This essay will explore Nancy Chodorow’s perspective on the origin of gender identity in childhood and her adaptation of Freud’s ‘Oedipal’ stage in children’s development.
First, I will give a summary of Freud’s initial theories on identity development. Next, I will analyze Chodorow’s viewpoint on the formation of personality and gender in children to assess the modifications made to Freud’s early psychoanalytic concepts in contemporary society. According to Freud, a child’s comprehension of the differences between male and female genitalia is crucial for their establishment of gender identity. Initially, both boys and girls display affection towards their primary caregiver, usually their mother.
During the Oedipal phase, which typically occurs around the age of five, children develop an awareness of their own genitalia and form fantasies involving their parents. As a result, boys may identify with their same-sex parent. During this stage, a boy might feel threatened by his father’s expectations of power and independence, leading him to imagine that his father desires to castrate him. This realization that the father competes for the mother’s love often happens without conscious awareness. The boy suppresses any sexual feelings towards his mother and instead embraces his father as a superior figure, reinforcing his own masculine identity.
The boy relinquishes his love due to a deep, unconscious fear that his father will remove his penis. Conversely, girls are said to experience “penis envy” because they lack the organ that distinguishes boys from themselves. In the eyes of a young girl, her mother becomes devalued as she too lacks a penis and is seen as unable to provide one. This strengthens the girl’s identification with her mother and she subsequently assumes a submissive role, recognizing herself as “second best.”
She emulates her mother’s role, which marks the beginning of her feminine identity. Nancy Chodorow, a leading figure in post-Freudian gender identity theories, emphasizes the crucial importance of mothering. Chodorow examines the distinct dynamics between mothers and their sons versus their daughters. Although influenced by Freud’s work, Chodorow’s theory aligns closely with certain aspects while offering revisions in others.
Chodorow and Freud both recognize the importance of a child’s initial identification with their mother. It is undeniable that the mother plays a crucial role in a child’s care and feeding needs. Chodorow characterizes mothering as a socially influenced psychological process. Historically, both male and female offspring have primarily identified with their mothers, leading to the idea that women’s family roles and femininity are more accessible. This insight from Chodorow explains why there are more complications during male development. Unlike the readily observable feminine roles, masculine roles are often less visible. Fathers, who usually have work commitments outside the home, tend to be more distant. As a result, male children must find a way to replace their early identification with the mother to develop a more masculine gender role.
The boy is required to consciously construct his masculine gender role by interacting with his mother. Unlike girls who identify with their mother and replicate her gendered role, boys who lack a strong male figure can only learn what it means to not be feminine. Chodorow believed that internally the boy attempts to reject his mother and detach himself (Chodorow 1989:50). In contrast to Freud’s assertion that girls eventually reject their mother in favor of their father, Chodorow holds a different viewpoint.
According to Chodorow (1989:52), she argues that a girl does not completely reject her mother in favor of men and that the development of gender identity with the mother is an ongoing process. Chodorow, along with other theorists, does not dismiss Freud’s idea that the female child seeks the father for the penis, but offers different explanations for the nature and reasons behind this search (Chodorow 1978:115). Additionally, Chodorow questions Freud’s hypothesis of penis envy, stating that it is a complex explanation for a female child mourning the loss of her penis throughout her life.
Chodorow argues that instead of rejecting the mother, the father actually encourages the child to develop the appropriate gender role. During the Oedipal period, a female child sees both her parents as rivals and love objects. Freud also recognizes this process, referring to it as the “complete Oedipus complex” (Chodorow, 1978:121). Chodorow further suggests that the quality of the female child’s relationship with her father depends on the quality of her relationship with her mother.
Freud concedes that his theory regarding the Oedipus complex in girls is not absolute, as he recognizes that in certain cases the attachment to the mother is never entirely abandoned. Both Freud and Chodorow agree on the importance of the Oedipal stage for boys, as it enables them to transition towards a more masculine gender identification with their fathers. However, Chodorow’s emphasis lies more on the absence of a father and how it shapes a boy’s gender identification. In contrast, Freud tends to center his focus on gender identification solely stemming from the father due to feelings for the mother.
According to Chodorow (1978:176), boys may reject their association with their mothers by conforming to societal expectations of masculine behavior. However, Chodorow also suggests that boys may distance themselves from their mothers out of fear of punishment, which Freud referred to as the castration anxiety. On the other hand, Chodorow argues that for girls, the process of identification is influenced by the nature and intimacy of the relationship with their mothers. As a result, girls establish their individuality through ‘secondary identification’ (Chodorow 1978).
Chodorow agrees with Freud that girls will experience hostility towards their mothers, but not in the form of rejection as Freud believed. Chodorow argues that both boys and girls will feel hostility towards their mothers because the mothers fail to fulfill their oral needs, such as breastfeeding them, causing arousal, and then prohibiting their sexual desires (Chodorow 1978). Similarly, Freud recognizes that all children feel that their mothers give them reasons to complain about, such as providing too little milk or having another child (Chodorow 1989:52). However, Chodorow points out that Freud does not acknowledge the hostility from male offspring towards their mothers like he does with female offspring.
Freud’s theory suggests that the Oedipus complex operates inversely for different genders. However, Chodorow challenges this simplistic view by arguing that the development during the Oedipal stage varies significantly between boys and girls. She raises the question of how similar experiences in both genders can yield divergent outcomes (Chodorow 1978:120). Chodorow proposes that girls engage in the triangular Oedipus situation at a later stage and within a distinct context.
According to Chodorow (1978:115), girls do not completely abandon the pre-Oedipal relationship. Although often critiquing Freud’s Oedipus complex, Chodorow’s work frequently references it. Based on Freud and Chodorow’s research on the Oedipus complex, it appears that their beliefs about what transpires within it are largely similar. While Chodorow accepts the foundation of Freud’s theories, she argues that feminists should revise them for various reasons. One major reason is Freud’s blatantly misogynistic beliefs and his insistence on inequality, both of which are pivotal to his theory. This may elucidate the differing emphasis placed on the authority of the mother or father in the parental role (Chodorow 1998:175).
When examining the theories of Chodorow and Freud regarding gender identity, there are numerous distinctions and only a few similarities. However, both theories are rooted in the concept of the Oedipal crisis as established by Freud. Chodorow’s theory has been deemed valuable in addressing the queries posed by Freud’s work. However, her theory has faced criticism for being restricted to a specific portrayal of domestic life, where the mother assumes the dominant parental role, without considering situations in which the father holds a more dominant position.
According to Giddens (1993), Chodorow’s theory appears rigid and inflexible in its inability to incorporate the various family structures found in society. Chodorow primarily concentrates on the nuclear family as the standard environment for raising children. However, her theory overlooks individuals brought up in single-parent households, who are equally capable of developing appropriate gender identities. Furthermore, it fails to address those raised by gay or lesbian parents.
Chodorow’s theory suggests that children raised by same-sex parents have a greater chance of developing homosexual identities. However, this expectation contradicts actual outcomes. In her book ‘The Reproduction of Mothering’ published in 1978, Chodorow discusses the changing roles of women throughout history. She acknowledges that modern girls no longer conform to traditional mothering roles and instead anticipate spending less time at home and more time working (Chodorow 1978:175). Despite acknowledging these changes, Chodorow does not integrate them into her theories or make any corresponding adjustments.
The author argues that the mother plays a more crucial role than the father in shaping a child’s gender identity. Despite more women entering the workforce, many still choose part-time or temporary jobs to prioritize parenting. Additionally, mothers typically assume primary caregiving responsibilities compared to fathers. While Chodorow and Freud share some core concepts, Chodorow places greater emphasis on the mother’s role.
Although she has faced criticism, there is no denying that she has played a major part in offering understanding of the basics of gender identity.