The basics of psychological studies are firmly rooted in the theory of cognitive unconsciousness. It is believed that human mind is capable of recalling past events and memories through introspective behavior, and can induce in the world of the unconscious basic imageries, feelings and sensations. Since mental life is not confined to conscious experiences only, the cognitive unconscious interferes in our knowledge of reality and perception of memory.
The psychoanalysis theory of Sigmund Freud, which incorporates the psychosexual stage theory, avowed that our conscious mental lives are shaped by unconscious ideas, emotions and impulses. At the same time, human beings also learn to develop defense mechanisms to guard against the extremities of unconscious interference. This interpretation has helped enormously in exploring the uncharted horizon of female sexuality, one of the frequently discussed topics of feminism. Extensive case studies with female hysterics, done by Freud himself, are widely regarded as prescriptions for patriarchal supremacy of women.
Even though feminist movements in the 1960s and 1970s strongly spoke out against Freud’s psychoanalytical interpretations, Juliet Mitchell argues that Freud’s contribution is enormous in analyzing women psychology at large. This essay is going to discuss the theory as a productive framework for further studies. Social strata play a determining role in assessing the position of women and their outlook in a patriarchal setup. It is very difficult and rather vague to attempt any kind of generalization in the study of women’s role in society.
Unlike many hardcore feminists who discarded Freud’s take on women as being passive, subservient and inferior, Mitchell justifies his observations more descriptive than prescriptive. In other words, Freud did not strive to finalize his research in any way. Based on the case studies he undertook, he just presented a set of hypotheses that laid the groundwork for more detailed and scientific analysis (Mitchell 1974). This notion was challenged earlier by noted feminists such as Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan.
Beauvoir’s La deuxieme sexe and Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique discuss how society tends to define women with reference to men. In the following decade of 1970s, a surge in feminism witnessed the publication of numerous works, the most important ones being Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics, Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch and Shulamith Fire-stone’s The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution. All these books echo the same theme of eradicating sexual inequality from the traditional social structure (Perelberg 2005).
It was only Mitchell’s book that stood by Freud’s radical explanation of women psychology. The root of Freudian psychoanalysis is grounded on the presumption that individuals are incognizant of numerous factors that cause their behaviour and emotive responses. These factors lay dormant in the psyche of an individual and hence, they often trigger unhappiness or a sense of defeat for not being able to rationalize behavioural patterns. Subsequently, a person develops disturbing personality traits that are symptomatic of deteriorating cognitive health.
Difficulty in relating to others and lack of self-esteem are among the major symptoms of such phases (American Psychoanalytic Association 1998). What makes psychoanalysis a special discipline of therapeutic treatment is that it is highly individualistic. In rarest of events we see that two case studies coincide with each other both in nature as well as in solution. Moreover, far from being just a therapy, psychoanalytic studies also seek answers to complex mental structures of individuals. In medical sciences, psychoanalysis is regarded as a compound discipline formed by several other related arteries (Farrell 1981).
Before venturing into the complex relationship between psychoanalysis and feminism, it is worth taking a look at how this discipline came to existence as early as the twentieth century. Sigmund Freud was the torchbearer to look into the dark alleyways of human mind and psyche. He was the pioneer to recognize the role of unconscious psychological activities as a determinant force in shaping the visible and comprehensible reactions. While his findings were considered to be truly groundbreaking a century ago, they form the pillar of modern psychology.
Freud outlined his theoretical framework by virtue of intense observations, case studies, scientific techniques and methodologies. His main emphasis was on the structure of the mind from early childhood to adulthood and dream interpretation. However, the latter concerns a different branch of studies altogether and is to be done away with in our present discussion. The fruits of Freud’s research appeared in An Outline of Psychoanalysis, published in 1949. The primary construct of this book is demonstrated through a detailed study on three driving forces of human psyche – the id, the ego and the superego.
It is imperative that we develop a clear understanding of these three psychological equipments before going into an analysis of feminism and its relation with psychoanalysis. The id is perceived as the unconscious part of an individual’s self holding things that are hereditary in nature. Since it is acquired at birth, human instincts are directly guided by the id. If compared to an iceberg floating on the sea water, the id can be visualized as the bigger portion that remains immersed in water. The ego, on the other hand, is conscious and acts a bridge between the id and the external world.
The concept of the ego is in fact a complex one, giving rise to a number of arguments and counterarguments. As Freud interpreted it, the ego is responsible for taking control of the demands of the id. Unlike the id, the ego is always aware of the external stimuli that shape human reactions and responses. The superego has the quality of practical and real understandings of the world in which an individual finds himself/herself in. The radical perspective of Freud in his psychoanalytical studies is best manifested by his assertion that instincts or impulses are the governing unit behind all behaviours.
He substantiates this argument by presenting the examples of two fundamental instincts – Eros (love) and death. According to him, the instinct of Eros attempts to attain and maintain unity through relationships. On the contrary, the instinct of death does the exact opposite, i. e. , to destroy unity. Both these contradicting instincts can either function against each other through revulsion or blend with each other through attraction (Freud 1949). Freud postulates that sexual consciousness begins with expressions that concern both body and mind, soon after an individual’s birth.
In the light of feminist theory, this conjecture has been overruled on the grounds of sensitivity to internal stimuli, which is apparently stronger in women than in men. Freud classified human sexual development into four distinct phases – the oral phase, the sadistic-anal phase, the phallic phase and the genital phase. During the oral phase, satisfaction is sought through mouth. Hence, mouth is termed as the first erotogenic zone (Freud 1949). As the individual passes onto maturity, the workings of his/her mind turn out to be complex. Resultantly, the sadistic-anal phase is marked by aggressive behavioural patterns.
The phallic phase is the time that controls the development of the adolescence, both in boys as well as in girls. The Oedipus complex develops in males as he begins to consider his father as a sexual rival. For females, it is the Electra complex that initiates a strong antipathy for sexual activities. The last phase, the genital one, is distinguished by a matured and healthy longing for sexual consummation. Now Kohelberg, one of the preeminent post-psychoanalytic theorists, argues in his cognitive-developmental analysis of gender development that children are unaware of their gender identities.
They do not relate to others around themselves as being male or female. It is after two years from birth that babies come to recognize their sexes through a process which is yet to be defined. The psychological nature of a male child is differentiated from that of a female child by the influx of aggressive intents. However, it is rather a disputed topic as to when a child actually succeeds in gaining knowledge about his/her inherent gender traits. What makes it more interesting is that majority of them fail to ascribe the qualities of being masculine or feminine to inanimate object such as toys and dolls.
Michael Lewis argues that most children learn to identify themselves either as ‘boys’ or as ‘girls’ by the time they turn eighteen months (Sayers 1986). The observations stated above have a significant amount of impact on our current periphery of study. It is quite clear from what has been discussed above is that gender identity is a stagnant process acquired in early childhood. But the very perception of femininity was challenged in the 1920s in the question of Freudian libido. According to Freud, libido or the sexual desire is more or less the same for both sexes.
But the English school of thought found disparity between male and female libido. Karen Horney and Ernest Jones challenged Freud’s psychoanalytic theory on the ground of misinterpreting female sexuality. While they tried to assert the logic of biological reductionism instead of psychological understanding of sexuality, Freud contradicted them by putting forth his own insight into the broader picture. However, it is far from conclusive as to how biological understanding of sexes can be completely disentangled from emotional and psychological understanding of the same.
Freud in his An Outline of Psychoanalysis elaborates in depth the concept of Oedipus complex. His further investigations unearth the related apparatus including the id, the ego and the superego. Now Lacan argues that Freudian take on the very concept of ‘Father’ is based on a symptomatic ideal. In this sense, the Oedipal Father is nothing but a symbolic representation of repressed desires. This presents an interesting counterargument for the feminists. The very conflict between an object of desire and an object of satisfaction comes out prominently in the Lacanian school of thought (Salecl 1994).
However, Lacan’s view that femininity is developed through the child’s Oedipal identification of gender difference is directly inferred from Freud’s classification of the human sexual development. If we go back to what Freud categorizes as the phallic phase, we will be able to relate to Lacan’s thesis on femininity. According to Lacan, a child comes to recognize his/her sexual identity by “the presence/absence of the penis in men and women” (Sayers 1986). He argues that this realization is a presumption for the psychological growth and development of a child – which again reverts back to Freudian understanding of psychoanalysis.
A male child can relate himself to the ‘Name-of-the-Father’ phenomenon by the phallus, while the female child cannot do the same. This point of view is contradicted by Irigaray who argues that femininity should come earlier than Oedipal recognition of sexual differentiation. As per the established norms of the feminist movements, women are not seen as lacking anything compared to men. In relation to the thesis question at hand, we can conclude by stating that Freud’s psychoanalytical studies largely act as a means to understanding the pitfalls of feminist movement in the twenty first century.
Instead of strengthening the key constituents of this dynamic and multi-faceted movement, psychoanalysis only points at the controversial aspects of feminism. Freud’s conflict between Horney and Jones supports this claim furthermore. What really stands out in the end is Lacan’s argument that femininity is not a product born on its own. In the social order of the world, it is complementary to masculinity. For this very reason, feminism has acquired a self-governing importance in a patriarchal social setup. Hence, the much debated social factors prove insignificant in the discussion of feminism within the framework of psychoanalytical studies.