Freud And Gender: Oedipus Complex

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The archetypal American wedding consists of a multitude of deep-rooted traditions—one of which is the quintessential father-daughter dance. The dance, featured not only in weddings but in school events, quinceñeras, and debutante balls, reflects the unique relationship between the father and daughter. In such celebratory events, there is occasionally a mother-son dance, but rarely ever a dance shared between a child and parent of the same sex. Moreover, analyzing this popularized ritual through a psychoanalytic lens shows that this specific parent-child dynamic represents the uniquely Oedipal relationship between a daughter and her father.

To analyze this tradition using psychoanalysis, one must first understand what Sigmund Freud believes to be a sexual relationship between a child and their opposite-sex parent. In Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, Freud speaks to a child’s relationship with their genitalia, gender, mother, and father. He states that young girls are quick to acknowledge their distinct genitalia and are “overcome by envy for the penis—an envy culminating in the wish, which is so important in its consequences, to be boys themselves” (Freud 60). In this quote, Freud suggests that young girls have a fundamentally biological desire to be men, and in most cases, project this penis envy onto their fathers. In this declaration, Freud introduces the framework for what he would later term the Oedipus complex, in which “the child’s sexual impulses” are “towards [it’s] parents, which are as a rule already differentiated owing to the attraction of the opposite sex—the son being drawn towards his mother and the daughter towards her father” (93). With this understanding of penis envy and the Oedipus complex in mind, one can analyze the father-daughter dance through a psychoanalytic lens. In marriage ceremonies, the daughter’s penis envy initially projected onto her father in the form of sexual desire is now projected onto her husband: the new reigning male figure in her life. This manifests itself at various points throughout the wedding ceremony, from the father “giving the bride away” to the groom (transferring his sexual relationship with his daughter to that of with her husband) to the father-daughter dance itself (which can be seen as a celebration of that transfer).

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However, it is vital to address why specifically one can study the father-daughter dance, marriage, or any existing system through a psychoanalytic lens today when the theory itself was developed by one man in the early 1900s. This analysis will refute three primary counterarguments to the continued relevance of Freud: first, that psychoanalysis is archaic when contextualized in contemporary society, second, that psychoanalysis prevents humans from maintaining a sense of self, and third, that Freud himself promoted misogyny and homophobia and should thus be disqualified from today’s discourse.

Although psychoanalysis was developed in the early twentieth century, it remains an integral aspect of understanding modern-day society, the reasoning for which comes from Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. In the second essay, “Infantile Sexuality,” Freud comments on “infantile amnesia,” a phenomenon that refers to the collective lack of memory amongst the majority of adults who cannot recollect their experiences from birth “up to their sixth or eighth year” (40). Freud furthers, “we learn from other people that during these years [...] we reacted in a lively manner to impressions [and] that we were capable of expressing pain and joy in a human fashion” (40). Young children can express “pain and joy” not because of their innate humanity, but instead because they understand that certain behaviors, such as laughing and clapping, corresponded to societally appropriate reactions to the emotion of “joy.” As Freud explains, the emotions are not yet real; the reactions are simply imitations. He corroborates this notion in declaring “the very same impressions that we have forgotten have none the less left the deepest traces on our minds and have had a determining effect upon the whole of our later development” (41). Indeed, humans’ fundamental understanding of love, sex, and the world at large is fully formed by the “impressions” bestowed upon people as infants. Individuals are direct byproducts of the society they are raised in, eventually producing mass patterns of indoctrination spanning generational chasms. The invalidation of Freud’s theory of infantile amnesia is illogical for no human can recollect their entire childhood and therefore cannot refute or understand where their most guttural reactions and emotions originate. Thus, humans are the result of these “impressions” and psychoanalysis is critical as it specifically exposes their content, origin, and impact on behavior.

The second critique of psychoanalysis is that it removes humans’ sense of self because Freud believes identity to be societally constructed as opposed to biologically predetermined. Moreover, if identity is formed by the system which humans are born into, then how can an individual feel pride over their identity or, more broadly, how can a group mobilize around a shared identity if it is merely a derivative of society? When responding to this question, it must be understood that, contextually, psychoanalysis’s sole purpose is not to eliminate the idea of individual identity, but rather, to encourage humans to engage with the identity markers projected onto them. In doing so, one can better understand the origin and underlying meaning of certain markers, deconstruct resulting stereotypes, and ultimately gain a greater sense of self in gaining newfound insight into such identity labels. For example, Freud’s belief that heterosexuality is not innate in all humans supports the idea that LGBTQ+ activism could be adjusted to focus on unconditional gay liberation as opposed to a fight for inclusion in a world dictated by heterosexuality. Additionally, if educators understood that gender is shaped by society as opposed to biological sex, they could tailor their curricula to teach students that gender is a systematically constructed concept, allowing fewer young people to feel confined to a gender binary. Thus, psychoanalysis enables humans to gain a more robust understanding of their identity markers to better dismantle the existing oppressive structures and gain a stronger sense of self.

The final critique of psychoanalysis pertains to Freud himself, as many contemporary scholars believe that his allegedly misogynistic and homophobic views preclude him from modern-day discussion. In regards to Freud’s views on sexuality, he mentions in the first essay, “The Sexual Aberrations,” that “the sexual instinct and the sexual object are merely soldered together,” suggesting that sexuality itself is fluid (14). He furthers that deviations in the sexual object (“perversions,” although he does not attach any opinion to this word) occur naturally and in various forms (26). However, Freud assumes heterosexuality to be the norm, as evidenced by his belief in the Oedipus Complex and subsequently implies homosexuality to be a deviation. In like manner, claims of Freud’s misogyny stem from his aforementioned theory regarding “penis envy,” and feminists have offered counterarguments that put forth the notion that men have a womb or pussy envy. In responding to both critiques (of Freud’s respective homophobia and misogyny), it is critical to note that Freud writes Three Essays of the Theory of Sexuality with the primary goal of understanding humans’ relationship with sex and he does so in the context of the system in which he lives (the early 20th century). When contextualized, one can understand that Freud believed heterosexuality to be the norm likely because that was the norm in the 1900’s and that Freud believed in penis envy because the patriarchy was much less challenged in his time period than it is today. Moreover, disqualifying authors from the contemporary discussion due to their opposing belief systems is ultimately futile; rather, it is preferable to understand scholars’ beliefs in their unique historical context. Doing so does not discount the fact that their beliefs may be oppressive according to modern-day standards, but still allows us to apply their ideas to contemporary discourse.

Thus, one can use psychoanalysis to analyze nearly any aspect of modern-day society—the father-daughter-dance simply being one example—and it is critical to recognize its contemporary relevance for three primary reasons. First, Freud’s theory of infantile amnesia shows us that our understanding of the world is shaped by society and generations past, and thus we must look to psychoanalysis, second, psychoanalysis allows humans to gain a deeper insight into their identity markers, and third, Freud’s beliefs cannot be invalidated solely based on his alleged discriminatory views because his work must be historically contextualized.

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