In “Boys and girls: The development of gender roles,” Beale gives us
revealing overview of Freud’s personality theory. Beale point out both
strengths and weaknesses of his answer to the questions of “Why” and “How”
in gender development, but still leaves a chance for a reader to make up
her/his own mind about whether or not to accept Freud’s theory. It is
relatively easy, however, to find oneself torn between openheartedly going
along with Freud’s idea about the existence of a dynamic system (or libido)
in us, and reacting against the ease and assurance with which Freud writes
about castration fear in boys and penis envy in girls.
Freud’s view of personality as a dynamic system of psychological
energy is a very complex, yet insightful approach to the development of
personality. The nature of the id, ego, and superego, and the psychosexual
stages that these three structures focus on during a course of one’s
development, give a plethora of reasons to believe in the existence of a
critical period in gender development. Freud’s theory suggests that the way
in which the id, ego, and superego evolve and the way in which they
proliferate in the first six years of a child’s life will influence the
child’s emotional attachment to her/his parent of the same sex and, as
consequence, the child’s gender identification.
I would agree with Freud’s statement that children undergo a certain
emotional crisis after becoming aware of their genitals. It must be somewhat
frustrating for, e.g., a three year-old to realize that reaching a
pleasurable emotional state does not necessarily have to originate from
her/his mother. Unable to cognitively create an explanation to a new,
unexpected flow of circumstances and feelings, the child is most likely to
end up confused. This confusion will inevitably provoke anxiety, and the
anxiety will build up an emotional tension.
However, I would dare to argue at this point that the reason for a
child to seek identification with one of the parents might come not from
castration fear in boys or penis envy in girls, but rather from the child’s
belief that the person of the same sex (father for boys and mother for
girls) will know how to protect them from the tension. If we perceive male
and female infants’ cognitive development to have the same starting point,
then it is find to accept that boys and girls will react so very differently
(according to Freud) to the awareness of their own genitals. If boys have
reason to fear castration, why would girls not fear penis “implantation,”
instead of envy (as Freud proposes)? I am not questioning in this paper
whether girls and boys go through an emotional crisis around age of three,
but rather whether there is a reason for us to believe that girls
necessarily have to play out their confusion through envy, whereas boys have
to play out their confusion through fear. Perhaps it could be argued that
majority of children are genetically predisposed to act in that particular
way in order for nature to secure the existence of human species.
It is not Freud’s belief about the id, ego, and superego that raises
our eyebrow, but rather his rigid sex-based generalization of gender
development. His generalization seems to underestimate the impact of
genetics and broader social cues, and to overestimate children’s cognitive
capabilities during the preoperational stage and the impact of the
child-parent relationship on children’s gender development. There is no
doubt that Freud gave us some priceless insight into human personality
development. However, by postulation that development of one’s gender in the
particular way he describes is inevitable, he leaves us, on this verge of
the 21st century, very little reason not to contradict him.
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