Freud & Women

I’ve been reading up on Freud’s ideas and theories about women with what I consider to be rather unpleasantly surprising results.[1]

Stereotypes & Theories

We all have a tendency to stereotype. Yet however much we may wish to believe that, as a scientist, Freud would have done otherwise, there is plenty to suggest that’s exactly what he did.

Although he openly admitted that his understanding of women was ‘shadowy and incomplete’, this did not stop him from putting forth broad-sweeping theories about what it was to be a woman and how women should be viewed by both themselves and by men.

And don’t forget that although he didn’t really ‘know’ women, he definitely ‘knew’ all about men – because, well, he was one, after all – and so all the better to treat their psychological problems with extra care and empathy. 

Oedipus Complex 

Freud’s theories dealt in large part with how the psychological aspects of childhood lead up to adult sexuality. Most of these theories centre around what he coined as the Oedipus complex, wherein little boys wish to murder their fathers because they see them as rivals for sexual congress with their mothers. The boy’s hostile feelings toward father lead to castration anxiety, an irrational fear that in punishment, father will castrate him, or, in other words cut off his penis. If they manage to properly resolve this anxiety, little boys grow up to be just like their fathers.

How this works with women remains always a bit of a mystery because of course, since little girls do not have penises they have no similar cause for concern. There’s the pinch. Women come to appreciate that they are ‘mutilated’ (in the sense they do not have a penis) and thus they and their bodies are deficient. 

This leads to (1) both men and women holding contempt for women’s deformed bodies and (2) men being firmly established as superior to women because women are now defined (both to themselves and to society) not by what they have, but instead by what they lack. 

One of the clear benefits the Oedipus complex is that men now have a convenient excuse to cheat on their wives. Freud ‘discovered’ that men symbolically split their image of ‘woman’ between (1) mother and (2) prostitute. Since it is the duty of a married woman to ensure her marriage is successful by becoming mother to her husband, married men will no longer be erotically aroused by their mother/wives. After all, it was his desire for mother that got him into the Oedipal mess in the first place. Why on earth would he do that again? Where does this leave him? Securely in the arms of the prostitute. 

Clinical Cases

Freud reaches his conclusions about how childhood traumas effect women as the result of numerous clinical cases whereby his adult patients, hysterical women, present with a wide range of pathological (i.e., not normal) symptoms.

Consider the case of Dora, who like mythological Cassandra, has ‘not been heard’ by her family. You may recall that the god Apollo, himself the picture-perfect archetypal man, taught Cassandra the art of prophecy on the promise that she would become his lover. But when she reneged, he took his revenge: although she could still prophesise, no one would believe her.

Like Iphigenia, who in Greek mythology was sacrificed by her father, King Agamemnon, to make up to the goddess Artemis for his own wrong-doing, Dora was also an of barter for her father. What we learn from all this is how it feels to possess denied sexual desire as well as lesbian tendencies (poor Dora could not attach to – and therefore be just like – her unloving mother).

We also learn that Dora is also rejected Freud himself, who refuses to see her as the confused ‘adolescent’ that she is and instead vilifies her as a bad, vengeful woman. 

As rational 21st century persons, we might well-understand why poor Dora, so badly abused by men, might turn hateful. Sadly, turn-of the-last century men like Freud, didn’t see it in quite the same way.

Medusa

Perhaps it was cases like that of poor Dora that led Freud to conclude that essentially, all women are wildly scary, a serious castration threat to all men. 

To demonstrate how this might work, Freud chose the myth of Medusa who, once a beautiful mortal woman managed to offend the goddess Athena by having sex with the god, Poseidon, in Athena’s temple (although it is highly questionable whether or not the sexual act was 100% consensual for Medusa’s part). As punishment, Medusa was turned into a terrifying gorgon, whose once beautiful hair was now a mass of writhing (phallic) snakes and whose once beautiful face, turned men to stone. Clearly it was to the benefit of all mankind that Perseus, a true hero in the Greek tradition, was successful in killing Medusa and then pranced about holding up his prize, Medusa’s decapitated head.

The problem is that thinking about the Medusa (and her dicey sexuality – the bit that got her into trouble with in the first place), men are reminded of their castration anxiety. Who, then, could blame them if as the result, they get an erection from the whole idea which Freud confusedly connects with fetishism (the denial of female sexuality). I mean, after all would an eructation not be the best course of action to ensure it’s still down there in one piece and in good working order?

Conclusion

This would seem to leave us with a theory of the feminine that is defined by lack; women are in essence castrated men. As the result, at the slightest whiff that women could have sexual desires, men are reminded of their own fear of castration. Thus in order to keep the threat of (symbolic) castration at bay, men must firmly take control of the women in their lives (i.e., not be ‘pussy-whipped’) because, according to Freud, men are afraid, with good reason, of being weakened by women, ‘infected’ with her femininity (not to mention being damaged by her anger and revenge).

If this all leaves women with a poor self-image, then that’s all the better. Not only is it quite normal – but massively convenient for men –  that all women appreciate that they are second class citizens, mutilated at birth. 


[1] Credit to Nancy J Chodorow and her excellent chapter, ‘Freud on women’, in the Cambridge Companion to Freud, 2008 (Kindle Version).

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