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The Origins of Gender Identity in Childhood

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    In this essay I shall attempt to show the ways in which psychoanalytic feminist, Nancy Chodorow views the origins of gender identity in childhood and the ways in which she adapts the classical Freudian concept of the ‘Oedipal’ stage in the development of children.

    To do this I will first give a brief overview of Freud’s original beliefs of the development of identity. I will then look at Chodorow’s account of the formation of personality and gender in children in an endeavour to find in what ways Freud’s early psychoanalytic works have been adapted in recent years. Freud’s theory of gender development asserts that a child’s awareness of the differences in boys and girls’ genitals is of central importance in the development of gender identity. At first, the development of boys and girls is similar; both focus their love on the person who spends most time with them – the mother.

    Around the age of five, boys become aware that they have a penis and girls that they do not, and this leads to their developing a fantasy involving their genitals and their parents, as a result of which they come to identify with the same-sex parents.In the Oedipal phase, a boy feels threatened by the power and autonomy, which his father expects from him, fantasizing that the father wishes to castrate him. Partly consciously, but mostly on an unconscious level, the boy recognizes his father as a rival for the affections of his mother. In repressing erotic feelings towards the mother and accepting the father as a superior being, the boy identifies with the father and becomes aware of his male identity.

    The boy gives up this love out of the unconscious fear of having his penis removed by his father.Girls, on the other hand, supposedly suffer from ‘penis envy’ because they do not possess the organ that distinguishes boys from themselves. In the little girl’s eyes the mother becomes devalued, as she is also seen to have an absence of penis and to be unable to provide one. This makes the girl’s identification with the mother stronger and she in turn takes on the submissive role involved in recognition of being ‘second best’.

    She imitates what she sees as her mother’s role and this is the start of her feminine identity.The vital necessity for mothering is articulated by Nancy Chodorow who largely leads post-Freudian theories on gender identity. She looks at the differences in mother’s relationships with their sons as opposed to their daughters. Based around the work of Freud, Nancy Chodorow’s theory agrees strongly with some areas of his theory although she has revisions on some areas.

    Chodorow understands the significance of the child’s first identification with it’s mother as does Freud however, this of course would be impossible to disagree with due to the mother’s importance for a child when considering care and feeding needs for example.She describe mothering as a production of ‘socially stimulated psychological process’ With both male and female offspring their first identification has always been the mother, and “because children [are] first around women, women’s family roles and being feminine are more available” (Chodorow 1978; 80). She identifies because of this why there is more complications during male development. Masculine roles are less readily observed, fathers are much of the time more distant due to work commitments outside the home and the male child has to somehow replace his early identification with the mother to develop a more masculine gender role.

    The boy is required to build his masculine gender role more consciously, through interaction with the mother. Rather than a girl identifying with mother and reproducing her gendered role, boys with a mainly absent male role from which to ‘learn’ masculinity can only learn what it is to not be feminine. Chodorow supposed that “internally the boy tries to reject his mother and deny his attachment” (Chodorow 1989:50). Freud claimed that girls reject their mother in favour of their father at some stage, Chodorow disagrees.

    She claims that “a girl cannot and does not completely reject her mother in favour for men”(Chodorow 1989:52) and the development of the gender identity with the mother is on going. Chodorow, along with other theorists, does not reject Freud’s view of the female child turning to the father in pursuit of the penis, but provides different “accounts of the nature and causes of her search”. (Chodorow 1978:115). She also thought that a female child going through life mourning the loss of her penis, as in Freud’s penis envy hypothesis, is a complicated explanation.

    It is argued by Chodorow that rather than rejecting the mother, the father encourages the child in moving towards the appropriate gender role. Throughout the Oedipal period a female child is likely to maintain both her parents as rivals and love objects. Freud also acknowledges this process, referring to it as the “complete Oedipus complex” (Chodorow, 1978:121). Chodorow also suggests that the quality of the female child’s relationship with the father is reliant on the relative quality of the relationship with the mother.

    Freud does however acknowledge that his theory for the Oedipus complex in girls is not so absolute. He accepts that in some cases the attachment to the mother is never completely given up Both Freud and Chodorow would agree that the Oedipal stage for a boy is crucial, enabling the boy to shift in favour of more masculine gender identification with the father. However, Chodorow’s focus is more on the absence of a father and how a boy’s gender identification is developed as a result. In comparison, Freud tended to focus on the gender identification coming solely from the father as a result of feelings for the mother.

    Chodorow believes that a boy will deny the relationship and attachment to the mother by identifying with a “cultural stereotype of the masculine role” (Chodorow 1978:176). She does suggest however (as did Freud), that in some cases boys may give up the mother in order to avoid chastisement, which Freud described as the fear of castration. For the female, Chodorow believes the identification process is relational dependant on the quality and closeness relationship with her mother. The girl then becomes a separate individual through ‘secondary identification’ (Chodorow 1978).

    Chodorow is in agreement with Freud’s belief that a girl will feel hostility at some stage towards her mother although not the rejection as believed by Freud and for different reasons. She argues both girls and boys will feel hostility towards the mother for not fulfilling their oral needs, ‘feeding them at the breast, causing arousal and then forbidding their sexual desires’ (Chodorow 1978). Likewise, Freud considers how all children feel that their “mothers give some cause for complaint” (Chodorow 1989:52), for too little milk, another child etc.If this is the case, however, Chodorow points out that Freud does not acknowledge this hostility from the male offspring towards the mother as he does from female offspring.

    Freud’s theory asserts that the Oedipus complex occurs in reverse for the opposite genders. However Chodorow saw this as an overly simplified explanation, arguing that the development during the Oedipal stage is fundamentally different for boys and girls. She begs the question “how can similar experiences in boys and girls produce different results? (Chodorow 1978:120).She proposes that girls enter the triangular Oedipus situation later than boys and in a different context.

    She also argues that girls do not give up the pre-oedipal relationship completely (Chodorow 1978:115) Freud’s Oedipus complex is referenced in many parts of Chodorow’s work although often critically. From the work done by Freud and Chodorow on the Oedipus complex, it appears that Freud and Chodorow have largely similar beliefs in what actually happens within the Oedipus complex.Chodorow seems to agree to the basis of Freud’s theories, but argues that feminists should make revisions for a variety of reasons, chiefly Freud’s obviously misogynistic beliefs and his “insistence on inequality” (Chodorow 1998:175), both being crucial to his theory. This maybe explains the differing stress placed upon the authority of the mother or father in the parenting role.

    Looking at the theories of Chodorow and Freud on gender identity, there appear to be many differences, and only few similarities and yet they both base their theory around the concept of the Oedipal crisis as developed by Freud.Chodorow’s theory has been considered useful when it comes to responding to of those questions brought up by Freud’s work. Nonetheless her theory has received criticism. Her theory appears limited to a certain representation of domestic life, in which the mother is the more dominant parental figure, but takes no account of family situations in which, for example, the father has the more dominant role.

    Her theory appears to be very fixed with little flexibility to accommodate the different family structures in society. in Giddens 1993)).Chodorow’s work centers around the idea of the nuclear family being the general environment for child rearing. However, her theory does not account for children raised in single parent households, who are just as likely to mature into adults with appropriate gender identities, nor does it account for those raised by gay or lesbian parents.

    If Chodorow’s theory were accurate we surely would find that those children raised by same sex parents would be likely to form homosexual identities, but this is evidently not the case.In ‘The Reproduction of Mothering’ (1978), she considers the ways in which the women’s roles have changed radically, evolving and over previous decades. She recognizes that rather than expecting the stereotypical mothering role new generations of girls are more likely to anticipate spending less time in the home and much of their life in the labour force, (Chodorow 1978:175). Nonetheless whilst Chodorow appears to acknowledge this, she does not modify any of her ideas or encompass this into her theories.

    She continues to refer to the mother’s mothering role in the family as more crucial than the fathers, in the child’s development of gender identity. In contrast to this, it could be argued that although women are entering the labour force at an increasing rate it is generally in part time and temporary (low paid, low profile) work to allow them to still carry out the majority of the parenting and still a considerable percentage of women on the whole dominate the father in the main parenting role.Chodorow’s work seems to considerably differ in places to the work done by Freud although their theories are based around the same fundamental ideas. A crucial difference, which can be seen, is in the way Chodorow stresses the role of the mother.

    Although her work has received some criticism, she has undoubtedly performed a significant role in giving insight into the foundations of gender identity.

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