the mother to the father. For the girl, the psychological consequences of the Oedipus complex are permanent: penis envy gives her a sense of being castrated and therefore injured. The psychological scar of this wound to her self, this narcissistic wound, will leave the girl with a permanent sense of inferiority.
Because the girl’s Oedipus complex is not destroyed by castration anxiety as it is in the young boy, the Oedipal stage is never wholly resolved and, as a consequence, the girl has a weaker need for repression. As a result of this, says Freud, the girl scarcely develops a superego and remains morally defective. Repression leads the subject to the need for sublimating his/her drives, just as artists sublimate their desires and aggression through the creation of works of art. Castration anxiety is a precondition for sublimation which, according to Freud, explains the limited participation of women in culture.
Source: Cranny-Francis, Anne et al. Gender Studies. 4th ed. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
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